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unsphere the stars

Chapter Text

You put me off with limber vows; but I,

Though you would seek to unsphere the

stars with oaths,

Should yet say 'Sir, no going.'

- William Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale


 

September 19th, 1999. Early evening.

Hermione Granger vanished from the sitting room of The Burrow during her twentieth birthday party leaving a pile of crumpled blue tissue paper and a note where her feet had been a fraction of a second before.

In the confusion and shouting that followed, Harry Potter picked up the slip of cream parchment. He read it, more bemused than worried.

Hermione,

With my most sincere and deepest apologies, and love,

APWBD

Time, we must remember, is anything - everything - but linear.

Dumbledore! He might have been gone for more than two years but Harry didn't need the initialled signature to recognise his former headmaster's distinctive looping script. For a single, devastating moment he thought the great man might still be alive. Hope surged like nausea and then died.

Harry reread the note. It made absolutely no sense.

Where on earth had Hermione gone? Why would Dumbledore send her his love? Perhaps it was a prank or something? But that was the headmaster's writing. Ex-headmaster's. Had been.

"What is it, Harry?" Ginny asked, her clear voice cutting through the buzzing panic and confusion around her.

"I don't understand," he replied, still staring down at the strange note. "It's, well, it's from Dumbledore. Did anyone see what the present was?"

"It looked like a sort of globe to me." Arthur had had the most advantageous view. He continued, "With something in it - perhaps a house? And something that looked like snow. It glowed and then she was just… you know. Gone."

He sat down heavily on his chair, his face regaining some of the ageing grey pallor of the war years.

"Where is she?" Ron asked loudly. He would revert to yelling if Hermione's absence was not explained quickly, though no one could possibly know the answer.

"I don't know, Ron. But I think there's something we can ask."

"What?"

"Dumbledore's portrait."

"Oh. I see. Hogwarts, then?" Ron brightened at the thought of having something proactive to do. "She'll probably be back soon anyway. It'll be alright if it's Dumbledore."

"Hogwarts," Harry agreed heavily. It would be alright if were Dumbledore - but only eventually.

 

.

 

"Mister Potter! Welcome, welcome. Just let me - ahh there we go." The great gates swung open as the man continued, "Come in, and Mr Weasley too! What an honour it is. What an honour."

"Is the Headmistress in her office?" Harry asked him brusquely.

"Not at present but I will escort you up to her office. I am the new Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, Mr. Potter. Hengist Flume. At your service." The man practically bowed. It was very uncomfortable.

"Thank you, Professor Flume. Shall we…?"

"Yes, yes of course. This way Si- er, this way please."

Door to door from the Burrow, it was less than an hour until they were seated in McGonagall's office, although it did take a little longer to be rid of the tiresome new teacher. Harry found himself hoping the post was still cursed.

"Hello Professor," Harry said to Dumbledore's portrait once they were alone in the office. His erstwhile mentor woke with an unconvincing start.

"Hello dear boy, and hello there Mr Weasley. How very pleasant it is to see you both looking so well fed. And how is the world faring?" he smiled rather mistily at them, eyelids already beginning to droop again.

"Um, it's fine Professor but -"

"Hermione's gone missing!" Ron announced loudly before Harry could continue. "She's gone and it's all because of your present!"

"Dear me, dear me. No need to shout, Mr Weasley. Can it be that time already? My, time has flown so quickly. It feels like only yesterday she was here you know. Or perhaps it was only yesterday. Of course it has also been years..." he trailed off for a moment and then seemed to brighten. "Time, my dear boys! A very strange thing you know. It moves with such speed when it wishes, and when it does not it drags along more slowly than one can bear. Miss Granger gone already. Well, there we are. I daresay you'll see her soon enough."

"But WHERE IS SHE?" Ron roared.

"Well your Miss Granger may be in Hogwarts by now - time moves at such a different pace when it needs to you see, as I have already explained."

Dumbledore closed his eyes again and gave a single soft snore.

"Here? In the castle? Now?"

"Have you not been listening, Mr Weasley? You won't find her here. She has gone to do what she must. What she has always done."

"I don't understand," Harry interjected before Ron could go off again. "Please, Professor, could you explain a little more clearly perhaps?"

"Is it not obvious? I do apologise. The question you need to ask is not where is she, but when is she."

The portrait looked rather pleased when this managed to silence the two young men as they slowly worked out what he was saying. The moment was soon over, however, and the other portraits began to wake up from their own afternoon naps as Ron began to yell.

Dumbledore managed to wake himself up again before the end of this tirade. He did hope he hadn't given himself away. If only he still had those sherbet lemons to perk himself up. There was something that made one so drowsy when one sat in the warm office all day, and mustering the energy to visit his other portraits seemed less and less tempting when he could stay here in the room he had loved more than any other...

When Ron finally sat down, head in hands, Harry took over once more.

"So, let me get this straight, Sir. You're saying she's gone back in time? I don't understand. Will she change something? The war's over."

"Ah, Harry. I regret that the theories of time are not more widely studied. Surely you remember your own little dalliance with such things? Herm- ahem, Miss Granger has gone back because she always went back, if you wish to see it that way. I prefer to think that time is not linear but a coiled rope. But nothing will change unless it has already done so. I remember her arrival so well. She was such a brilliant, brave child. Still it is strange how one can forget things over the years is it not? I had not quite forgotten her strange appearance, of course, how could I? But she is someone quite different to me now. But time of course is nothing like a rope. You must remember that Harry."

"You just said it was," the reluctant saviour replied through gritted teeth. All the moments in Harry's life when he had felt most truly limited intellectually had taken place in his office.

"So I did, but it was a metaphor," Dumbledore pronounced cheerfully. "Time is like a tapestry, or a rope, and yet of course it is nothing at all like either of this things. However, if it helps you to imagine it we may say that Miss Granger has gone 'back'. But I digress. I do not know when she will choose to, er, return to your lives. She is very busy. You may find her quite changed, Harry, and you must allow her to share her story as she wishes."

"Please Professor - at least tell us when she's gone back to?" Ron asked, more reasonably than might be expected. He looked as though he was somewhere on the precipice between murder and tears.

"Well if you're sure you wish to know? There is nothing you can do at present but wait for her to find you."

"We're sure." Harry interjected, pushing down his rising panic. Hermione. The only person who had never left him.

Hermione stuck in the past.

Hermione, alone.

"She has gone to arrive in my drawing room, at the end of July in 1944."

"1944? Why then?"

"Because that is when she arrived, dear boy, all those years ago! Haven't you been listening at all? Now, if you will excuse me, it is time for my nap…"

"But that's when -" But it was no use, the portrait was snoring gently. Harry recognised a dismissal when he saw one. He wanted to scream with frustration. The old coward. He knew who was still alive and well and lurking in the past.

 

 

Shortly before midnight, July 24th, 1944

Albus Dumbledore was enjoying a quiet evening at in his library at home with a rather large infernobrandy. Despite the temperate weather, he was wearing his favourite orange velvet slippers. They made a fine contrast with the forest-green silk of the pouffe he'd perched them on and a cooling charm made it quite comfortable. It was good to get them up these days.

Albus was listening to one of his favourite plays by the foremost Wizarding playwright of the day, Mungo Yllamastar. It was a splendid tale of the many amusing misunderstandings made by a set of characters who all fell in love with the wrong people after drinking muddled love potions. There was little room left in Dumbledore's heart for romance.

Three weeks previously he had defeated the only man he had ever loved in a vicious duel.

In fact it was the first time he had been able to truly relax for years. It was unusual and therefore especially pleasant to have an evening to himself. To be able to sit alone in his lovely, lonely, private home.

And then a young lady materialised in the middle of his drawing room. One moment he was alone, the next she was sprawled face-down on the rug by his unlit grate.

Magic swirled around her, glowing a strange colour. An ancient colour. No wonder the wards had not kept her out. Curiosity prevented violence.

"Good evening," he said quietly, gripping his newly acquired wand behind the fold of his robe as the girl stared at the room in surprise. "May I ask who you are and how you have come to be here?"

Her manner of dress was extremely strange: legs encased in some rough blue trousers, arms mostly bared by her tight red top.

"Professor Dumbledore!" the girl exclaimed as she scrambled up.

He was sure he had never seen the girl before in his life. But then he was rather famous. It was not improbable she would know him.

Especially if she had sought him out.

He looked directly into her brown eyes with all his power. But that way held no answers: just a room with no door and no windows and shelves and shelves of books locked tightly behind clear but impenetrable doors. He retreated back out the way he had come.

They stared at each other for a moment, and he had the strangest sense she knew what he had attempted.

"This might sound extremely unlikely sir, but I think you actually sent me here yourself. A few moments ago it was 1999, and I was celebrating my birthday. I opened a present – from you – and the next thing I knew I was here -"

He listened, fascinated to see she hardly took a breath as she rambled on through her outrageous tale.

" - however many years into what one might call the past, but it isn't really of course because it isn't my past, but it is your present, and I suppose it's now also my present…"

At this point he saw her eyes actually glaze over slightly, "but I don't know how else one would address it. I didn't even realise one could go so far through time, although presumably I've only been moved as far as the Weasleys' to here and time itself has – what – rearranged itself around me? But why did you send me here? The Dumbledore I knew must have known me before, which means I was here before, as he sent me - that is, that I must have always been here… Sir, what is the date?"

Albus Dumbledore was not often taken aback by the answers of those around him, but this young woman seemed to have a relatively good grasp of the theories of time (at least insofar as her understanding of time as outside ordinary dimensional qualifications) and she also appeared to be unusually, even unnaturally, calm for her situation.

How very interesting this was. If she was telling the truth then later in life he would possess such power and understanding. It was thrilling if it were true.

But it was something that was considered impossible by every theorist of magical time travel.

"Am I to truly believe that I sent you here myself? From 1999 to 1944? May I ask if you have any evidence?"

"The only proof I can offer is the object you gave me, which I believe brought me here. There was a note saying," and here she took on a tone of recital, which lead him to suspect that she was quoting verbatim, "Hermione, with my most sincere and deepest apologies and love, APWBD. Then you'd written:Time, we must remember, is anything, everything, but linear."

Her remarkable poise remained as she held the globe out to him. He gestured to the table next to his chair. One did not lightly handle objects of such power until their origins were certified.

"I will examine it later, Miss - Hermione... Hermione what, if I may ask?"

"Granger, but I suppose if I am to stay here for any extended period I should not use that name. I've already broken one of the fundamental laws of time travel by talking to you and letting you know I'm from the future. But you did send me here – is that alright do you think?" she asked anxiously but gave him no breathing room to respond.

"Or will I have changed things? But then of course I've already been here all this time. I've always been here. Perhaps anything I've done has already had its effect by my lifetime and I just didn't know. This really is very strange. I think I may be starting to panic."

Albus Dumbledore actually chuckled, for the first time in weeks. How very, very, very interesting she was. He yearned to ask her to tell him the future, assuming she was telling the truth, but could he bear the knowledge? The power it would give him?

No. He must restrain himself. Merlin knew the temptation to try to use his knowledge would be too overwhelming.

He waved a hand and a bottle of infernobrandy rose up and poured itself into a glass, which had only a few seconds previously existed as a pen. She did not seem surprised at this casual display of wandless magic.

One aspect of the note she claimed her had sent her did puzzle him. He had apparently sent her his love. For him to have expressed love to a twenty year old indicated a familial connection or a very long-standing friendship.

"What is our connection in my future and your past, Miss Granger?"

"You were my Headmaster. And, well, I can't really say much but there was a dark wizard. You stood against him and so did I. So we had some limited interaction away from Hogwarts." She paused and appeared to consider her next words carefully, before continuing, "If you are wondering why you might have sent me love, it isn't something you'd ever expressed before. I was a bit surprised really, but then perhaps we have spent more time together in this period. Will spend. You did explain to a friend of mine the very great power of love, which you believed would help us in the war."

If she were to be believed, there would be another dark wizard for him to stand against. Would it never end?

"I find myself inclined to believe your story at present, Miss Granger, but it is getting late. I think you should go to bed and we will talk further tomorrow when I have had a little more time to absorb this situation. Are you perhaps hungry?"

"A little actually. I feel as though I have come a very long way. Where should I sleep? Is there an inn close by that I could go to?"

"You may stay here for the night. If I did send you here I must have had a good reason. Until I have fathomed what that is you will reside with me. My house-elf will show you to a room and bring you food. Jingo."

"Thank you, that is very kind."

"I would appreciate if you would be kind enough to leave your wand with me. A small precaution, you understand."

She hesitated for only a moment before laying down her wand on the table next to him.

 

 

Alone once more, Dumbledore looked down at the globe, gleaming against the mahogany of the table. The magical snow within it had settled and he realised that the house within was his house. This house.

Now the girl was gone it seemed more likely to be some of weapon. It did not respond to any diagnostics for dark magic, so eventually he picked it up.

Once again the globe began to glow that strange colour, and within a blink he was sitting in the Head's office at Hogwarts. It was filled with furniture and possessions he recognised as his own and not Armando Dippet's.

Across from him, behind that great desk, was an older version of himself.

"Hello," he greeted himself politely. "Where are we?"

"We are simply within your mind. I have not pulled myself across space and time. I have… left an imprint on the globe, rather like a portrait. It will not last long and will fade when you are returned to yourself, so we must be succinct. I remember how bemused I was by Miss Granger's presence so allow me to explain. She is important, and you must trust her implicitly. She may at times appear to be… tempted, but have faith in her. In my own memory of the time you are now living, I adopted Miss Granger as a cousin in order to cover for her. She became the daughter of Cerdic Dearborn, who kindly agreed to the lie. You must help unlock her potential for greatness."

"Why this girl?"

"Simply because it has always been her. One of Time's great paradoxes. She came to me, sent by myself, and so I send her to you. She will go with you to Hogwarts, and you will tutor her as your personal apprentice. She will be the daughter we will never have. You need the companionship now more than you ever have before."

"To not look into her mind, to not see the future – it is too great a temptation. I cannot do this."

"If you give in, you will learn things you will not wish to learn now. You will be as Cassandra to yourself. Her mind has always been organised but the spell that sent her back has locked it tightly. You would have to cause great damage to see what is within. Take her to Hogwarts and she can be your eyes and ears in the student body, as well as worthy recipient of your knowledge. Make her your legacy to help keep our world safe even when we have moved on to the next great adventure. And, of course, she can aid you in this greatest and most secret of your discoveries: how to send her here."

The older Dumbledore's broke off and then his eyes twinkled mischievously. "You may also need to er, alter some birthing records. She will need relations after all. There are certain people, one student in particular, who might be made curious by her background if she sprang out of nowhere. He will be curious about her anyway, due to the favour you show her. Allow him this interest but he cannot know the truth. Now I have told you everything of import my dear self, so it is time to bid you good-bye and good luck."

Abruptly, the room swirled into mist and Albus found himself once more sitting by the fire, looking down at a now empty globe with much to ponder, several favours to call in from old friends, and a student to keep an even closer eye on.

 

 

Chapter Text

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s’ Stone


 

 

Sleep did not come easily to Hermione on her first night in 1944. She lay awake restless and terrified for hours in the beautiful panelled spare room at Professor Dumbledore's house. The night was warm and through the open window she could hear the gentle sounds of the countryside at night: owls calling out to each other, the distant lowing of cattle.

There was no known way back.

The spell used to send her here was one known apparently only to a future Dumbledore.

She would be middle-aged before she was ever born.

No one had ever moved forward in time. Hermione might have lost everyone she loved in a single moment. She could die before she saw them again. Her best-case scenario was waiting for fifty-five years.

She had already lived through so much in the nine years since she'd stepped into the wondrous, dangerous world she'd fought so hard to make safe.

Would the years slip past quickly, blurring their faces into distant memory? Would she remember her parents without that slight look of mistrust and fear? How they'd looked in the days before they understood exactly what their daughter was capable of.

  

Then another thought. On top of all her intimate horror, she would have to live the war again. Tom Riddle walked freely in this age. He would be taking up his position as Head Boy this year. Tom Riddle, who had already killed three people. Tom Riddle, who had sent his own Uncle to Azkaban in his place. Tom Riddle who would become Lord Voldemort.

No one in the world knew his secrets - except her. Even Dumbledore couldn't suspect the full extent of his ambition and evil. A new burden for her to bear. He was lying in his bed at the Orphanage alive at this very moment. She could apparate to London and kill him and be done.

 

Louder still than that cacophony was this: why she was there?

What had she done? Had her presence affected the time her younger self would live in? Whatever it was, whatever effect she'd had would already have been felt. In theory.

All works on time-travel of this magnitude theorised she would not be able to change the past, because she knew what was to come. If she tried to murder Tom Riddle she would not be able to. Her spell would miss. Something would get in the way. Her wand would backfire.

But the temptation to try was strong. The theories had, insofar as she knew, never actually been tested. The lack of any recorded visitors from the future did indicate no means of going to the past had ever been publicised or perhaps even invented - until now. Or not now, but whenever Dumbledore managed to find the way, or she did, or someone did and told Dumbledore.

The only evidence that it was at all possible was her own presence.

And, just perhaps, that was the scariest thought of all. She was quite possibly the only person to have ever gone out of her own life-time. The longest recorded magical jump backwards was a year and that had been a particularly obsessive member of the Department of Mysteries who had enchanted his Time Turner to spin 8760 times. He had had to spend the entire year in hiding from his family and friends and from himself.

He had committed suicide three years later.

When someone had tried to send themselves back further than a year, the hourglass within the time turner had simply shattered.

 

 

was she stuck, would she have to relive the war, did she die -

Her mind turned the same questions over and over. But no tears came. It was too big. She lay there dry-eyed and restless and scared.

  

There was no clock in this room to mark the passing seconds, minutes, hours. Too many without sleep; far too many until she could be home again.

As her reality formed itself into something she could envisage, cold devastation spread. But she didn't cry.

Fifty-five years into the past had jolted her into realising she had not been fine. She had been feeling empty since the war. She'd spent over a year feeling numb, surrounded by smiles tightened by loss, and she hadn't noticed. She'd occupied herself with helping to rebuild what had been destroyed, with returning her parents to their home and memories and accepting that they might never fully trust her again, with grieving Weasleys, being with Ron, her NEWTs -

Hermione lay dry-eyed in the elegantly-appointed guest room and stared into the darkness, considering her situation. Remembering facts about time travel, and dates and the exact number of turns one needed to repeat an entire year. Perhaps if she could count the hourglass in her head turning over 8766 times, it would drown out her own mind.

(It did not.)

 

 

The part of Hermione that might forever be a schoolgirl couldn't forget that Professor Dumbledore had been her Headmaster and that, somehow, they were having breakfast together, alone, in his house.

She made a concerted effort to be cheerful despite her fatigue and stuck to politely discussing his work, which she had read extensively, for the first fifteen minutes.

After he had finished his second cup of tea, he cleared his throat slightly to indicate a shift in subject.

"I have decided that the first thing we must do is find some attire more appropriate for this time. You stand out far too much in... those, although I'm sure they are very suitable and normal garments in your time. If you would permit Jingo to take your measurements, I will owl Twilfit & Tattings."

"Yes of course – I'm only sorry to burden you with the expense. If you would keep a list of them I'll pay you back as soon as possible."

"Nonsense. Please do not speak of it again. I have some business that will take me away from the house for a few days. Please stay within the grounds. You will not be disturbed here."

He placed her wand on the table, and she picked up with a rush of relief. He must believe her.

"Use this only in an emergency. The Ministry have certain measures in place to detect unregistered magic users. You will need a new one."

She swallowed, absorbed the loss, and took refuge in gratitude.

"Professor, you are being so kind. Thank you."

"My dear girl, I sent you here myself. It is the very least I can do."

For all that it did seem bleak, and for all she knew of his flaws, there was a surety in having Dumbledore on your side that gave Hermione confidence.

"Turning to the future," he continued, "the more immediate future, I should say. I will not attempt to learn of my own future, or that of the Wizarding World – it is too dangerous for us both."

He flicked his fingers at the teapot and it started pouring yet another cup.

"And yet we must deal with your situation. I have a proposal for you. I would offer you the chance to learn directly from me - to learn magic I have never shared with anyone. I have good enough reason to believe you are a worthy recipient of this knowledge, and even I cannot live forever."

Her eyes grew large, and the Professor found himself chuckling for the second time in as many days as she apparently lost the ability to speak. The girl – Hermione – stammered her thanks and some assurances of attempting to be worthy of his trust. It was the first real sign of emotion she'd expressed, and he wondered how awful the times to come would be to make a girl her age so grave and composed.

And in a breakfast which had lasted over forty minutes, his thoughts had not once turned to the man he had once loved.

 

 

Planting the false documentation of her birth at the Ministry proved to be surprisingly easy. Or at least, it was easy for someone of his magical prowess and current celebrity status. Albus was surprised to find himself actually enjoying the illicit adventure.

He called in a favour from an old friend for the correct documentation. Then it required some sneaking and just one Confundus to persuade the Master of the Birth Seal (who was, after all, two hundred and ten, and almost blind) that he was stamping a new birth and charm it to relocate to its proper year upon filing.

That done, Hermione Dearborn came into existence (b. September 19th 1925 to Cerdic Dearborn and Ceilidh Lowell).

Dumbledore apparated to a remote castle in Wales, as he had arranged with his old friend, and returned to his home by carriage, accompanied by the girl's official father. Cerdic Dearborn was an immensely clever wizard who'd been a precocious second year when Dumbledore had been Head Boy. He had chosen not to take up any of the brilliant career paths he might have taken. Instead, at the age of forty, he'd come back from years of travel and exploration and locked himself away with all the wonders he had brought back to dedicate his life to alchemy.

Albus was one of a small circle of witches and wizards Cerdic had kept in irregular contact with over the had seemed extremely excited about what he called their new project.

He had not been a precisely handsome man in his youth, but possessed of a wicked charm that had not needed classical good looks to support his eye for the ladies. Now, just shy of sixty, he cut a distinguished, albeit eccentric, figure. His wild, lustrous hair was still dark brown, his face livelier that one might expect in one who was, essentially, a hermit.

"My dear old thing," Cerdic filled the carriage with his booming voice as they flew over the Bristol Channel. "I confess I am filled with anticipation to meet my new daughter! I always meant to have one, you know, but how time flies and I find myself nearing sixty without any progeny when my younger brother has already married and seen his firstborn grown. Funny how it all turns out. Still, if I like this girl well enough I'm sure I will do very well by her. I do so love a mystery. I've a mind to take her back to Wales until its time for Hogwarts. The only thing I do resent about all this is that girl, your cousin, the one who you're saying is the girl's mother – what was her name? Oh, I know, Ceilidh, that's it, well she was was a dull chit. Pretty enough I suppose but I'm not sure I'd have taken her to bed. I'm not meant to have married the gal am I?" He asked this last with entertaining consternation.

"No, no. One night is all you need confess to. My cousin – who I admit I barely knew myself – died fifteen years ago. She married a Muggle and died in childbirth, which I'm rather afraid my aunt thought was fully deserved. Hermione would have been five. So you were given a child whose existence you'd known nothing of, and then raised and educated her yourself in Wales. As I have already assured you, you will like Hermione, who is both pretty and intelligent, and I suspect rather charming when she wishes. I wouldn't have entrusted this to just anyone, Cerdic, however old a friend." He paused and then added mischievously, "She has your hair though - it would likely fool anyone but your grandmother."

"'Pon my life, does she indeed? The hair's the tell, my mother used to say, not that she'd know, being a redhead, but there we are. Well, you're a wily old thing Albus and no mistake. Getting me out of my castle after all these years. I've not noticed the time pass but I think it may have been six years since I came this far out of Wales. Well, well. How it flies. Pretty you say? Well, I wouldn't have an ugly chit in my house so I'm glad of that. A daughter. Fancy. How it all turns out."

Cerdic made up for the time he spent alone by fitting several years' worth of conversation into the journey from Wales to Devon, something he got away with only due to his infectious, boisterous charm and sharp intellect. The conversation ranged from idle gossip of old schoolmates to complex alchemic theories before the winged horses landed on the lawn outside Dumbledore's home.

The house was built of soft grey stone, finely built, with large bay windows. It was set in extensive gardens, with a small walled kitchen garden in which grew vegetables, herbs and plants, greenhouses for potion ingredients.

 

 

 

Hermione was in the library when they arrived. It had French windows looking out onto the biggest lawn at the back of the house and elegantly carved white bookshelves running floor to ceiling on two sides. The fourth side was mostly occupied with a large fireplace. In front of it sat winged leather armchairs that adjusted into the perfect position for whomever sat in them to read. Even from this vantage point she didn't notice the carriage land until a booming laugh jerked her attention away from her book.

Hermione stood, almost catching her shoe in the hem of the pale blue robes that had arrived the day before.

When she'd first put them on and looked in the mirror she'd seen someone she barely recognised staring back: a reminder that everything was different, that she was fifty five years away from where she should be, that she would be playing a part for weeks, years even the rest of her life. A part she didn't know yet, but that involved powder blue velvet and learning from one of the most brilliant wizards the world had ever seen.

"Ah, Hermione," Dumbledore greeted as she stepped out of the French windows "– may I introduce Cerdic Dearborn? A very old friend of mine - and now your father."

"By Merlin you're right, old thing, she could be a Dearborn! Look at that hair! Well, child, this is an unexpected pleasure. Always meant to have a daughter. Not a son, peskier to bring up, always challenging, but a nice, clever girl... and here you are almost at a useful age. Not that Albus will let me take you back to Wales but you never know. You might decide to join me in my hermitage."

Hermione wouldn't have believed for one second that this energetic and oddly charming man was truly a hermit had she not read about him when she had been researching Nicolas Flamel. She had to bite down hard on her tongue not to exclaim that he was the Cerdic Dearborn!

"A father? Goodness, I um well, I wasn't expecting – I didn't think – are you sure? It must seem very strange… and a risk if anyone were to discover…" she trailed off.

"Well, let's not loiter about out here," Dumbledore interrupted. "Jingo? Ah my dear how are you?"

The elf popped into presence.

"Jingo is very well, thanking Master Albus, and has made the girl sleep and eat as she is as bad as yourself at remembering such things. Would Master and guests like to have their tea on the terrace? Jingo has laid it there, as it is such a nice sunny day."

Hermione was surprised to see the house-elf gently, but firmly, direct her master as she had directed Hermione over the past few days. She was certainly different from Winky and Kreacher and their slavish affection. But perhaps Dobby would have – but not, she must not think of such things. She must focus on this present.

"What an excellent idea, thank you Jingo."

"Jingo if you ever get fed up with Albus it would be the greatest pleasure to offer you a place with me in Wales," Cerdic offered gallantly.

"Jingo would never leave Mister Dumbledore! Not even if he gave Jingo her clothes! Jingo has looked after Mister Albus since her was born and will look after his babies when he finally picks a nice witch, but there is no rush Master – Jingo is still young."

"Well, Cerdic, there you have it."

Quite amused by the conversation, Hermione followed the two great men around the house to the terrace on the south side.

 

"Professor – did you, er, did you actually break into the Ministry and fake my records? I hate to ask but I was rather concerned and it's such a big risk. It would have looked very odd and under law thirty six c. in the statute concerning new births it's a minimum Azkaban sentence of nine years for faking a child's magical registration and birth."

"Of course I didn't 'break in', I simply called in a favour and did a little er sneaking around. It was rather fun, actually."

And there, for the first time since she had been in 1945, was that familiar blue twinkle. Hermione smiled, and wondered if either Wizard would believe her if she told them that she had broken into the Ministry, twice, into Gringotts, and into Hogwarts. Probably not. She still hardly believed they'd managed it all. Memories swirled up, clouding her mind, but she forced them away, filed them back in her tidy, ordered mind.

"How did you know that law, child?"

"I looked into the laws of the Wizarding World as a bit of light reading one summer. It was very interesting; they're remarkably outdated and prejudiced in parts - and there are some particularly silly ones. Did you know applicants for a post in the Ministry will be considered in order of blood, and if you are related to a person who has held the post before you are considered first, in closest genetic order according to the sub-clauses of laws fifteen-hundred-and thirty-six and -seven. I mean, that's just outrageous nepotism and bigotry! It's positively feudal."

Hermione was a little bemused when the two men caught each others' eyes and began to laugh.

"Light reading?" Cerdic chortled. "A campaigner at heart are you then, Hermione?" he asked, apparently highly entertained. "Your memory is positively encyclopaedic I see. Well, that's a useful thing and no mistake. Oh, this is too brilliant - when I never even know what day of the week it is and still hold the record of forgetting to go to classes at Hogwarts."

She still didn't understand what was so funny, but he was a very eccentric man after all. Perhaps he simply had a bizarre sense of humour.

"I wonder how our top students will find your presence over the next year. You'll be interesting competition for one or two of them especially, I daresay," Albus commented, with little trace of humour left in his voice.

"Over the next year? I don't understand, Professor."

She could not go to school with Tom Riddle, she could not. She would kill him. The temptation would be far too great.

"You will be accompanying me to Hogwarts, Hermione. You will join the Seventh Year in order to take your NEWTs. You need qualifications and I'm afraid those are not as easily forged as your birth: Griselda Marchbanks never forgets a student, especially one as clever as you. No, you must take them – just in case."

"I can't go to Hogwarts, Professor. I'm very sorry, I will find my own way, but I cannot go there."

"I'm afraid you must, Hermione. You always did, you see."

His blue eyes met her and she frowned, always did. How could he know?

"What's that, Albus? Always did? Doesn't make sense, old thing."

"Cerdic… I would not lie to you, old friend, so I will leave the questioned unanswered and you may draw your own conclusions. Suffice to say, Hermione will go to Hogwarts and that is that."

There was a certainty behind Dumbledore's words, a lacing of steel, and Hermione fell silent as she considered the implications. She would be Tom Riddle's peer. The man who would one day repeatedly try to kill her and all those she loved. A man who stood for everything she hated.

She had thought she could handle anything the past flung at her but suddenly she doubted herself. If anything could break her, it would be being around him. But then again, she couldn't imagine she would have to interact with him any more than she had with Malfoy and unlike that prat presumably Riddle would have to maintain the act Harry had described to her.

Brilliant but poor, a model student – and so kind! The very best of Slytherin house.

 

She cried that night, and wished she could tell Dumbledore everything. But she could not, and Hermione felt the sting of knowledge as a far greater burden than it was a power.

Chapter Text

 

 

Hermione was packing her trunk for the third time, meticulously checking every last item to ensure it supported her story. The weeks had slipped by quickly and it was the thirty-first of August.

In the morning, Cerdic would take her to Kings Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express. She wondered whether the train would be the same.

The two older wizards had taken almost childish delight in preparing her. They'd taken great pains to make sure her identity was complete. There could be no possibility of suspicion: if anyone were to find out when she had really come from she would be in terrible danger.

She had even been to the castle in Wales for a weekend so she would be able to imagine growing up there.

Even her possessions had to play their part in weaving the lie. Her leather trunk had belonged to Cerdic's cousin Hellawes. It was a relatively standard magical trunk, with three compartments, depending on how far you turned the key. Hermione had added a fourth, secret and heavily warded, in which she stored the various valuables Cerdic had packed up. Some old jewellery Hermione suspected was goblin made, which she would probably never have occasion to wear, a painting of the castle and a lovely landscape of the surrounding area.

Minor details of life had had to be gathered together to paint their own picture: an old silver-capped inkwell, enchanted never to spill or run dry, a writing set, a miniature of Cerdic. A collection of new and old books, potions equipment, a telescope. Perfume, robes. Old things and new things jumbled together to tell the world she was Hermione Dearborn.

The incessant folding and refolding and examining of the objects that represented her new life couldn't keep Hermione's fears at bay forever.

A boy with black hair and a pale face, a face she had never seen in person. A face Harry and Ginny had described with odd reverence. A face that had haunted her dreams every time she'd worn Slytherin's locket. Handsome, charming Tom Riddle - orphaned but brilliant. The cleverest boy in Britain, and the most evil.

Hermione wondered how powerful he already was. The churning nausea that had building in her stomach for weeks overcame her. She ran to the adjoined bathroom and violently emptied her stomach.

 

 

She was unusually quiet at dinner that evening, and prodded at her food listlessly. Sensitive to her preoccupied state, Cerdic and Professor Dumbledore spoke to each other, and left to her thoughts. She was remembering Horcrux Tom who'd somehow been able to speak to her in her dreams, tempting her, telling her to go to him, that he'd make an exception for her because she was so beautiful, so brilliant. That Harry and Ron would never see past her bookishness and see the bravery within. That Harry would always always value Ron's friendship over hers, even though she was the only one who'd never left him, who'd always always believed in him and stuck by him. She'd never had the courage to ask the boys if he whispered to them too.

It would tell her that life with Ron would be an unending monotony, twisting her own vision of their future into suburban hell. In her dreams he would stroke her hair and tell her that she was too brilliant for such a life - and wouldn't she like to do something really amazing?

Didn't she want everyone to recognise what she was really capable of? To see that it was she who had consistently outwitted him?

Without you, he'd hissed over and over again, they are nothing. Without you I wouldn't even bother chasing them. Come to me, bring yourself to me and I will reward you, I will show you and show the world what you're capable of... Come to me Hermione. Join me. Show the world what you can really do.

It had been a masterful attempt at seduction. No one had ever known about the dreams she'd had night after night in the tent, dreams that were not of her own making – and some that were. Dreams of torture, of isolation, and other dreams too, that made her blush to awaken and remember.

Worst of all had been the dreams where he had cried, lost as a small child, and begged her to release him. When he had promised to do anything if she just let him to feel the sun on his skin. When he had asked her why had Dumbledore loved Harry, why had he looked after Harry, but had hated Tom and left him to the dogs?

This last had disturbed her more than anything else he'd done. Because it was true, and because she felt the Horcrux's genuine sense of rejection.

He - it - had played on her compassionate nature like a virtuoso manipulating a violin.

Hermione vowed that she would do anything, anything to avoid his notice at school. Barring the link with Dumbledore, the background they had created shouldn't excite notice. The Dearborns weren't on the list of the twenty-eight purest families. It was an old name but they had infrequently married Muggle-borns and, more often, Half-Bloods.

She would be just another witch. Not Muggle-born, not Sacred Twenty-Eight. Not the first Half-Blood in an ancient family like Harry or Riddle. As as long as she wasn't sorted into Slytherin, and resisted the temptation to be too clever or too capable, any interest garnered by her unusually late entry to the school would quickly fade.

Hermione picked up her new wand, trying not to look too closely at it. It was of the same ilk as Bellatrix's, although not the same wand. This was elegant and straight, surprisingly flexible, but walnut and dragon heartstring all the same. A dangerous wand if used for the wrong ends.

A wand, the unsettlingly young Mr Ollivander had murmured quietly to her, that, once conquered, could be persuaded to do almost anything. She hadn't replied. She did not want this new companion. Yet the age and origins of wands could be traced: her beloved vinewood one lay hidden in in the small Gringotts vault marked with her new name.

Later, as Hermione lay in her bed for that last night, she murmured over and over again: I will not lose my temper. I do not need to be the best.

She had already aced her NEWTs (and it was so incredibly irritating that she knew, because she'd checked in the Ministry records, that Tom Riddle had just – just – beaten her). But no matter. She would control the stupid, reckless desire to beat him this time around... It would be cheating any way - a hollow victory. And she would try her best to go the whole year without even speaking to him.

I will not lose my temper. I do not need to be the best.

She dreamt of duelling the Horcrux Tom, of leaving him beaten on the floor.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

London in 1944 was a very different London than that Hermione had grown up in. As the taxi drove slowly down Euston Road towards King's Cross, she couldn't shake the surreal feeling of being on a film set. She and Cerdic had apparated to Diagon Alley rather than try and take on the crowds at the tiny designated apparition point inside the station and she was glad they had: Hermione had only seen a little of Wizarding London since she had arrived in this time and the reality of the war had passed her by. 

 

But out in Muggle London it was everywhere. Damaged buildings, men and women in uniforms, posters made it all too real and yet at the same time part of her rejected the possibility of it. Even finding a taxi had been more difficult than she had expected, possibly, she had realised too late, due to petrol rationing.

Even without the ubiquitous signs of a capital-at-war, the city was different.

Thirty-five years before she'd even been born everything felt cleaner and dirtier at the same time. She felt the absence of the sky-scraping buildings yet to spring up, shops, landmarks, traffic lights, road signs that did not exist. The fabric of the city had started to tear, but was not yet rewoven.

The sun lit up the streets, breaking through the thin grey layer of cloud and smog that clung low above the buildings. Despite all its differences, it was, she thought as she admired an old-fashioned bus as they overtook it, still recognisably, achingly London. A strange, dark-mirror version of her home. 

Then they were pulling up to King's Cross for the eighth first day of September of her life. She remembered the first one: excited and hopeful then, looking forward to finally having a sense that she belonged somewhere. This time, everything she did and said would have to be a flawless performance. Ans it wasn't just her life at stake.

 

 

"We're here Cerdic," she said realising he had fallen asleep with a surprising rush of fondness. He didn't like early rises any more than Ron.

"What's that old girl?" he said with a start.

"I said we're here," she repeated, laughing.

He waved a handful of money at the driver, a boy who looked much too young to be driving them around, and then hopped out of the cab with surprising agility.

While the young man was counting his money, Hermione lifted her trunk - enchanted with a featherweight charm - out onto the pavement. Cerdic had somehow acquired a luggage trolley and was fending off an overly keen porter who'd either sensed money from their odd attire or had seen her pretend-father waving far too much of it at the driver.

Hermione sighed and went to rescue him. The muggle was relatively easy to lose once he'd seen her new barn owl hooting crossly in his cage. She had wanted a cat, but she still held a faint hope of returning to her own time. Owls were less likely to mourn the loss of their owner than cats. 

Eve the station was different. It wasn't just in the superficial differences: the porters, the signage, people's clothes, the trains themselves, the great wafts of steam. It was in the oddly pleasant feeling she had arriving with Cerdic on time, unflustered, and unaccompanied by a hoard of bickering Weasleys. Different again from that other first time, when her parents had been so curious about everything, all three of them somehow doubting it was real until she'd actually boarded the train. Her lovely, ordinary, slightly embarrassing muggle parents, parents who would miss her.

She held on to that memory as they walked through the station, listening to Cerdic recount how they'd done it in his day, chattering away to distract her from her nerves. He really was kind; one of the kindest people she'd ever met. She was proud of her heritage and her own parents and yet Dumbledore's choice of adoptive father had been a canny one.

"Thank you so much for bringing me today," she said as they waited for a group of muggles to move away before they could go through the barrier. They seemed unusually resistant to the numerous anti-attention and distraction charms placed upon it. "And thank you for everything you've done over the last few weeks. You've been extremely kind, given that I was just thrust upon you."

"What's that? Don't be silly child, been tremendous fun. I'd forgotten how much I liked people, especially Albus. I say before you go you'd better have this. I put a little allowance in your Gringotts account for whatever it is you young things need now."

He held out a key and a small bag, but she hesitated, not taking it.

"Come now, don't be sentimental. What else am I going to use it all for?"

From what she had gathered this was fair: Cerdic had inherited a reasonable fortune, but in addition had had great success in his secret alchemical work. Ever pragmatic, she took the key and the bag of galleons, thanking him again, and then the muggles were gone and they hurried through the barrier.

Gazing around as she did, Hermione thought there must be more students than in her time. The platform was choked with them, most already clad in their hats and long black robes, with twenty minutes to go before the train would depart. They had to fight through the crowds to find an empty compartment, right down at the far end.

"Now, m'dear make sure you don't read too much. Must get some fresh air and all that sort of thing." Cerdic's plummy, blustery voice was sad, and Hermione wondered if he was going to miss her and Albus's company. It had, after all, been years since he'd spent time with real people.

"And the same for you, Cer- er, Father: talk about the pot calling the cauldron black! Would you please send me the results of the seven metals experiment? I'd love to see them - it all sounds fascinating."

His face creased into a warm smile and to Hermione's surprise he gave her a quick hug. Perhaps, she hoped, if nothing else came of all of this, she could be a companion to this old hermit.

All too soon the conductor was blowing his whistle and she was leaning out of the window to wave goodbye, train pulling away, steam billowing behind and up up up to join the clouds, and Hermione was alone.

 

 

 

The journey to Hogwarts was like a twisted dream of her own life. Throughout her first year, Hermione had had nightmares. Sometimes everyone she saw in them was just one of a collection of cruelly laughing faces. Sometimes the dream figures had no faces at all. And sometimes she was completely alone, wandering the halls and rooms without passing another soul.

This was worse, because it was real. There would be no friends there when she woke up in the morning. She was already wide awake and she was alone, truly, truly alone for the first time since she had been a little girl on her first journey. Even more alone: at least then she had had a real family.

To stave off her fears, she locked the door and changed into her black school robes. The style had clearly changed over the years: the collar and cuffs were subtly trimmed with velvet, a long row of buttons down the front. A sophisticated Adjustment Charm pulled the waist in and the bottom up so they were exactly the right size and length. She had never bothered buying robes with the tricky, expensive add-on before, but she hadn't chosen these. Perhaps it was standard in this time. 

Glad that no one else had come to join her in the compartment, Hermione opened one of her new books. It was an older edition of one she already knew well - she had been obsessively rereading them all to find how much she wasn't supposed to know - only to discover there were many things that had been removed by the time she started school. 

Outside her window the landscape grew more rugged as they drew north and she guessed they were near Durham when someone knocked on the carriage door a few hours later.

A tall girl with a blue prefect badge put her head around the door and asked brightly, "Hullo, just doing the rounds. Everything alright in here?"

"Yes, thank you very much," Hermione replied.

"Are you new? I don't recognise you."

She nodded.

"Oh well - welcome. We've been told to keep an eye out for a few older new students. You're the oldest one I've met so far!" The girl had moved properly into the carriage now, plainly curious. "Apparently some people moved to the States when Grindlewald threatened Britain. Is that what you did?"

"No, I've never been to school before. My father educated me at home, but we thought it would be best if I did my NEWTs."

And because I've already completed my entire Hogwarts education and should by rights be going to my job at the Ministry, which I started a month ago, but never mind that.

"Oh right, I think I overheard another girl say she'd been home-educated as well earlier on. My parents are Muggles so that wasn't really an option for me, but this was better than being evacuated," she said rather bitterly. "I'm the sixth year Ravenclaw prefect. Mabel Jefferies."

An undertone of challenge made Hermione wonder if it were unusual to be both Prefect and Muggleborn.

"How do you do - my name is Hermione Dearborn," she said politely, standing to offer her hand. It was good that at least one other new student had been educated at home: that made her story far more plausible.

"Is there anything you'd like to know about Hogwarts before you arrive?" Mabel offered, sitting down.

And so Hermione had to sit and ask inane questions about the sorting and where to go when she arrived, but Mabel did at least have some helpful comments about the teachers. They were mostly different, bar Professors Slughorn and Binns. At least now if she accidentally showed that knew more than she should about life at Hogwarts she would be able to say she'd been told on the train.

After a few minutes of conversation Hermione deliberately let the conversation lull, and the younger girl left to continue her rounds.

She'd had less than half hour of peace before the next knock came. It was a small, miserable-looking boy this time.

"I'm sorry to disturb but would you mind terribly if I joined you?" He was small even for an eleven year old, with dark reddish-brown hair and a freckled, tearstained face.

"Er no, no of course not. Is everything alright?"  

"The prefect said you were new too so it would be alright to sit here. The others were telling me horrid stories about sorting and one boy said that we had to kill a troll or we got sent home. I don't even know what a troll looks like!" he wailed.

"Don't be ridiculous, of course you won't have to fight a troll!" She laughed gently at him, remembering another little boy who had been scared to fight a troll. "I'm new as well, but my father was at Hogwarts and he said that there's a ceremony where you get sorted – all very painless – and welcomed to the school and then everyone has a big supper and goes to bed. I'm Hermione by the way."

They boy introduced himself as Henry, took a seat, and then pestered her with questions. But she had far more patience with the scared first year than she might have had with anyone else. He reminded her rather painfully of Neville. After soothing his worries as best she could Henry fell asleep. It was a relief: she had to watch every word even in such a light conversation. However much she might doubt that the little boy would be a danger to her identity, she still had to keep Moody's motto in mind.

 

 

 

The third disturbance did nothing to alleviate her slight tension headache. Not long after Henry fell asleep the door opened again. A young man stood in the doorway, green Head Boy badge pinned to his robes, dark eyes assessing, and for a moment the train seemed to lurch off its tracks and she thought she was going to die. She knew him instantly, the way she knew her own face in a mirror. 

 

"I am sorry if I surprised you," Tom Riddle said kindly. "Perhaps I ought to have have knocked. It's Miss Dearborn isn't it? I'm Tom - I'm the Head Boy. Professor Dippet – the Headmaster – has asked me to check on all the new students and one of the Prefects said you were in here. I hope you are having a pleasant journey?"

There was no inflection of London orphanage in his low, cultured voice.

Hermione swallowed, hoping her voice wouldn't betray the fear and revulsion she felt just looking at him. Loathsome, loathsome creature. But she absolutely had to be civil and make up for the jolt she hadn't been able to hide when she saw him.

"I must have been lost in my book, you did make me jump!" she said with a sweet smile. "Thank you for checking on me, that's very kind but I'm really fine. It's a been pleasant enough journey. How much longer will it take?"

"Another three hours I should think. We won't be there until after dark. It's a rather long trip up to the Highlands. Have you been to Scotland before?"

He was fishing, but for what? Why had he come to speak to her?

"Yes, a few times."

The hatred she felt for this boy was visceral and quite unlike anything she'd ever experienced before. It was quite removed from the hatred she had felt for Voldemort, watching him announce Harry's death.

She hated Tom Riddle for Ginny, for driving Ron away from her, for damning them all to Myrtle's existence, for the dreams and agonies in the tent. Every single muscle and nerve in her body was screaming at her to get away from this man.

Instead, she bit her tongue and smiled shyly up at him.

"I heard you were educated at home," he continued the conversation and she understood why he had bothered to come to her compartment. He wanted to find out who she was, and if she was important. "That's unusual isn't it, in these modern times?"

"Is it? I wouldn't know, I haven't met many other people my age." She replied politely, side-stepping his questioning.

After all she'd bloody done for the world, she hardly thought that sitting in a carriage with a sleeping eleven year old and the most-evil-wizard-in-recent-history-in-training was a fair reward.

"Are you feeling unwell Miss Dearborn?" Clearly some emotion had slipped out, or perhaps she had gone pale. She certainly felt pale.

"I'm not feeling quite the thing actually. A little travel sick. And of course, I could hardly sleep last night. Perhaps I should try to nap, if there's still a few hours..." It was as strong a hint as she dared, but she honestly thought if he stayed a moment longer she wouldn't be able to contain herself.

I must not attract attention. I must not attract attention.

"Oh dear," he said saccharine concern delivered so well she almost missed its hollowness. "I hope you improve soon. Are you are not used to Muggle transport?"

She shook her head faintly, giving nothing away.

"I ought to continue my rounds and let you recover. When we arrive at Hogsmeade Station please join the First Years as they go to meet the Keeper of the Keys. He will escort you all to Hogwarts via the more scenic route."

Tom Riddle smiled and it was like a knife in the gut.

He probably smiled like that when he was torturing innocent people and skinning pet rabbits.

"Let's just hope the rain holds off! Enjoy your nap, and good luck in the sorting. I don't like too much house division of course, but between you and me Slytherin is by far the best."

He winked at her. Winked. Cheerfully. She was going to go insane long, long before the end of the year.

She nodded, too disturbed by his attempt to charm to reply, and sent a thousand prayers of thanks to whatever deities happened to be listening when he finally left.

His voice was the same as that which had whispered poison and promises in her dreams for months. She took several shuddering breaths, fighting tears. How she wished she could kill him, make him feel even a fraction of the pain he'd caused to so many others.

 

 

 

There were four other students visibly older than the normal entry age, and they took the first boat together, leaving Hermione with her new miniature friend Henry. They climbed in with two other first years. It was a struggle for Hermione to sit and feign the same combination of emotions - awed, scared, and excited - as the boats pulled across the water. However, she hadn't approached Hogwarts this way since her real first year, and as they drew closer to the castle she was surprised to feel a genuine surge of happiness. 

It might be scary and magnificent to the children floating towards it for the first time - but for Hermione it was suddenly like home. Far more so than her parents' house or The Burrow or Grimmauld Place or the little flat she had rented after leaving school. For a moment she thought Harry and Ron would be waiting for her – but almost as quick as the hope came it stole away her joy. This was a dangerous nightmare of a place she had once loved.

Home is a castle in Wales, Hermione. Home is with Cerdic. You have never been here before. Do not draw attention to yourself.

 

 

At last, they were walking up the steps to the Hall and there, waiting to welcome them, was Dumbledore. It had only been a night since she had seen him, but it felt like longer after the awful train ride and she couldn't help the smile that crept onto her face as he caught her eye and twinkled back.

"Ferst years and the other ones," the Groundskeeper said to him.

"Thank you, Mellors, I will take them from here."

In the grand Hogwarts tradition of making this ceremony as serious and scary as possible he did not smile.

The Professor waved his hand and the doors to the ante-hall opened slowly.

"Welcome to Hogwarts. Please follow me."

With a sweep of his purple robes, he led them to the small room off the hall to wait for the other students to seat themselves.

"The start-of-term feast will begin shortly, but first you must all be sorted into your houses," he began. "The Sorting is a very important ceremony, as many of you will have heard, and the house that you are sorted into will be your home within Hogwarts. Many of your classes will be with the rest of your house, you will sleep in your house dormitory, and spend free time in your house common room. Usually this ceremony is only for the First Year, however in recent years we have had exceptions. Your house is just as important whichever year you are destined for.

"The four houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points, while any rule-breaking will lose house points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the house cup, a great honour. I am sure each of you will be a credit to whichever house you belong to."

It was almost exactly the same as the one Professor McGonagall had given her nine years earlier. Hermione smiled.

"Now, I think we should be about ready to start." He glanced at his pocket watch, and spun around excitedly. "Follow me!"

Hermione was a full head taller than almost everyone else in the line of students and it was excruciating to walk into the Hall and stand at the front, like a piece of art for auction gazing down on its potential buyers. They, the awkward additions to the group, would be sorted last and she stood at the back of the line, trying desperately to melt into the shadows as the hat sang its song. The long line of First Years went up, one by one, agonisingly slowly. She tried to ignore any familiar surnames. At last, it was her turn and Dumbledore called out, "And, finally, going into the Seventh Year - Dearborn, Hermione."

She sat down on the stool and waited for the hat to speak.

"Well this is interesting," the hat said in her mind. "A natural occlusionist… you'll have to try and relax a bit or we'll be here all night. Oh now that is interesting. A time traveller I see... and so very clever, but what's this? A Gryffindor?"

Not there, she thought suddenly. Not this time, please. It will hurt too much. I just want peace.

"No, you don't belong there anymore although you are very brave. Hmmm, you are a tricky one, always harder to sort if they're older, but you are especially difficult. Perhaps... yes, I think you would do very well in Slytherin. Very cunning and vengeful, I see. And with all those secrets it might be the best place for you, and you're so ambitious..."

God, not Slytherin either please. I never thought... there's someone there I'd like to avoid.

"Well, if you're sure. Peace you say? I see your mind's made up. You don't really fit in anywhere but I suppose it'll have to be – RAVENCLAW!"

Relief came sharp and sudden, as though she'd been doused with icy water. She stepped down and walked over to her new table, turning right instead of left as she had done long before.

You'd do very well in Slytherin... Hermione had often wondered what would happen if Hogwarts resorted their students every few years, but she wasn't sure she liked the answer.

As she met the other occupants of her new house she tried to smile and look enthusiastic, explaining her odd circumstances, trying to remember names, saying yes she thought the Hall was beautiful, but tiredness and a rush of memories were overwhelming her and she once she had answered their questions she sat and ate quietly.

 

Just before they rose to leave, after the speeches and the school song, Dumbledore came to speak to her.

"Miss Dearborn, the Headmaster has suggested that we give a short test to the incoming transfer students tomorrow morning. I apologise for ruining your Saturday, but he did not think my word was enough." He smiled at her, with a ghost of a twinkle in his eye. "Please come to my office at nine-thirty and I will take you to meet the other teachers for a short assessment. Now, I'm sure Professor Wolfe is waiting to meet her new Ravenclaws in your Tower."

She could tell from his tone he was disappointed that she wasn't in his house.

"Yes, Professor Dumbledore."

"Very good, child. Now, off you go. You look tired, Hermione."

One of the girls, tall and cool-eyed, who had waited to show her to the tower gave her an assessing look as the Transfiguration teacher walked back towards his own students.

"Do you know Professor Dumbledore then?"

"Yes, although not terribly well. He's a distant cousin of mine and an old friend of my father's but I didn't meet him until recently. We visited him this summer."

"Well, hopefully you share some of his brains."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They say that hell is crowded, yet,

when you're in hell,

you always seem to be alone.

- Charles Bukowski


 

Hermione's run of sleepless nights continued during her first night in Ravenclaw Tower. Sharing a room with strangers was hardly ideal: she woke several times clutching her wand, torn out of nightmares.

It was hard, alone in the dark, not to long for Ginny. Ginny who had always come to get in with her when one of them couldn't sleep in that strange last year at Hogwarts. Ginny who had fallen asleep there with her. Ginny who had helped talk her fears away.

Their nightmares had often been the same after all. Seeing Harry lying there darling, defeated, dead. Every night for months afterwards, again and again and again.

(In her dreams he never stood up.)

Some nights Bellatrix loomed over her, laughing as she cast the Cruciatus over and over, pressing that cursed knife into Hermione's neck, breath hissing, hot and rancid. She dreamt of the Snatchers, of Fenrir Greyback's leering eyes, of the Horcrux in the locket, of getting it wrong and dooming them all.

And that first night there they all were, parading through her mind like a hellish army.

But the most vivid dream she had night, the one that clung to her as she woke yet again, the cool grey of pre-dawn lingering at the edges of the blue curtains around her bed, was of chasing Harry and Ron through a forest. Hermione was trying to catch them but got left further and further behind until she stopped, gasping for breath next to a pool in a clearing. They walked in from somewhere else, but did not recognise her.

You're not Hermione, they hissed as they left, ignoring her sobbing and pleas. And when she looked down at her reflection it was not her face looking back, but Bellatrix's.

 

 

 

She began the practice she had started in the tent every morning and every night: a form of magical meditation to clear her mind and help ease tension.

She'd developed the practice after reading Harry's Occlumency books, and had tried to learn it by herself in case she was ever captured. It had proved helpful when that had, perhaps inevitably, occurred. The mind healer she had spoken to at the end of the war had told her she could have gone mad under such prolonged torture. She probably would have, he'd said, if she'd had a less compartmentalised mind.

(Sometimes she dreamt she had.)

 

Hermione abandoned sleep and dressed quietly. It was a Saturday, and she had picked up in the House Meeting after the feast it was customary to dress in non-regulation robes at the weekend, but Muggle clothes were frowned upon. Not that she now owned any fitting for this time.

The first thing she was going to ask for was a single bedroom. Hopefully some sort of nepotistic exception could be made for Dumbledore's cousin. Something she would have fervently disapproved of before. But it was hard to maintain silencing charms in a dorm without arousing suspicion, and it would be even harder to explain why a girl who had allegedly lived out of the way of the world all her life was having such terrifying nightmares.

She out on a set of grey robes, and once again scraped her hair into a bun. It made her look plainer than she was but plain was good, plain was exactly what she needed to be. Unremarkable Hermione Dearborn, who no one would think to wonder about later in life, whose face would pass from their memories.

She slipped quietly out of her dorm, hoping she hadn't woken any of the other girls, and then caught her breath as she walked into the Common Room. It had been lovely the evening before, but in the early light it was breathtaking, as though it had been designed exactly for her. Airy and light, huge windows opening up the spectacular landscape far below, the sun rising over the distant mountains to the east.

It was huge and round and blue blue blue: the deep blue of the carpet offset by lighter blue and bronze hangings. White shelves of books lined the west side, and everywhere lay signs of intellectual pursuits.

It thrilled Hermione, who had always found the Gryffindor Common Room just a little bit too much, too cluttered, too cushy, too red.

She had rarely had enough time to walk for pleasure in the grounds at Hogwarts and indeed had had little interest in doing so, but when she saw the grounds spreading out from the tower on that lovely, misty morning, with the sun just beginning to break through the pearlescent grey to gleam off the shining lake, she couldn't resist, and set off down to the lake. Scotland was magnificent in September (when it wasn't raining). The heather still glowed on the mountains; the air was cool enough to remove the risk of too many midges. It was chilly enough, in fact, for her to wish she'd worn a cloak but a warming charm and the brisk walk soon warmed her, lifted her spirits, and chased away the grey shadows of tiredness from her mind.

 

By the time she returned to the castle Hermione was pink cheeked and starving. Her hair had fought its way out of its restraints in the breeze. It was far more unruly at Hogwarts than anywhere else she'd been. She’d never known if it was the climate or the magic imbued in every stone.

Two of the girls from her year were sitting at the Ravenclaw table and sent smiles of welcome indicating that she should join them as she cautiously scanned for somewhere to sit.

"Good morning, Hermione. Did you sleep well?" the brunette one asked politely.

Hermione struggled for her name then seized it: Ancha Burke. And the other one was... Sophia, she thought, unsure. She was a handsome, cool-eyed girl with dark blonde hair. Selwyn, her mind supplied after a moment. Sophia Selwyn.

"Good morning! I didn't sleep too badly, thank you," she lied. "I woke up quite early though and went for a wander. I got a bit lost on my way out. Did you sleep well?"

Hermione smiled as genuinely as she could at these strange girls and helped herself to some creamy porridge.

"A walk? That's a nice idea. What did you think of the grounds?" Ancha had blue eyes and pink cheeks and didn't look like she spent her holidays cursing Muggles, despite her last name.

"Oh they're so beautiful!" Hermione exclaimed, without having to feign anything. "I grew up in Wales so I thought I was used to mountains, but it's magnificent out there."

"In Wales? I'd heard the Dearborns had a residence there," Sophia probably-Selwyn commented.

"We're all terribly curious about you, Hermione. What was it like not going to school?" Ancha asked. She was a notably pretty girl but it was Sophia who drew the eye. Those grey eyes were quite sharp. Sharp as a warning, sharp as a knife.

"Well, I don't know really – it was all I knew, so it seemed fine to me," Hermione said with a light laugh. "Now I'm supposed to be meeting Professor Dumbledore in half an hour but I need to get some things from the tower first. How long will it take me to get there and to his office?"

"Not quite half an hour! Relax, we'll make sure you're on time." Ancha again. She seemed the nicer of the two.

"Thank you, that's kind. Before I go… would you mind telling me about some of the people in our year? I hardly remember meeting everyone last night, I'm afraid."

Deflection proved effective as an escape, and as they ate and then walked up to the tower, and over to the other side of the castle to Dumbledore's office she kept Ancha and Sophia chatting with endless questions about the students and the school. Anything she'd wondered about in first year that she could remember. She had tried to convince them she could find it by herself, but hadn't wanted to press the point when they'd insisted. It was, of course, the set of rooms that Professor McGonagall would one day occupy, on the first floor of the Defence against the Dark Arts tower.

"Thank you so much for showing me the way. You were right, I'd never have found it without you."

The lies were tripping off her tongue more and more easily it seemed.

"We usually have lunch at half-past one on a Saturday, so we'll see you then?" Ancha replied.

"That would be nice, assuming I've been released."

They smiled, wished her luck, and left her to it, heading off back to the Tower.

Hermione realised rather late, hand half-raised to open the door, that she was nervous at meeting all her new teachers and the Headmaster in one go.

I will not show off, she reminded herself and hoped she could stick to it, even if it did go against her very nature.

She finished the moment and knocked on the door, which swung open on her touch.

"Good morning, Hermione!" Dumbledore said, smiling fondly at her and jumping to his feet. "Please come in."

He was dressed once again in deep purple robes that clashed magnificently with his auburn hair. He looked splendid, but it was still a surprise to see how sprightly he was compared to the Dumbledore she remembered. Towards the end he had started to look so drawn.

His office was quite different from how it would look in Professor McGonagall's day: leather-bound books lining the rich red walls, shelves of the spindly silver instruments that would later clutter up the Headmaster's tower.

"We will not be testing you in here for obvious reasons..." he waved a hand vaguely at the books and papers piled on every available surface. "I haven't sorted it out since my last research project, but mercifully Jingo will be here tomorrow and will bully me into it. Did you sleep well?"

"I think it's charming. I didn't actually sleep well to be honest Professor –"

" – You may call me 'Albus', Hermione. I've said so enough times..." he interrupted.

"Even at Hogwarts?" she asked, shocked. "I just, I couldn't!"

She didn't see what was so funny, as he just laughed in response and decided to ignore it.

"I was actually going to ask... I don't want to seem spoilt but if there is any way I could have my own room I'd be really grateful. I have nightmares sometimes, and it's much worse when I'm with strange people. I understand it might look like favouritism, but..." she trailed off.

He looked gravely at her, not laughing now, and she knew that, though he wanted to know more, he would not ask.

"I will see what can be done, but ultimately it is up to the Headmaster. I should warn you that he wants to check that you are capable of joining the seventh year - he's concerned about you missing the first year of NEWT preparation... That is the reason for these tests. Now, come Hermione. We will be late!"

She followed him up the spiral staircase in his office to the Defence classroom a floor above, but he hesitated outside the door and frowned at her.

"If you really want your own room you mustn't hold yourself back in here. I want to really see what you can do. Your new wand will not suffer fools gladly and I assume that you have used it enough to win its allegiance yet. A wand like that – it will do anything you ask of it, but first you must tame it and bend it to your will. Have confidence."

She nodded and fingered the wand thoughtfully. He had been with her in Ollivander's when she had acquired it, and perhaps the manner with which the jarringly-young Ollivander had handed it to her had struck Dumbledore as strange. She recalled his little customer-satisfaction speech: "A fine wand... a very fine wand indeed, even by the standards of this combination. One of the best I have made. It will serve you well, for if you have the strength of mind to tame it, Miss Dearborn... then it will do anything you ask of it."

She knew he didn't really mean 'anything'. He liked his customers to feel they were special. A wand that could do anything didn't exist: not even the Elder Wand itself.

But walnut wands did have a particularly peculiar reputation - one she perhaps ought to research further: it was too similar to Bellatrix's horrible, unyielding thing for comfort.

There were nine members of staff in the classroom, but she could only identify four: Professors Slughorn, Dippet, her hew Head of House Professor Wolfe, and lastly a very-much-alive Professor Binns.

She hadn't taken the History of Magic NEWT before because she'd read all the books by the end of her fourth year. To try and change up the curriculum she'd asked to take it this time around, hoping it would keep her mind focused on this version of the present.

They were sitting in a line and the classroom had been cleared of all other furniture, except a single chair and desk facing them. Hermione had a sudden pang of sympathy for those held by the Spanish Inquisition.

"Miss Dearborn, please have a seat."

She obeyed, and listened while Headmaster Dippet introduced the other teachers.

"We have each set you a small task or set of questions. Albus, if you would like to begin as she is your, er, protégé?"

"Thank you, Headmaster. Now, Hermione I am going to ask you to perform some basic transfigurations. We will start at OWL level to warm up and work our way up through the sixth year."

The first spells he asked her to perform were simple conjuring and vanishing spells, and then a switching spell she could have done in her sleep. After a while, as they went through a whistle-stop tour of the NEWT syllabus, she guessed what he was building up to: the hardest piece of transfiguration taught at Hogwarts.

As she performed each one perfectly Hermione decided she really had earned her one-hundred-and-seventeen percent last year. The third highest mark in a century, after Tom Riddle and Minerva McGonagall.

"And lastly, Hermione, if you would be so kind as to transform yourself into a cat?"

Human transfiguration on oneself: Hogwarts went no further.

"Professor Dumbledore that's a little beyond NEWT level isn't it? I thought we were testing Miss Dearborn on the Sixth Year?" Dippet interrupted, fidgeting in his seat. She saw Professor Wolfe catch Professor Merrythought's eye and smirk. Clearly the Headmaster had no idea what the syllabus consisted of, as she had just performed most of the NEWT level transfigurations right in front of him.

"I believe Miss Dearborn's Transfiguration capabilities to be a little beyond NEWT level, Headmaster. I am confident in her abilities and after all she is a little older than her classmates."

Dippet shrugged, and she took that as assent.

"What type of would you like cat would you like me to be, Professor?"

"Your choice, Miss Dearborn."

Hermione closed her eyes and focused. Animate-to-animate transfiguration was extremely difficult magic, and equally morally complex.

It was exactly the same principle as turning a mouse into a bird, but the human body was so complicated it required immense magical control and precision. Both Viktor and Cedric had messed it up during the Triward Tournament, which stood as a testament to its difficulty. But she had learned it under Professor McGonagall's watchful eye the previous year: the Headmistress had not trusted her replacement to teach them that.

To perform it on oneself was the toughest test; unlike an Animagus transformation, you actually had to become the animal. If it were temporary, you would change back after a few minutes or an hour or so when the spell wore off, but it was possible to make it permanent if you were really talented and powerful. She was definitely not aiming for a permanent transfiguration.

She didn't say the incantation aloud, but moments later stood before them as an exact copy of Crookshanks.

"Well now that is impressive, Albus. Very impressive indeed."

There was a hum of agreement with Professor Wolfe's statement, as Dumbledore untransfigured her with the Homorphus Charm. He looked extremely pleased.

"Excellent work, Miss Dearborn. Excellent. I think that's enough from me now, Headmaster."

Arithmancy was next, and the teachers sat talking quietly as she worked through a set of equations with ease. She already liked her new Head of House, but that she taught one of her favourite subjects was especially pleasing.

"I've finished, Professor Wolfe."

" Are you sure? You have got a few more minutes if you'd like."

"No, thank you. I'm sure."

The Professor hadn't asked her to perform an Arithmancy spell, which was disappointing, but they often took a long time and really they were hard to get wrong as long as you were good at maths, logic, and had enough power. Plus they weren't on the syllabus until the final year anyway.

Ancient Runes was similarly easy, a simple translation and some basic runic spells. Then charms she could have done in her sleep, some typically Slughorn questions about the theory behind Potions and asking her to identify three apparently identical vials.

Hermione began to wonder if she wasn't going to get terribly bored going to classes every day. She hadn't, in retrospect (although she'd been a panicked harridan at the time) found her NEWTs particularly testing the first time she'd done them. In fact, after sending her parents away with completely recreated memories, hunting down the Horcruxes, breaking into the Ministry, Gringotts, and Hogwarts, and facing Voldemort and his Death Eaters, her exams had been something of a doddle.

The last subject was Defence Against the Dark Arts. This Professor didn't look especially intimidating at first sight, but Hermione knew from Hogwarts, A History she was one of the most qualified people ever to fill the position. She had taught many fine duellists – not least Dumbledore himself. And of course the so-charming Head Boy. This old woman with bright eyes and iron-grey hair was not someone to underestimate. If had Hermione not known, she'd learned enough in the war to pick up on her upright posture, deceptively loose shoulders, and quick eyes.

"Defence Against the Dark Arts is the hardest subject to test in school conditions, Miss Dearborn. Clearly you have no issue performing complicated spells, but do you have the ability to use those spells under pressure? To cast on instinct against an enemy who is aiming to kill? To be the fastest, the canniest? Can you go up against creatures you have never seen or even heard of... against those whose very souls are rotten... The Dark Arts are the most insidious branch of magic – alluring and seductive. They work on the caster subtly, strongly until they are in control. Part of the curriculum at Hogwarts is to teach our students how to resist the seduction of these Arts when they inevitably come into contact with them. Are you strong enough to resist? Duel with me..."

Hermione barely had time to throw a shield up to block the silent jinx that flew before her teacher had finished her words.

It took all of Hermione's ingenuity to hold off the barrage that followed. Put on the defensive, eventually she pulled the desk in the way to block a spell. It exploded into splinters and gave her the opportunity to drop her shield and get on the offensive.

"Not unimpressive, Miss Dearborn. You are a quick and strong caster, and you think well on your feet. You are not a born-duellist but you compensate well. It seems someone has given you excellent coaching." She turned to Professor Dippet. "I am also willing to accept Miss Dearborn into my class, Headmaster."

Hermione sat back down on the chair, and bashfully vanished the fragments of wood that had once been a desk.

"There is clearly no question of you needing to join the sixth year, Miss Dearborn. It is a pleasure to welcome such a talented student to Hogwarts," Dippet said, his tone kinder than it had been before. "The only question remaining is one of scheduling – you have one extra class as it stands so we must decide which you are to drop."

"I have a suggestion, Headmaster. Perhaps it would be possible in Miss Dearborn's unique case – given her age and her aptitude – to allow her a more flexible timetable? I think I speak for all of us when I say I am confident she could pass her NEWTs with little preparation at this point, so perhaps if we allowed her to er pick and choose her lessons so she could focus on her weaknesses? It would be a revolutionary experiment..."

"Hmm, I'm not sure about that Albus, not sure at all. Either she is a student or she is not."

The Professors began to debate and Hermione wondered if she wanted to be an exception. It would cause talk, whispers... but outweighing that was the thought of being bored for a year.

As she listened to some of the teachers try to persuade the Headmaster she lit up with a secret: it was nice to be the special one for once. To be the one people made exceptions for, after growing up with Harry. These teachers hadn't experienced her more irritating classroom habits as a child and might respect her in the way only Vector and McGonagall really ever had. Unlike Ron, Hermione had never precisely envied Harry's treatment, understanding the burden of being him too well, but she had always longed to be allowed to shine without also being disliked for it.

"I would be delighted if Miss Dearborn were able to work with me on some of my projects. As you know, she began to do so this summer and will continue to do so after Hogwarts. I see no oddity in making an exception for an apprentice..."

"No, I'm sorry Albus. She's a talented witch, but I don't think we should be making exceptions. You'll have to find the time to tutor her separately."

"In that case, there is one other matter..."

Hermione left the room on a high: she would have her own room, and she had impressed every single teacher! There was nothing on earth that gave her greater pleasure than living up to her know-it-all reputation.

However much she had sworn to avoid notice, she couldn't stop herself taking the maximum number of NEWTs. She was still Hermione Granger whatever name she had to go by, and even if there was no one to appreciate it she would still strive to be the best.

Riding high, she went to explain why she was being moved out of their dorm to her former roommates.

 

The days passed quickly at first and then began to drag, growing slower and slower as she sat silently in classes and silently at meals and silently in the library.

I not will lose my temper. I will not show off.

Hermione Dearborn, quiet pure-blood Ravenclaw. The role grew unbearable.

To make it worse, she had far too much time to sit and think and wonder and grow extremely frustrated. She'd thought she was getting bored before coming back to 1944…

Once students began to specialise, the house divisions for classes broke down, especially as there were only one or two sets for the smaller subjects such as Arithmancy. There had only been one in her time, but there were more students at Hogwarts than there had been in her time.

She'd known that, known the wars had taken a toll on the amount of magical children at Hogwarts by the nineties, with many parents choosing to send their children elsewhere, but seeing the Great Hall packed at supper, seeing the difference in classes had still taken her aback.

Hermione had hoped, therefore, given the additional size of the year, she might be able to avoid Riddle but there he was in her Arithmancy, Potions, DADA, Ancient Runes, and Transfiguration classes. She was only free of him in History of Magic and Charms.

And it was absolutely killing her to sit there and watch all those beautiful house points get handed out to other people – particularly to him.

Naturally, she wasn't going unnoticed without help. She'd had to put a subtle charm on necklace to help her avoid notice - especially from teachers who had been too eager to engage this bright new student in class.

She was rather pleased with the charm, which was a variation on one she'd used to protect the tent but much less powerful: people would register her presence but their interest would slide off. Teachers wouldn't think to call on her for answers, other students wouldn't try to engage her in conversation or befriend her. It was a brilliant piece of magic - and yet -

And yet - it was awful.

Hermione absolutely loathed sitting there like a quiet little mouse when she knew the answer to every question. She hated battening down her hatches, shrugging on a role that came so unnaturally.

And the most hateful thing of all was sitting two rows away from someone she simultaneously violently feared, and wanted to beat just as passionately.

  

It took exactly twenty-one days from her arrival at Hogwarts on September 1st for Hermione to crack. Three weeks of his unbearable smugness and apparently unmatched superiority. Three weeks to feel the force of exactly how annoying she must have been at school. It was worse than seeing herself mirrored back. In Tom Riddle, Hermione could see how she could have acted.

He hardly ever had to raise his hand. Teachers automatically turned to him for anything complex.

Handsome Tom Riddle, so talented, so clever and yet so modest. She'd had quite enough of it. Her arm was itching to either slap his smug face or shoot up in the air.

And so, on the fourth Friday in September, during the mid-morning break between Arithmancy and Potions, Hermione went to the girls' loos, ripped the necklace off and hurled it out of the window.

She'd had to listen to that arrogant, slimy toad get awarded ten points – ten! – for an answer in Arithmancy that was only partially correct. It was unbelievable! Insupportable. Professor Wolfe had practically cooed at him.

Urgh. She yanked her hair out of its prissy bun, shedding the role she had tried to force herself into. She was going to go mad if she carried on carrying on. She blasted a fly out of the air furiously, and then clutched the sink, taking deep, slow breaths to cool her emotions. If she turned up to Potions like this, she would probably blow up the dungeons. And then, suddenly she was crying, great desperate sobs because it was unbearable.

She was electrically aware of Tom Riddle's every move and every expression whenever they were in the same room. She felt like a gazelle grazing near a pride of ravenous lions - constantly poised to run like hell.

Hermione watched Tom Riddle without ever directly looking at him. She watched him all the time. He sat in the corner of her eye at meals, in the classroom, in the library.

It made her feel sick. It made her want to punch him in the face and curse him into oblivion.

Hermione wanted to show Tom Riddle she could be a predator too.

The promise of some future fight slid down her spine like a peace draught, giving her back control over herself.

"Tempus," she whispered, a little hoarsely. She had exactly seven minutes to fix her appearance and get down to Potions.

There is too much at stake for these amateur theatrics, she told the rather dishevelled image of herself in the mirror, washed her face, and picked up her bag. You are not Harry Potter, there will not be a magical solution to this. You are stuck here, and you have to make a life. So live it, but for Hecate's sake do not mess it up. You've faced worse.

Deciding that, if Riddle couldn't answer a basic Numerology question properly, it was no wonder he'd been stupid enough to make seven Horcruxes, she picked up her bag and began the long trek to the dungeons, feeling more like Hermione Granger than she had for weeks.

It took her eight-and-a-half minutes to get to Potions, but Slughorn beamed at her anyway, waving away her half-hearted excuse and ushering her inside merrily.

"Have a seat by Tom over there, Miss Dearborn. We've got an exciting lesson on our hands!"

Oh no. She hesitated, but there was no choice – she had to sit next to him and smile calmly, even though her palms were sweating and she could feel the damn blush tinting her cheeks. No need to be embarrassed, he's the murderous one. You're just a bit late for class, and from fifty-five years in the future. Stop being so silly!

"Dearborn," he greeted her, smiling his stupid, smug, gleaming smile at her. He'd definitely fixed his teeth magically, she decided. Orphans growing up in the 1930s definitely hadn't had access to sort of dental care.

"Riddle," she nodded and looked away hastily.

"Today we will begin to brew an especially difficult potion. As I told you in your first lesson this term, for those of you who were listening at least," Slughorn chortled, "the majority of this term will be spent on brewing Polyjuice Potion! Now, who can tell me the ingredients for the Polyjuice Potion? You should remember this – I believe it cropped up in the theory section of your OWL."

Hermione's hand was already in the air before she'd even thought about it.

"Go on then, Miss Dearborn."

"Well it takes a month so the first ingredient is time. Then Lacewing flies - stewed for twenty-one days - , three measures of fluxweed - picked at the full moon -, two bundles of knotgrass, stir three times clockwise, then it has to brew for eighty minutes in a pewter cauldron. Then leeches, powdered horn of bicorn, and lastly shredded Boomslang skin, and er a bit of the person you want to turn into," she reeled off happily.

"Splendid, splendid! Five points to Ravenclaw. Nice to see you've found your voice at last," he smiled fatly at her.

Hermione sat back in her chair, glowing faintly. The next month was going to be fun. She had loved brewing Polyjuice Potion in her previous NEWT year. And in her second year even if that hadn't gone brilliantly in the end.

(And oh how unfair - all her idea, her thievery, her work, and she was the one who'd ended up in the Hospital Wing and Ha- but no, she must not think about them.)

"Now, I appreciate the time constraints on you all so you'll be working in groups of three..."

Her good mood suddenly vanished.

"...This potion will count towards your final mark so I expect you to record your exact steps, who has contributed to each stage, etcetera. Now Tom, Hermione and... yes Algernon I think. Go on then get on with it."

Protesting was impossible and as she turned to face him, Hermione's quick mind was already working out how they could have as little contact as possible.

The other boy, a Gryffindor - Algernon something, came over to where they were sitting.

"Hi Tom," he said smiling and then offered his hand to Hermione. "Hermione Dearborn right? I'm Algernon Longbottom but everyone calls me Algie."

"Hi, nice to meet you." Neville's Great-Uncle Algie! she realised excitedly, and then remembered this was the man who had hung him out of a window and thrown him off Blackpool Pier.

"Well we don't need to go and find the recipe as you've already got it memorised, Dearborn." Riddle said, smiling warmly at her. She fought a scowl. There was definitely nothing charming about his smile. Rabbit murderer.

"Why don't we go and find a room we can use before we get started? There must be an unused classroom somewhere in this enormous castle." There were loads, actually, but she wasn't supposed to know about them.

"That's a good idea, Hermione," Algie said supportively. She would have thanked him, but - there - and she would have missed it if Harry hadn't mentioned it - sitting bold as brass on the Professor's desk. A box of crystallised pineapple. She swallowed.

"Professor? Is there a room we can use to brew?" Tom asked quietly as Slughorn returned to the front of the room, blocking the box from sight but not from mind.

Who was bribing him? Was this the box that helped turn one Horcrux into seven? Or was someone else trying to sweeten the man?

"You can use any of the storerooms on the next corridor, Tom. They've been emptied for the class to use as workrooms. Now, Miss Dearborn, just before you go – I'm having a little supper for a few choice students tonight. If you don't have other commitments it would be marvellous if you could join us."

Riddle stiffened next to her.

"Oh, thank you Professor. That's so kind. I just have to check if I have an extra class tonight."

She definitely did not want to go to one of his little suppers, especially if this was the supper. She might have to live through history but she did not want to witness it.

"I'll have a word with Albus at lunch, don't you worry. Eight o'clock. Tom I trust you can direct Miss Dearborn?"

"Of course, Professor." Smarmy git.

She followed Riddle in silence to an empty room on the floor, not listening to Algie who was blathering about Quidditch and wind conditions.

"You don't mind do you Tom? I'm hopeless at Potions anyway you know, he's probably only put me with you so I don't fail."

"Oh, go on then Longbottom – but I'm afraid I can't make up how much you contributed on the project diary."

"Thanks! You are a brick, Tom. I promise I'll be around for the next one... just it's such a beautiful day."

And then he was gone and they were alone.

"He probably won't, Longbottom loathes Potions. I don't know why he chose it for a NEWT subject." Riddle said to Hermione as he held open the door to the bare stone room. "Or," he continued thoughtfully, "how on earth he got accepted. Must be brighter than he lets on."

She hesitated and then forced herself forward. Everyone loves Tom Riddle. Don't act suspicious. She did not want to walk through the door in front of him though, and had to struggle to keep in control of her incessant urge for fight-flight-fight-flight-fight.

"We should be alright without him. It's not that difficult to brew as long as you time it perfectly," Hermione replied calmly, pulling out her textbook and wrinkling her nose at the damp smell.

"How do you know so much about it?"

"Oh I brewed it when I was thirteen," she said thoughtlessly, still digging in her bag, a very Hermione Granger-like note of condescension in her voice, before she realised what she'd said. Shit.

"When you were thirteen? Why?" he asked, fascinated.

Cover cover... the lie tripped off her tongue with surprising ease.

"I saw the recipe in Moste Potente Potions – my Father's copy – and well, I thought it would be funny to transform into him and er go and scare him. But I messed it up and ended up using a cat hair instead. It was awful - all that work wasted." Not to mention the painful transformation back. That had been awful too; she would never forget it.

"What happened?"

"Well he thought it was quite funny, fortunately," she said, smiling as she remembered Dumbledore trying to tell her off in the Hospital Wing while looking delighted that a Second Year student had been so clever. Harry and Ron had never asked, but she'd had to lie and say she'd brewed it 'for a challenge'. Madam Pomfrey hadn't been fooled by the transfiguration-practice-gone-wrong story for long. "But I definitely wouldn't recommend it. Rather a gruesome and slow-acting potion to undo the damage. I did brew it perfectly though, so he was quite pleased with me."

"Why did your Father decide not to send you to Hogwarts?" Riddle asked, transfiguring a pencil into a workbench apparently effortlessly. He was pretending to be casual, but something about the set of his jaw and his intense concentration on setting up the room made her think he was very interested in this answer.

She'd prepared one, naturally, and the well-practiced lie came out easily. Vague, clever Cerdic; precocious, lonely child. The story had been created before she'd even arrived at Hogwarts.

"To be perfectly honest I'm not actually sure. I think he just forgot about it, and then got used to teaching me himself."

Hermione thought about that agonising year after her eleventh birthday, the birthday when a letter and a visit from Professor McGonagall had changed her life. She had persuaded her parents to go to Diagon Alley immediately. They'd bought all the books first of course and Hermione had spent her evenings and weekends and holidays teaching herself as many spells as she could while she waited and waited for September to come around again. She smiled softly, remembering that wonderful period when everything had started to make sense – when she had started to make sense.

"Most of the time I read books and practised and then I'd go and find him when I couldn't do something. We're very different – I found all the text books you have here and tried to follow the course. I made myself all these lesson plans..."

She'd learned to always lie with a truth if it was possible, which was why people had usually believed her but not Ron or Harry, who were both dreadful liars.

"That sounds idyllic."

She caught a note of longing in his voice, and supposed compared to the orphanage it probably did. And he would like the idea of not having any other children around.

"I was very lonely, in retrospect. I grew up without really having any friends my own age." Not a lie. Sadly. "We'd better start."

Hermione lit one of her trademark bluebell fires under the cauldron, as Riddle began to count out lacewing flies. They worked in silence for a while, and she hoped she'd made her life sound boring enough not to warrant further questions.

Oddly enough, however, she'd relaxed in his presence for the first time. Perhaps actual contact had soothed her: he clearly wasn't going to drag her off and torture her on a whim.

"What about you?" she asked eventually, unable to temper her curiosity. She had always wondered what he'd told people at school, how he'd made them follow him, shown them that he wasn't a Muggle-born. "Where did you grow up?"

"In a Muggle orphanage," he said simply. "I had no idea about magic until I came here. My mother was a witch, but she died right after naming me – she was very ill. I have no idea who my father was."

Was because he was already dead - murdered - as evidenced by the black-and-gold ring sitting proudly on his son's left hand. She shivered slightly. A truth paired with a lie, and he'd made sure she didn't think he was a Muggle-born.

"That can't have been much fun. Would you pass the scales please?"

"Most people here have no idea what an orphanage actually is. Apparently such a thing doesn't exist in the Wizarding world." He looked suspicious. Not good.

"Well, I read a lot. We have Muggle books at home. You know. Charles Dickens, that sort of thing."

"How eccentric. What's your connection to Dumbledore?"

And there it was. This was what he wanted to know, why he'd shared a little about himself. He was surprisingly transparent.

"With Professor Dumbledore? Why do you ask?"

"I heard he was teaching you outside of classes, and he always stops to speak to you in the corridors. You seem... chummy."

Someone had been sneaking. She thought of the crystallised pineapple, uncomfortably. Perhaps it wasn't the day he wondered if seven Horcruxes were a bright idea after all.

"Everyone's been wondering about you," he continued, looking up from his workbench to throw her a smile that was presumably intended to be reassuring.

"He's my cousin, for one thing, but also a great friend of my father's," she said, pretending to be distracted by cleaning the cauldron. "He started giving me lessons this summer - it was his idea I came to school at last."

"Lucky you."

Jealousy flashed across his face, smothered with another smile that didn't reach his eyes. Hermione nearly missed it, but she didn't and his questions began to make sense.

He didn't care about her background. He wanted to know why Dumbledore – who had, after all, treated him with nothing but coldness and suspicion from their first meeting – would choose to take her under his wing.

He wanted to know what made her special, and that couldn't lead to anything good.

 

 

Chapter Text

those who escape hell, however,
never talk about it
& nothing much bothers them after that

- Charles Bukowski


 

"I don't particularly want to go, Albus. I would much rather have a lesson. I don't think the people in that club or the ideals behind it are suited to me. It's blatant and unfair favouritism."

"Hermione, while I understand your concerns I think it is important that you go. I would be... curious to hear about such an evening, so if you will not go yourself I ask that you would go on my behalf. Horace is an excellent teacher but he can be a little susceptible to flattery if it is convincingly applied."

A dilemma then. She knew far more exactly than Professor Dumbledore what there was to fear, but she could hardly report that particular incident.

"Alright, I will go but I am not your spy. If there is anything concerning I would bring it to your attention anyway," she said defiantly.

He smiled. "That is fair enough. Now, you ought to go and get ready. We will meet tomorrow afternoon instead, at five o'clock."

 

 

Hermione could hardly believe she had been so easily talked into attending what she suspected was essentially a little Death Eater get together. She couldn't begin to imagine what she would have to chat to them about over dinner. Still, she had managed to make conversation with Blaise Zabini in her own time and he had some pretty ghastly opinions so she would have to cope. As it was a school night she would be wearing school robes so there was no need to change, but she decided that she might as well be well armoured against any snake attacks and went to fix her hair.

Her room was in a turret at the very top of Ravenclaw tower. It was probably the best room in the castle in her rather well informed opinion. It wasn't huge, but airy and light, the curved walls painted the same gorgeous pale blue as the rest of the tower with windows looking out in every direction hung with silk of the palest bronze and cream stripes. There was a lovely desk fitted into the wall and a sofa and comfortable chair. It had once been the room set aside for a long ago wife or daughter of the head of Ravenclaw, and was exquisitely appointed, as through she had stepped into a favourite childhood dream. To reach the room you had to climb a little curving staircase through a small door off the main stair. Her door was made of silvery wood and carved with tiny stars. It was rather too fanciful for Hermione's practical mind, but nevertheless it was lovely. A sanctuary.

As Hermione tamed her hair she repeated to herself, You are not a Muggleborn Gryffindor. You are not Harry Potter's best friend. You do not know to hate Slytherin. You do not hate Tom Riddle. You are Hermione Dearborn. You are homeschooled. You will smile and be polite to these vile people. You will not draw unnecessary attention to yourself. You will be polite. You will smile. You will be polite. You will smile. You will not drop your guard for one single second. You are Hermione Dearborn.

She had slipped down the stairs and into the common room, hoping to escape without notice but was stopped by a voice calling her name.

"Hermione?" It was Sophia, looking friendlier than usual, accompanied by a handsome dark haired boy whose name escaped Hermione. "I heard you were asked to one of Professor Slughorn's dinners. It's a great honour you know - nearly everyone there is a Slytherin."

"Are they? Gosh. I think he just asked me because he liked my father, actually. I don't really want to go but it would be rude not to."

"I can't come this week as I have to Floo call home. But this is Marcus, he is going too and wondered if you would like an escort."

Marcus. That was it. Marcus Blishwick. She remembered now, because his surname had appeared on the Black family tree. A very pure-blooded pureblood then. Still, he had a kind enough face and aside from the Black connection she couldn't recall the family being associated with anything dark. She had payed so little attention in class in the past few weeks, and had been so quiet at meals that she suddenly realised she still hadn't met all her year in her house. There were more than in her time, of course, but still. She ought to have made more of an effort.

"That's very kind, thank you. It's nice to meet you."

Hermione and Marcus shook hands and Hermione suddenly realised that she was being set up, romantically. He was very handsome in an unassuming way, with warm dark eyes.

"It is my pleasure," he replied and smiled down at her. "I asked Sophia to introduce us. You are quite the mysterious figure."

No no no, that was not what she wanted to hear.

"I'm just a little unused to people," she said, attempting to sound shy, and dropped her eyes to the floor. Pathetic. That wouldn't fool a first year.

He didn't seem to find it strange, however, and they set off for Slughorn's office.

"Are you enjoying Hogwarts so far?" he asked, politely.

"Yes I am, thank you. It's been a bit overwhelming but I'm getting used to it." And that was the truth. She was. She was getting used to this strange dream version of her life, if not used to the great absence that had once been filled with those she loved.

"I think you're very brave to start as a Seventh Year. I don't really enjoy these dinners, by the way. It's all a bit Slytherin heavy and awkward but it's a really useful way to make contacts so just try and put up with it. Don't get me wrong, everyone's polite enough and obviously Riddle is really nice for a Slytherin so I think he's a good influence on the others."

"Yes he seems very -" what? "responsible."

"That's not how the girls usually describe him."

"Well I have only spoken to him a couple of times. Who else will be there?"

"Avery and Lestrange. They are Riddle's closest friends I think. Then there's Perdita Fancourt, she's a Ravenclaw fifth year. And Anthony Steele, he's a Ravenclaw too. Lorcan McLaid," future Minister of Magic, Hermione thought - "and a couple of Gryffindors, Charlus Potter and Jasper Brown. Then Orion and Alphard Black, they're cousins, both in Slytherin, and Septimus Weasley he's a Gryffindor as well. That's everyone I know. Oh - no, Aldfrith Diggory. He's the Hufflepuff prefect."

One other girl then. Typical. They arrived at the entrance to Slughorn's office and Hermione suddenly realised that she was extremely nervous.

You are Hermione Dearborn. You will be polite and you will smile.

 

 

"Mr Blishwick, good evening. And Miss Dearborn, it is a great honour to have you join our little company," the fat professor smiled mistily at her, as though she were some prize. "Now, come and meet our little gathering." As Slughorn introduced her to the assorted students, and handed her a glass of wine Hermione smiled and nodded and murmured greetings.

"And of course, you know Tom. How is your potion coming along, you two?"

"Very well, thank you Professor. Dearborn seems to be rather an expert in the subject." Tom smiled his charming smile, the one that didn't even begin to reach his eyes and she mirrored it in turn.

"Now, Hermione, how is your father? It has been some years since I heard from him but I keep up with his work, of course. A very great man indeed."

"He is very well, Professor. Thank you for asking. I will pass on your regards."

"I had heard a rumour that he had made some great progress with certain alchemical matters..." Slughorn winked at her.

The Philosopher's Stone. That was not something Tom should even hear about now. Hermione paused, thinking rapidly. She could see the flicker of interest in Riddle's face. Turning on another smile she said, "Now now Professor don't tease me. He is a very private man, but I'm sure anything of interest is in his papers. He is currently working on a very interesting theory regarding the Seven Metals."

"Well well, is that so. I shall write to him I think, it would be a great honour and very interesting if he would come and give a little talk on Alchemy."

"If you can persuade him to come this far..." she smiled again. She did not want Tom Riddle to take an interest in alchemy. There was definitely no need to prompt him further on the subject. Fortunately at that moment the door opened and Slughorn went to greet the late arrival.

"Alchemy? How simply fascinating. There is so little modern writing on the matter. I had not realised it was such an interesting topic." Clearly something had caught Tom's interest.

"Well, it is very inexact because no two people can use the same recipe. Most attempts to create anything fail even through a lifetime of work. My father has been fortunate enough to have a little success, but don't let Slughorn exaggerate. He largely spends his time getting very dirty and trying to turn charcoal into gold. It all sounds very glamorous and medieval but actually it's quite messy and extremely time consuming."

That was a barefaced lie, and Cerdic had found his formula for charcoal into gold some years ago but there was no need for Tom to suspect that he was anywhere closer to creating a stone. She wasn't sure if he'd heard of such a thing - if he had, surely he would have hunted down Flamel years before he did - but even if this was the only reason she was here she would do her best to keep him away from such a thing.

"I shall have to look into his work," Tom said politely and Hermione smiled, relived. No successful alchemist was stupid enough to publicise what they could do. That was just asking for trouble. She decided to bore him with the details of a less interesting paper and was pleased to see his eyes glaze over and the slight indication of relief as Marcus came to join them.

"Hermione, this is Aldfrith Diggory. Aldfrith, this is Hermione Dearborn."

He looked a little like Cedric, she though. The same calm grey eyes but was darker haired. Handsome, if rather arrogant looking.

Still, she'd take these two over Riddle any day.

The meal itself was uneventful, and she was surprised to find herself enjoying it a little. The conversation varied between topical (Grindlewald, recent politics) and intellectual and altogether it passed very smoothly. Riddle did not linger afterwards and she was relieved not to witness or suspect the day he discovered Horcruxes. Perhaps he already had, perhaps not. Either way, it was not that day.

 

 

As she fell asleep, slightly tipsy, in her tower bedroom later that evening, she forgot to think about Ron and Harry and her parents.

 

 

Chapter Text

[A]n extraordinary man has the right – that is not an official right, but an inner right – to decide in his own conscience to overstep . . . certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). … if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making discoveries his known to the whole of humanity.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (trans.)


 

 

Tom was confused, a condition he was particularly unused to. The subject of his confusion was the new Seventh Year, Hermione Dearborn. Something about her didn't make sense and, as he sat quietly during Slughorn's pathetic dinner and watched her, Tom began to wonder.

If he was not very much mistaken he had (quite without noticing at the time) been masterfully steered away from any interest about her father's work. He knew she wasn't boring: they had had a reasonably interesting conversation earlier that day and yet, she'd talked about a niche and particularly boring branch of alchemy for nearly six minutes.

The strangest thing, however, was that he knew he had been curious about her - curious enough to seek her out on the train. A home-schooled Seventh Year: quite a rarity. Definitely worth investigating. And indeed he had found her even more intriguing upon meeting her simply because she hadn't liked him from the second he walked in the door of her carriage and that was not a reaction he was accustomed to either.

And yet, for the entire term until this particular day, he'd had absolutely no interest in the girl. He couldn't remember a single occasion on which he had taken particular notice of her. For three weeks. And then today she had captured his interest, very suddenly. In the twenty minute period between Arithmancy and Potions he'd moved from hardly recalling her being in the classroom to being subjected to the forcefulness of her very presence.

That was not normal. She was not normal. He'd known that she was being personally tutored by Dumbledore and he had taken no interest until today. Why? It didn't make sense.

He looked down the table and saw that she was smiling at that idiot Blishwick, warm eyed and genuine. The smile only lasted a moment but he took careful note of it and compared it to the one he had received earlier. No, she certainly did not like him - and yet she had absolutely no reason not to. In fact, he'd made a specific effort to be charming to her in Potions, hoping she would speak favourably of him to that fool Dumbledore so that his suspicion might lift off Tom for long enough for him to actually do something interesting with his seventh year.

And there it was, rising up as it always did, that pathetic part of him that simply wanted to impress Dumbledore. He hated and despised the old man, and yet... and yet just once he wanted Dumbledore to acknowledge Tom's superiority - as everyone else had been taught to over the years.

Tom looked around the table scornfully, keeping his expression of quiet interest fixed on his face. This was supposed to be a collection of Hogwarts' brightest and best. Those with shining futures that would make tomorrow great (and keep Slughorn connected enough to ensure the continuation of his creature comforts and sense of power - the fat old spider spinning his web).

Septimus Weasley was a cretin and Potter was a blood traitor. Fifth-year Orion Black was a madman even by Tom's rather loose standards. He might agree with Tom's ideals and bow to him because he had been shown (quite slowly and painfully) that that was his only option, but Tom knew the boy despised his origins. Black's cousin Alphard was a different matter entirely - he made no secret of his lack of interest in all matters political and seemed to live solely for Quidditch. He had been invited for his surname and nothing else, although apparently other people found him amusing. In fact, as he scanned the room the only creature in this room worthy of any special attention was himself.

He was extraordinary and they were ordinary. Perhaps magically capable, even intelligent, but nonetheless - ordinary.

And it was immensely annoying that that halfwit teacher thought that girl was special. She had everything: a perfect, perfect life, a prestigious and respected name, a clever father, favour from those with power. Someone had marked her out as not ordinary and Tom decided it was time to either find out why, or show the world that she was just like them.

His methods might have become more subtle than they had been but his jealousy made him burn with the knowledge that he could make her hurt, if he wanted to.

 

 

"Actually, Professor I don't quite agreed with Tom's balancing of that equation. It would be more perfect if -" Again. That was the second time this week that the Dearborn girl had seen fit to contradict one of his answers.

"Well done Miss Dearborn. You have a real talent for Arithmancy. Five points to Ravenclaw and two to Slytherin for an otherwise perfectly correct equation. Take note, class, that the first correct answer may not be the only one. Now, if you could turn to page sixty-three, we will begin the theory behind Arithmantic spellwork."

Twice. Twice.

His wand hand twitched.

 

 

"Avery, I want a word."

I can make her hurt if I want to...

No. She is too close to Dumbledore. Caution.

"It's about Hermione Dearborn. Find out everything you can about that girl. Everything. From where and when she was born, to why she is here now. Find out and I will reward you."

"Yes, My Lord."

"Do not speak to her, do not look at her. You may go."

 

 

He imagined her lying helpless below his wand, spilling her secrets, unable to withstand the torture. Begging...

 

 

Food at Hogwarts had always held an extraordinary power for Tom: the first really delicious food he had ever eaten, the first time he had ever felt truly full had been his first night in this hall, unaware of the torture of the night awaiting him. It had been a genuine revelation that this much food existed, that such abundance and taste was even possible.

It had been more magical than the ceiling, scarred with a billion stars in reverence to the night sky, if not quite as magical as the moment he first held his wand.

And yet, as he sat pretending not to watch Hermione Dearborn, he couldn't taste the food in his mouth. She smiled at something and he starved to know what it was about her that had marked her out as special. Her own bedroom. Avery's first report had come in and he had done well: a secret special room for this secretive, unspecial girl. Even the Head Boy didn't warrant that sort of treatment.

A unanimous agreement of her talent from every teacher. That she was, as she'd said, brought up in the Welsh wilderness by a vague but brilliant father. A secret child no one had known about, the circumstances of her birth being what they were. A damned fairytale.

It wasn't right and he could feel it. There was something else lurking beneath her fading smiles as they sat chatting civilly over a hot cauldron. Something in the way that her smiles never touched her eyes, never not even now, except that one smile in Slughorn's office where for a moment he'd seen the real thing and now nothing could convince him that this girl was normal.

"Tom?" He allowed them to call him that in public. It fit his persona. Quiet, brilliant, brave Tom Riddle.

"Lestrange. What is it?"

"Could you possibly pass the treacle tart?"

Tom ignored him and examined his own tasteless portion before standing and muttering, "I wouldn't bother, it's rather below par tonight. I will be in the Library. Do remember that anything below an E on Professor Dumbledore's essay will not go unnoticed."

 

 

The Library was supposed to be his sanctuary from her irritating, unignorable presence (after all, he thought, if she had a special room why would she bother seeking peace in this hallowed space) but somehow, even though he had left the Hall first she was sitting there, tucked away in the best corner reading what looked suspiciously like a Muggle book. Did she not realise they had an essay due?

"Dearborn, don't forget we need to check the potion later. I allowed that simpleton Longbottom to check it alone earlier as there was nothing to be added but we need to add the leeches tonight." He smiled charmingly to make up for the simpleton comment, letting her share the joke.

"Of course. I've finished my essay so I can do it on my own if you need to work?"

"That's quite all right, I will accompany you. We should go at nine-thirty." As if he'd let her take credit.

"I'll be here."

Tom hesitated. He wanted to know what book she was reading but the thought of sitting with her in the library made his stomach turn. On the otherhand, she would not enjoy his imposition, which would at least make him feel less agitated and out of control.

"Do you mind if I join you? This is much the best corner for concentration - you can't hear the door and the Potions tomes shield some of that infernal whispering."

He liked the look on her face and the tension in her shoulders as she moved her bag across. Her essay was sitting there, and he itched to read it.

"Exactly my reasoning. Take a seat."

He did.

 

 

It was surprising how much more relaxed he felt, sitting next to her. Perhaps because he had taken control of this interaction, perhaps because when she was within reach he wasn't wondering what she was doing, or perhaps because she was actually very good Library company. She didn't sigh or flirt or fidget, just read quietly. After about twenty minutes of enjoyable peace, he allowed himself to glance across to see what she was reading but the title was too faint, cast into shadow by the lamp. He returned to his essay. Agitation again.

Control it. Later.

Eventually, she looked up from the book.

"What did you make of the essay title? It was a bit, well, a bit vague to be honest. I was up all night writing it and I think I've referenced just about everybody I possibly could but still - What is the purpose of human transfiguration? Really? In what context?" she huffed.

He carefully placed his quill on the table.

"The object of human transfiguration is obviously dependent on the circumstances, but I think what it really comes down to is power. In being competent in Human Transfiguration you naturally gain power - Drechler discusses it quite well in chapter fifty-three."

"Mmm he does but I think it's a test. However we answer that question is going to be so entirely subjective. And I just know he's going to be cross because I've written an extra three feet and no one wants to mark that."

An extra three feet. He hated her. Longer didn't mean better, but still. Three feet.

She put the book into her leather satchel, which resulted in a suspicious thudding sound, and after rummaging around for a while, she picked up her wand and pointed that into the bag. It appeared that she had silently summoned her inkwell and quill as she picked up her essay.

"He said last time if I went over by more than six inches he would deduct marks."

"I can have a look if you'd like?"

She paused, as though recovering herself.

"I'm sure you're terribly busy with your own essay."

"Dearborn, it's not a problem." He never did this but he was so curious... "Here you can read mine if you like."

They swapped and as he flicked through he saw how very accomplished it was, covering all the required ground and more, but that she was apparently afraid to pick an argument and run with it. Should he help her? She might beat him... but would that matter, really, because he would simply have beaten himself.

"Look, I don't think it's some sort of personality test. I think Dumbledore wants us to make a proper argument so you need to cut all of this, and this and this, and just make that part more didactic."

"I can't cut all of this! And you really ought to have read Brinhaair - here, have a look at my notes (back into the satchel, more weird summoning - what could possibly be inside that bag?) at least to dismiss the points he makes against this part..."

All too soon it was time to go to the dungeons and Tom was more confused than ever.

He had satisfied his curiosity about her academic calibre - she wasn't exactly brilliant, just thorough, but he couldn't remember ever actually enjoying an intellectual discussion with another student before. And she was... challenging. Unafraid to question his ideas (although she'd confessed that he wrote forcefully. He'd liked that).

Enjoying another's company was not a feeling he was accustomed to, either.

 

 

Tom was quiet as they carefully added the leeches to the potion, an unspoken agreement between them that this potion would be sheer perfection. He watched as she tidied away and then sat down, sending a ball of soft golden light into the air to float above her shoulder.

"I'm going to stay and watch it for a little while. I'm not tired and it's still unstable."

"I'll stay. I don't have rounds tonight." And no one really minded the Head Boy being out after curfew if it came to that. Besides, he wasn't going to let her get any extra credit for this potion just for sitting next to a cauldron.

Dearborn nodded and pulled out her mysterious book. He wondered if she would tell him what it was if he asked, and if she would tell him about her satchel. He didn't want to ask though, he wanted to find out.

He pulled out the carefully concealed text on blood-magic that he definitely wasn't supposed to be reading and conjured himself a comfortable chair. She didn't look up but he saw her lips quirk up into a half smile that he didn't understand and then he focused on his book. They sat silently for an hour, until a small noise made him look up. She'd fallen asleep, head tilted back against the wall.

He wanted to rip open her mind and find whatever it was inside it that was calling him to investigate, arousing his suspicions. He had absolute power over her in that moment, and he silently fired a charm at her, just a gentle one, to deepen her sleep until he roused her.

At last, he picked up the thrice-damned book. For all extents and purposes it seemed to be Paradise Lost by John Milton and resisted everything he could cast at it. No secrets there, it really seemed to be a filthy Muggle poem. Why was she reading this rubbish? He opened it to an early page and began to read.

My sentence is for open War; Of Wiles,
More unexpert, I boast not: them let those
Contrive who need, or when they need, not now.
For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,
Millions that stand in Arms, and longing wait
The Signal to ascend, sit ling'ring here,
Heav'n's fugitives, and for their dwelling place
Accept this dark opprobrious Den of shame,
The Prison of his Tyranny who Reigns
By our delay? no, let us rather choose,
Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
O'er Heaven's high Tow'rs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer.

Well, that wasn't completely boring. He turned to the first page, before deciding to duplicate it. He would browse it at further leisure and find out why she had chosen it. Next, he turned to the mysterious satchel and quietly opened it. It was surprisingly light, although it otherwise appeared to be normal until he put his arm inside and it just kept going.

He withdrew the arm and glared at the bag. It was bigger on the inside. She had put some charm on it that made it enormous. That was no great secret. Further examination revealed nothing, just books and various mundane items.

He scowled, replaced her things, returned to his chair, and lifted the sleeping charm.

"Dearborn. Dearborn, wake up. We need to get back to the dorms."

"What? Ron?" she murmured, her voice husky with sleep, and then leapt to her feet, wand out. "What happened?"

He laughed, quite genuinely for once.

"You dosed off, for about a minute. Relax. We need to get back to the houses. It's late."

She had gone quite pale and was staring at him with a strange expression that he couldn't place. Almost as though she knew he had just been rooting through her things. Then she turned, picked up her things and abruptly left the room with a muttered, "Good night, Riddle."

 

Whatever it was that had allowed her to relax in the library was quite gone for the next few days and she was surprisingly quiet in classes. He found himself more frustrated than ever and no closer to gaging her secrets. Her unqualified reaction to falling asleep had only confirmed his suspicion that she wasn't quite what she seemed but every investigation lead to a dead end.

"Well done, Tom. Quite your best piece of work. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the argument but it was flawlessly constructed. Ten points to Slytherin," Dumbledore said, actually smiling as he handed him the marked essay. Dumbledore had never, ever freely awarded him that many points before and Tom was both flabbergasted and intensely annoyed.

Finally some validation from the old man, but it left a sour taste. He hadn't gained it alone. Even he couldn't avoid that confession. However, when he turned to not-look at Hermione Dearborn he caught a surprised, pleased smile.

And Dumbledore had only given her five points. Perhaps it was worth it.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down.

― Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth


She didn't start shaking until she was back in her room. The Common Room was mercifully deserted when she arrived back at the tower and she practically flew up the stairs before collapsing, shaking and in tears, onto her bed. She had fallen asleep in front of Tom Riddle in a deserted part of the school at close to midnight.

She had never, never in her life felt more stupid or more vulnerable and the worst part was that she had absolutely no idea if he had done anything. He could have. She had been entirely at his mercy. He could have read every detail of her mind - but no, Dumbledore had said it was locked from the spell - that much was safe.

But still, she realised, far more terrifying in its significance was that it meant that at some level she had felt comfortable enough to sleep. He was a vile murderer, he had killed his own father and would one day wish to kill her and yet she had slept next to him. Lulled perhaps by the evening they had spent together - and that was quite another thing in itself.

She could just imagine Harry's face if she ever got a chance to tell him (not that she would) - Oh yes, I know he's a murderous psychopath Harry, but see thing is he's actually a really great study partner and I really enjoy talking to him. Fuck. And it's really rare to meet a boy that good looking who also reads. And his voice. I just forgot who he was for a couple of hours. I forgot.

Hermione did not approve of profanity in general, but there was a time and a place.

How could she have let that happen? Filled with self-reproach for her idiocy she lay awake for hours as the adrenaline slowly drained from her body. When she did sleep, the dreams of home and of monsters with her face were the worst she had had for weeks.

 

 

The incident had thrown her sufficiently that she spent the next few days going through the motions, withdrawn and preoccupied. There was no sensible course of action that presented itself: on the one hand she knew that Tom Riddle was dangerous beyond anything she could have imagined without direct experience.

However, on the other hand the boy in the library was not yet Lord Voldemort, and surely it was more suspicious to avoid him completely when he seemed to have taken an interest in her.

And that was the nub of it really because deep down Hermione could recognise that she was incredibly flattered at his interest in her. She had paid careful attention to him over her month at Hogwarts and he largely kept himself to himself. He was polite and charming when addressed, and a model student in class but for the most part he worked alone, sat alone, studied alone.

But for whatever reason, probably curiosity, possibly because she was challenging him in class, he had taken an unusual interest in her. She had never seen him working with anyone before and, if she had read him correctly, he had been thrown by it too. Something about her intrigued him and god help her it was heady.

Still, she had been incredibly stupid to let her guard down enough to fall asleep. It was one thing to behave as though she knew nothing of his history, and therefore be as polite as she would to a normal boy but it was quite another entirely to let herself develop any level of trust.

She knew, theoretically and from her experience with the locket, how utterly convincing and manipulative he could be. She knew that, and yet she had not acted with that knowledge.

 

 

It was a Friday morning and she was in Transfiguration, exhausted after another terrible night's sleep. Despite that, she had enjoyed the class - even when she had covered the material it was a real pleasure to be taught by Dumbledore, who had a unique presence in the classroom that surpassed anyone that had previously taught her. Excepting, perhaps, and in a very different way, Professor Snape.

"There were a few good points in this essay, Hawkins, but I recommend a more thorough approach to research next time...," Professor Dumbledore said dropping the rather thin roll of parchment onto the desk of the boy sitting in front of Riddle.

She was intensely aware of him as she always was, a vibrating sort of wonder at what he would do and how he would react, a tiny part of her brain switched to danger - watch out. Fight or flight.

"Well done, Tom. Quite your best piece of work. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the argument but it was flawlessly constructed. Ten points to Slytherin." She watched in surprise as Dumbledore smiled at Riddle and saw as his face passed from disbelief to a restrained and genuine pleasure she had never seen before.

His eyes had brightened and he looked like he was going to actually smile for the first time since she had begun at Hogwarts. The expression was gone as soon as it had arrived, concealed behind one of his fake smiles but for a moment he had dropped his guard.

He glanced over to her and then she suddenly realised, a thought that couldn't be unthought, that on one level Tom Riddle was still just an orphaned boy who had never known love, affection, or kindness and that he yearned for it from Professor Dumbledore more than anyone else - and that Dumbledore's behaviour to him as a child, as reported by Harry was completely and utterly wrong. That any child, no matter how unsettling, deserves empathy before suspicion. He had even been left to go to Diagon Alley alone. An orphan boy.

For years they had assumed he had been born evil because, in contrast to Harry - also mistreated and abused - he had grown up to be a terrible man.

But Harry's first year had been filled with love and Tom had never even been held to his mother's breast. Harry had been with relatives, however ghastly, and Tom had been abandoned to the unimaginable loneliness and cruelty of a Muggle Orphanage in post-war London. Of course he had never understood how to love - he had probably never once in his entire life been shown a genuine kindness. He had never been taught to love.

She knew that science and psychology in the Muggle world in her time were light years ahead of the Wizarding World, and in comparison to the Muggles in the 1920s, and so perhaps it was natural that no one had thought that not to show a tiny baby love and affection, a baby whose very experience in the womb with a starving and ill mother had probably been deeply traumatic would stunt his ability for empathy and affection.

She hardly heard Dumbledore as he awarded her points (less than Tom but still the only two to get any, she noted that at least), trying to fight that thing that rose up within her when she saw such wrongdoing. The tidal wave of compassion and social justice that had led her to adopt a hideous cat because no one else wanted it, to love Ron instead of Harry or Viktor or anyone else, to fight for justice on behalf of the elves at the cost of her social status.

Fuck, indeed.

And after the lesson, as she walked to Arithmancy Tom caught up with her, and although he said nothing and she remained silent she had felt something change inside her because now, despite the evil acts he had already committed, despite all her knowledge of what he would become, despite the fact that he was already two Horcruxes on his way to insanity, she pitied him for the first time since she had heard his name - so long ago when she was that silly, precocious, insecure eleven year old girl desperate to escape her lonely Muggle existence for the Magical world promised to her in her new books.

And how much more magical, how much more important this world must have been for Tom Riddle. A way to escape a life that had probably contained as little joy as it had love.

And Professor Dumbledore had treated him with suspicion and alienation and even left him to go to buy his things alone. How different everything might have been if he had shown the boy the same affection and well, fatherly mentoring as he had Harry. She had seen it in his face, just for a second. No wonder Tom Riddle hated Albus Dumbledore. She knew how deeply rejection wormed itself into your heart, how you could carry it with you forever, a poison far more powerful and damaging than hatred.

 

 

"I just don't think that's fair, Riddle. He's going to get a T on this project if you don't make him stay and help." She was actually cross, it was the second lesson Riddle had let Algie Longbottom leave without helping. They were sitting in the dungeons, later that week, the first time they had spoken since Transfiguration. It was Friday morning and she was tired and confused and fed up of playing a part. It was exhausting. She couldn't imagine how Snape had managed for so long.

"Well it's his own fault for skiving off to play with broomsticks. Besides, what on earth do we need him for? This is the easiest project I've ever seen. Either one of us could do it in our sleep. All we have to do now is sit and read next to our cauldron for two hours while we research what we might want to do next term. I think Slughorn's getting lazy. He ought to be teaching us."

"Well Algie isn't researching is he? You're Head Boy, you should try and be a better influence on him! And it's Professor Slughorn."

"Alright, alright - fine. I'll change the record so he doesn't get a T. Will that make you quiet?"

"So now you're going to cheat for him?"

"Good god, you are insufferable. It isn't your problem, and he clearly doesn't care so why do you?"

Why did she care? She didn't even know any more.

"Because I'm not an emotionless spectre who is happy to throw everyone to the wolves? Because I can recognise that people don't always know what's best for them?" Her voice was getting shrill and she cringed internally. God forbid she just shut up and let people live their lives. "I'm going to the Library, this is ridiculous."

She couldn't believe she was storming off in a huff as though he were Ron or Harry but she was so cross! It was just irresponsible and a misuse of his influence as Head Boy to let someone have so much slack they did themselves a disservice.

He didn't join her in the corner of the Library they had both marked as their own that evening, but sat with his Housemates.

 

 

Strangely enough, though, it appeared that he had listened to her, and the following day as she went into the storeroom just after breakfast to check on the potion, she was surprised to see Longbottom sitting there with a pile of Potions books and the Head Boy lounging with a book on the other side of the room in that ridiculous chair he had conjured. She paused in the door, as they hadn't noticed her.

"Tom what about this one?"

"Longbottom I am not here to do your homework for you. I have fulfilled my duties by making you take some interest, the rest is up to you. It wouldn't be fair if I helped you."

"Of course, I'm sorry."

That sneaky toad, Hermione thought in surprise. He had found a way to pacify her, for whatever twisted purpose, and he was using it to his absolute advantage - diligent but oh so likeable Tom the consummate Head Boy. Goddamn it.

"Good morning boys, I wasn't expecting to find you here. It isn't on the schedule."

Tom frowned at her and said nothing, returning to his book. She stood there, at something of a loss.

"Well, I suppose I'll leave you to it. It's such a nice day, shame to waste any of it indoors," she said brightly. "See you later. Enjoy Hogsmeade!"

Contrary to popular opinion (well, Ron's opinion) Hermione didn't actually mind flying. She wasn't a natural and would never be first pick for anyone's Quidditch team but she was passable enough. The first time she had flown without fear had been trying to catch the key on the way to the Philosopher's Stone and after that it had seemed silly to be too scared. Particularly after flying hippogriffs, dragons, and thestrals. Not to mention, and this memory still gave her a lurch of fear and pride, now that she knew if you fell from a great height you just apparated.

Although she did say so herself, that particular instance had shown great presence of mind and was one of the moments in the war she was most proud of.

Still, going for a quiet fly by herself was not something Hermione had ever really felt inclined to do. Perhaps because flying had always been Harry and Ron's thing, and later Ginny's as well. Not a ritual they had ever thought to invite her to join. She was surprised then that, as she walked away from the dungeon she found herself heading towards the broomsheds and not the Library. Her newfound interest in the outdoors was very uncharacteristic, but the gathering clouds on the horizon were threatening to break the spell of sunshine that had lasted that week and she didn't want to waste what might well be the last dry morning for weeks.

Of course, she could be researching how to get home or how to get here in the first place but she found that all she really wanted to do was escape for an hour or two before playing her role as a newcomer to Hogsmeade (a village she probably knew better than anyone here). It would be a tiresome afternoon - the Ravenclaw girls had promised to show her around the village and she could hardly have refused as she wasn't supposed to have ever visited it before.

Sometimes all the lies just became too much.

She flew far outside the bounds of Hogwarts, sure enough in her Disillusionment Charm to carry on out over the mountains. She wasn't sure exactly why but the thought of getting into trouble held little fear for her. What did it really matter if she got detention? What could they possibly do to her that she could ever care about now?

There was something so bleak and majestic about the Northern Highlands, the heather on the moutains had faded from purple to brown and green, and the damp mists clung stubbornly to the mountain tops above as she soared over the sunlit streams and forests. Finally, she flew as far as a beautiful waterfall, pouring down into a small loch, about two hours from the castle and landed clumsily.

The place was utterly deserted but for a small herd of deer grazing in the distance and the chattering of birds in the silvery birch trees, leaves glowing burnished gold, setting off the damp russet of the bracken below. It was a truly beautiful scene and she sat on a rock staring into the crashing falls and allowing the beauty of the landscape to bring her some measure of peace.

However, beautiful as the scene was she couldn't stay: it was a Hogsmeade weekend and she had been out of the castle for nearly three hours. The Ravenclaw girls would be expecting her to meet them in the Tower and she couldn't linger. She Apparated to the cave outside Hogsmeade where Sirius had lived and flew quickly back to the castle.

She was surprised at how much she had enjoyed her fly, but began to wonder exactly how much trouble she was going to be in. She felt a bit sick. She was practiced enough at breaking rules and being both rewarded for that and getting into unimaginable amounts of trouble for it (fighting Voldemort's inner circle for example) but usually she had had a good reason. This had just been selfish and though she hadn't cared on her way - confused by Tom's actions as much as anything else - she cared now.

She was very good at breaking rules but she didn't have to like doing it.

And sure enough, Professor Dumbledore was waiting by the broomshed when she returned. She got off the broom, stumbling again - she really wasn't an expert flier and brooms had considerably improved by the time she had learnt - and stood awaiting her punishment.

"Hermione -" he began but she interrupted.

"I'm so sorry Albus, I don't know what came over me."

"Where have you been, child?"

"I just kept on flying and then came back. I just... just wanted to get away."

He softened visibly. "I suspect I will have to give you detention but we'll leave it at that. Please don't leave the grounds again without informing me."

"Thank you. I won't. I'm very sorry. Can I still go to Hogsmeade?"

"I don't see why not. Try not to get into trouble. I will see you this evening for your lesson, and will speak to the Headmaster about your punishment. Now, I expect your friends will be waiting for you. Off you go."

She thanked him again and rushed back to Ravenclaw Tower, just in time to fix her windblown hair and change before meeting the Ravenclaw girls.

 

 

Two hours later she was safely ensconced in Tomes and Scrolls, after feigning interest rather admirably in a tour of the village. The girls had left her there, with strict instructions to meet them in the pub in an hour. She didn't really need any new books: for once in her life she found herself too far ahead of the syllabus even for her liking - fifty four years too far ahead to be precise - to be particularly interested in any new publications, and Dumbledore had allowed her the use of his own library for research into their (currently unsuccessful) project involving her time travel, and for his lessons.

Therefore, she gravitated towards the small section of Muggle literature at the very back of the shop. Ironically it was next to the slightly larger section on the Dark Arts - very mild books only, of course. She had never really spent much time reading the literature of her parents' people, her people, from the moment she had received her Hogwarts letter. She had read fiction voraciously as a child but only because she had read everything with an insatiable appetite. From the age of eleven onwards her focus had been entirely Magic.

Entirely too Magical, she thought now as she stared at the clusters of classic titles that any well read Muggle girl of twenty would have read. Perhaps it was time to fill up the bookshelves in her bedroom - and this way, at least she would have something to fill her sleepless nights other than work and missing home and trying to work out when Tom Riddle was going to find out her secrets and the inevitable torture and murder that would follow such an event.

She bought one of nearly everything, from Austen and Chaucer and Malory to Tolkien and Woolf and Joyce. Poetry and prose from Middle English to the most modern options they had. The section was small due to lack of interest but relatively comprehensive nonetheless. She had picked up Paradise Lost (for some odd reason one of the few Muggle books on the Ravenclaw Common Room's shelves) on a whim the week before, and reading it had reminded her of something lost inside her - the possibility of escape to another world that had seemed unnecessary and irrelevant when a real world more fantastic that the books had been opened to her.

As the magical world became more normal, and she had been less obsessed with learning everything about it, her life and the lives of her friends had been in increasing danger and then her pursuit of knowledge had become a key part of the battle to survive. She had had little time or interest in fiction.

And so Hermione could hardly remember the last time she had read a novel for pleasure. Wizards did have fiction but it wasn't of the same literary calibre (usually ridiculous romances or stupid and unrealistic epics). In fact all the arts in the Wizarding World, music, visual, literary, were a poor imitation of their Muggle counterparts. Magic, it appeared, stunted creativity.

"All of them, Miss? That must be nearly a hundred books you've got there." the mad behind the counter blinked over his glasses, stunned.

"Yes," she answered, firmly. "I want one of each. Don't worry, my bag is bigger than it looks."

She paid in cash, leaving him a bit shell shocked. It was probably the biggest sale the bookshop had had for some time, especially as Muggle literature was marked up beyond its real world value. Hermione was extremely grateful for her magically enhanced satchel as she walked to meet her housemates in the Three Broomsticks for an afternoon drink, filled with that happiest of glows that only comes from spending a lot of money on something you truly love.

It was extraordinary to realise, though, how many books she had read that hadn't even been written yet. Extraordinary. She was mediating on this topic when the most potent source of confusion in her life appeared across the street. He also appeared to be heading for the Three Broomsticks, but he hadn't been standing there a moment before which meant that he had come out of the rather dank and empty looking alley behind him. How interesting. She rather suspected he had been somewhere entirely other than Hogsmeade, but short of asking him she wasn't going to find out.

Not to mention that she was entirely sure she didn't want to know. Knowing what he was up to created an ethical dilemma: to tell, and risk the very very slight possibility that every theorist on time travel was wrong and that she could change the future as she had known it, or to not tell and risk allowing harm to others by her silence.

She was doing the latter enough as it was already.

"Anything interesting down there?" she asked, injecting a teasing note into her voice that came more easily that it ought to have - she couldn't avoid him and with the weather coming in the street was almost deserted.

"Nothing I would recommend. I was lost in thought and took a wrong turn. How are you enjoying your first Hogsmeade weekend?" It was incredible how convincing his inquiry sounded, even to her.

"It's lovely. Very quaint. I've been in the bookshop."

"Of course," he smiled and it was that oddly genuine smile that actually reached his eyes, the one that had taken her by such surprise the day before. "Are you going to the Three Broomsticks? It's about to thunder so I suspect the entire school will be in there."

"I suppose they will. Is there nowhere else? I don't fancy anywhere too crowded, but I promised I'd meet Ancha and the others there five minutes ago." She wrinkled her nose and looked up at the sky, wishing she could just go back to her room. Her stomach rumbled quietly and she realised that she was absolutely starving; she had missed lunch. Perhaps the pub wasn't such a dreadful idea after all.

At that moment, by sheer luck, Ancha and Claire came out of the Three Broomsticks and spotted her. Hermione felt relieved at the interruption. Chatting so easily with him still felt like a betrayal and a test.

"Oh there you are Hermione! We were just going to come and get you, thought you must have got lost. It's completely packed in there but we managed to persuade them to let us have the upstairs room so everyone's there, but I see now why you're late. Hello, Tom," Ancha added, a bit shyly. "You're welcome to join us if you'd like."

He looked a bit taken aback. Hermione didn't quite know what to say - if she wasn't entirely mistaken there had been a questioning hint there and if Tom came with them he would only be fuelling a rumour she did not want to start.

"That is very kind of you Ancha," he said with a very false smile that nonetheless turned the pretty Ravenclaw's cheeks pink, "but I've actually got to meet the Slytherins in the Hogs Head. Avery thought it would be quieter, although it is a bit grim. I'd better go." The rain had started, just a few warning drops but from the colour of the sky any idiot could see that it was about to turn into a downpour. He paused as though he was going to say something else but finally finished with, "See you later, Dearborn."

She wasn't sure if it was a salutation or a threat, or why she felt disappointed at his absence. Surely she hadn't actually wanted him to come?

However, getting the upstairs room in the pub proved to have been an inspired idea and the whole of the Ravenclaw Seventh Year seemed to be gathered there, nearly twenty of them, sheltering from the torrential rain that had really hit its stride between her entry to the pub and getting upstairs.

"Hermione! There you are, you were gone ages. Come and get a drink," Sophia said, getting up from her seat next to Marcus who also rose to greet her.

"Sorry, I was in the bookshop... I'll get some drinks, don't get up. What are you having?"

"A Newtgin & Tonic, thanks Hermione."

"No, that's all right. I'll come and help carry them." Marcus, with his warm brown eyes and slightly freckled nose was a world away from the boy in the street and different again from the redhead she had left in the future and she wondered whether she would ever forget enough about Ron to let him or anyone else close to her. He was sweet and clever and attractive and yet... She could never truly confide in someone, so surely it would be impossible. Perhaps she was destined to be alone with her books forever. A comforting thought.

When they had sat back down, Hermione happier with her bowl of pumpkin soup than she thought she had ever been with food. It soon warmed her stomach and went some way towards throwing off the sense of emptiness she had been feeling.

"Where were you at lunch?" Marcus asked.

"Oh I went for a fly and lost track of time," she answered. She didn't want to confess to the potential detention if she could possibly help it, it was a bit embarrassing, but this was Hogwarts and they would know soon enough. "I actually left the grounds so I got in a bit of trouble for it."

"I didn't know you liked flying. Perhaps you would like to go together one day?" he asked, pretending to be casual before quickly adding, "What kind of trouble?"

"Detention. I don't normally like flying actually but I was just feeling a bit homesick this morning."

He gave her a sympathetic look, but mercifully dropped the subject as someone called for his attention. Other Seventh Years were joining them now and the room was filling up - but she couldn't see any Slytherin students among the crowd. She finished her soup, happy for the chance to just eat and enjoy it.

"Why do Slytherin keep to themselves so much?" she asked innocently when he turned back towards her.

"It's just how they are I suppose. They can be a bit nasty so it's not really a great loss. I think Riddle keeps them under control though. They're mainly very keen on blood purity."

"Speaking of Riddle, Hermione, what were you two talking about outside?" Claire interrupted.

"Oh we were talking about the bookshop, nothing exciting," Hermione replied, turning to face her.

"You're lucky, Hermione. Thalia Newbold said she saw you working with him in the library the other day. Tom's so quiet you know and he never works with anyone, which is a shame because he's so clever." Sophia this time, pushing her dark blonde hair back casually, but she was frowning as though she didn't exactly mean what she was saying.

"But so handsome and clever and mysterious... Although he is a bit scary really," Ancha added.

"Scary?" Hermione asked, interested.

"Intimidatingly perfect, is what she means," Sophia explained laughing and Ancha scowled at her. Hermione still thought Sophia was likely to stab someone in the back to beat them in class, but she had mellowed a bit. Her sharp grey eyes assessed Hermione. "He isn't usually very chatty. He seems to like you, though."

Hermione didn't think liking her was exactly the way to describe it. She still wasn't sure why he was showing her interest but she had a feeling it was because she was close to Dumbledore. How would he react if he knew the truth? That she was the Muggleborn girl who would help defeat him in fifty years time?

That she was Muggleborn at all...

"Oh that was just because I sat in his favourite part of the Library. Oughtn't we be getting back?"

"We've got half an hour or so. Is there anywhere else you wanted to go?" Ancha asked.

"I'd quite like to get some chocolate..." she didn't really, but she did want to end this conversation.

"Oh me too! Let's go to Honeydukes, Hermione," Claire said, smiling. She was blonde and blue eyed, a very pretty Half-Blood. She seemed sweet enough, if a bit dull next to Sophia Selwyn.

"Do you mind if I come too?" Marcus asked and Hermione sighed internally. It looked like she was going to have to face up to the possibility of romance in the past sooner rather than later. Ron... Ron was very far away but Hermione wondered if she wasn't technically still in a relationship with him? She loved him and she wasn't sure if she was ready to accept that she might not see him soon. It had only been two months.

But his face was already beginning to fade in her waking thoughts of him. And she didn't want to be alone forever. It was an impossible situation. She would hurt this boy, she could tell already. She would never be able to share enough of herself with him, her sad inner self, her secrets, her nightmares, her grief.

He would never know that she had fought in a war and won, but that winning had come at a terrible cost. But being so alone was awful too and unbidden Riddle's dark eyes flashed into her mind. She felt sick.

"Of course not. Anyone else? It's ghastly out there, so we'll have to brave the weather," Claire said and a few other people rose.

Or cast a simple charm, Hermione thought, but didn't say anything. There was no need to be unkind, and charm or not the wind looked fierce. Perhaps it would distract her a bit. She had never loved the Scottish storms but as they stepped out she could feel the wind whipping up a thrill in her blood and she wondered how much she was changing, and where the swotty bookworm had gone, because what she really wanted wasn't a sweet boy like Marcus to keep her company or to bury herself in a novel or to go for a fly.

What she really wanted was a fight.

 

Her lesson with Professor Dumbledore after dinner was the most interesting she had had thus far. He had been teaching her more sophisticated casting techniques, practicing wandless magic, and discussing magical theory.

"Hermione, forgive me for addressing such a personal matter but it seems to me that you still have not conquered your wand. I have written to Ollivander on the subject and we believe that you will require a feat of extraordinary magic to do so. He also mentioned that it was possible that the way in which you conquer your wand will affect your relationship with it forever."

"It is working perfect well, although it is a little less powerful than my old one," she protested. "I thought it was just because I was you know, a bit sad. Preoccupied." Even as she said it, she knew he was right.

She was treating her new wand as though it were a stranger's. Dragon heartstring and walnut, surprisingly flexible. Eleven and three quarter inches.

Those wise blue eyes looked at her as though they were reading into her soul.

"Hermione why are you afraid to bond with this new wand? It is perhaps a symbol of the life you have given up but are not ready to let go? Or is it that you have read enough of wand lore to fear this wand?"

She nodded, suddenly close to tears. When she bonded with this... it would mean that she was never going back, that this was real and not a dream. That she had moved on. That... that and it had the same components as Bellatrix's wand. If she bonded with it, what did that say?

Would she be one step closer to that dark woman full of hate that had taken to staring back at her from her dreams? It was a combination she knew had been in the hands of many evil wrongdoers, many brilliant but terrible wizards. How could she learn to love such a wand?

"I trust you, child. You will subjugate your wand and you will not allow it to control you. Mr Ollivander did mention that this particular wand had an interesting history behind its making. He did not share this with me, and indeed I do believe he thinks that of almost all his wands, but if you would like to learn a little more I am sure he would be pleased to receive a letter.

It might put your mind at rest. Now, onto the matter at hand! Hermione today I am going to begin to teach you a spell that few others throughout history have managed to fulfil. You, like myself, have a natural propensity for the element of fire I believe?"

She wondered how he knew that. "Well yes I suppose so. In my first year I created my own type of fire..."

"Show me."

Hermione waved her wand at the glass of water on his desk and silently set the bluebell flames dancing on top of it. "They're waterproof and will only heat upwards so they're really useful for Potions. I used to use them to keep my hands warm at break." She smiled reminiscently.

"That is extremely impressive magic for a First Year, Hermione."

"Thank you." She glowed. No one had ever commented on the flames, except Ron, and it was nice that they had finally been noted. She had been so proud of them.

"Today we are going to begin an attempt to create Gubraithian Fire. However, the presence of such an item in Hogwarts would only lead to odd questions so I think we will return to Devon. I don't think we will be successful in such a short time, of course, but... I foresee a certain amount of damage caused in our practice and it is probably better not to burn down the castle. I have sought permission from the Headmaster for your absence this time." He twinkled at her. "In addition, if you would like and have completed your homework, you may stay there overnight and return tomorrow evening."

"I would love that - I - wait, Gubraithian Fire? That's incredibly difficult, only about five people in recorded history have been able to create it!" She would never be able to do so although with such a teacher she supposed she stood more of a chance. Who knew what miracles Albus Dumbledore could work? And she had still never found a spell she couldn't do.

"And in time, I trust, you will be one of them." He waved a hand at the fireplace, which burst into flames. "Run and get your things, child. We should be off soon. I will call Jingo to help you."

She appreciated the drama of the moment, and hurried off to the tower to collect her sleepwear and books.

 

 

It was a lovely relief to be back in Wisteria House, a true sanctuary from the world, but she was given little chance of enjoying the peace as they left the house immediately and walked some way out into the large garden. She wondered who maintained it whilst he was at Hogwarts, but had little opportunity to consider the matter as he stopped by the small lake.

"I confess I am a little concerned about the steps we will take to create this. It is something very rarely taught for the methods are a closely guarded secret. To do it alone would take you, as it took me, some years to discover. However, I will guide you. First, however, you must learn absolute control over the element of fire. I expect a mastery of even the most potent flame."

As he made her practice the entire list of generic fire spells, Dumbledore told Hermione about the history of the eternal flame. Invented by the Greek witch Hestia, it could only be lit as a sign of hope in dark times - and required a great sacrifice from the caster's heart. To create Gubraithian Fire, the caster had to be gifting something with the flame.

It was the opposite of Fiendfyre, designed to consume heedless in its terrible destruction. Gubraithian Fire was intended to bring light to the darkest places, to be a source to share the gifts of warmth and light. It consumed nothing and gave itself over and over.

He did not let her attempt it that evening, and as she fell into bed, exhausted, she wondered if, when he had sent it to the giants it represented his hopes for a better world after Voldemort. What could she possibly offer on that scale to keep a fire burning forever?

She fell asleep and dreamt of fire and sacrifice. Of burning alive and of the dark coldness that followed.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.

- Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights


The Defence class on Monday afternoon was unusual in that Professor Merrythought had gathered all of the seventh year together in a sizeable (and largely unused) hall that Hermione had never before had reason to enter. She'd known from Hogwarts, A History and from the Map that it was there but as far as she knew it was, like many rooms in the enormous castle, left empty. There were no chairs or desks in the room, and its only furnishings were some ancient-looking tapestries adorning the walls and an colossal fireplace, which sadly did not contain a roaring fire. October had arrived, bringing with it the damp chill of Autumn, and Hermione wished there was a fire to brighten and warm the room.

"Today we will begin the annual Inter-House Duelling Championship for the Seventh Year," the Professor began, without raising her voice. She didn't need to, however: every student was focused with an unusual amount of attention on the Professor's words. Hermione glanced around and saw no surprise on the others' faces. This was not a tradition that had continued into her time, but it seemed that everyone else was expecting it.

"To maintain the safety of students, the Headmaster has requested that everyone read carefully and agree to the rules. You will find a copy of these in your left hand. Please take a few moments to absorb them. Anyone in defiance of these rules will be disqualified."

Hermione hadn't noticed the parchment appear in her hand and took a moment to appreciate such subtle spell-work before reading. The rules were hardly comprehensive:

 

All spells used must be legal.

All battles must be umpired and must not continue outside the designated duelling arena.

Any Unforgiveable spells will result in immediate expulsion and will be reported to the Ministry.

Any permanent damage intentionally caused to a combatant will result in immediate expulsion and will be reported to the Ministry.

All dark Curses are banned from the competition.

All duels must be fought in compliance with the International Duelling Regulations and the Hogwarts School Rules.

That was all. Hermione could think of almost a hundred very damaging spells that would still comply with this list. It was ridiculous - and potentially extremely dangerous.

"When was the last time someone died doing this?" she asked Ancha quietly.

"Ages ago - the teachers step in if they need to, but someone gets seriously hurt pretty much every year..."

Hermione supposed that there was still quite a lot of the health-and-safety-conscious Muggle inside her because this competition seemed almost as absurdly and gratuitously dangerous as the Triwizard Tournament.

But then she remembered Umbridge's words: As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions... Who do you think is waiting out there?

Perhaps the competition was a good idea after all, even if the people that would one day be waiting out there were currently in this very room. The chill in the room suddenly had nothing on the chill in her bones.

"If you do not wish to take part in the competition you may leave now and I will assign some theory work instead. However, before you go know this. The most terrifying threat of modern times may now be languishing in a prison but you are all wizards and witches. Every day of your lives you will encounter people with the means to harm you and all those you hold dear," Professor Merrythought said gravely."You may one day meet someone who will wish to act on this. In five years time or in fifty perhaps another witch - or wizard - will decide to take a course of violent action. Perhaps some madman will break into your home. Perhaps it will come from someone you know and love or perhaps a stranger on the street. But one day - I promise - one day you will be grateful for the hard lessons we have learnt in these classes. When that attack comes - and it always does - you will have a choice to defend yourself. That choice can be made today. Now, does anyone wish to leave?"

No one left the room. The Professor continued.

"Each house will have a champion who will go through to fight against the champions from the other three houses. The first round will be extensive: you will fight every other member of your house and you will be assigned points. Then the four students with the highest points will fight again and a champion will be chosen. The four champions will fight each other and the two best will duel again for the trophy, one hundred house points and everlasting glory." She cracked a smile at the last and there were a few chuckles.

This was going to take ages, Hermione thought. The first round alone would take weeks.

"You may not watch the internal House duelling unless it is your house. These will be overseen by your Head of House, the Headmaster, and myself and will take place every evening this week. We will begin tonight with the Gryffindors. Now, the draw."

Four velvet bags in the house colours appeared hovering in front over her and she waved her wand at the red one. Small pieces of parchment floated out and paired up in a long list in the air. The Gryffindors pushed forward and for a moment Hermione almost went with them, before remembering that her name would come from a blue bag in this time.

She scanned the hall curiously as they waited. There were still so many faces she couldn't put a name to but then again there were at least double the amount of students than there had been in her time. Tom Riddle was leaning against the wall at the bag, excitement barely contained in his face.

That face. It would be responsible for so much pain and yet it was so appallingly beautiful. She had pretended not to notice, even to herself, but even she couldn't deny it any more. His beauty was like a slap in the face, a mask for all the evil within. He looked up and caught her eye, sending one of those awful smiles at her before pushing off the wall and walking towards her.

"I hope I get to duel you, Dearborn. I'd like to see what you're made of."

She wasn't sure if she was imagining the innuendo in his voice but as his eyes traveled down her body she knew she wasn't.

"I wouldn't look forward to it too much," she said at last. "You might be surprised." He would probably beat her in a duel even now, before he reached his true power, but she had experience on her side and experience was an even better teacher than Albus Dumbledore. She wondered if Tom Riddle had ever actually fought anyone or if he preferred his murders cold-blooded.

It was impossible to correlate that thought with the way he was looking at her, sending something dancing in her stomach so she pushed it away.

"I don't doubt it," he murmured. "You always surprise me."

She turned back to the front of the classroom, not trusting herself to speak anymore and felt odd, unexpected tears pricking at her eyes.

"I'm going to win this competition," he said, standing beside her. "Will you cheer for me from the sidelines?"

What was he doing? What did he want?

"You can sit on the side and cheer for me," she snapped and he laughed. She saw a few heads turn in their direction, but everyone else was talking too and the Gryffindors were making an awful lot of noise.

"I've never heard you laugh before. You must be feeling very confident."

He didn't reply, and when she glanced up at him he was frowning down at her.

 

 

The duelling contest was all anyone could talk about for the next few days. Apparently three Gryffindors had spend the night in the hospital wing, and two Hufflepuffs the next. Hermione wasn't particularly looking forward to that evening, when she would duel at least two of her housemates. The duels weren't expected to last very long at this stage and if there was an obvious imbalance of talent the teachers stopped them and assigned a winner.

Ancha had told her that the final last year had gone on for nearly an hour, as though it were very impressive. In Hermione's opinion that wasn't very practical: if you were going to fight someone you beat them as quickly as possible in case one of their friends (or fellow Death Eaters) was coming along.

Still, as she ate her lunch she reflected that she had something to be grateful to Riddle for. From the gossip and chat around the table and common room it sounded like her training as Harry's best friend had set her up to be streets ahead of the others.

But still... her old insecurities crept up and she felt a bit nervous even in the knowledge that she was over-qualified several times over for this stupid competition.

And - really - what good could come of doing well? Of being House Champion or even winning? All that would do would be attract notice, something she was supposed to be avoiding. Not that she seemed to be doing a good job of it, she reflected, catching Tom's eye.

He was looking at her with that hint of bemusement. She looked away first, and then wished she hadn't.

 

 

Insecurity warred with her competitive spirit and in turn with her practical nature as she sat though her afternoon lessons and by supper she still hadn't decided whether to push herself or not.

"Nervous?" Marcus asked, dropping into the seat next to her. He was accompanied by Hector Keate and Gordon McDonald, two of the other boys in their year.

"A bit," she admitted. She was more nervous of revealing herself than anything else, she realised. Why would a sheltered girl from the middle of nowhere, Wales, know all she knew about duelling?

And yet the thought of losing... of his smirk if she lost. She glanced up at Professor Dumbledore and came to a decision. She would ask his advice on the matter and if he thought it didn't matter if she pushed herself then she would, and if he advised her to do well, but not too well she would try and conduct herself with grace and at least choose someone good to lose to.

And maybe she was just underestimating her fellow students, because it was perfectly possible someone would just beat her after all.

She caught the Transfiguration teacher's gaze and nodded to the doors and stood to leave. She didn't have long before she was due up in the hall, less than an hour. They took different routes to his office and when she arrived he was already there.

"I'm so sorry to interrupt your supper Albus but I've been fretting all afternoon about this stupid competition," she began and he held up a hand.

"No matter, Hermione. I am always glad to offer you advice. Please sit."

"Thank you. I'm just so worried because I want to do well in this contest but I don't think it exactly fits my persona if people see what I can really do. I know that sounds arrogant, but I'm just more experienced! None of them have probably ever seriously fought anyone before." She was losing her grammar, she realised, and took a deep breath. "Sorry. I suppose what I'm asking is, do you think it would be a bad idea to fight properly or do you think I should try not to be noticed too much?"

To her surprise, he chuckled.

"My dear girl, I don't think you understand. People will always notice you, but their memories are not very long. You must stop holding back or you will live a very unhappy life. Just let go, and do your best. You cannot hide forever, Hermione and if you are to stay here you must learn to really live here. If there are any inconvenient questions you can say will all honesty I have been training you in and leave it at that. I don't think you've come all this way just to be another ordinary witch."

She nodded, those silly tears pricking again. She didn't want to be ordinary, but she didn't want to let anyone in either and yet... she was so achingly lonely.

"How can I let anyone in when I am pretending to be someone I'm not? When I can never tell anyone my secrets? Not even you?"

"The burden you carry will never grow lighter, Hermione. It is only with love and friendship that these burdens become easier to bear. I do admire how well you have adapted to being here, and how well you play your part. But perhaps you should stop worrying so much about what Hermione Dearborn should or should not do and remember that not everyone is as clever and curious as you are. There are people trying to be your friends, I suggest that you let them. Now good luck this evening. I expect very great things from you. And remember - never lose sight of your surroundings and sometimes the best way is the simplest."

 

 

The hall looked very different when Hermione entered it, a few minutes late. There were raised benches around the edge and bright lights hovering over the central space, which now had a long platform in place. Suits of armour stood in each corner, and there was a long table in front of the (now lit) fireplace where the Professors sat with, she was relieved to note, Madam Mahoney, the nurse.

Hermione felt a thrill of excitement and for the first time thought that it might actually be rather fun. There was a large board behind them with a list of what she assumed were their names although it was too far for her to read.

She slipped onto the bench next to Claire and whispered, "What did I miss?"

"Nothing yet, she's just about to do the draw to see who's up first. Where were you?"

"Went to the loo. Bit nervous. How are you feeling?"

But their conversation was ended by Professor Merrythought standing up. The blue bag floated towards her and Hermione saw that the others were still floating, in the corner, but encased in a shield of purplish light. Presumably to prevent any tampering of the draw, not that it mattered at this stage because they'd have to fight everyone anyway.

The names rose into the air and the Professor called out, "We will begin with Sophia Selwyn and Gordon McDonald. Everyone else remain in your seats."

Hermione watched the other duels with great interest, assessing the general level. There were some impressive moments (and she was quite pleased that both Sophia and Ancha won their first duels) until it was her turn.

At last it was her turn, and she was up against a boy she didn't know very well, a quiet brown haired boy who she thought might be the house Seeker. His name was Francis Romley.

"On three," the Professor reminded them and they bowed, before walking to opposite ends of the platform. "One... two... three."

He dodged her first stunner, so she sent a tripping jinx after it before throwing up a shield. Duelling wasn't like a battle really, more a dancing exchange of magic.

It was over quite quickly though, he was held back by a lack of prowess in non-verbal casting and she sat down, pleased.

"Well done! That was really fast!" Claire commented, standing as her name was called.

Two duels later brought the first serious injury: a slicing hex put paid (temporarily) to an ear and Madam Mahoney rather crossly bustled over. As it wasn't dark magic the damage would be easily undone, but the unfortunate boy was taken to the Hospital Wing for the evening nonetheless.

With Madam Mahoney off the premises, Hermione wondered what would happen with the next injury.

She didn't expect to cause it: her flock of attacking birds had distracted her opponent, Hector Keate, enough that the unusually strong Diffindo she sent afterwards - intended for his robes as further distraction - cut through his leg quite badly.

He too was hurried off to the Hospital Wing after Professor Merrythought had healed it sufficiently for the bleeding to lessen. Another flick of her wand cleaned the blood.

 

 

At last, Professor Merrythought called an end to proceedings for the night. After Hector's injury the fights had become nastier and another two people had been sufficiently injured to have been sent to the Hospital Wing. They had managed to get through half the duels, though, and Hermione, Sophia and Marcus were the only people who had won all of theirs. By some luck of the draw they hadn't faced each other yet.

Sophia was very good - sharp and quick and imaginative and perfectly willing to throw some pretty mean hexes. Marcus was probably better technically, he was fast and had a wide variety of spells but Hermione wasn't sure if he really enjoyed it enough.

She had though. She had recovered pretty quickly from her duel with Hector and, deciding to avoid anything bloody, had dispatched her opponents with a variety of alternatives. It had been quite easy really, after all those Death Eaters.

 

 

As soon as they were back in Ravenclaw Tower, Hermione ran up to her room and found her biggest bar of Honeydukes chocolate. She felt terrible about poor Hector Keate, who seemed to be a very nice boy. The whole year, tired and maybe a bit shocked, had been quiet as they walked back to the Tower but Hermione had caught a few odd looks and even Claire had been cooler towards her. She wrote a note apologising to Hector and wishing him to get well soon and slipped back out of the tower as quietly as possible.

It was past curfew and approaching Midnight, and she knew if she were caught even Dumbledore wouldn't be able to avoid a detention for her so she cast the strongest Disillusionment Charm she could and, wishing she had the Map and the Cloak, crept off to the Hospital Wing.

She made it to the Hospital Wing and paused outside, listening carefully. To her surprise there were voices inside and she recognised the Headmaster's first as he was speaking.

"Thank you for bringing him here, Tom. It was very good of you."

"Just doing my duty Sir."

"I thought the bullying in Slytherin seemed a bit better this year?"

"It has, but he is a Muggleborn you know. I've tried but..."

"Not much to be done about that issue is there, eh? Off to bed with you, and take ten points for Slytherin."

"Thank you Sir."

Ten points? He'd probably sent the poor boy there himself, she thought in a rage, as she stepped back into the alcove under the stairs. Riddle strode past, taking the stairs two at a time and she held her breath. He looked surprisingly angry for someone who'd just been rewarded for probable wrong-doing and she wondered why. Moments later he was gone and she sighed in relief, but stayed hidden as Dippet bid goodnight to Madam Mahoney and left.

She waited for twenty minutes after the sounds of tidying and fussing around the patients' beds faded and then slipped in quietly. Hector was sleeping so she left the chocolate by his bed and returned to the Tower.

 

 

By the next morning everyone seemed to have recovered from watching their friends get sent to the Hospital Wing - after all hurts here were easily fixed - and when Hermione sat down at breakfast she was relieved to be welcomed with smiles from Ancha and Claire.

"What did you think of the contest?" Ancha asked as she passed Hermione the platter of croissants.

"It was surprisingly bloodthirsty but it was quite fun. Everyone did really well!"

"You did really well. I wouldn't have guessed, no offence." Sophia sat down opposite, smirking. "Looks like I've got competition."

Hermione laughed. "Yes, well I'm not looking forward to taking you on I have to say."

She glanced over to the Slytherin table and found Tom Riddle looking at her. Again.

"I think he does like you, you know," Claire said, following her gaze. "I don't know why you think he doesn't. Everyone noticed when he came to talk to you in Defence yesterday."

"Yes, what did he say Hermione?" Ancha queried, dimpling slightly.

"Oh just that he hoped he got to duel me. Not exactly romantic. He's just fed up that I'm beating him in Arithmancy. I don't know why, he's still the best at everything else."

Sophia didn't look convinced.

"You know who else likes you? Marcus. If you're interested in Tom you should probably make that clear..." she murmured, too quietly for the others to hear.

"I am not interested in Riddle. It's just academic competitiveness."

Mercifully, Marcus sat down with, Hermione was very pleased to see, a fully recovered Hector Keate. She didn't know what to say to him, but it was unecessary.

"Thanks for the chocolate, Dearborn. I can't believe I got sent to the Hospital Wing by a girl..."

Everyone laughed, except Sophia.

"You haven't faced me yet Keate. I bet I can send you right back."

"You're on," he replied, and leant over to shake her hand. "The loser has to buy lunch in Hogsmeade."

They were flirting, Hermione realised with amusement.

Sophia rolled her eyes and replied, "You wish. I'm a taken woman, you know that."

"Everyone knows that," Marcus joked. "Give the boy a chance, Sophia. You can't honestly prefer that prat..."

"Abraxas is not a prat and I love him very much. Go and try to charm some other poor girl Hector. I heard Violet Darslworth is single..."

They all laughed, although Hermione didn't get the joke. Claire looked upset behind her laughter but Hermione didn't dwell on that. Abraxas. The name rang a bell but she wasn't sure why.

"I didn't know you had a boyfriend, Sophia, so apparently not everyone knows," she said and smiled at Marcus.

"She's been going steady with Abraxas Malfoy for two years," Ancha chimed in, sounding proud.

Abraxas Malfoy. Oh my god. No wonder her grey eyes looked familiar - could she be Draco's grandmother?

"I don't think I've met him...?" she said, playing her part.

"He left last year, but you'll meet him at the Quidditch this weekend. Are you going to be able to play Hector?" Sophia asked.

"Yeah yeah I'm fine now, Dearborn didn't do that much damage," he replied. "Diffindo, Dearborn? Really? Imagine if it had been my head?"

"It's not my fault you stepped into it - I was aiming for your cloak as a distraction," Hermione replied.

But he just smiled at her.

Friends, Hermione thought. Maybe Dumbledore had a point. And at Hogwarts, sending someone to the Hospital Wing was a surefire way of making a friend or a lifelong enemy.

 

 

"I heard that you sent some poor boy to the Hospital Wing last night, Dearborn. Ought I be concerned?" Riddle murmured, dropping his books onto the desk next to hers.

"Oh get lost Riddle," she muttered back, not in the mood for his teasing. He is a Muggleborn, you know. I've tried but... Lying snake.

"Clearly I should be," he replied and then he grinned at her. She hated him so much in that moment as her stupid traitorous heart gave a little leap.

"Looking forward to obliterating your House tonight I see. You're unusually... chirpy," Hermione snapped.

"Very much. They could all do with a good lesson... However, I think I'll save my best spells for when I meet you."

She wasn't sure if it was a promise, a joke, or a threat.

"Likewise. I think I'll let you get nice and complacent before I thrash you." Gods, she was turning into Harry.

"Not very sneaky to tell me your plans, is it?" Riddle smirked.

"Not very Slytherin to tell me yours, is it?" she mocked.

His smile rose up again and she fought to control her blush, but he didn't reply.

If she wasn't completely mistaken he had started flirting with her. It was extremely confusing. She was absolutely sure he wasn't capable of genuine romantic interest in her, which probably meant that he wanted something and had attempted to get it and was trying another way.

But then, that stupid girlish voice in her head, the one that had liked Lockhart and before that, though she'd never confess to Ron, Harry, suggested that maybe - just maybe - he was interested. After all, why would he not be? She was new and clever and much prettier than she had been... and he didn't know she was Muggleborn.

Or she'd slipped up and given something away, given him cause to be suspicious. However, if that was the case surely he'd have her on the wrong end of his wand, trying to torture the information out of her rather than smiling at her, showing off those stupid perfect teeth that would have her parents in raptures.

She paid an unusually small amount of attention to the Ancient Runes class, reliving every moment that she could remember to see if she had made any mistakes. She couldn't think of anything - in fact, in retrospect she thought she had dealt with the situation with remarkable composure. If Harry had been here - or worse, Ron - in her stead she didn't think either of them would have lasted a week without trying to curse or kill Riddle.

And instead she had, what, befriended him? Had some chummy library sessions and somehow ended up sitting next to him more often than not in class?

How admirable.

"Dearborn, please explain the various effects a mistranslation of Odin's spell might have caused," Professor Thorsson said, interrupting her meandering mind.

 

 

If nothing else, the contest saved Hermione from a reasonable amount of boredom. It gave her a new reason to pay attention in lessons, to head off to the Library in her free moments, and for that she was grateful. Planning combinations of spells, tricks, distractions, and practicing moves alone in her room took her mind off all her numerous and assorted problems.

She really wanted to win. She didn't know why, maybe because it was the only chance she'd ever have to outdo Voldemort in combat, or maybe just because she really was an insufferable know-it-all but she really wanted to. Maybe it was just because now that Harry wasn't there she could let herself shine in Defence, never her most natural strength, instead of worrying about how he could improve or what he needed to learn.

Still, there was time enough when she was trying to sleep or eat to wonder about the new information she had gained: Sophia was practically engaged to Abraxas Malfoy. And to fret about the Head Boy's bizzare treatment of her. The only times she couldn't avoid speaking to him were in their little Potions Lab and yet she found herself easily responding to him when he did talk to her.

 

 

Her beautiful barn owl, much ignored, dropped a letter onto Hermione's plate and the proceeded to land on the jug of pumpkin juice and eye up her bacon. It was a thick scroll and Hermione recognised Cerdic's writing with pleasure.

"Oh all right, help yourself," she muttered to Pevensie (named for the children of Narnia in a fit of unusual whimsey). "Now go to my room or the owlery, I don't mind - I'm going to be ages writing a reply and you must be tired."

The bird hooted softly at her and took off. Hermione admired his flight for a moment and then settled down to open her letter. It was strange really - although the relationship was false and although Dumbledore had thrust it upon him, Cerdic seemed to have fully accepted her into his life, and at times Hermione wasn't sure if it was just that playing the role tickled his theatrical flair and sense of humour but he wrote to her once a week or so. The fatherly tone of this particular letter was of no exception.

My dear girl,

Very good to hear from you. I'm glad that you're settling in better now - Albus said you're doing very well, so that's all for the good. Not much to report here, but I've sent you the first draft of my Seven Metals experiment as requested. When you're done with it pass it on to your godfather. The castle is getting rather temperamental and very damp down at the lower levels, I ought to have the contractors in to have a look at it. And a new family have moved into the village - more Muggles so be careful with your magic. I went for a walk the other day, up on the mountains and got lost. Ended up sleeping in a haybarn, gave the farmer quite a fright in the morning. Funny thing is, I wasn't that far away, just caught up in day dreams I suppose.

You mentioned an interest in alchemy in your letter, which is rather exciting. We'll talk more about that in person but for now I'm glad to see the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree.

The only matters of interest I have are that my thrice dammed idiot brother wants to meet you, had a howler from him, apparently it's bad form to keep children secret or something. Anyway nothing to be done, we're going to visit them before Christmas... You can go back for Christmas if you like or stay in Wales. If any of your friends want to come and stay they are very welcome (but keep them out of my study!).

The other matter is quite droll really - a few of my old associates have picked up on your age and eligibility and have been getting back in touch for their sons I suppose. Inviting us to dinner and things. If you're husband hunting I've got plenty of choices for you now. Don't expect a bright little thing like you would be interested in any of those twits but there it is. Dumbledore is useless at passing on gossip, but even he hinted you might have met a young man. Horace on the other hand is excellent at it so all I'll say I look forward to meeting your friend - he sounds like a swot, which is a shame.

Let me know what you think of the paper - don't go correcting my grammar though. Don't know where you got all that from.

Much love,

Cerdic

 

 

What on earth? Even he hinted you might have met a young man? For God's sake. She stood up from the table, seething and marched out of the hall ignoring the two pairs of eyes, one brown and one so dark it was impossible to guess the actual colour that followed her from the room.

"Albus, can I have a word?" she asked, putting her heard around his door.

"Hermione, what a pleasant surprise. Come on in."

"I got an interesting letter from Cerdic today, in which he mentioned that you had hinted that I might have a 'young man'." She felt unutterably stupid, now that she was here but... "I was just wondering who exactly that was supposed to be as I haven't had any hint of it."

He twinkled at her.

"I merely suggested that you had captured the imagination of more than one of our Seventh Years..."

"I have done no such thing!"

"Hermione, forgive me if I have caused offence but I fail to see the harm in such a statement. Is this a particularly sensitive topic?"

Yes because everyone's accusing me of fancying the boy who's going to try and kill me and everyone I love one day and I'm not entirely sure how to handle that situation.

"No, I'm sorry. I'm overreacting. Just... bit confused with how to deal with the aspect of romance should it occur."

"May I be frank with you, Hermione?"

"Yes, I suppose - of course."

"I don't believe there is any chance of us finding a way to ah, return you. Nothing in my research thus far hints at the possibility. We have fifty years to find the other thing but time will not slow down as it draws us closer, and in doing so it is pulling you farther away from where you still wish to be. Make yourself a life here as best you can. As I said on Tuesday - there are many people who wish to be your friend. And one of those people in particular would benefit from a friend such as yourself. I don't believe he has ever had a true friend before."

"Are you talking about Tom Riddle?" she asked, in disbelief.

"Indeed. Tom has had a troubled time, I fear, and he is a troubled boy... but in his interactions with you I see a spark of hope. Just... if there were anything suspicious or strange, with any of my students, you would bring it to me would you not?"

She nodded, unable to speak.

Dumbledore wanted her to be friends with Riddle.

And Dumbledore wanted to spy on Riddle.

Riddle Riddle Riddle. Was she never to be free of him? Wasn't it enough that he had dominated her and her friends' lives for seven years? Dominated her dreams and thoughts every time she wore that stupid locket for months? And he took up more than his fair share of her thoughts and dreams here too, flickering between Tom and Voldemort in her dreams, laughing as he tortured her for her secrets, whispering dark, sensual words in her ear.

"Of course I would, Professor. Unless it was something I know you don't know about until later in which case I wouldn't be able to mention it now or even hint at it, right?"

That was a huge glaring hint as far as she was concerned, but he just smiled and nodded.

I don't believe he has ever had a true friend before. It was heartbreaking and her traitorously compassionate heart responded against the rational mind that said she clearly hadn't/wouldn't made/make (they ought to have invented a tense that expressed a past action that hadn't happened yet, she thought crossly) any difference as he still went on to be a murdering psychopath -

already was.

Already was.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Besides, Dorian, don't deceive yourself. Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. You may fancy yourself safe and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play - I tell you, Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend.

 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

 


 

 

Hermione would never admit it but she had taken Xenophilius Lovegood's criticism of her to heart more than she had ever let on:

You are, I gather, not unintelligent, but painfully limited. Narrow. Close-minded. She'd never forgotten those words.

He'd been proven right by her treatment of the Hallows myth - so predictable Dumbledore had relied on it - and ever since she had attempted to keep her mind open, to embrace alternative views, to learn not just to prove that she was intelligent but for the sake of genuine learning.

Naturally she hadn't anticipated that this endeavour would stand her in good stead for her trip to another time, or for arguing with future Dark Lords. It had allowed her to handle being sent back fifty-five years with composure instead of protesting that it was impossible and being unable to cope.

It was, incidentally, the reason she could be sent back at all. So much of magic worked on belief and if she hadn't believed it were possible, it wouldn't have worked. Fortunately for Hermione, this was not a lesson she'd yet learnt and so she was still able to cope.

However, a reason she'd been considered limited was her abilities to compartmentalise and rationalise and it was these that truly stood her in good stead in the past.

It was also the reason she was sitting having a real conversation with Tom Riddle. She was tired and confused and there was no other excuse for her actions, so she wasn't bothering to make one.

Sometimes, it was easier not to think.

They were sat by the cauldron, long after Potions had ended. They ought to have been at lunch, it was nearly over and yet neither of them had moved.

"What do you want to do when you leave Hogwarts?" he'd asked.

"Change the world of course," she'd replied, eventually and he'd laughed, surprised.

"Ambitious."

"Not really. What about you? I'm told you are the most brilliant student to come to Hogwarts this century - oh don't pretend to look bashful, it doesn't suit you - so you could do anything... but you never really discuss current affairs so I can't imagine you having much interest in politics. Anyway, of course you wouldn't want to join the Ministry because you probably see that's it's a farcical institution, corrupt to its bones and full of paper-pushers, not to mention you'd hate being junior anything. I expect you'd be a wonderful academic, but there isn't a University. I can't see you working for anyone, really. So, what then?"

She was curious, to tell the truth, curious about how he'd acted in the thirty years before he rose to power, curious about how he'd built his small power base here and then vanished for so long before returning as someone else, curious as to how early his madness and lust for power had set in.

"I want to teach," he replied simply.

She wasn't surprised at the answer, but she was surprised because she didn't think he was lying.

"Well that's awfully worthy. Don't you think you'd get fed up with how stupid most people are?"

"Yes, but I'd be in a position to find those that weren't..."

"You could team up with Professor Slughorn and have joint parties for your special favourites," she quipped.

He scowled at her, but nodded. "No, but Slughorn's got the right idea, he just isn't clever enough to push it to its natural conclusion. Teachers are in a position of extraordinary power in the Magical World. Every talented wizard - or witch I suppose - will pass through their class at some point, before they have ideas of their own. For seven years they will exert influence over every member of our society. All they need to be is a guide... someone the students respect, someone who pushes them, makes them feel... special."

"So you'd be, what, manipulating young students to your own ends?"

"Well of course; I am a Slytherin."

And he was, he was the Slytherin in fact. The last one. She cocked her head.

"And what kind of ideas are you going to be planting in their heads? What is it that you're after? I can't fault the method, it's very clever, but I still don't see the end-game."

"I want to discover the very outer limits of magic and then break through them, of course. I too wish to change the world. What else would I want?"

"Happiness, love, friendship, a fulfilled and complete life, money, academic success - lots of things. Some people would say power, which is what you really mean, but that doesn't really appeal to me, I don't see the point in chasing it."

"That is a blatant lie, Dearborn. Imagine all the things you would change when you decide it's time to start changing the world. Envision a list. Now, think of the first thing on that list, the most pressing, and tell me - how would you go about bringing this change?"

She thought, hard. There were so many things she wanted to change about the Wizarding World she wasn't sure where she would start. Ignoring him, she picked up a pen.

 

Hermione Dearborn's List of All the Things She Will Change About the Wizarding World.

1. The way Muggleborns are exiled until they are 11. Why are their parents not informed earlier? The idea of magic should be introduced earlier, preventing fear and isolation. A liaison should be assigned.

2. The treatment of sentient magical beasts.

3. The bizarrely rigid separation between the Houses. Too many alike people spending too much time together is a clear recipe for disaster. The houses should be randomly assigned and there should be an academic organisation behind the classes. Streamed, not housed.

4. The lack of common sense, logic, and critical thinking skills taught to Wizards and Witches needs immediate reformation.

5. As does the lack of teaching with regards Maths, Literature, and Languages.

6. And Muggle studies, which needs to be both enforced and completely renovated. The current syllabus is shameful.

7. The economy: one bank? Are you serious? This has to stop. There must be trade.

8. Equally, with the amount of people working for the Ministry versus the amount otherwise employed, I predict a forthcoming economic crisis that will leave wizards indebted to the goblins. This doesn't seem like a very good idea. I have met them, they aren't very merciful.

9. Magical theory is entirely untaught, which is frankly ridiculous. I propose that this is an attempt to subdue and control a powerful population. I propose that those studies currently considered radical that test the very boundaries of magic be more carefully considered. In this way the population at large and the government will be more informed when those free thinking imaginative radicals, such as Grindlewald and LV, attempt to come to power.

10. There appears to be no recognisable democracy. Perhaps if there was, the Ministry would be more effective and considerate.

11. The current reliance on nepotism and favouritism will be removed from all laws and new ones will be imposed to prevent such occurences. The rather novel idea of a meritocracy will be introduced.

12. There will be a stronger focus on physical education. Many wizards rely on potions and charms to ensure health and improved physical appearance. In addition, there will be a health check on the foods offered at Hogwarts.

 

He was sitting impatiently and she stopped.

"Alright," she said eventually. "I agree, I'd need to be in a position of power to bring about change. But power is better exerted behind the scenes, so I see why being a Professor here would be amenable to your aim."

"Let me see your list."

"No! I'm not giving you ideas, you can make your own list." She vanished the parchment and then, to lighten the mood again, she continued "I bet I can guess what it will start with: number one, every wizard and witch will bow down to me, Tom Riddle, the Greatest Sorcerer in the World. Two, all houses except Slytherin will be disbanded. Three, I will be named Head Boy of the whole of Wizarding Britain - fear me..."

She collapsed into laughter, because it was easier to joke with him than to think about what his list really contained. One: exterminate all Muggleborn filth from the Wizarding World, two: seize absolute power, three: never die...

"You are a ludicrous creature, Hermione." He had never used her first name before, never, but it tripped off his tongue like the most natural thing in the world. A disturbing, baffling thing that made her stomach flip and sounded like the taste of chocolate. She hated him for it, and she hated herself for sitting there chatting to him as though she didn't know what he was, but he was just so much more interesting than anyone else in the school and really, what did she have left to lose?

And she was so damned curious.

He continued, "If you want the power to change the world, you have to give people a cause they already support to get behind. Look at that Hitler fellow in Germany; he took his little party from nothing to absolute power because people in his country don't like Jews. Ingenious really."

She couldn't laugh any more and stared at him in horror.

"What? Did you just praise Adolf Hitler's methods?"

They didn't know yet, she reminded herself. The war wasn't ever over: they didn't know the scale of his crimes against humanity. He didn't know.

He shrugged. "It's unpleasant but you can't deny it's been very effective. I'm surprised you know about it."

"Do you think he's going to be successful then? Last I heard he was losing."

"Well, whatever he's doing now is irrelevant. I'm only interested in how he gained power. He was legitimately voted in, you know."

"Yes," she replied, ironically. "I do know a little of the history."

So this was why. He hadn't taken Grindlewald as his inspiration, but Hitler - and she supposed in a twisted and awful way it made sense: before the War, Hitler had probably seemed an admirable figure. Even British politicians had been torn over him, she knew. He'd ostensibly raised his country from a terrible depression, and he had gained power - initially - through legal means.

It was brilliant but, god, knowing what she knew, what he had become, it was so cold.

"So what you're saying, let me get this straight, is that you would sacrifice a whole race of people to gain power because the end, I suppose, in your eyes justifies the means?"

"I would do whatever was necessary. If you look back at all of history, the greatest and most admired figures took their place through what you might consider unpleasant means. Take Napoleon, for example. He used the propaganda of the French Revolution to seize power himself. He became Emperor right after the French had decided to get rid of their King. As the nation was perishing I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me... He's remembered for his military genius more than his political, but it seems to me that he spent the better part of his career in the military building a power base from which to take over himself. He espoused the popular Republican ideals in order to gain enough following and then seized his moment and overthrew it to establish a military dictatorship, which was accepted by popular vote."

His understanding of history was imperfect but the barest bones of the point were possibly correct. She wasn't sure what to say.

"Yes, that's all very well but Napoleon ended up a prisoner!"

"Even the British politicians supported him. People liked him, they wanted him back - you know when they thought he'd escaped again, London actually celebrated. But as I said, I'm only interested in how he gained that power."

She hadn't known that. To tell the truth she knew very little about him - aside from his establishment of the Napoleonic Code, which was something she had admired.

"Napoleon is probably a better idol than Hitler, I'll give you that," she replied. "Hitler, to my eyes, is a complete madman. He may not have started that way but absolute power has corrupted him. And besides, I cannot support the idea of sacrificing a whole race just to put yourself ahead. I don't see how you can admire them both, Napoleon emancipated the Jews, Hitler condemns them."

"I don't particularly care about religion or ideologies aside from their use as a way to gain a power base."

And yet you would kill them - us - anyway. Somehow it was worse that he didn't care himself. His abstracted view of the world, a view without any room for empathy or the value of human life was chilling. His mind was undeniably brilliant, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows, but, ultimately, also something that was broken.*

"A lot of people dislike Muggleborns, would you throw them to the wolves in order to gain power?" She knew he would, but she wondered if he would admit it. She also knew that she was treading very dangerous ground indeed. Something in her wanted to push him to reveal himself, because she was fed up with his facade of perfection and she wanted to see the rawness underneath.

"Hypothetically, it would be a sensible course of action."

"Hypothetically."

They stared at each other and she knew they'd hit a stalemate because neither one of them could continue without exposing too much of themselves. His eyes were so dark they appeared black in any light and in the dingy light of the dungeon the shadows falling over his face hid any expression. He could almost have been carved from ivory and obsidian, but for the pale pink fulness of his beautiful mouth, twisted down at the ends.

"Well, I think that's pretty disgusting," she said at last.

He looked disappointed. In her. As though she had failed to live up to something in his eyes. Well that was absolutely fine by her, she didn't need his approval for his vile ideas. He had got her thinking though...

"Why do people dislike Muggleborns so much? I don't really understand. My father never gave two hoots about that sort of thing, so I wasn't brought up to it." She said this with remarkable composure, an off-hand question.

"They are brought up to it, it is the accepted version of the truth. They are told that Muggleborns threaten the very existence of the Wizarding World. They bring radical ideas, they don't understand the traditions... they have always considered been lesser. They have a rigid morality that doesn't fit here - Victorian prudishness if you like. Indeed, they are often unsuccessful magically or can't cope here. Their very existence does threaten the secrecy of our world - and they are amazingly destructive. If they knew about us they'd hate us, fear us, kill us all - or enslave us to do their will. There's so many of them. Salazar Slytherin didn't think they should even be allowed in Hogwarts but unfortunately he was overridden."

This was said with some venom, and as his face twisted she finally caught a glimpse of Voldemort beneath the beautiful surface. He'd manoeuvred from general to personal and there he was, filled with irrational hatred and believing in a creed he didn't know he really believed in. He had started to buy into his own propaganda already.

"But even if you yourself aren't actually a Muggleborn, I don't see what different it makes if your upbringing was a Muggle one. Why are you not included in this threat?"

"I am the exception that proves the rule," he replied simply, with a slight shrug.

He really believed that, she could see, and she had had enough of this conversation.

"You're a strange mixture of hypocrisies Tom Riddle. You damn Muggles and Muggleborns as lesser, and yet you admire at least two Muggles for their political methods. You say people believe because they are brought up to believe and you say you don't care about ideology but this particular one seems to be something you do believe in." She packed up her books and stood up, but paused by the door before adding, "And I don't think you're someone I'd ever want in a position of power."

She had never taken more pleasure from knowing that one day she would help destroy him and everything he stood for.

 

 

After the argument, if it were that, Hermione decided to avoid him as best she could. She had to stop the pendulum that swung between enjoying his company and remembering who he was, a pendulum that left her confused and filled with self-hatred and feeling terribly alone.

But after the beginnings of camaraderie, she needed an excuse to avoid him, especially since he'd started using that slightly flirtatious manner with her. Whatever he wanted, whatever had caused his unusual interest in her, he wasn't getting it that way or any other but she could no longer pretend to be totally unaffected. The silly, insecure eleven year old in her had hated disappointing him even as her more self-possessed and confident twenty year old self was glad not to be associated with such individualistic drivel and revelled in the knowledge that she would personally ensure his destruction.

She didn't care how awful his life had been - it was never an excuse. However, the scientific aspect of her mind couldn't help turning over the realisation she had had in Transfiguration, and something pricked at her to keep it to hand because there was something important there, something she had read. Something in the way his mind had developed...

The excuse presented itself sooner than she had anticipated and she took it, even though the ramifications of her actions could be crueler than she could imagine.

"Hermione, are you coming to watch the match on Saturday?" Marcus asked her on Friday afternoon, slipping onto the desk next to her in Charms.

"Oh, I hadn't really thought about it. Why?"

"Well," his cheeks turned a little dusky, "I'm one of the Chasers, you know, and well, I'd really like it. If you did come."

She smiled at him, and knowing it was monstrously wrong of her, said, "In the case of course I will come."

It was monstrously wrong because if it became more than going to watch a Quidditch match, and if he did fall for her she would be stealing away his chances for a family. That was so presumptuous to even think... and yet, she didn't belong here - whatever Dumbledore said - and the very thought of growing old with someone before she had even been born made her stomach roil. She pushed the thought away.

And after all, she told herself, they were very young and even if things were different in the Wizarding World it didn't mean he had anything serious in mind. She could enjoy his company; it wasn't wrong to not want to be alone. And Ron - Ron was very far away. She wouldn't think about Ron.

They were learning about Protean Charms, so Hermione let herself switch off. It was hardly something she needed to revise; she'd been unusually brilliant at them as a fifth year, four years ago. The view from the Charms classroom was a pleasant one and as it was one of the most popular NEWT classes they were still divided by house, so there was no Riddle here, just the harmless Hufflepuffs and so she was safe. They had spent most of the week revising Non-Verbal spells, much to Hermione's irritation (she didn't want her particular advantage in the duels lost) but for some reason many students found them very difficult... it was a continual source of bafflement that even apparently clever people found such simple things so hard to master.

Hermione wondered why that was: it was becoming harder and harder for her to actually verbalise very familiar spells - it felt like an intrusion, as though she were a maestro violinist handed a toy guitar. Magic made more sense without the verbal restrictions placed upon it, when it became about will and imagination, like the magic they created before they were handed a wand and told to learn control.

Words are binds, she thought, and then scrawled it on her book because it was an important thought and -

"This is impossible," Ancha groaned from the other side of Marcus, interrupting her thoughts. "I wish he'd shut up and let us go for the afternoon. Doesn't he know we've got a match tomorrow?"

Professor Cunningham, however, did not seem to be aware that it was Friday afternoon and even after Hermione had linked her five signs to all read the same (horribly basic to her eyes) and earned twelve points for Ravenclaw, he made her sit and pretend to read the next chapter in the textbook (a textbook she could probably rewrite from memory) while the others tried.

Marcus got it next - Charms was his best class, he had the creativity and imagination for it combined with admirably precise wand work. This gave him the opportunity to talk to Hermione one on one, a opportunity he'd never really made use of before. She had the odd feeling that she intimidated him, because he was much more relaxed around other people.

"How come you're so fast at everything?" he asked, distracting her from the novel she had spelled to resemble the pages of the textbook she practically knew by heart (if Ron had seen she'd never have heard the end of it - can't believe you're reading in class, Hermione, what would McGonagall say? his voice teased in her head and it was hard not to smile or weep). She pushed him out.

"I've just done it before, almost everything. I'm not exceptionally talented or anything, I'm just older and and I learnt most of this stuff ages ago. I only came to Hogwarts this year because Professor Dumbledore thought I ought to do my NEWTs and you know, socialise a bit. My father doesn't really think about that sort of thing..."

"How old are you? I mean, gosh, that was awfully rude, I'm sorry." She could see the light smattering of freckles, his almost girlish eyelashes tangling as he bashfully dropped his eyes.

She laughed at him; he was quite old-fashioned. "I'm twenty actually." Fortunately his manners prevented him expressing his surprise verbally but his eyes flashed back up, widening.

"Your life sounds very interesting. I heard that you had been educated at home." If only I could tell you how interesting it's really been, what a relief that would be.

"My life sounds anything but interesting, I lived in Wales in the middle of nowhere with just my father and a house-elf and then I came to Hogwarts."

"No, it's like a fairytale!" he protested.

"Hopefully without the gritty moral ending. Anyway it wasn't, and I'm here now. But I know all about my life so it's very boring for me. I don't know anything about yours though. Where are you from?" she asked, realising she knew very little about him other than that there was a sweetness there and that his eyes were warm and comforting.

"Somerset. We've got a house in London as well but I spent most of the time in Somerset. My family's lived there for centuries."

"Somerset is very beautiful, I hear. Do you have siblings?"

"Yeah, there's four of us, quite unusual these days. I'm the youngest though. My oldest brother Augustus is a curse-breaker and Quintus is... estranged. He's a lawyer though. My sister Maxima is married to Richard Abbott. They're all alright but I'm much younger, bit of an afterthought really."

Brothers working, sister married. Right. God forbid she worked while she was married.

She wondered what he meant by 'these days' - the Weasleys had had seven children. That was quite unusual, though, and she tucked it to the back of her mind to contemplate later. And an estranged brother? That was interesting.

As he described his family, his happy childhood and kind parents, the beautiful manor in Somerset, Hermione wondered what would become of his family by her time. She had never heard the name Blishwick, but for an entry on the Black Family Tree and the odd mention in the trees of family histories she had poured through looking for R.A.B.. Perhaps they were just unremarkable, or perhaps she had just never encountered them because their interests lay in different fields.

 

 

Saturday dawned cool and windy, with thick dark clouds overhead. Gryffindor had demolished Hufflepuff in their first match and so were naturally leading in the Quidditch Cup, but they were still behind Slytherin and Ravenclaw in the House Championship. Nonetheless Ravenclaw needed a big win against Slytherin to take the lead in either rankings. Hermione dressed carefully - school robes were expected at the match, but she pulled on her thick, dark blue winter cloak and Ravenclaw scarf as well. She had woken late, after an unusually restful night and had to hurry to make it to breakfast.

The team were sat huddled together, looking nervous, but Marcus looked over as she arrived and smiled at her. Seeing where he was looking Ancha, also a chaser, waved nervously at her, brown curls pulled back in a ponytail.

"What are the Slytherin team like?" she asked Claire, helping herself to some porridge.

"Nasty. Winky Crockett, the Captain, is terrifying. She sitting over there, looks a bit like a troll..."

"Crikey, wouldn't want to bump into her without my wand." The girl looked like Millicent Bulstrode and Marcus Flint combined, and about as charming.

"She's a beater, and then there's their best Chaser, Neil Lament. He's alright, fouls a lot but nothing like as nasty. The one to really watch out for is Canopus Lestrange - he's the other Beater and he's twice as bad as Winky. Alphard Black, over there, he's the Seeker. He's alright actually, pretty nice for a Slytherin. Then there's Hamish Craggy, he's the Keeper - don't know anything about him, he's new. Fifth year maybe. The other Chasers aren't here yet - Penelope Greengrass and Finnbar King."

"I've met Greengrass - wouldn't have picked her out as a Quidditch player." The willowy blonde girl was in most of Hermione's classes, except Arithmancy.

Claire laughed. "No, well she's actually quite good but yeah I know what you mean. She's a snooty cow. I'd watch out for her actually, she's pretty keen on Riddle and there are a few rumours about you two..."

Of course there were. Just what she needed.

"Right. Noted. I don't suppose the fact that the rumours are entirely baseless will matter?"

"No, I don't think they will. He took her to the Yule Dance last year so..."

"Do you think we're going to win?" Better focus on Quidditch, she'd already had quite enough hearing about Riddle for one day.

"Hope so, we've got a really good team this year but the weather's awful and you never know with Slytherin... Gryffindor have got the best team skill-wise but they tend to lose their heads and their Captain, Septimus Weasley, he's not the best tactician."

Ron's grandfather... Hermione tried not to think about it.

"Where's Sophia?"

"Meeting Abraxas I think. He's coming to watch, but they always have tremendous rows when Slytherin play Ravenclaw. He was their best player - Keeper before Craggy. He was extraordinary actually, to be fair. I've never seen a better Keeper. You'll like him, he's great. Marcus teases her but we all like Abraxas."

Hermione eyed the Ravenclaw team: Ancha, Marcus, Francis Romley, and Hector Keate were sitting with three other students not in their year. One of them looked slightly familiar.

"Who's that girl with the short hair?"

"Rolanda Hooch, she's absolutely amazing, already signed up to play for the Harpies when she leaves. She's our third Chaser with Hector and William Bell, he's the brown haired boy next to Hooch, they're the Beaters. And that's the Keeper, Angus Matlock."

 

 

Just as Hermione was finishing her porridge, there was a slight commotion at the Slytherin table. She looked up and saw a tall, extremely handsome man with shoulder length pale blond hair shaking hands with some of the students. Sophia was standing behind him, but even without that marker Hermione would have guessed exactly who it was. Abraxas Malfoy was more like Lucius than Draco, taller, broader shouldered, without the pointedness of Draco's features. He was laughing, teeth gleaming even at a distance.

She watched openly as Riddle stood and stiffly shook his hand. There seemed to be no love lost there, a flicker of loathing tempered by grudging mutual respect. It was interesting.

For some reason, she'd imagined that all the members of Slytherin House had been in thrall to Riddle but it seemed that that hadn't always been the case.

"Well that was friendly," she commented quietly to Claire.

"Mmm, look don't mention anything - it's not widely known - but Abraxas and his friends bullied Riddle quite badly when he arrived. That changed in our fourth year but Slytherins are what they are. Sophia told me. It was when they found out he wasn't a Mudblood after all. They thought he'd been lying."

Claire's - who wasn't even a Pureblood - casual use of the horrible slur shocked Hermione into silence and she excused herself from breakfast, pretending she had left something in the Tower.

"I'll save you a seat!" Claire was oblivious to her distress - thank Merlin - and Hermione nodded her thanks and hurried out.

It was when they found out he wasn't a Mudblood. Mudbloodmudbloodmudblood...

It took some time to compose herself.

 

 

Abraxas was a bit, well, a bit dazzling, although Hermione was loathe to admit it and had been predisposed to dislike him. He was good humoured, charming, and he radiated that patrician confidence that only came with a life where nothing had ever, could imaginably ever, go wrong. He was rich and spoilt and almost uncomfortably secure in everything about him - his looks, his brains, his like-ability. And if that wasn't unfair enough, he was also extremely bright.

They were sitting waiting for the match to begin as the players warmed up, and he was entertaining them with stories of the travels he had been on since he'd left Hogwarts the year before. He was like an eighteenth century aristocrat after a Grand Tour, an educated man of leisure with enough steel underneath for the political career he would one day embark on.

"And then, if you can believe it, the Count's wife came out after him in nothing but her bloomers..." Hermione dutifully joined in the laughter, although she didn't see what was so funny about your friend seducing your host's wife and he flashed them a wicked smile. "Well we had to move on pretty sharpish after that of course, so I thought I'd come home and see the Olds for a few weeks before going to South America."

The olds, she presumed, were his parents.

"Where are you going in South America?" Hermione asked, interested. There were a lot of very important magical sites there, and she hoped that one day she would be able to go too.

"Everywhere! One of my Burke cousins - not Ancha's side - is coming with me and we're going to spend two months in the Amazon with a tribe of wizards. It's actually fascinating how differently they treat magic, they have special magic for hunting and all sorts so it should be jolly interesting, and then Patagonia and then we're porkeying up to the north and going down from Venezuela through Colombia, Peru - Macchu Picchu obviously, so funny how the Muggles see it, Bolivia. We've got some land out in Chile so I've got to spend some time there as well. We grow a lot of potions ingredients, very fertile country, and a vineyard."

"Sounds glorious."

She wondered if he would be amused or offended to find that many Muggles took a similar trip in her day.

He glanced up at Sophia and despite their relatively restrained relationship, Hermione caught a glimpse of real feeling in his eyes. She couldn't help liking him, and wondered what would change this man enough that his offspring would be so full of hatred.

At last, it was time for the match and they settled down quietly to watch.

The game was nasty and Winky Crockett seemed to be doing her very best to get through all seven hundred possible fouls singlehandedly, and managed to get away with most of them. Hermione was surprised the teams hadn't come to blows, but Ravenclaw were leading (thanks, in part, to being awarded so many penalty shots).

"This is ridiculous, she can't do that with an inexperienced Keeper!" Abraxas muttered angrily.

"Well I don't think she should do that anyway, it's hardly an honourable tactic," Sophia snapped back.

"It worked perfectly well when I was Keeper, and after all winning is winning."

"Only for a Slytherin, I think it's shameful." This was, Hermione felt, a little hypocritical, as Sophia had a streak of moral flexibility a mile wide when it came to beating her compatriots in class but she wasn't going to get involved.

"Oh thank Salazar, Black's seen the snitch."

Alphard Black had entered into a particularly daring dive given the ghastly conditions but didn't seem to be too worried about his own safety, something he probably regretted when Hector's bludger hit his broom and sent him ricocheting off course. The moment was lost and the snitch had vanished again.

"Blast." It was clear that Abraxas liked to vocalise his emotions while watching sport.

"Come ON Ancha," Sophia and Claire screamed in unison as their friend put the Quaffle through the hoops again.

"Craggers is going to get it later if he doesn't pick up," Abraxas hissed.

The Ravenclaw chasers were exceptionally good, playing with far more teamwork and absolutely smashing their Slytherin counterparts. Still, if Black got the snitch - and by all accounts he was much the better seeker - the game was lost.

After a particularly horrific and unpunished example of blurting, Slytherin regained the Quaffle and then the game was suddenly at an end because, against the odds, it appeared that Francis Romley had caught the snitch. Abraxas moaned in desolation as Hermione, Sophia, and Claire stood up to cheer.

"That's the first time we've beaten Slytherin in four years," Claire said, hugging Hermione. Gryffindor had lost so rarely, mainly because of the absurd and pointless but inherent bias towards the Seeker in the game's design, that Hermione couldn't imagine what it felt like to lose continually for four years. Horrid, probably. "I feel sorry for their Keeper though, he's in for a tough night."

"I can't believe I came all this way to watch them lose."

"Oh and I suppose seeing me was just a side effect?"

As they were walking onto the pitch to congratulate the team, leaving Sophia and Abraxas to argue it out, and hopefully make up somewhere very private, Marcus swooped down and jumped off his broom, looking elated.

"Party in the Common Room?" he said to Claire, who gave a mischievous nod and congratulated him, before going to find Ancha.

"What did you think?" he asked Hermione.

"I thought you were excellent, well done."

He took her hand and pulled her towards the team. It felt nice. Not amazing or anything, but nice, so she let him keep it there for a while.

 

 

The party was in full swing (after quite a lot of Butterbeers, and Firewhiskey & Toadas) when someone turned the wireless on to a jazz channel and people started dancing. Rock music fortunately hadn't happened yet, because wizard rock was absolutely dreadful, but it appeared that Muggle jazz was quite acceptable - as long as no one mentioned that it was Muggle - and it was on a Wizarding radio station.

"Dance with me?" the boy with the warm brown eyes asked Hermione and she said yes because it felt nice and it had been so long since she'd felt anyone's arms around her. Marcus kept her in his arms as the songs changed and she relaxed slowly into them. Sometimes it was easier to do what was simple and the alcohol had numbed some of the pain she kept shuttered away.

I'll be seeing you, Billie Holliday began to croon out of the wireless, and the mood in the room changed. It was almost unbearable because she wouldn't be and all the familiar places had been made unfamiliar and everyone was gone, and so when Marcus pressed his lips against hers she didn't pull away. It was a fleeting kiss, chaste and proper, and terribly terribly sweet.

"I really like you, Hermione Dearborn," he whispered in her ear.

They were in a corner now, hidden from casual glances by the shadows cast from the bookshelves, and he guided her to sit by him on a sofa, gently stroking her face.

"You look so sad sometimes. I've never seen anyone look as sad as you do. I want to make it go away, make you smile. You've got such a beautiful smile."

She gave him one, because it was working, but she felt deeply conflicted.

"You're very sweet," she said at last.

"I'm not that sweet. It's just easy to be sweet to someone so amazing."

"Well, I bet you say that to all the girls."

"No, just you. Look, I know it's none of my business but I've got to ask before I make a complete fool of myself. Is there anything between you and Riddle? Only... I see how he looks at you and he, well, he's Tom Riddle."

"There is nothing now, and there never will be, anything between me and that boy."

And so he kissed her again, and it was lovely, and then she went to bed and thought about everything she had lost.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Most of the members of the convent were old-fashioned Satanists, like their parents and grandparents before them. They'd been brought up to it, and weren't, when you got right down to it, particularly evil. Human beings mostly aren't. They just get carried away by new ideas, like dressing up in jackboots and shooting people, or dressing up in white sheets and lynching people, or dressing up in tie-dye jeans and playing guitars at people. Offer people a new creed with a costume and their hearts and minds will follow. Anyway, being brought up as a Satanist tended to take the edge off it. It was something you did on Saturday nights.

And the rest of the time you simply got on with life as best you could, just like everyone else.

― Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

 


 

It was one of those strange coincidences that made Hermione wake early and go for a walk, even though dawn had barely broken and even the birds were still quiet. She had been finding it easier to sleep in, but whether from the alcohol or the emotional confusion she awoke to the blue-grey light of the night turning to dawn, with a thrumming headache that said no, you shall not return to slumber and so she got up, dressed and quietly slipped outside. Sunday mornings in Hogwarts were one of the few times the castle remained quiet; breakfast was served later and even the Ravenclaws didn't go to the library until after lunch, so it was still hours before she'd have to see another soul.

The door to the castle was still locked, and so Hermione took the passageway that lead down to the lake instead, one most people didn't bother with because they didn't know about it or didn't know it didn't just lead to the Boathouse. Percival Pratt, whose portrait concealed the entrance, was especially annoyed to be woken at such an hour, although he was usually more accommodating. She apologised and he eventually swung open, and she was free. From the Boathouse it was possible to take a small path across the bottom of the cliff and it was at the end of this path, at the far side of the lake where it lapped at the edges of the forest that Hermione paused to enjoy what seemed to be the sun rising behind the cloud bank, creating a rather dramatic scene.

Quiet voices whispered towards her, brought by the east wind and she shrank back against the cliff-face, disillusioning herself.

With some horror she recognised the Slytherin Keeper, still in his Quidditch gear, pale and bruised and limping, head bowed, walking behind a gang of Slytherin Seventh Years. To her surprise, Riddle was not amongst them, but his henchmen Avery and Lestrange were, and the entire Quidditch Team. It looked like they had been out all night, and if she was not much mistaken they had been deep in the forest.

"...better next time, won't you Craggy?"

"Stupid Half Blood, you'll be lucky to get a second chance. Did you enjoy your night in the forest?"

They were closer now and she could hear them quite clearly. Had they left him alone in the forest as a punishment? That was beyond cruel... They were less that twenty yards away now, right beside the lake.

"You've brought shame and dishonour to our House and our noble Founder. Now, get in the lake."

"Wait, tie his hands and feet first."

"Incarcerous."

She watched, frozen in horror for a moment as they pushed the boy, bound entirely in ropes into the lake not thirty feet from where she stood. She couldn't bear it and removed the charm. Stay calm, she told herself and began to walk towards them.

"Lovely morning isn't it?" she commented and found herself and the end of eleven wands.

"What are you doing here Dearborn?" Greengrass snarled, and too late Hermione remembered Claire's warning. This one definitely had it in for her.

"Well I was trying to go for a walk, but you've rather spoilt the view. I think that boy is drowning by the way, so I should get him out before the lot of you end up in Azkaban."

Alphard Black turned first, to his credit, and levitated the poor boy onto the shore. Hermione flicked a drying charm at him before he caught hypothermia and stood her ground.

"Get back to the castle, all of you. I'll take him to the Hospital Wing." It was somewhere between her Prefect voice and a voice learned from Harry, confidence in the face of danger, taunting the enemy no matter how dire the situation.

"He's not going to the Hospital Wing, do you think we're stupid?"

"I won't tell on you, I don't care what sort of sick punishments you inflict amongst yourselves. Although my Godfather might..."

"What are you talking about?" Crockett hissed.

"Professor Dumbledore, he's my godfather. So I really wouldn't do that if I were you, Lestrange." Hermione disarmed him casually and twirled his wand in her hand.

"We could just obliviate her?"

"Do you want to try it? Let Tom deal with her." Avery apparently wasn't as stupid as the others and lowered his wand. "If you tell, it will only make things worse for him."

"I can imagine. Now get lost you pathetic losers. And mind you do tell Tom, I don't imagine he'll be very pleased you were caught. There are enough of you to wake the dead." She threw Lestrange back his wand to make it perfectly clear that she wasn't scared of them, and in a way she wasn't really. What could they possibly do that she hadn't already experienced? Even Lestrange couldn't yet be as talented and dangerous as his future daughter-in-law. She had so little left to lose, even her illusions about pain. It wasn't bravery so much as cynicism and experience.

Crockett spat at her but turned to go and the others followed, all but Avery who was watching her assessingly.

"Looks like you were sorted into the wrong House. Make sure you don't say anything or it'll go badly for your boyfriend..."

They'd been unwilling to curse her, and Hermione didn't understand why, but was immensely grateful. She might be a capable duellist these days but not against eleven of them. In the end, after a warming charm and some mild healing, Craggy refused the Hospital Wing and Hermione let him go, aware that the Nurse might recognise the signs of Cruciatus as she herself had, and there was no Potion that could remedy that or the questions that would follow.

It was a horrible start to the day, that drove all thoughts of Marcus's kisses and her dreams of accusatory blue eyes out of her mind and left her with two predominant questions: why hadn't they attacked her, and why was Riddle, who was supposed to be the ringleader in all things hateful, not there?

And then a third less pressing question occurred: how had Avery known about Marcus? Good observational skills? There was no way he could possibly have known what had occurred the night before, so perhaps he was just speculating.

She wasn't sure why she had promised not to tell anyone, although she certainly did intend to keep it to herself; it was deeply out of character. Hermione Granger would have gone straight to Dumbledore. Her coolness in the situation had impressed herself but it was also cause for concern: was she becoming so cold that she could out-slytherin the Slytherins, that she could act like that when someone was in danger? Was she becoming less of a Gryffindor? She hadn't even particularly cared about the threat to Marcus, and although she wished it were her motivation for letting them get away with it she didn't think it was. It was more complicated than that.

The Sorting Hat's words came back to her, A time traveller I see... and so very clever, but what's this? An ex-Gryffindor? You don't belong there any more I see that, although you are very brave... Perhaps... yes, I think you would do very well in Slytherin. Very cunning and vengeful, I see. And with all those secrets it might be the best place for you, and you're so ambitious...

You don't belong there any more.

She needed some chocolate. Craggy hadn't even thanked her, just muttered that he was fine and left. He was a big burly Scots boy and she was sure he would be fine, but god help her she hated that house. What kind of sick, fucked up society was contained within the dungeons that tortured someone for playing badly in a Quidditch game? She remembered seeing the caretaker dragging a Second Year girl off to face her detention in the dungeons, Claire's casual use of the word Mudblood the day before, the prefect on the train who'd been so defensive about her blood-status and who sat apart from her year at dinner, and began to see that there was a canker in this society that ran deeper that she had ever imagined.

A canker that she had to ignore, for now.

One day, she vowed silently to herself, staring up at the castle, one day it's going to be a very different world. This one is going to burn up in a fire of hate and then I will use the ashes to help a new order come to pass. I swear it.

She might not be able to change the past, but she could definitely change the future. Suddenly her conversation with Tom Riddle took on a different light because even she hadn't realised that she had meant every word.

 

 

She was sitting curled up on her sofa with a mug of hot chocolate (a guilty pleasure because for some reason Jingo had answered her call and brought her breakfast and, afterwards, hot chocolate because she said The young miss is looking pale) feeling a bit shocked that she'd been so reckless when someone knocked on her door. No one ever knocked on her door, so it caused a moment of consternation. When she opened it, she was surprised to find Marcus. He was bold, she'd give him that.

"I'm so sorry to intrude, but you weren't at breakfast and I wanted to talk to you."

"You're not intruding, come in."

Her room seemed to be exempt from the spells that banned boys from girls rooms, probably because it was used for overnight guests occasionally and she waved him towards the armchair before sitting back down on her sofa.

"You room is... incredible. I had no idea you lived up here but Sophia explained you didn't live with them. Wow."

"Nepotism works wonders. I was so unused to people that they allowed me this secret privilege. I don't always sleep very well. Marcus, I don't mind you knowing but I'd rather it didn't get out."

"Of course. How are you feeling?"

"Fine thanks, although I woke up very early and couldn't get back to sleep so a bit tired but otherwise fine." She smiled suddenly. "How's your hangover?"

He blushed a bit, looking bashful. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Last night I was very forward, and I have come to apologise."

If she hadn't learnt to control her face her jaw would have dropped. That wasn't what she had been expecting and she didn't have an appropriate response.

"I want to assure you that I meant every word I said. I'm really keen on you Hermione, and I would like to, you, well, that is to say I would like to see more of you."

"I'd like to see where this goes," her mouth said while her mind was still trying to catch up. And that was that. How did people date here? They were locked up in the castle, and she couldn't see Marcus persuading her to slope off to the Astronomy Tower. And wasn't that what she really wanted from him? Physical comfort? She didn't want to go to Hogsmeade with him and have him carry her books to class and sit next to her at meals, she wanted him to come and kiss her and make her forget.

He gave her a big, boyish smile and she noticed that he had rather adorable dimples and excellent teeth.

"Come and see this," she said, his excitement infectious, and lead him out onto the balcony - more of a balustrade really, that wrapped around the turret.

And this time, with the wind in her hair and dizzy from the height, she kissed him, and he didn't taste of fire whiskey and his arms felt warm around her.

 

 

As tactics to avoid Tom Riddle, Hermione had to admit that confronting the entire Slytherin Quidditch Team and assorted extras hadn't been her wisest move. She sat with her back to the Slytherin table at lunch, suddenly aware that she had always automatically sat where she could keep an eye on him, and hoping it was just an unconscious move because you didn't want to have your enemy at your back, and she could feel his eyes boring into her. He was being less subtle about watching her than usual, because when she glanced around (pretending to be tossing her hair off her face, a trick that wouldn't have fooled a First Year) he dropped his eyes. Normally he didn't bother and was rarely looking at her, just in her general direction, or past whomever he was deigning to speak to, or similar tactics. Marcus had held her hand underneath the table until it made eating too awkward, and Sophia's smirk in their direction clearly stated that no one was fooled

"You two look chirpy," she commented.

"Lay off them, Sophia," Claire said, clearly feeling it was too early to tease, and it was, because Hermione couldn't shake a sense of wrongness in what she was doing. Like she was acting in a part she didn't belong in, inhabiting someone else's body.

Are you a Hermione Dearborn or a Hermione Granger? You find some bullies and their victim by the lake. Do you:

a) Threaten to tell a teacher. (Answer: You are Hermione Granger before fifth year)

b) Rush in and confront them with your friends, making a big scene, but miraculously get away with it, leading to a friendship with the victim that you have selflessly saved. (Answer: You are Hermione Granger at any given point in her friendship with Harry and Ron)

c) Slyly confront them, with a few sensible threats, but promise to keep quiet if they leave him alone for now. Afterall, it's not really any of your business. (Answer: You are Hermione Dearborn)

d) Leave them to it. (Answer: You are neither)

She was going mad. Schizophrenic. Split personality disorder. Something that could explain hearing quizzes about your own personality in your head.

 

 

Sure enough, Riddle found her after lunch, when she was on her way to Professor Dumbledore's office for a lesson.

"Can I have a word?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked into an empty classroom.

"Sure, not like I have anywhere to be," she muttered, but followed him in, curious. Like the fly to the spider, she thought. Oh yes Harry, I thought nothing of following the most dangerous wizard of modern times into a deserted classroom. No, I don't know why. No, I don't think it was that stupid.

Completely barmy. Mental. She focused on the present.

"About this morning," he said, raking his hand through his hair just like Harry did sometimes and now that she was really looking at him she saw that he looked tired and surprisingly stressed. "I just wanted to let you know that internal action has been taken for my housemates' stupidity."

He looked at her expectantly, as though expecting praise.

"As Head Boy, I really think you ought to be reporting them. They should be expelled." Her tone was arctic and he looked surprised.

"It doesn't work that way, unfortunately. However, rest assured the matter has been dealt with."

If he thought he was going to get away with that sort of managerial bullshit... she was furious, but kept calm.

"What did you do, subject them all to the same form of torture they inflicted on that boy? I bet you were just angry they were caught, weren't you Riddle?" That hit home and she knew she was right.

"Slytherin has always had its own traditions when it comes to failure, it isn't my place to interfere in that."

"Actually, it's exactly your place. What I saw this morning was disgraceful and I'm really disappointed in you, I thought you had better control over them than that. Or did you approve it? You say jump and they say how high, right? That's how it's supposed to work." She was losing it, revealing too much of what she knew about his relations with the house behind the perfect Head Boy mask, but why hadn't he been there.

He said nothing, and she turned away in disgust.

"I don't approve of such mindless antics, Hermione. I don't see the point in getting so worked up over a sport. However, all members of the team are aware of the consequences if they fail to perform well and that's outside of my field of control." He was lying, he had to be.

"Why didn't they attack me? There were eleven of them and no witnesses."

His eyes seemed to harden for a moment.

"They have been instructed not to," he said stiffly.

"Instructed?"

"It is one thing to deal with matters internally, quite another to attack members of other houses." He was covering something up, she could almost taste the lie.

"You're lying. I don't know what you're lying about but they didn't seem to mind sending that Gryffindor to the Hospital Wing last week, and I know it was them so don't tell me he fell down the stairs as though I were as stupid as Dippet."

He motioned with his hand and the door flew shut, and suddenly she was facing a very different Tom Riddle. He dropped his mask and let his anger show and it was terrifying, even though she knew she'd been pushing him to it, pushing him to expose himself.

"Why are you so interfering? Just like your damned Godfather. Why did you come here? Everything was - I told them not to touch you because I find you... interesting. I don't care about Craggy or fifth year Gryffindors as long as no one gets caught. Now are you going to tell anyone or not?"

She turned towards the door and raised her wand to open it, but he grabbed her wrist over her robes and pulled her closer, taking her wand with his other hand.

"Are you going to tell anyone?"

"Get your hands off me, immediately."

"I said, are you going to tell anyone?" he hissed.

"No I'm bloody not, I said I wouldn't and I won't. I don't care what your pathetic lackeys get up to. Now let me go."

"I don't want to let you go, Dearborn. I want -" he stopped and stared into her eyes for a moment and she was caught for a moment in their darkness, before dropping her arm. "It doesn't matter. Here." He held her wand out and and she took it, fingers shaking, and he left the room without another word. The door slammed shut again behind her.

One day, she thought. One day.

 

 

Her lesson with Dumbledore was particularly grueling; he was pushing her mastery of fire spells beyond anything she had imagined possible. The level of control he expected was intense but it was also satisfying to finally have something to really challenge her magically. Casting simultaneous spells and maintaining control over the result was beyond most wizards and she was struggling. There were five fires burning in the room, all different spells and she had to keep them all under her command. The sweat was beading on her forehead when she extinguished them, panting.

"You have to believe in yourself, Hermione. Magic runs on belief, it is limited by the limits our imagination puts on it. You are doing exceptionally well and learning very fast. You can do this. Again."

And again, and again. Fires to consume, fires to distract, fire to warm, fire to kill. They danced, straining her control, unwilling to submit to her mastery.

Eventually, when she was near exhaustion, he allowed her to end and put her wand away. She'd kept it up for nearly half an hour, making her flames obey her will - taking on shapes, moving, combining and separating, never allowed to damage the classroom.

"Excellent. Excellent. Well done. Have a seat." He conjured a glass for her and poured some water from the pitcher on his desk.

She grinned, reveling in the feeling of accomplishment. She was getting there, she was improving, she was being challenged. She was almost happy, red faced and sweating, but satisfied.

"How are you, more generally?" he asked, when she had drunk deeply of the water.

She considered the question carefully. How was she, really?

"I'm alright. It's been a strange week."

"I heard you did rather well in the dueling contest. I will be helping to oversee the next rounds, Professor Dippet has finally concluded - as he does each year - that we need more staff in the room to assist with all the injuries." His tone was a touch sardonic and she smirked.

"It's a very badly organised contest, if you don't mind me saying so. I mean - the idea is good and it's great that we get to practice, but surely after it's been running for two hundred years they'd have worked out that it would be a good idea to have a medical station in the room and a temporary Nurse assisting?"

"Quite so, and yet..."

She laughed.

"Actually there was something I wanted to talk to you about... I've been a bit shocked at the general treatment of Muggleborns, even by perfectly nice people. It seems, I don't know, socially acceptable somehow to exclude them and look down on them. Am I reading that correctly?"

"You have a very unusual mind, Hermione. You see more than others and you think things through. But yes, you are correct, although it is not just at Hogwarts. It was partly for this reason that I worked so hard to give you a pedigree, so that your life here would be smoother. You have, I think, enough problems without that coming into question."

"I just... I hate it. I hate that even those people I am coming to consider friends have this built in prejudice for absolutely no reason. I don't even understand it. Last week I saw a little boy, probably a first year, crying in the corridor and not even the Prefects bothered to help him because he was a Muggleborn. I don't understand. And there are so few in the school, when I'm from the proportion isn't so skewed. And it is really unacceptable to call someone a Mudblood for most people. I thought it wouldn't be as bad here because, well because of some things that are going to happen but it's worse."

"Interesting. I can't comment on that, naturally, but I'm glad to hear it. Even I, in my youth, considered Muggleborns and Muggles as... lesser. It is a very ingrained part of society."

"I've been using my unconventional upbringing as an excuse not to be involved, but every time I have to bite my tongue or leave the room because I know I shouldn't cause a scene, I know it's not the time for that fight but... it's so hard. And I feel like a fake because they wouldn't like me if they knew I was a Granger rather than a Dearborn."

She felt tears welling in her eyes, and embarrassed, stood and stared out of the window.

"You have many burdens to bear. I am sorry that this is one of them, but I do advise you to keep your own council on the matter for now. Do not feel guilty that your real background would invite prejudice from those who would be your friend. That is their failing, not yours. However, it is a dangerous thing to be seen to openly embrace Muggle culture. The fear is very deeply rooted, and it is from fear that the hatred and mistrust spring. A fear that is not wholly unjust - secrecy is paramount for the survival of our world - but that is not to say that it is right that those children born with the gift of magic should suffer for it. If you must make your views on the subject known, or attempt to influence people's opinions I suggest you are very subtle about it. Change is a slow thing, Hermione. Now, on a brighter note I hear that Professor Slughorn is particularly delighted with your and Tom's work this term."

"Yes, well, it's quite an easy potion as long as you get the timings right."

"Something so many people fail to recognise. Timing. Quite so."

The importance of timing. He was giving her a message. There will come a time... Choose your time wisely. Time.

"What if you're right and I can never go home?" she asked, pressing her face against the glass. It was dark outside, and the forest spread menacingly in the distance, the lake gleaming darkly beside it.

"Then you must make the best of it. There is nothing else."

"I just... I'm going to be old. When I see my friends and family again. I'll be, what, seventy-five. Seventy-five! Half a lifetime lost to a past, to secrecy..."

"Aging isn't such a terrible thing, Hermione. And you are very powerful, I expect you will live to a great age."

"I'll still be old enough to be my mother's mother the next time I see her though."

He was silent, because what was there to say?

"I... just - I miss them. It comes and goes, and I try not to but I do. I miss them all so much sometimes I can hardly bear it. I don't want to sleep in case I dream about them, but when I wake up it's like losing them all over again. And they're so angry sometimes, not my parents, I always dream about them crying. I know it's not your fault I'm here and I know that I have to be, I understand that. But it is... unbearable. Sometimes. And the rest of the time I shutter it away and don't think about it all and then I just don't really feel anything."

"Love makes us very strong, but it also causes us such pain. Don't lose your love for those you have left behind, but don't shut yourself away from the possibilities of a life here. It would be a terrible waste of such a warm heart."

"I'm trying. I really am. But I don't feel like anyone sees me for who I really am. Like I'm just playing a part. Acting, always acting. And if I act for long enough, mightn't it become the truth? In fifty five years maybe I'll have forgotten their faces. I can feel myself changing already."

"We forget many things in time, but your love for your parents will never leave you."

But what about her friends? Sometimes she would panic because she had forgotten their faces and then an image would rise, a photograph, a memory, and she would relax again.

"Is there any progress on how I will get here?"

"I am focusing my research on the best clue we have, the colour - Octarine." He said the word with some reverence. "There is precious little information on it, and I may have to take a trip at Christmas."

The memory of the experience gave her a surprising warmth.

"The colour of magic. The true colour of magic. It was wonderful wasn't it?"

"Indeed it was, an extraordinary privilege to witness such a thing. And to know that we created it... yes. It was wonderful."

"I could come with you, on the trip. I want to help."

"The time will come for your involvement, Hermione, but for now I would rather that you concentrate on your studies, at least until we have more to go on. Besides, I believe you have some family commitments at that time. Cerdic's brother is a fine man, although he has a quick temper and a rash disposition. His son was in Gryffindor... young Caradoc. He would have been Head Boy but he got into rather too much trouble with the young ladies, a little too popular I believe, and was always sneaking off to Hogsmeade to go to the pub with his friends. I liked him very much. He must have left... five years ago? Perhaps six."

Her family, except...

"I'm an impostor. They're not my family."

"Cerdic is delighted with you, I haven't seen him so willing to be sociable in many years. You are very good for him, Hermione. The benefits of the arrangement are not solely for you, which is why I chose him. In accepting you into his life, he has remembered something he had lost. Sometimes you can choose your family."

"He has been astoundingly kind," she admitted. "Sometimes it's as though he forgets that I'm not really his daughter."

"Perhaps he has decided that you are, despite how you arrived in such a position."

"He barely knows me. You don't learn to love a child in two months."

"Give him a little more credit than that, Hermione, and yourself. I didn't say he loved you, I said that he had accepted you as his child. Love will come, perhaps, or not, but either way, you are his family now. He is a very lonely man even if he doesn't realise that. A very lonely man who once enjoyed the company of women - as friends, as lovers, as colleagues. You have brought him back to life. He has even agreed to attend Professor Slughorn's Christmas Party."

"Crikey. I didn't know that. Has he really?"

"Indeed. I know you feel that you have been foisted upon him, but he confided in me that after his visit in the summer his work had picked up again, and that he was back in contact with several old friends. And it was Cerdic who wrote to his family to invite them, despite what he will say. He wants to show you off, I believe. He once loved a young woman, she was a little like you in fact, but she died in a terrible accident and he retreated into himself and now, it seems, he is coming back out."

She felt a lot better after her conversation with Dumbledore. Her feelings towards her fellow students might be ambiguous, but there were at least two people in the Wizarding World who knew her for what she really was and liked her, respected her even, and that was... comforting.

 

 

Less comforting, when she had time to analyse it, were the implications from her conversation with Riddle. Quite the opposite of comforting, in fact. Really rather disturbing.

He had instructed the Slytherins not to harm her. Just in general. Because he hadn't been there to call them off and couldn't possibly have foresee that morning, so it was a general and obviously quite specific instruction.

He wanted something he wasn't willing to vocalise. Something that was confusing him enough to lose his cool and drop his facade.

He trusted her, enough not to coerce or control her.

He wanted something.

He thought she was interesting. Interesting was not a positive way for him to feel about her, and was exactly the opposite of her original intention. Interesting meant paying close attention.

And for a boy with an unhealthy propensity for obsession and for finding information others couldn't interesting was, frankly, an absolutely terrifying prospect.

 

 

Chapter Text

I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.

― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind


Hermione pushed her concerns about society in general aside for the time being and allowed the more immediate concerns of Hogwarts to distract her. As this was primarily the dueling contest for their year, Hermione chose to sneak in the copy of The Art of War to her Monday morning lessons. A little preparation went a long way and the competition was heating up: she would have to face both Sophia and Marcus, the two best duelists left to fight and another boy who was a dangerous duelist but with whom she had never spoken - possibly (and unfortunately) because he was a Muggleborn.

She had decided that the best course of action was to keep up the act and treat it as research.

How was she supposed to change society if she didn't understand the history, and what better way to learn than to live through it? Satisfied with this justification, and with Dumbledore's emphasis on timing, she had pushed the issue to the back of her mind in order to focus on the daily matters of living a lie.

She sat next to Marcus in Ancient Runes, which was the class that had been suffering most from her inattention because it was the worst taught at Hogwarts. It was his second-best subject after Charms and much better attended than it was in her time, but still not a popular option for NEWTs. Most Seventh Years only took four or five of the possible seven available, and excepting Riddle, she didn't know of anyone else doing the maximum number. Indeed, she had to admire Riddle's dedication to his studies given that he was also probably researching vast amounts of Dark Magic, and conducting horrible torture sessions on top of it, and all without the advantage of having done the whole year already. He had chosen a seat further away from her than normal, which was a relief, sitting next to Avery and Greengrass.

When Professor Elphinstone told them to read the next chapter and make notes, Hermione sighed with irritation at the poor teaching method even as she rejoiced at the early opportunity to get stuck into her own research - she could probably have recited the whole chapter anyway and had glanced over it again as preparation for the class the previous evening.

She opened her book (expertly spelled while fiddling in her satchel to look like the textbook she was supposed to be reading) as everyone else got their textbooks, and began to read. It really was fortunate that the little volume had been included in the books she'd picked up in Hogsmeade, although she hadn't noticed it at the time. She rather wished she had read it when she was actually fighting in a proper war but nonetheless it was never a bad time to learn how to strategise. Maybe her chess playing would improve...

Skimming over the parts that solely referred to an actual army (such as the cost of maintaining one - hardly relevant) as she was an army of one person, she became absorbed in the volume and dutifully began to take notes.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

This is probably obvious, she noted underneath, however it highlights the importance of research.

1. Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. 2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. 3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy. 4. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

Well that was exactly what she was trying to do, which was encouraging. She continued.

13. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

All very well in theory, but even a perfectionist like herself might make some mistakes.

It was a frustrating point. However, the preceding reflection on winning with ease cemented her view that a long-fought duel was an inefficient - and therefore problematic - one. Although, Dumbledore's duel with Grindlewald had gone on for three hours so that indicated a problem. Perhaps it was badly fought: too many emotions involved? She made a note to consider this later.

Indeed, it seemed likely that both men had missed many opportunities to win, perhaps neither of their hearts had been in it. She had long suspected, not something she had shared with Ron and Harry, that Albus had loved Gellert Grindlewald very much and been loved in return and that they had still loved each other despite all the awfulness between them.

She would not have that problem, and therefore would be the good fighter - terrible in her onset, and prompt in her decision. Particularly when she came to fight Tom bloody Riddle.

Reading on, Hermione was absolutely amazed that this book wasn't used as a handbook for the Slytherins: Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy; masking strength with weakness is to be effected by tactical dispositions.

This had never been a strong-point of hers, she had to admit. Pretending to be weak, when all she had ever wanted to do was be strong... Perhaps it would be sensible to lose a few tactical duels in order to lull her opponents? She would have to consult the points board to ensure that she still went through into the top four, but it would probably be clever to be the lowest ranked if she could manage it. She supposed that she had naturally appeared weak in the war: a young witch, and a Muggleborn. And certainly she had learnt the importance of ending it quickly - that was immensely obvious.

She took a moment to enjoy the image of Dolohov under her Full-Body-Bind before continuing on.

Hermione had just been given an absolutely brilliant and very unorthodox idea when the Professor handed out a translation, and it was with uncharacteristic reluctance that she set to her classwork.

Despite Riddle's choice of seat at the other side of the classroom, she made sure her disguised book and notes were tucked deep into her satchel before beginning. It wouldn't do to give the prat any ideas and judging from his later tactics in the War he probably hadn't bothered to read the book, or had forgotten its wealth of wisdom if he ever had.

Probably just decided he was too extraordinary for that though. Arse.

She finished after Marcus and he sat impatiently trying to read over her shoulder. Normally she was faster than him, but her mind had been spinning over the idea that had taken hold and she hadn't been concentrating.

"Done," she whispered.

"Finally. I didn't see you at breakfast, everything alright?"

"Yes, just wasn't very hungry. How are you?"

"I'm good. Better now you're talking..."

Before they could move onto more interesting topics, Professor Elphinstone looked up and frowned at them. "If you have any questions Miss Dearborn, Mister Blishwick, please address them directly to me. If you happen to have finished, I will be happy to assign you another exercise."

"Bitch," Hermione muttered under her breath, and swapped parchments with Marcus to check over the work. His was pleasingly competent, only one mistake.

How did I do? she wrote and passed the note to him.

Perfect as usual. Swot.

Suddenly having an idea, she dove into her satchel and pulled out a thick, resistant piece of parchment. Making sure to stay out of Elphinstone's sight - she was pretty sure the woman was hungover, truth be told - Hermione silently cast discerpo to split the parchment in two and then followed it up with a Protean Charm. It would work a bit like Riddle's diary, whatever she wrote on one would appear on the other before vanishing when you wrote on the other, and vice versa.

Silently, she demonstrated how they worked and Marcus beamed at her.

You really are a clever swot, he wrote, to test, for all the world looking absorbed in his work.

Yes, she thought smugly. She really was.

At last the class was over and Hermione followed Marcus out of the door. Claire caught up with them.

"Marcus? Could I steal you for a moment, I don't understand this..."

"I've got to get to History of Magic. See you both at lunch?" Hermione said and Marcus nodded, pressing a kiss to her cheek. She walked off, feeling very satisfied, and looking forward to another class in which she could continue her private studies - Binns wouldn't notice (or, probably, care). She had another pang at the thought of what Ron and Harry would say but brushed it off. She would think about them later.

 

 

Hermione's departure caused her to miss the conversation that followed. Avery approached Marcus and Claire, with a friendly smile.

"Looking forward to the second round Blishwick?" he asked, after some inane conversation.

"Of the dueling? Yes - it's been quite fun thus far."

"I don't suppose you're looking forward to being thrashed by your girlfriend though... oh, look. I'm going this way. See you later." And he was gone.

The slightly sick look on Marcus's face showed that the barb had had its desired effect.

"Ignore him," Claire said, pressing his hand earnestly. "He's just trying to get under your skin. "

"Why would he care? And you know, it doesn't matter if she does win. I don't care. It's just... she's amazing, but so amazing I feel a bit inadequate next to her," he sighed. "I'm sorry, Claire. I shouldn't be discussing this with you."

He did care though. He'd like her to win by letting her, because he wanted to be a gentleman not because she could hex him three ways to Samhain.

"Marcus... you can always talk to me, even -"

"Morning Claire, Blishwick. Are you heading to Potions?" Riddle asked brightly from behind, his long stride easily catching up with them from where he had been standing, discussing something with Professor Elphinstone.

"I'm headed to Charms, mind if I walk with you a while? Gods that class was dull."

Marcus was smiling at Tom, nodding in agreement, probably relieved at the interruption, and they walked down to the second floor with him. Claire blushed a little at what she had nearly said, but as Tom Riddle turned his smile on her, asking her how she was and how her term was going, the blush deepened. Her heart might belong to someone else, but he really was too gorgeous for words and he made her stutter. They reached the Charms corridor and he turned to Marcus.

"Would you remind Hermione that we need to check the Potion after lunch? Speaking of Hermione, apparently her duelling is very impressive..."

Claire felt a surge of pity at the look on Marcus's face, jealousy, a bit of anger, and something else - and it wasn't as though Hermione would ever forget to check on her potion, so why had Riddle mentioned it? She stroked his arm, gently and saw Riddle notice it and then send her an assessing look. He smirked at her and she felt a slight thrill of trepidation.

"Yes, she's very good."

"So are you, Marcus!" Claire defended and then felt stupid. Riddle always made her feel stupid, clumsy and slow and inadequate.

"Hopefully I'll get to see it myself soon. See you later," Riddle smiled at them, and walked into the Charms classroom.

 

 

Marcus was surprisingly quiet at lunch, and seemed uninterested in his food.

"What's wrong?" she asked him quietly.

"Nothing, nothing. How was History of Magic?"

She wrinkled her nose in answer and he laughed.

"How was Potions? How long does your Polyjuice have left?" she asked. Due to different schedules, Marcus had Potions at a different time from her, because he was taking Herbology and she was not.

Satisfied that whatever was wrong wasn't related to her, Hermione continued pondering her strategy. It had become clear to her that she would have to lose to Marcus or Sophia in the duels, in order to appear weaker than she really was. As she was up against Marcus first she would try and beat him and lose to Sophia. The girl was dangerous and could still win anyway, and beating Marcus would secure her place in the final four before she lost strategically to the deceptively elegant blonde. It was perfect.

"I've got to go to work on the Polyjuice. Nearly finished thank Merlin. See you later." Hermione stood, and saw Riddle getting up to follow her. Longbottom was nowhere to been seen as usual, but she had tried at least.

"Alright Dearborn?" he said casually, and she nodded in reply without returning the courtesy. After yesterday's bizarre display she was not keen to talk to him and he left her in peace as they silently put the finishing touches to the Polyjuice. It would be finished by Friday, marking a month from the beginnings of her association with Tom Riddle.

A month without trying to kill him - she supposed that was something. Points to her ability to keep up a persona at the very least. Perhaps she ought to head over to Hollywood at the end of the year.

"Shall we head up to Defence? It's a bit early, but there's nothing left to do here." He had, as usual, let her do the clearing up.

"Fine."

"So tetchy, Dearborn."

She didn't dignify him with a response. He knew why she was cross, although he had been surprisingly quiet. Whatever was wrong with him, causing the dark shadows under his dark eyes, was of absolutely no interest to her. None. At least he wasn't pretending to flirt with her anymore. That was a good thing even if it would never work. And she definitely did not miss debating with him. This was better.

They settled at separate sides of the classroom, and she noticed that he choose a desk on the row behind hers just as he had in Runes. Strange, but probably coincidental. As the other students arrived, Hermione opened the textbook to check what was on the syllabus today. Dark Creatures, Continuation. The sixth years covered Dementors and Inferi, although the Patronus wasn't taught until Seventh Year... but they might be covering rarer creatures such as lethifolds.

"Good afternoon," Merrythought appeared at the front of the classroom from nowhere and Hermione suspected she had been sitting under a Disillusionment spell but it was a clever trick that got everyone's attention anyway. "Today we will be focusing on one of the most difficult and subtle spells. Most of you will never be able to cast this spell fully. It is not solely dependent on the power or talent of the witch or wizard casting it, but requires a more advanced understanding of the relation between the mind and the magic."

The Patronus then.

"Put your books away, there is nothing held within those sensible pages that will assist you today. Pick up your wands and spread out." The desks, chairs, and bags piled up neatly at the back of the classroom with a wave of her wand.

"The spell is one many of you may have heard of, but few will ever have seen in practice, I hope. It banishes those leeches of the world, the dementor and the lethifold, fighting their parasitic darkness with the bright light of your happiness. To cast a corporeal Patronus requires a feat of imaginative willpower, and anyone who achieves one will earn twenty points to their house. Most adult wizards and witches cannot cast one, but the I want you to take five minutes to contemplate your short lives, and find the moment in which you have been truly happy. A memory of such happiness, unadulterated happiness, that you feel a burst of joy in your chest just at the thought."

She taught them the correct incantation and Hermione tuned out, trying to focus on a happy memory. The first time Ron kissed her resulted in a rather weak effort, nowhere near the dancing otter that had burst from her wand in the DA, and that felt like a lifetime ago. She had always theorised that this particular spell had come so easily to Harry because had he known such little happiness that those moments of joy were much more powerfully felt. She, with her insecurities and over-questioning mind, and loving but ordinary parents had always struggled with this spell.

An eagle soared out of Sophia's wand about twenty minutes into the class and even the usually composed girl couldn't contain her pleasure. It was a beautiful sight and Hermione felt a pang of loss - none of the memories she had ever used before were working; they were all tinged with the dingy blue sadness of loss: Ron's love only a reminder that she was parted completely from him, winning the war a reminder of the deaths incurred, the cost of victory... her Hogwarts letter, her first spell, her success in exams all brought wisps of silver, powerless against a Dementor in practice.

She began to wonder if she would ever cast it successfully again when one memory occurred that was so truly wonderful that even the subsequent problems couldn't be touched by it. The moment she had realised that Harry was not dead, when he had revealed himself from underneath his cloak...

She focused on it, a moment of wonder amid so much horror, the power of hope stronger than any individual pleasure and cast with all her strength. A silver leopard came bounding from her wand, and Hermione stared at it in horror.

Where was her playful otter, her love for Ron in spirit form?

Even the pleasure of success and the murmurs of wonder around her couldn't distract from the single realisation that she had changed beyond recognition since she had last cast a Patronus, fired up with Ron's love in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Sophia's eagle dived from the high ceiling, distracting the class from the silvery leopard with its flight and she exchanged a happy grin with Hermione, who pushed her worries behind her to focus on her new spirit guardian.

"Hello beauty," she whispered, and it shot her a haughty look before leaping on top of the cupboard in the corner and curling up, and then she was caught in Tom's dark gaze, the hungry expression on his face more disturbing than the realisation of change.

"You are a swot," Marcus said behind her, but he wasn't smiling as she dragged her eyes away from Riddle to look up at him as he slung an arm over her shoulders. "You and Sophia are terrifying. Rowena help us all if you team up for anything." He was smiling now though, but there was still something in his eyes... he was hiding something.

"What's your happy memory? It needs to be... overwhelming, not just nice or pleasant. An extraordinary moment. To be honest, I think happy is the wrong word - more like sublime or ecstatic. At least for the first time, but I've read that once you master it, your confidence means that you can call it up more easily."

This was true from her experience as well, because you didn't have time to focus on memories in the middle of a battle and actually the pressure helped.

"My father told me that a lot of people can cast one, but it only comes out when they need to. Show me your incantation."

He did, and a very vibrant, strong burst of silver came from his wand.

"That's perfect but you need a different memory I think. Something a bit stronger?"

"Kiss me and give me a new one then," he teased and she actually blushed, pleased.

"Not here you prat."

"Even Riddle hasn't managed it. Unusual."

Someone else had succeeded though, Hermione noticed, as a vicious looking mink scuttled past.

"Well he hasn't had a very happy life, has he?" she murmured, and she wondered whether Riddle's uncharacteristic failure was to do with his dark interests, or the fact that he was already missing parts of his soul or if, as she'd said, he simply didn't have a happy enough memory. She despised herself for the pang of sympathy that arose as she glanced across at him and saw his faced, clouded with frustration and anger.

The accepted idea that Dark Wizards couldn't cast a Patronus wasn't exactly true but it did hold as a general rule, and she wondered if you needed a full and complete soul to achieve it or if it really was a case of not having enough joy and goodness to hold onto.

Looking back up at Marcus she saw that he too was looking at Riddle, a strange expression on his face.

"We will continue on Wednesday's class. Well done to Miss Selwyn and Miss Dearborn, that's forty points to Ravenclaw, and twenty to Slytherin for Miss Greengrass. It looks like you young men have got some catching up to do! Still, very impressive ladies. Very impressive indeed." Professor Merrythought looked absolutely delighted at the success of her female students, and Hermione knew from experience that three out of twenty was good odds.

Hermione was surprised that Greengrass had managed it - she was clearly more powerful than her unspectacular great-niece. She would definitely be keeping an eye on that one.

Still, kudos for girl power at least, she supposed.

 

 

The Ravenclaws were in a celebratory mood at supper, unusually pleased at someone else's success, and at having beaten Slytherin in points. From the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor tables similarly happy moods indicated that there had been success there as well.

"What does it feel like?" Hector was asking Sophia who just shrugged and looked at Hermione.

"Sublime," Hermione said, smiling. "Not something you'd understand though... emotional range of a teaspoon that one." The Ravenclaws laughed.

"Maybe it's easier for witches?" He continued after the teasing had died down.

"Not historically, but of course witches are generally so much more powerful. What can I say?"

She was in an extremely good mood, and unusually willing to banter. She'd never had a great sense of humour but it seemed that she either had to find one or be miserable forever, and if she was making people laugh then she wasn't worrying and fretting about why why why she had a leopard instead of an otter.

Later, alone in her room, she couldn't hide from her own mind any longer. She had killed people, she knew that. Her thoughtless Duro - brilliant though it had been - had been the end of the road for the two Death Eaters chasing her, Harry and Ron when they were trying to get to the Shrieking Shack during the Battle of Hogwarts. They had crumpled against her stone, going far too fast, and had died instantly. Ron and Harry had never mentioned it, and she wasn't sure if they even knew...

But then again if she had been more willing to kill, could she have beaten Bellatrix? She had been severely hampered by using the witch's wand against its true owner, for she had never won its allegiance, but it was still a sore spot that Mrs Weasley had beaten Bellatrix and Hermione had her torture, she had been the one Death Eater apart from Dolohov that Hermione had truly wanted to fight, to beat, and Mrs Weasley had stolen that; even Neville had been robbed of his vengeance.

And people had been pleased, silently, that the children had been spared from the scars taking their revenge would have left. She should have relished the opportunity, fought properly, freely - just once, like Bellatrix herself and shown her exactly how capable she was, muddy blood and all.

Bellatrix Lestrange, defeated and killed by a Muggleborn witch some twenty years her junior: that would have been a more fitting end.

The woman still haunted her dreams. She hadn't succumbed to her torture though, so that was a victory in itself. Most people had ended up dead or in St Mungos like Neville's parents after a round of Lestrange's special treatment. She had barely been affected, her compartmentalised mind protecting her, even allowing her to lie under such duress.

Realistically, though, her mind confronted her, the change implied that she was no longer in love with Ronald Weasley - the otter had been her unspoken exaltation of his playful nature - not that he'd ever known that - and Hermione felt her heart break at the thought. She was moving on after all. But a leopard? Leopards were solitary predators, unloving and cold. She turned, as she often did in moments of stress, to a book and selected Roberto Salema's Encyclopaedia of Animals, Both Magical and Non Magical.

Neither the lion with his impressive majesty, nor the tiger with his cruel power, nor all other cats have together the magnificent lines, the beauty of allure, the richness of fur and the grace of motion of leopards. Leopards are supposed to be the most athletic as well as the most intelligent of cats. No other cat is as cruel, cunning, bloodthirsty and brave as the leopard. The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. 

Well that was hardly an accurate reflection of herself, she thought, annoyed, and tossed the book away. She was secretive, cunning and brave, but she was hardly bloodthirsty or cruel. Or athletic for that matter! It was ridiculous. She would think about it later. Firstly: homework. She went to the library, because she was still Hermione Granger and that was what she did.

 

 

Thursday evening brought the second round of the Ravenclaw duels. The first to duel were those who had been incapacitated in the Hospital Wing, who had to catch up with everyone else. It was rather tiresome, actually, watching the mediocre efforts of most of the house. They were still probably better upon average that they had been before the war in Hermione's time, but the natural Ravenclaw instinct to over think things and try to be too clever held them back.

"Well this is truly great entertainment," Sophia murmured to Hermione.

"Shaking in your boots Selwyn?"

She smirked. "You should be the one shaking, not me."

Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed with relief as the proper duels were about to start. This time they had doubled the attending staff and set it up so two duels would be occurring at once (which Hermione thought was probably going to cause issues for most people but she wasn't going to complain about extra distractions).

"I've got a special something lined up for you, don't worry."

Surprisingly Sophia gave her a genuine smile. "May the best witch win?"

"If only it were a team sport."

"Now there's a thought!"

She was fighting well below her best, Sun Tzu's advice to appear weak when you are strong taken firmly to heart. Riddle, she knew, would interrogate all the details out of someone and she wanted to play on his natural arrogance to keep him over-confident for their meeting. Still, it didn't take much to dispatch her first two opponents and then it was Marcus.

He didn't look happy at having to fight her, which was odd. Harry and Ron had never minded at all, and there had been no evidence of the boys holding back against the girls before. She had hardly seen him, sensing that he was out of sorts and besides she had been extremely busy with her research, often missing meals.

"On three. One, two, three."

He hesitated to cast, and she took advantage, sneaking in a gentle stinging hex. She had to admit, there was little desire to thrash him and as long as she won it didn't matter how quickly. The hex seemed to jolt him and he stepped up his game with a fierce stunner that she dodged rather than waste energy blocking.

"Very nice," she commented as she sent a silent Impedimenta at him, which almost got there, but he threw up a weak shield. That was what she wanted, she didn't think he was capable of maintaining it while casting - after all most adult wizards could barely conjure a shield charm - and her next spell was cast with all her considerable power, crashing through the shield to disarm him. She summoned his wand before it fell to the ground and he bowed jerkily in light of her submission.

Not a very graceful loser, she thought, examining the storm look on his face, but nonetheless it was done and now all she had to do was lose to Sophia... well, she had two more opponents before then - another girl in their year Kaitlyn O'Malley and someone else whose name escaped her, but still.

At last, it was time to duel her and they stood, summoned to the centre of the room and there were some excited mutterings. Hermione had been preoccupied with research and hadn't spend much time with her House in the past few days but after Monday's Defence lesson she supposed that this was the big interest for the evening.

"Nice of them to save the best for last," she said, bowing to Sophia without taking her eyes off the girl. The countdown came -One, two, three - but neither moved, other than to slowly draw their wands, eye contact unbroken.

They stood facing each other, wands out, but neither one casting a spell. The only sounds came from the other duel going on next to them - Kaitlyn O'Malley, a Muggleborn girl in their year that Hermione had rarely spoken to, but fought earlier, was dueling Hector. It sounded vicious but she blocked it out, focusing on her surroundings, on the witch opposite, poised to attach.

"Come on ladies, we don't have all evening."

"Just waiting for the opportune moment, Professor," Sophia said cheekily. And that was it, the slight distraction. Hermione fired off her spells more quickly that she had in any other duel, she wanted to be beaten convincingly after all so had to start strong, but the sharp eyed girl was a good match and off they went. At last, Hermione, hoping no one would realise what she was doing, she dropped her shield for long enough that Sophia's stunner sent her to the floor, her own hex ricocheting off target and into the wall.

"Well done," she said to Sophia, after an enervate and some chocolate.

"Yes, clearly I am the best witch after all." Sophia was smirking, but Hermione wondered if she was really fooled, and realised in that moment that she actually genuinely respected this girl, a girl she was fairly sure was going to bear Lucius Malfoy sometime in the next ten years. It was hard to reconcile. The girl was a Selwyn, a famously vicious family, so well respected that Umbridge has chosen them to falsify the connection. Respected, but extinct in the male line by Hermione's time, like so many other families.

"Shut up, Selwyn. Don't forget we're going to get a rematch..."

"Looks like we're going to get another round as well Sophia," Marcus said as he walked over to them from where he had been standing in front of the results board. "Well done, cousin."

His tone was cooler than usual and Hermione lifted an eyebrow and Sophia who indicated that she didn't know what was wrong either with a quirk of her mouth.

"See you in the morning." He pressed a kiss to Hermione's cheek and walked off.

"He's been off all week. Any ideas?"

"Yes actually, but I'll have to do some checking up... let's go back to the Tower."

 

 

Chapter Text

A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.

― Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects


 

 

At breakfast on Friday morning, Hermione slipped into the seat Sophia had saved for her.

"Any updates?" she asked the blonde, tucking into a bowl of porridge.

"Yes actually. It appears Avery and some others made... comments regarding you beating him in the duel."

"Seriously? That's why he's upset? That's ridiculous," she hissed impatiently.

"Yes, well it's hardly customary for your girlfriend to be so much better than you at everything." Sophia replied with a shrug, pouring herself a goblet of pumpkin juice.

"Men..." Hermione muttered. She looked up at the Slytherin table and saw that Tom Riddle was smirking over at Marcus, Lestrange muttering quietly to him. She would have to deal with this, and although it was stupid and pathetic that Marcus would be so affected, she supposed it was also sort of understandable. "I thought he liked me because I was clever."

"Well he does, in theory, Hermione. But really if you were going to lose to one of us it would have been cleverer to pick him."

Hermione met Sophia's eyes and saw the girl smiling faintly. She hadn't been fooled then. Damn.

"He was quite upset, Hermione," Claire said quietly across the table. "And he's jealous of Riddle as well. You should probably have noticed that already."

"Why on earth is he jealous of Riddle?" she asked, stomach clenching.

"Any fool could tell you that... the one boy in this school who rivals, even surpasses you, who happens to be ridiculously handsome. Of course he's jealous," Sophia said, very matter of fact, as she neatly cut up her bacon.

Hermione threw her spoon into her bowl so that it made a dramatic clanging sound and stood up and walked over to Marcus's chair. Channelling Lavender as best she could, she hissed, "How could you?"

"Hermione - what - I -"

Quite proud of the tears forming in her eyes, she said in a stage whisper, "You let me win. I thought you respected me! Unacceptable!" And then she turned on her heel and flounced out of the Hall.

She went to collect her books from the Tower, looking forward to one of the few lessons that didn't bore her, and waited for Sophia, the only other one who took Arithmancy, in the Common Room.

"That was quite a performance," the blonde girl commented, amused, as the walked together.

"It was quite fun actually," Hermione confessed. And if that was all it took to soothe her new probably-a-boyfriend's ego then fine. In a way, it was quite nice to have such basic problems to deal with for once. Ron had always been too busy being jealous of Harry to worry too much about her and besides, he hadn't cared about doing well in class... She pushed him to the back of her mind. She had to learn to let go.

"You're quite the sly one aren't you?"

"Speak for yourself," Hermione teased. "What happened after I left?"

"Marcus protested a bit and then left. I think most people actually believed you, amazingly enough. He did seem quite reluctant to fight you yesterday."

"Yes well, he's a twit then. I don't need to be coddled just because he likes kissing me." Hermione blushed a bit at what she'd let slip. "I didn't realise he was your cousin," she said, referring to how Sophia had addressed him the night before.

"His mother is my mother's elder sister. Rosiers. We grew up together. He is a twit, but he does seem to like you. I always thought he would end up with Claire, she's been waiting long enough but then you came along and all the boys - well, you know how they are with something new. Especially new and pretty and clever. You caused a bit of a stir on the first night I must say."

That was a bit of a complicated sentence really, and Hermione took a moment to sort through the information.

"Claire? I hadn't realised..." She felt terrible but quite flattered - she hadn't accounted for such a reaction, had forgotten how tiresome it was to live with the same people for seven years, how extraordinarily exciting a new face was after all of that.

"These things happen. Claire is nice enough but she's a bit... weak. Still, I'm sure when you inevitably realise that Marcus isn't the person you find fascinating she'll be there to console him."

Hermione paused, grateful that the corridor they were in was empty and turned to face Sophia. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"Don't get all defensive with me, Hermione. I've got more brains than most of these idiots and I don't think Marcus is the person you spend all day thinking about. I don't know what's going on with you and Riddle, and I'm not going to get involved, but I hope my cousin isn't too hurt when it inevitably occurs to him that you're falling for someone else. Someone who, I might add, seems to be a perfect match for you in every way. You're no saint and you're definitely hiding something, and he's, well, he's definitely complicated, but you fit together somehow."

You're no saint and you're definitely hiding something. For the first time in a long time Hermione felt real fear slide down her back.

She kept her face expressionless, and snapped, "Not this again. I don't want Riddle for Merlin's sake! I've had it up to here with people insinuating and assuming -"

"Lie to me if you want. You'll work it out eventually. Now come on, we're going to be late," Sophia replied calmly and added, "I do like you, Hermione and I'll let you keep your secrets, but you're a fool to think Tom isn't obsessed with them and with you."

 

 

 

The Polyjuice Potion was finished at last, the last lacewing flies added and it sat finished and perfect looking (if revolting). Slughorn would be delighted.

"Want to try it, Longbottom?" Tom asked casually. He looked very satisfied, she thought, and couldn't deny the sense of accomplishment she felt.

"Rather you than me, I've heard it's disgusting."

"Run and fetch Professor Slughorn then," he ordered (politely of course) and then turned to face Hermione. He gave her one of those rare smiles that hit his eyes.

"I can't say I'm surprised, but it looks perfect."

She nodded in agreement, unable to help herself returning his smile.

"Fancy going to lunch as Tom Riddle?" he offered and she snorted. It was quite tempting, actually.

"Merlin only knows what sort of havoc you'd wreak in my body if we swapped identities - I think I'll pass."

She kept her eyes on the potion as much as she could, just in case he wanted to steal some for his own nefarious ends, until Slughorn came in, trailed by Longbottom to examine it. She really wanted to take some herself - it was so useful - but he was paying far too much attention.

"Well I daresay there's no real need to test yours," he said with a big wink. "Still, better have a look. Tom, a hair please m'boy?"

Tom pulled one of the jet black hairs from his head without a wince, and held it out.

"Excellent, excellent. Now no need to be swapping robes so I'll just give this to you Longbottom. You'll need to describe everything that happens so Tom can record it. Miss Dearborn, come and observe."

Slugborn ladled out some of the potion into a beaker, and handed it to her. She proffered it to Tom who dropped the hair in, a bit reluctantly. Hermione peered at the potion, which had changed to a dark velvety green. She had expected worse, truth be told. It looked much nicer than Bellatrix.

"You look really tasty, Riddle. Like old curtains. Go on then Longbottom," Hermione said and gave the beaker a swirl and handed it to him. It didn't smell too bad actually.

His transformation was rapid, and didn't seem to be too painful which indicated a high quality brew. She watched as he grew, muscular body leaning down, sandy hair turning to jet, cheekbones sharpening... Watching the change didn't prepare her for the oddity of having two Tom Riddle's in the room.

"What did it taste like?" she asked, curiously.

"Sort of foresty? Like pine maybe. Not very pleasant, sorry Tom," Longbottom-Tom grinned and seeing Tom's face light up like that made Hermione's heart clench. It was an easy-going expression that would never cross the real Riddle's face.

"Well done, well done. A very nice potion. Record how long till it wears off, it should be an hour with that dosage, and then you're free to clear up. I'll take your cauldron through now though, no sense in leaving such a potentially mischievous potion lying around is there?" Slughorn chuckled and shuffled out with the cauldron. She suspected it would be packaged up and sold as part of his apothecary, which definitely wasn't allowed, but ultimately didn't matter.

Watching Tom Riddle crack jokes, allow his emotions to run rampant across his face, sigh in boredom, and laugh unrestrainedly was completely surreal for Hermione and she could see Riddle's complete fascination watching his doppelgänger as well. His dark eyes gleaming with amusement, his smile so glorious... It was terribly sad - his beauty released in such a way was mind blowing and once again Hermione felt a surge of anger at the terrible wrongness of his upbringing. What could he have been?

Still, those were thoughts better not thought and what was done was done.

At last though, the potion wore off and Algie Longbottom stood as himself again, wincing in pain. She'd tidied the room while they were speaking (neither of the boys had helped, as usual) so it was ready to go back to its previous existence as a store room.

"Well, that's that then," she said.

"Thanks for everything. See you at lunch!" and Longbottom was gone. She turned to Riddle, who'd gone quiet.

"See you later Riddle. I'm off."

"Stay a moment?" he asked, but it sounded more like an order. His face was blank, giving nothing away. Shuttered and so like himself.

She paused and considered it. He's obsessed with your secrets. Bad idea. "Sorry, I've got to meet Marcus for lunch. I'm already late."

"Why are you afraid of me?" he asked, as she reached the door and she froze.

"What are you talking about?" she asked, her back to him.

"The first time we ever met, you were afraid of me. Last week, I pulled you into a classroom and you weren't surprised but you were scared. Why? I have done nothing to inspire fear in you."

He sounded awkward rather than conniving, but that didn't mean he felt awkward. She considered her reply as she turned around.

"I am not afraid of you. I just don't believe in your perfect Head Boy act, that's all. You made me jump on the train because I'm not used to people! I grew up in a lonely castle with an elf and my father for company. I can't believe you even remember that."

"Well I don't believe in your fairytale, so where does that leave us?"

"In a mutual agreement to leave each other alone? I don't like you, you don't like me. Let's just move on."

But that wasn't what Dumbledore wanted was it? Hermione felt torn in two, between running away from this lonely, dark eyed man who exuded wrongness and going to him and trying to show him that there was more to life than power. She couldn't fix him - didn't - so the endeavour would be worthless, and yet she suddenly wanted to very badly.

"I like conversing with you," he said after a moment. "I would like to continue that. You are quite stimulating to discuss academic matters with." His voice was clipped and almost expressionless but there was something beneath it, something in the tension in his face that sent a shiver down her spine. He almost sounded... needy. And good lord, that was the most uncomfortable thought she'd ever had.

I do like you, Hermione and I'll let you keep your secrets, but you're a fool to think Tom isn't obsessed with them and with you... Was Sophia right?

"I just don't think it's a good idea, Riddle. Look, I've got to go. Sorry." Her heart was racing. She should never have let him in at all, however fun he was to talk to, and however gutting it was to lose the one person her age who'd ever challenged her intellectually.

"I don't accept that. There's something about you that intrigues me, Dearborn, and I am going to find out what it is."

And then he pushed past her and was gone, striding up the corridor without a backward glance. He'd sounded furious underneath his controlled icy tone and she started to wonder if she really should be afraid of him on a personal level, in this life as Hermione Dearborn. Would she always be a target for Voldemort? And, if so, why hadn't he attacked her already? Was her proximity to Dumbledore keeping her safe? And why did he have to be so ambiguous. Something intriguing. What on earth?

 

 

Tom was in a foul mood. The conversation had not gone as planned. He'd intended to begin to seduce her secrets out of her, and he hadn't been able to. He had always been able to turn on the charm but she did something to him, made him act like an idiot. She made him feel like the awkward orphan boy he had worked so hard to leave behind.

And he didn't quite understand why, but there was something about Hermione Dearborn that confused him so much, made him so angry it had him hurling curses at a wall. It was pathetic and there he was in Slytherin's Chamber, alone, blowing off steam. It was a risk to come here after the unfortunate outcome of his experiments in fifth year, but he hadn't been able to resist today. The Chamber always calmed him, reminding him that he was special - a monument to the power he had inherited, a power he meant to surpass.

He'd tortured all her little friends and even tried reading their minds and they knew nothing about her of any use. He'd had to be careful to obliviate them without them noticing they'd lost time and in a way he was really proud of the work he'd done there. No one even suspected, even that floozy Ancha, who he'd actually pretended to be helping up after she'd fallen and hurt her head and she'd just thanked him profusely and gone on her way. The others hadn't even remembered his presence in the vicinity, and it had worked gloriously well except that they didn't know anything.

And they were all so amazingly stupid - everyone was so stupid. They hadn't wondered about her, or seen anything weird about her situation.

He tried to imagine what it was like to live in their little minds. It must be so boring. They walked around like mindless ants, never noticing half the things that went on, accepting the limitations of anything they were given or told. They never tried to push the boundaries, never tried to think or see or say anything new. They were born with the extraordinary gift of magic and they did nothing special with it, just wandered through life interested in all the unimportant matters, like their pathetic love lives, without ever really thinking or seeing.

Except her. That Salazar-damned girl with her quick mind and her impeccable spell-work, unafraid to be challenged, unafraid to challenge. Most of the time. She was different and he didn't know why, but she was fascinating, and yet she was still pretending to be ordinary. Running around with that complete sap...

He blasted a column and felt some slight satisfaction as it came crumbling down, only to be rebuilt with a flick of his wand. He was extraordinary. He was so much more powerful than anyone in the castle, except - maybe - that fool Dumbledore. The high ceiling of the Chamber's ante-hall, the statue that lead to so many secrets, secrets that only he would ever be privy to.

What did it matter if the Dearborn girl didn't make sense to him? She was altogether... too much of everything and it was frustrating. She wasn't an ant. He didn't know what she was. He blasted a whole row of columns and thrilled in the godlike power he had to destroy and recreate in moments.

"My Lord?"

"Avery. You are late."

The boy dropped to his knees, head bowed in submission, accepting the curse that hit him. Avery was boring, boring, boring but at least the way his screams echoed around the Chamber were not boring. It was, Tom reflected, acoustically a wonderful place for torture. He wondered what Hermione Dearborn sounded like when she screamed. He wished he could risk finding out; surely even she would spill everything under torture - everyone did in the end - but she was too close to Dumbledore and he was convinced the old man was a Legilimens. Probably more adept than he himself at present, loathe as he was to admit that even privately. Although he had Dumbledore to thank for discovering that it was even possible. His stupid trick with the things hidden in wardrobe all those years ago had set his mind thinking and he'd realised that the man must have read his mind. Hatred for Dumbledore freshened the Cruciatus and Avery's screams hit a new pitch.

He lifted the curse, feeling quite a bit better.

"What have you got to report?"

"My Lord. The Halloween party, as you requested..."

 

 

Lunch with Marcus was more enjoyable than Hermione had anticipated. He'd written to her on the parchment she'd given to him during whatever he had (she ought to know but didn't) while she was in Arithmancy that morning, saying,

I've been a prat. Pick you up at the top of the dungeon stairs for lunch after your Potions lesson?

The message had sent a smile singing across her face, surprising herself.

See you there. Finally going to be done with the bloody potion!

And there he'd been, sitting on the stairs waiting for her, smiling when he saw her with those soft, warm eyes, brown curls swept into a side-parting, the light smattering of freckles making her want to count them. He'd taken her bag and kissed her cheek and it she had revelled in the wonderful normalcy of it. She had never had a proper school romance, where you could sit obnoxiously gooey at meals together and be walked to classes and read together in the Common Room and find hidden places to snog.

"And then he took my broom away for a whole month! It was horrible, stop laughing!" he said, but he was grinning too, after recounting a story of trying to fly a toy broomstick to his cousin's house aged eight and ending up falling in a pond on their estate instead.

"My brother told me it would be fine, how was I supposed to know they ran out of power that quickly?" he protested when she didn't stop laughing. "Come on, I don't want pudding, do you?"

"No, but I need to get my books for this afternoon from the Tower and then go to the Library. Walk me?" Walk me? She was turning into such a little girlfriend, it was completely ludicrous. Very in-character, a snide voice commented in the back of her head, but she ignored it, and accepted his hand in hers.

"Of course, but let's skip the library?"

They ended up kissing - shy, tentative kisses - on her sofa instead, and even she, queen of all bookworms, thought it was a bit of an upgrade. And if he quietened her worries about Riddle, well that was just an advantage.

 

 

Guilt was a hard emotion to push away. It crept up on her at night, when she lay alone in her little tower room, fighting sleep because she was too scared to dream, but desperate to get away from the loneliness that seeped into the very marrow of her bones and made her soul ache. Loneliness and guilt and a growing sense of abandonment because dammit why was it always her that got the thankless job, that made the unknown sacrifices.

Guilt because Ron's face was fading and Harry's wasn't and it had barely been three months. Guilt because half of her knew that she was playing at being a normal girl dating a normal boy, because Marcus said and did all the right things, all the silly girly things she'd secretly wished Ron would do but he didn't fill that other need, the need that made her blush because it wasn't logical. And guilt because she was starting to wonder if she had ever really been in love with the red-headed boy, because in retrospect it had always been Harry first for her, a love that went beyond familial or romantic. She would have died for him and gladly, if she'd needed to and that was a truth. And if he had wanted her and not Ginny she would have said yes and she had never known, never realised. She'd been a fool. They had grown together in that tent and sometimes she'd wondered... but there had been so much else at stake and she had felt like her path had been written for her, maybe written by someone who didn't understand her truly because now she was beginning to think she would have been miserable

And guilt because Tom reminded her of Harry, sometimes. She hadn't realised until that day, and it made her sick to her stomach, sick with longing and sick with loneliness and she would have given anything to be back in that miserable tent because even the seemingly endless hunt for the Horcruxes had been simpler than this new and strange life, a life she walked through as a another person and had to wonder how much of Hermione Granger had been defined by other people's images of her.

It felt like she was in mourning for the person she had been, and eventually she cried herself to sleep as the dawn light broke over Hogwarts.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

So that, when my mother died, and I was left the responsibility of a damaged sister and a wayward brother, I returned to my village in anger and bitterness. Trapped and wasted, I thought! And then, of course, he came.

— Albus Dumbledore


Albus sat by the window in his private quarters trying to read the new edition of Transfiguration Quarterly, an unlit fire at his back doing nothing to temper the chill draftsHe was finding concentrating on the publication more difficult than usual (despite some unusually fine contributions, including one of his own).

He was thinking, as he so often did, of his sister. The Forbidden Forest was dotted through with the browns and golds of the scattered autumn-turned deciduous trees, standing out against the dark, dull green of the pines. Ariana's hair had been an autumn red-brown, darker than his own. He sighed, heavy with regret. If Ariana had been autumn-haired and grey eyed (and how ghastly blank had her eyes been lying there) then he had been spring and summer, with hair like ripe wheat and fierce summer blue eyes and soft, warm lips that belied their cruel twist.

Hallowe'en, as they called it now but which had always been called Samhain in traditional Wizarding families, was the night in which the souls of the dead were said to visit their former homes. It was a singularly uncomfortable thought, and every year on this day he was beset by fresh waves of regret over the terrible events all those years ago. Had it truly been forty-five years? He had been preoccupied with that time a great deal since he had looked on Gellert again, no longer a beautiful youth but a man ravaged with his own cruelty, but fewer of his thoughts had been trained on Ariana than on the man that had turned his life, heart, soul inside out and upside down until he had not known himself.

He was being quite unacceptably self-indulgent and stood, knees protesting at the sudden movement, to prepare the hearth. How long had he been sitting in the cold?

Hermione would be arriving soon for her lesson. She always brought a warmth with her; even when she was trying her very best to restrain her fire she was as unsuccessful as she was at containing her unruly hair. He was becoming genuinely fond of the young woman: her courage and composure under what he imagined were stressful circumstances were quite extraordinary.

He did wonder why she was keeping Tom Riddle at arm's length. Was there something in the boy that made her fear him? Albus knew of no one else who mistrusted Riddle, and he longed to ask Hermione outright why, to look into her mind and find out what if there was truly something to fear in the pale, dark eyed boy with the beautiful face and hidden motivations. What secrets did she hold the key to? The temptation flared up, but he pushed it away. Nothing good could come of such an action.

He had hoped that asking Horace to pair them up would lead to more information and he had hinted so much to the girl, but so far it had yielded nothing. He wondered if he should speak to the girl more directly. She was strong, and he had never seen Tom so interested in one of his peers before - however hard the boy tried to hide it. In an odd way, he pitied the boy. He was clearly very intrigued by, and probably attracted to, Hermione, but Albus wondered if Tom would ever recognise that. Insofar as the Professor was aware Tom had never been romantically linked to anyone at Hogwarts before. Perhaps his upbringing, so starved of affection (how Albus shuddered at the memory of that dreadful Muggle institution) rendered him incapable of recognising or acting upon such things?

Still, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste - he didn't expect her interest in Marcus Blishwick to last for much longer. He would wait for the opportune moment and then broach the subject with her. She was old enough, and experienced enough (from what he guessed) with difficult circumstances - and didn't that make his ageing shrivelled heart sink with fear - to cope with a small assignment and spend a few months getting close to Riddle and delving into his secrets.

Yes. She was not like he had been at the same age - where he had been drawn by Gellert, Hermione seemed very wary of Tom Riddle and surely that proved her suitability for the task? She would not - like he had - make all the wrong choices. He was sure of it.

 

 

Hermione arrived for her lesson with Professor Dumbledore five minutes before she was due, as usual. She liked to be early. Late people, in her opinion, were both unproductive and rude. She'd spent the morning finishing the (quite frankly infuriating) Wuthering Heights and it had put her in a dark mood. Why, she wondered, would anyone bother writing a novel about two such ridiculous people? Did anyone ever feel anything like that - especially for someone else who was quite clearly an awful person! She had decided that she either completely didn't understand that sort of overblown Victorian aesthetic (and indeed, she had always disliked the Pre-Raphaelite paintings as well) or the book was just awful.

Still, each to their own. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

It was just so illogical. How could any one person be assumed to feel so much? Even love was not that irrational. And surely if you loved someone that much you would just be with them? She couldn't understand it. It was anathema to her ordered mind. She had been in love, after-all, and it hadn't been anything like as... as melodramatic.

That had taught her to read melodramas anyway. She would avoid them in the future. Even in this strange and lonely place, she was still - somewhere, surely - the daughter of two sensible, modern dentists and didn't have time for such silliness.

She was still Hermione Granger.

Even in 1944.

She knocked politely, as she always did, the anticipation of learning something genuinely interesting overcoming her irritation. The door swung open of its own accord, and she was surprised to see Professor Dumbledore sitting by the fire, with the curtains drawn over the windows.

"Hermione, come in and have a seat my dear," he said, rising politely. "Would you like a drink? It is perhaps a little early, but it is Hallowe'en."

"Thank you," she replied, nodding. They often sat and had a drink - sometimes a glass of Elfin Wine, or a hot chocolate - but usually after the lesson.

He handed her a simply enormous Firewhisky, and she stared in slight surprise. Her Professor (and perhaps even friend, almost, in a way, if that was not too daring) looked, to say the least, somewhat the worse for wear. There were purple shadows underneath his blue eyes, and nary a twinkle in sight. She hadn't seen him look so drawn and pale since the night she had arrived in the past.

"Is everything quite alright Albus?" she asked cautiously, accepting the glass. His first name never tripped easily off her tongue, but he insisted.

He sighed and paused for a moment, as though mulling over his answer.

"They say that on Samhain the souls of the dead may return to our world, to their homes in fact. What do you think of this?"

Her immediate reaction was don't be silly, but she swallowed it. After all, did not ghosts walk the Hogwarts halls? And Harry, Harry who had died and come back to life because of a man's fractured soul, had spoken to this man after he had died. Spoken (he had confided only to herself and Ron and perhaps Ginny) of things he could never have known if the conversation hadn't actually occurred...

"Perhaps," she said eventually. "Or perhaps it was a way in which Muggles could explain the presence of ghosts?"

"Muggles cannot see ghosts," he replied.

"Some say they can." This was something she would have rejected but for the evidence of her own eyes. She thought of Wuthering Heights again, and felt an uncomfortable chill creep down her back. What was it? Her photographic memory provided the answer:

Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!

"I think," she added, uncertain, and for the first time thoroughly glad Ron and Harry couldn't hear her, "I think perhaps it is true. For some. Perhaps there is some magic that allows the dead to touch the world of the living. I don't know. Or perhaps not - perhaps they are very far away. Muggle Christianity would have them in 'a better place' but someone very wise once said that death is but the next great adventure. Afterall, some do choose to linger on here, and some choose to go on - perhaps there are those that hover between those decisions?"

Xenophilius Lovegood could eat his hideous collection of hats, she thought uncharitably. And then she realised Hermione Granger would never have said what she had said, and was struck with an odd pang of grief that tempered the triumph.

"My sister, Ariana, died forty-five years ago. It is hard not to wonder, today."

Wonder, what? she wondered. But she didn't ask, because she knew, really, knew that he was wondering if his spell had killed his sister, and if it had not was he not still to blame regardless?

Instead of a platitude she leant over and rested her hand on his for a moment. It was an action that would have been beyond her daring not long before, but it seemed only natural now. His grief, which seemed so fresh, terrified her: she had longer than that to wait before she would see her own loved ones again, before she could take back her life. Would she be haunted by them for the next five decades, trapped into bouts of grief, unable to move on and create a life? And if she wasn't, if she did move on, was that not just as terrifying?

"Would you like me to leave you alone?" she asked, wishing she had stayed in her tower bedroom, curled up on her sofa with a hot chocolate instead of staring down half a century of dark loneliness.

"No, child. I have had quite enough solitary contemplation for one day. Here, you will enjoy this article in Transfiguration Quarterly - it draws a great deal on Cerdic's work."

He handed her the magazine and stood to draw back the curtains, remarking that the room had been so cold earlier he had drawn them. She didn't believe his reason, but took the magazine. While she read, he marked essays until she had finished reading the article he had marked out, and then they sat and discussed the afternoon away, determinedly sticking to theory, until it grew dark*.

 

 

"It is Samhain now, Hermione," Dumbledore said, gesturing to the darkened sky, his blue eyes serious. "Are you going to light a fire?"

Yes, she thought. Yes I will yes. What better night for sacrifices and the creation of fire?

"Here?"

"No. We should be outside. Come."

He lead her in silence, through the halls and down the moving staircases, past doors to the Great Hall, and out of the castle into the dark grounds, passing the Hufflepuff Quidditch team returning from a late practice (they always had the worst slots). Hermione eyed their thick winter cloaks enviously; the wintery wind was biting through her best warming charm and with only a nod to Diggory she followed Dumbledore, whose swift stride had a mark of urgency about it.

She hoped they didn't go too far: the Hallowe'en Feast was later than the normal suppertime, and she was suddenly hungry as well as cold and not a little scared.

What if she couldn't do it? she wondered. And what else could she give that she hadn't already? What act of goodness was there, here, in this place? This had always been Harry's sort of thing, he was the hero after-all and she had never wanted to be a hero (and thought it not a very sensible or indeed pragmatic occupation, to be honest. You ended up doing stupid things like hanging about to save people's sisters from a death-by-drowning that wasn't actually a real threat and dying and being generally hard-done-by). She hadn't even got herself into this mess...

And yet it was Gubraithan Fire. A fire so pure and good that it would burn eternally. Or did it? She wondered if it could just be very long lasting fire - how could anything be said to be eternal until after whatever end there was had happened? Shaking off that philosophical trough of horror as she stumbled over a rock, she recast her warming charm and then hurried on after the Professor.

They walked on and on, lit by wand light, following a path along the edge of the forest as it rose up gradually at first and then climbed all of a sudden steep to the mountains. She looked back, and saw the dark outline of the castle against the dark grey clouds, the lit windows marking its position more clearly but doing nothing to make it seem homely and friendly. They were higher than she'd thought, a deceptive curve of the landscape bringing them to the top of a steep but small cliff-face, and then the were walking down again and when she looked back the castle was out of sight.

At last he stopped, well out of sight of the castle, in a tiny, steep glen, with a swift stream rushing through, down to the lake, about half an hour north from Hogwarts.

"Choose a branch, Hermione."

It was so dark, and her lumos could only do so much, but she found a twisted and weathered branch of some hard wood that seemed as good as any.

He laid it on the ground, and took a seat on the damp rocks a few meters away, extinguishing his wand's light so that he vanished into the shadows. It was quite unusual for him to be so silent and uninstructive, so she took a deep breath and thought about all the lessons she'd had, and sent four small fires burning together, tightly controlled, around the glen. One blue, one red, one purple and one of dancing multicoloured flames that sent off such a great heat it almost banished the clammy chill. Focussing on the magic to clear her mind, she felt the essence of the fire (Luna would have a field day if she ever got to tell her about this, she thought, and the quashed the intrusion of her past-future and all its associated heartbreak to focus on the task at hand). She extinguished the fires, immediately regretting the loss of their warmth and looked towards the dark hollow where Albus sat.

What was she supposed to do? He'd said that it had to come from within you in her last lesson. So, she had to, what, go inside herself?

Hermione turned her back on the Professor and gazed at the outline of the darker mountains against the dark sky and tried to allow herself to just feel for a moment, to gather herself. Initially, she felt awkward and a bit self-conscious, but it faded as she concentrated on everything she was repressing and at last a rage rose up in her like a great wind until she was shaking with it and with the cold breeze whipping down the slope from the north, and somewhere in her she released the horrible anger she felt at she position she'd been thrown into, and a furious surge of loss and hopelessness came with it, bursting up through her until the tears streamed down her face and fire began to stream from her wand - uncontrolled, angry fire that could easily turn to Fiendfyre she realised and pulled herself together, grabbing at her jagged breath until it evened and the fire stopped pouring. What had Albus said?

A sign of hope in dark times... it requires a great sacrifice from the caster... it is a gift to give warmth and light to the darkest places while consuming nothing in return.

What could she give? There was nothing she had left to lose now, and so could she not give everything? And the rage of injustice became a rage against the petty evils she saw on a daily basis, the small acts of cruelty that separated Muggleborns from Wizarding-born and cast them out as something lesser; rage against a society that had never considered progress, or democracy, or equality. Rage at a dark, wild-haired woman who had chosen her first because she mattered least, who had heedlessly spent hours torturing and humiliating Hermione into repeated unconsciousness, a woman whose face still haunted her sleep and who had hardened something deep within her forever, whose face had stared back at her own from a mirror only days afterwards.

Against the future Ministry, that would stand by and do nothing while its subjects were killed and imprisoned, against the conditions of society that allowed a man like Voldemort to rise up, to try to kill a one-year old boy, at a school that taught Magic without ethics, that taught you to create and destroy but not to judge, against a pale-haired boy that had sneered and called her Mudblood and the father who had formed him, against a world that rejected everything about the one she had come from without knowing anything about it, against every witch and wizard that stood by and didn't comment when they saw a child treated as an outcast because of their birth, rage at a house that would torture its own for losing a Quidditch match. Rage at a teacher that would reject an orphaned child as untrustworthy, at a world that damned everything it didn't recognise.

Rage that she had been cast back and rendered impotent; that all the future wrongs she had lived through and heard of could not be altered or righted, that anyone could be so cruel as to send her here and oh how she hated Albus Dumbledore for that, for sending her away from everything she knew and loved and the life she had fought for and nearly died for again and again, a life that had been ripped away from her for ever and ever because she had seen in that same man's face only that day that forty-five years didn't change the love but they changed you and everything you were and nothing nothing would ever be the same. She would never be the same, she was lost and changed and irrevocably altered.

She felt until she sobbed, and promised the dark and faceless and ungrateful Mountains that she would survive until she could change those things. That she would watch and wait and work against that society until it crumbled to confusion in her past and its future when Harry Potter destroyed the pale faced boy in the castle long after that boy had destroyed himself and all he could have been.

Napoleon stepped in at the ruins of a revolution, a country racked by wars, and rebuilt a Empire in his own image. She would do the same and until then she would wait and plan and learn. She would let Tom Riddle bring the world to its knees because she had no other choice, because it had always happened, but she would seize the opportunity he would leave behind him to rebuild the world anew.

Hermione promised everything in herself to the fire, holding her wand out, no longer desperate but aware and deliberate, and her magic flared up in response and rushed through her, raw and uncompromising and agonising, until the branch burst into flame, warm and golden and gently burning in the cold dark night. She sank to her knees, exhausted, too overcome to revel in its extraordinary glow.

 

 

Chapter Text

It looked as if night of dark intent

Was coming and not only a night, an age.

Once by the Pacific - Robert Frost


 

 

The last stragglers were heading to the Great Hall when Hermione returned to Ravenclaw tower. She was going to be late to the Halloween feast, and she was tempted to skip it.

Gubraithan fire. She tingled from the secret, amazing, unbelievable knowledge of it. It made her inner swot rejoice. All those years of coming top in exams didn't come close.

But – the feast. It would be strange to miss it. She pushed open the door to her room and hurriedly pulled out a set of dress robes. Sage green velvet. That would do.

She pulled them on, gasping as the corseting spell tightened around her, still out of breath from running up the myriad staircases to her room. Catching sight of her face in the mirror, Hermione winced. Her hair was wild and windswept and she knew from long experience there was little she could do about that now. It was always wilder when she'd been doing something especially magical and tonight, well, tonight had been beyond anything she had ever done before. She found a clasp from the box of jewelry Cerdic had given her and made an attempt at respectability, pulling half the mane away from her face and hurried off to the hall.

Hermione did not know it, but those who'd known her before would have found it hard to reconcile the elegant young woman clad in traditional dress, thick dark hair pinned back with goblin-wrought silver, dusky green robes setting off both her small waist and her warm skin, dark eyes bright with excitement, with the plain bookworm she'd been as a child, or even the fierce sidekick in her Muggle jeans. Even the way she carried herself had changed – poised, upright. Assured.

Disguises can become all too comfortable.

 

 

Late and flustered as she was, Hermione couldn't miss the tension in the Great Hall that night. Thick dark clouds still obscured the stars, billowing across the ceiling in testament to a wind unfelt inside the castle walls. The ghosts were clustered more thickly tonight, glowing silver in the dimly lit hall, reflecting the flickering light of the black candles floating above the tables. She was reminded of the significance of this particular evening.

At Samhain, her flawless recall of the written word offered, time loses all meaning and the past, present, and future are one. The dead and denizens of the Other World walk among the living.

Could she reach out and brush fingers with Sirius, she wondered, or Professor Lupin, or Tonks. Was Fred Weasley laughing at her, just there, just out of sight?

If she knew the way, could she step out of time and back home again?

The words reminded her of something Harry had once told her as she met Tom Riddle's eyes, inscrutable in the dim candlelight. He'd looked up as she walked towards the Ravenclaw table, and her gaze had found his a moment later.

Lord Voldemort is my past, present, and future.

She shuddered.

"You're awfully late," Ancha muttered, shifting down the bench to let Hermione in between her and Sophia. "Everything alright?"

The girl looked lovely, royal blue silk setting off her shining dark hair, a gold and dragonstone choker wrapped around her throat. It was oddly thrilling to see everyone dressed so richly, as though they were at a medieval feast. She half-expected a green giant to ride in and cut his own head off, then reprimanded herself for being so fanciful. Wrong holiday anyway.

"Yes, my lesson with Albus overran. What have I missed?"

"Nothing much. This farce of a festival should be over soon with any luck." Sophia this time, with real bitterness in her voice.

Hermione didn't reply, her mind racing. This might be something she was expected to get – some Pureblood tradition she'd missed. Loading up her plate to avoid answering she scanned the hall.

Muggleborns and a few half-bloods sitting grouped further down the table. That wasn't totally abnormal but the separation seemed more pronounced than usual. Oddly, though, they were more relaxed than everyone else.

As usual she'd sat facing the Slytherin table. Stupid, she thought, but refused to dwell on it. There were dark looks on their faces too.

"I mean, it's not as though our traditions are particularly barbaric. But to not even have a single sacrifice – not even a fire. They could just let us go home to celebrate instead. It's ludicrous. I'd rather not mark it than have this tame Mugglised feast," Ancha agreed talking across Hermione.

"At least we get to go home for Yule. Imagine missing that." Marcus this time, one up and across the table, warm dark eyes meeting hers. She hadn't noticed him before, and guiltily she sent her sweetest smile.

Claire, sitting next to him, kept her eyes cast down.

"When did the school stop celebrating Samhain properly?" Hermione asked, her quick mind supplying the missing pieces.

She'd never thought it odd that the Wizarding world celebrated holidays that coincided with her own upbringing before. It hadn't been mentioned in Hogwarts, A History and Professor Binns hadn't ever bothered with anything like that, preferring to wade through the minute details of centuries-past Goblin rebellions (to ensure continued mistrust, perhaps?) rather than teach them anything useful.

Even Malfoy hadn't brought this up, to her knowledge, although he'd always been gone in the holidays and it wasn't as though she were on good enough terms with any traditional families in her own time to have heard them moan about it.

She'd read about such celebrations, of course, but the books had made them seem ancient history, something that had faded out centuries before. Not traditions that were very much alive, traditions ripped away from people she'd come to think of as friends.

Suddenly it didn't sit right that Muggle Christian holidays should have replaced Wizarding traditions unless organically.

"About ten years ago, I think. They used to have a proper hazelwood fire, sacrifice an Augurey, dance a bit, honour the ghosts. You know what it's like. It's illegal now. We still do it, of course." Sophia's slate grey robes matched her eyes. She looked regal and forbidding.

"We never really bothered at home - Cerdic doesn't usually know what date it is anyway. But I did think it was odd people were calling this the Hallowe'en feast. I just didn't like to ask… sometimes I feel like I missed so much."

The lies sprang so easily to her tongue these days it scared her. It wasn't a lie, though, to say she felt like she'd missed out on so many Wizarding things. She had, in some ways. She'd never seen a true Samhain or Beltane celebration, hadn't spent her childhood learning to fly and stealing her parents' wands to practice magic surreptitiously. She'd grown up knowing she was different and wrong. Grown up not fitting but never knowing why, grown up crying helpless tears because she had no friends…

But, she'd also grown up with loving, normal parents. Parents she'd practically deserted because The Burrow and its inhabitants, even school itself, had just been so much more exciting and because even at eleven she'd known that she had magic and they didn't and they'd never really understand what that meant.

Parents whose free will she'd stolen, who no longer trusted their only daughter. Who looked at her with a fear they tried very hard to hide.

"Well, next year you should come to mine dearest. And, Hermione, we know you had an unconventional upbringing so don't be so proud about it." Sophia was smiling for the first time since she'd sat at the table and Hermione just nodded at her, trying to hide a flash of amusement that not dancing around a fire while you sacrificed an omen of death was considered unconventional.

She caught Tom Riddle's eyes again and told herself she hadn't been looking for him. His face was completely impassive, but around him the Slytherins had ugly, excited looks and she had a Harry style leap of intuition. Trouble, her senses told her and she agreed. Trouble brewing.

"Hag's get look at that," Ancha muttered, staring up the table.

It was unlike her to swear, so Hermione followed her gaze down the table, past the array of coloured velvets and silks, to what even she subconsciously thought of as the Muggleborn section. If the loss of Wizarding traditions didn't sit well with her, the unspoken apartheid was far more disturbing.

The Muggleborn prefect she'd met on the train coming up, but whose name shamefully escaped her in that moment, was standing on the bench. She wasn't wearing dress robes, but a plain Muggle knee-length skirt and blouse. That was an extremely radical choice, and as she dropped what looked like robes onto the floor Hermione realised she'd just taken them off to reveal her Muggle outfit.

She was caught in between horror at the public spectacle – and wasn't that unlike her – and admiration for the girl's bravery.

The hall had fallen totally silent by this point and Hermione could hear what she was saying.

"… it's disgusting. I've had enough – you shouldn't be allowed to treat people like this." She wasn't looking at the Slytherin table, though. She was looking right at where Hermione was sitting and then she wasn't on the bench she was standing in front of Hermione and it was so confusing and what was she saying?

"People like YOU! EVERYTHING YOU'VE DONE, I HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY BECAUSE I CAN'T GO ON LIKE THIS…" she screeched, right in her face, and Hermione didn't understand because she'd barely said a word to this girl since the train and even then she'd been nothing but polite and –

"Pure blood supremacists like you should rot in God's darkest hell –" the girl screamed – and why could she still not remember her name, if she could only say the girl's name maybe she'd calm down, realise that Hermione wasn't the enemy – and was that a knife?

"I hate you for everything you've done to me Hermione Dearborn. I hate you and all your kind. Here's to your ghastly Samhain."

And then she pulled the knife across her own throat and fell to the floor, twitching for a moment and then still and quite, utterly dead, her own blood pooling around her on the stone.

It had happened so quickly, had been hardly twenty seconds and it was just so odd – she'd seen people die before, far too many really, but this made no sense and what had the girl said? She'd blamed her and then, what killed herself? It was so strange, and there was screams around her - was this another nightmare or -

The girl's blood was hot, soaking through her robes where it had splattered. Hermione brushed her sleeve across her face and it came away warm and wet.

Stomach clenched in horror, Hermione looked up and met first Claire's shocked eyes and then, past her, over her shoulder, she saw Tom Riddle walking towards her and everything seemed to be in slow motion and then he was bending beside the dead girl what was her fucking name and shaking his head and then he was beside her, arm around her shoulders, and so was Dumbledore and the man was frowning and Tom was saying something in a low, urgent voice and Sophia was standing gesturing and so was Marcus -

Hermione's never even met her I don't think -

Don't understand -

- Ridiculous -

- Should be in her room I'll take her

And then time caught up with itself and she realised that the hall was practically empty, the girl's body obscured by teachers and that she was clutching onto the man who'd probably orchestrated the whole thing. She dropped his arm quickly.

"Albus," she said quietly and they all silenced. "I'm fine. I didn't know that girl and I'm horrified to think I could have done anything to cause –" she gestured " – that. I don't… I can't even remember her name. I only spoke to her once, I think. On the train. I don't understand?"

"I think you should go to Devon tonight," he said firmly. "Jingo will take you."

"No, that would – I'll stay here. I'm fine, really. Thank you. You are probably needed elsewhere. Sophia will take me back to Ravenclaw."

She needed to sleep, although she wasn't sure she ever would again. She was so numb.

"Miss Selwyn, if a house-elf should appear with a bottle of Firewhiskey, please accept it and do with it as you see fit," he said after a moment and then touched Hermione's arm gently before joining the Headmaster and teachers.

Tom Riddle was still standing next to her. She wondered why but she was just so tired… and the girl's blood was all down her robes, the red already turning dark against the green. She would burn them.

Why had he done it? Had he done it? Or had she done something – could she had prevented this?

Marcus had gone, she saw. That was odd. She must have missed something. The Hall was empty now except for the teachers and the dead girl

"Mabel. Her name was Mabel. I met her on the train. She was kind to me." Hermione said softly and suddenly there were tears streaming down her face.

"Did you do this?" she whispered very quietly up to Tom as Sophia took her hand and tried to lead her away.

He just frowned down at her, face unreadable. He looked almost confused. It wasn't an expression she'd seen before on that marble face, so she left.

She'd worry about it tomorrow when Mabel Jefferies' blood wasn't splashed down her front. When she didn't feel like she was going to vomit and oh it looked as though someone already had, by the Hufflepuff table of course, and after she'd sleep. If she slept.

 

 

She did.

She'd barely been in bed a moment before sleep overtook her and when she dreamt it was Bellatrix's face staring back at her in a fiery mirror. She dreamt of rubies the colour of fresh blood around a pale throat, of being burnt alive as a sacrifice to an old god whose name she didn't know. Of hot blood freezing on skin like ice.

She dreamt of a different kind of fire too, a pure and warm fire. She dreamt of twisting webs pulling around her, pulling her closer to a dark and cold pit where no fire could burn and when she woke she remembered nothing.

 

 

She forced herself to go to breakfast the next morning. It was a Sunday but she pulled on her black school robes anyway. The Hall was less subdued than she was expecting, less than when Cedric had died, but when she walked in everyone fell silent.

He'd marked her, she supposed. Was that why he'd done it?

Dumbledore's own goddaughter, she thought suddenly. A blood supremacist.

Was that it? Or was she going mad? Had that girl – Mabel – thought they'd become friends on the train? Now she thought back the girl had smiled at her a few times but it had been early on when she'd been trying to desperately hard to be forgettable and she'd avoided the smiles, avoided her eye.

Had she done this?

She arrived at the Ravenclaw table and Sophia wasn't there and she froze because no one looked up to greet her – did they hate her, think she was cold and cruel - they should - but – no, there was Ancha, patting the seat next to her.

"Hermione! I was going to bring you a tray. You look better! Juice?"

Marcus came in moments later and dropped a kiss onto her head.

"I thought you'd be in your room." He squeezed her hand gently. "Pass the bacon?"

She sat, quietly shocked, as they breezed past the horror of the night before. She'd expected to be alienated, hated but this was somehow worse.

As though it hadn't mattered.

Only Claire avoided her gaze, but she'd been doing that so much lately Hermione couldn't tell if it was because Claire believed she was a blood supremacist or not.

Everyone was pale and a little quieter than usual but… it felt off somehow. Surely someone should look more upset.

She replayed it in her mind. She'd just sat there, she thought angrily. She could have easily disarmed the girl but she'd just sat there and let her cut her own throat.

And so had everyone else.

"Are you alright?" Marcus whispered.

"I should have stopped her," Hermione replied. "I – I just should have stopped her."

"None of us did anything. Don't dwell on it – it was just a horrible thing, but she was obviously quite mad." He shrugged as though to say what can you do.

"Excuse me. I'm not hungry after all."

"We're going for a walk around the lake later. Shall I come and find you?" he asked, oblivious.

"No," she said. "No, I think I'll go to the Library."

Chapter Text

Seeping through the cracks, I'm the poison in your bones.

- Digital Daggers


 

 

He found her in the Library. She wasn't reading, just gazing out of the window, almost hidden in a small nook right at the back of the section dedicated to tomes recording the legal minutiae of Wizarding inheritances through the ages – usually guaranteed to be free of people for days on end. It was one of his favourite spots as well, although not the spot they'd shared earlier that term when she'd read his Transfiguration essay and he'd read hers.

He'd enjoyed that.

That had been the night Hermione had fallen asleep in the potions lab and he'd stolen her book. Paradise Lost, he remembered. He still hadn't read it. She had not been as relaxed around him since then. 

He sat down opposite her at the small table. She was paler than usual, shadows under her dark eyes. And she was ignoring him, which he hated, still just staring out the window. He studied the soft pink bow of her lips, the sharp curve of her cheekbones, the faint freckles dusting her nose, the way her thick dark hair shone in the dull November light. He wanted to know every inch of her skin, rip it off and look underneath, dive inside her mind and eyes and body and ransack her secrets until she was flayed open beneath him, empty and open and burning hot.

"Why?" she asked eventually, still not looking at him.

He wanted to touch her face, gently push back an unruly strand of hair. It was a strange urge and he suppressed it.

"Why what?"

Say it, he thought. Look at me. But didn't, eyes fixed on something in the distance or on a memory or on nothing at all.

"Hermione. You don't look well. Let me take you out of here."

Then, at last, she did look. The weight of her cool dark eyes was a relief, like a cool glass of water on a July morning. The slid down, through him. Reassuring in the accusation they held. But she had something else too, that strange look she got whenever he said her first name. He couldn't quite fathom it, but felt he would like to see it again and again.

"No, thank you. I just want to sit here and think," she said quietly and he didn't like that. She wasn't supposed to be so subdued. She was supposed to be crackling fire like she usually was, like she had the night before.

He might have slightly fucked up the previous night to be honest. The Mudblood prefect dying hadn't exactly been in the plan. He hoped it wasn't a complete disaster.

"You can walk out or you can suffer the indignity of me levitating you out with a body bind on," he threatened and there was the barest flicker of a smile around her mouth, as though she didn't believe him. Or perhaps she didn't care. She didn't seem scared of him today. Usually she was so tense, as though he were a snake poised to strike – except in those moments she got caught up talking to him and lost herself in conversation. Or when she'd dozed off, lashes a dark bow on her cheek - But she always started tense. Today, when she should have been more so than ever she seemed to hardly feel his presence.

Did you do this? she'd asked him, blood still splattered over her, brown eyes burning with a tenderness he couldn't comprehend, as though she really passionately cared that the worthless girl had died. She had walked away answerless, too dazed to notice the cleaning charm he'd cast at her back,

Now she followed him silently, and he led her out of the castle. He didn't know why he wanted to talk to her, really, except that last night she'd walked into the Hall burning brightly, power radiating off her like heat from a bonfire and then it had gone, snuffed out like a candle.

The wind caught her hair up in its grip and he wondered what it felt like. He tried not to wonder what it might feel like to be warmed by the fire that burned inside her.

The lake, he thought. That was a good place to talk, and he turned down towards it but she stopped him.

"This is as far as we're going." Her eyes were brighter now and she'd tensed up. That was better – she looked more like herself.

"In ten feet there's a ledge. We'll sit there."

"Fine."

They sat in silence for a while. The view was as stunning in late autumn as at any other time of year. Perhaps more so. The forest stretched out behind the lake, bleak and unyielding and vast. The distant mountains were blue-purple-grey against the bruised sky. He loved the jagged harshness of the rocks by the lake, the black oblivion of its waters, the endless promise of the trees stretching away into the distance. He loved the space, so different from Muggle London with its dirt and noise, and the bombs that fell from the sky these days, the ghastly sordidness of the Orphanage. He could breathe here; he didn't feel as though he filled up every rancid space with his raging thoughts. It was home, peopleless and vast and beautiful.

He cast a warming charm when she started shivering. It was a good one, blocking out all but the memory of that lashing highland wind. She didn't thank him, but then he'd hardly expected her to.

"I didn't think she'd die. I thought… I thought you'd stop her."

He hadn't meant to say that. But, oddly, he knew he could trust her. She'd known any way; what harm was there in telling her? He could always deny it. There wasn't any proof.

"I should have. But I didn't. Was it worth it?"

He shrugged.

"I don't know yet. You're here, so perhaps it was." He hadn't meant to say that either. Damn the girl.

You are Lord Voldemort. The Heir of Slytherin, he told himself. He definitely hadn't killed someone to get her attention. It had been a Samhain sacrifice, a clever plot.

"I don't understand. Did you want people to hate me? Because they don't. They should but they don't. They acted like… like nothing happened. Nothing more than a Mudblood causing a drama, best forgotten."

Actually that was exactly why he'd done it, or at least one of the reasons. He'd often seen the pity for them in her eyes. She needed to see the truth of this society, away from whatever sheltered haven she'd come from. She had needed to understand that whatever she thought of him, those she surrounded herself with weren't so far removed.

Tom's own introduction to the caste system had been his first night at Hogwarts and it had made the petty cruelties of his childhood seem relatively tame in comparison. The night had left him in no doubt of his place as a Mudblood in Slytherin house, as unbelonging as he'd always been.

He'd shown them though. He'd always known he was special, that he did belong here, and now every single person in that house knew it too.

It still thrilled him. He'd made them all hurt.

"There is very little sympathy in this school for those raised in a Muggle environment. Not that you'd have seen much of that."

"Were you trying to show me that?" she asked. She sounded baffled. Good.

"I was showing you the true colours of those you've placed around you."

People like Marcus Blishwick, who everyone thought so nice, but certainly had never spoken to him until he knew Tom was at least a half-blood. Or Abraxas's girl, who was only not a Slytherin because she was too cunning and ambitious to be marked out as cunning. Or that pathetic creature who trailed after Blishwick as though he were a god, playing down the dirt of her own heritage.

But - he'd also wanted to mark Hermione. Position her on his side and not with that Muggle-loving fool Dumbledore. So people would wonder, so the other little Mudbloods would know never to invite her into their seductive world, so she'd be safe from the danger of that place with its hatred and war and destruction, its anonymity, its hideous twisted religion, its prissy and unwizarding morality.

"What makes you think I care?"

"I've seen you. I've seen you stop and help them, seen you stare at where they sit and you care. You go out of your way to help them in a thousand tiny ways each week and I've seen you do it, and I've seen other people follow your lead."

It was unfathomable why she stopped to help them. No one had ever – not a kind word for four and a half years for him but she thought nothing of sending Purebloods on their way, defending pathetic Mudblood children who ought to have to learn to defend themselves like everyone else.

To prove they belonged, to change to fit their new world not change their new world to fit them. That's what that idiot Abraxas had shown him, and it was true – this world was different and the hated teachings of his childhood had no place here.

Here, he was free. Here, there was no Hell.

"When I arrived here I wasn't made very welcome. By anyone. Not one single person in the entire Wizarding world did for me what you did for those worthless children."

He glared at the lake, furiously. What was it about this woman that made him want to slash open his soul for her inspection? Why did everything in him say trust her, she will understand. It was so stupid. Trust no one, and survive. That was sensible. He cast a silencing charm just in case he couldn't control anything else and someone was within three hundred yards.

He'd kill anyone else who'd heard him even hint at being pitiable. Hermione offered no pity though. She didn't even look at him, although she was biting her soft, pink lip, and it was actually really rather distracting and why didn't she react like normal people?

"I fail to see how that leads to a girl killing herself during dinner."

"You don't need to."

Unable to bear it any more he got up and left her sitting there, taking the warming charm with him. That had been – well. Not a conversation to dwell on. He needed to torture something, urgently, and get rid of the ridiculous urge to tell her all about his horrible childhood.

 

 

After taking out his not inconsiderable frustration in the Slytherin Common Room - firstly on a fourth year called Montague, who was actually only partially idiotic, and Orion Black because the girl hadn't been supposed to actually die, and he'd been the one to Imperius her, Tom felt much better.

He hadn't told Orion she hadn't been meant to die and that's why he was being tortured, because all his preening Knights had been so pleased to have a proper Samhain sacrifice they'd been more than usually subservient and fearful and that was very pleasing.

He told them to stay out of the dorm, and lay down on his green-draped bed to have a think.

Overall, he wondered if, overall, the night before would tally as a screw-up or a success. Alphard Black's white-faced devastation was a success (Blacks shouldn't fall for Mudbloods, even if he'd never touched her) as well as a subtle warning to his followers.

The lack of investigation was another success. Not that he'd be linked to it in any way but it was curious even Dumbledore hadn't pressed anything.

Tom had been in the Headmaster's office with the teachers and the Head Girl at the end of the night, reporting the state of the students and the professor had simply called it, "A very sad business."

Dippet had asked the house-elves to put a shock treatment draught in the Pumpkin juice the next morning. The Headmaster didn't like upset students or hysteria - he liked a quiet life and he didn't particularly care how he achieved that. It was one of the man's most useful qualities.

That had been another success because Hermione hadn't had any and he'd seen her confusion at the lack of reaction her peers had had.

The morning was even less clear – he'd walked away from Hermione Dearborn without the upper hand, much to his chagrin.

That said, successes included now even Dumbledore's favourite – his relative (and not the first, Tom had researched him) was marked out forever now (this would follow her, even just in whispers, doubts in the back of people's minds) as a blood supremacist – which actually lent real credence to his rallying cry as well as (incidentally he told himself) marking her as acceptable to those who might otherwise question his interest. In recruiting her.

Or whatever it was he'd do with all that power and intelligence.

And success because he'd seen her look of horror when she'd looked at her friends and an isolated Hermione Dearborn would be very much more malleable…

On the failure side of things he wasn't any closer to her cursed secrets – the question of why she helped Muggleborns – Mudbloods – so especially, why she clearly worried when no one else gave a doxy's breath for the brats – burnt his lips.

Tom's lack of self-control around her was also disturbing. He'd never actually had the urge to kiss anyone before he met her. He'd had it that morning, he'd had it when they were alone in the dungeons more than once and he'd definitely had it last night, both when she'd walked in burning with magic and when her lost brown eyes had stared up at him from her blood spattered face.

He didn't understand it and he hated how it changed him, hated her because he still hadn't got even half a secret out of her…

All in all the death of the girl dying had, he decided, been for the best. Especially because it had made such a wonderful statement – a sacrifice for Samhain as he'd promised his followers although, actually -

He sat up.

Mabel Jefferies had died toasting Samhain. She had killed herself. A blood sacrifice like that should have had some power but he hadn't been able to access it. Perhaps it still counted as murder as she'd been under Orion's Imperius?

It had been beautiful really. Dearborn had just sat there. She'd probably been too confused to react, but to everyone else's eyes she'd just sat – hardly making an expression… And when she had actually reacted everyone had already left.

Overall, yes, a positive. And she'd looked quite beautiful in green.

Distractingly so.

He still couldn't believe he'd wasted her biddable and subdued mood.

And if he missed the fire in her eyes when she looked at him, well, surely that wasn't enough to count against the rest.

No. A good week's work. He opened his diary and began to chronicle it. He'd concentrate on how to undo whatever spell Dearborn had him under later. It wouldn't do to get distracted now.

 

 

 

three weeks later

 

 

"Legilimens!" he hissed.

The girl's mind was so weakly protected he could easily sort through her memories.

"What happened in your dueling session?" he asked and the images came crowding forward.

Hermione, glorious and – no that was early on. She hadn't worn her hair like that for weeks.

"The most recent one, you imbecile."

Claire's mind was mainly filled with images of that drip Blishwick, which turned Tom's stomach, but she was interestingly focused on Dearborn too and he enjoyed the real hatred she felt for the girl.

He'd imperiused her into meeting him in the Room of Hidden Things, and she was knelt before him, dull blue eyes gazing blankly up at him. He was disguised, even so, because you could never be too careful.

Tom liked looking in her mind. She was so weak and ordinary, which reminded him of his own strengths and confirmed that it was his special Slytherin heritage that made him separate from an ordinary half-blood like this one.

Her internalised prejudice against her own mixed blood was quite boring, though. It largely revealed itself as self-loathing for not being pure enough to deserve that utter twat Blishwick. She was all twisted up with jealousy and it made her hate herself. He liked seeing how her negative emotions were wearing down her silly Muggleish morals.

Any self-respecting witch would have taken some sort of action now – Blishwick had treated her rather poorly, even in Tom's eyes. That wasn't interesting so he ignored most of the details, but her inner conflict was oddly fascinating and he'd started reading her mind more and more often.

She had some interesting if ineffective plans to seek revenge on Hermione Dearborn – none of which would work but might be entertaining. Her hatred was pathetically misguided, and he didn't understand why she was angry with the only innocent party but again, he hardly cared.

The point was her jealousy had made her almost as obsessive as him and it gave him a window into Dearborn's life so he could greedily watch her without being seen to do so.

He told himself he was looking for signs of her secrets – and today in particular he was looking at her dueling prowess.

It wouldn't do for her to beat him.

Hermione's subdued mood hadn't seemed to continue into the week, he'd seen her conversing relatively normally and she'd answered questions in class but he hadn't spoken to her directly since that Sunday.

Almost three weeks had passed since then and the end of term was creeping towards them.

Her dark eyes had met his across the Hall as usual and he thought there had been more hatred than he'd seen for some time, which was an unfortunate side-effect of having to kill someone to get her - to put his plots into place.

He watched the Ravenclaw final duels through Claire's mind. Hermione was a good duelist: unengaged in the fight but better than he'd expected.

So was Sophia Selwyn, actually, and he wondered if it was time to have a conversation with her about the future.

No – perhaps it was soon for that. But certainly time to offer the hand of friendship. He would see her at New Year, maybe that would be an appropriate time. (He wondered how much it rankled Abraxas to invite him to the Manor and that was a delicious thought).

He hadn't been surprised Hermione had won her duel – he'd known she'd be good. Nor, really, did he need to see her fight. But… he'd been well, avoiding her, mistrusting himself (and perhaps a little embarrassed to be honest because he had revealed a huge gaping part of his frankly miserable time and that wasn't exactly the sort of thing that struck fear into someone or made them do anything but look at you like a lost Hufflepuff so it had definitely been sensible to not speak to her for so long) but that didn't stop his curiosity about her in general, or in particular how his Samhain stunt had affected her.

Very little, it seemed. She still seemed quieter, removed somehow, but nothing much had changed.

He admired her casting for a moment (she'd be even more magnificent if she was casting something more interesting, but she was Dumbledore's little protégée so one couldn't expect anything too fun) before directing the idiot girl's memories to mealtimes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Awful things happen to Wizards who meddle with time, Harry.


"This is excellent, Hermione," Dumbledore said approvingly. "I hadn't expected such a jump in power from conquering your wand. Really very good."

She'd been holding her shield charm in place for almost an hour as he threw everything but the kitchen sink at it. She was getting tired now, but it was only a vague sense. She could hold it longer if she needed to.

"You may drop it now."

She paused, suspicious. He'd caught her out more than once in her private lessons with some quite devious tactics.

She dropped the shield and then immediately recast, sending what looked like a body bind bouncing off.

Hah!

"You really are learning." He put his wand down. "The lesson is over: I concede."

She dropped it this time and sagged slightly.

"Come, let's have some cocoa."

She settled into an armchair by the fire and gazed into it. Her lessons with Dumbledore had been focused on protective magic for the past three weeks. It was one of her favourite areas, and she'd thought she'd learnt a lot looking after Harry and Ron for a year but the small tweaks Albus suggested to quite basic techniques had amazing results, as well as discussing the theory behind some much more advanced magics she'd never come across before. It was brilliant.

"I do feel… stronger," she admitted. "It doesn't make sense. It's as though I have more magic than I did. I can – I can feel it. It was gradual, I didn't notice, but for a week after, um, after Samhain I was exhausted. I just slept and slept and now I feel... I don't know. Different."

He frowned as he stirred chocolate into a small pan of milk hovering above the flames.

"We have not discussed Hallowe'en, Hermione, but perhaps more happened that night than either of us has been aware of."

The last vestiges of her jubilant mood dissolved. What had she missed? She'd tried not to think about it at all, locking the memory away and carrying on with life because she couldn't do anything about it, couldn't expose Riddle, couldn't change her own behaviour in the moment. She was trapped in a role in which she had no power to act for fear of exposure, for fear of damning her and her mentor's lives to the hell of Azkaban. Every time she thought about just waiting around till she could be Hermione Granger again she wanted to blow up the entire castle.

So she tried not to think about it at all.

He handed her a bright pink mug, filled cocoa, and she sipped it as he sat with the look of deep concentration she knew was best left undisturbed.

"May I view your memory of that evening?"

As he spoke, Albus stood and opened a cabinet behind his desk, and lifted out a shallow metal bowl. She watched, curiously. It was a Pensieve. She'd never actually seen one before.

Hermione didn't want to focus on that night, didn't want to even think, but she ought to know what had happened. And after all, she had seen worse things in her time. Nothing so unexpected or personal, perhaps, but still. Worse. Probably.

"Alright. I've never taken a memory for a Pensieve before though so you'll have to show me."

He placed the shallow metal bowl on his desk, pushing the first of what would be many spindly silver instruments aside in one direction and a pile of student essays in another to clear a space, and gestured to her. Hermione walked over, strangely nervous.

"Focus in on when we were on the mountain, when you made the fire… and then when you left the Hall. Hold those two points in your mind with your will."

She closed her eyes and went inwards, into the library of her mind to find the right book. She knew, somehow, where to go, taking it off the shelf – it fell open at her touch, the pages fluttering with swiftly moving images and words. It was easier than she had imagined. Acting on instinct she pulled the relevant pages from the book, and willed them into her wand.

When she opened her eyes Dumbledore was smiling delightedly. A silvery thread hung from her wand, blowing in the draught. It was like spider's silk, fragile and mysterious.

"I've read about it," she explained. "I didn't expect it to be so easy though."

"To the well-organised mind..." he said smiling vaguely.

"How do I - ?"

"The Pensieve will pull it from your wand; just hold it over the basin."

It slid off her wand, and expanded into shimmering liquid in the basin.

When she thought of that night the memory of it was still there but it was fainter, more imprint than technicolour recall. The deeply tangled emotions that had been attached to it had eased away. She felt lighter.

"The magic of the Pensieve is deeply complex. It allows you to see what you could not in your mind – details you wouldn't have noticed or indeed been able to see even in the experience."

She remembered Harry's descriptions of viewing memories and this made sense – it was a three dimensional experience after all: you could turn around and the room or whatever you in would be there in full detail. You were not controlled by the viewpoint of the person who had experienced the memory because you were in it not just viewing what the person had seen.

She'd never thought about it before, but that was extraordinary. She wondered if your magic stored every detail of a place in a way ordinary human memory could not?

"Now, just touch your face to the bowl. I will follow you."

It was truly disconcerting as she fell onto the mountain and saw herself from the outside, fire streaming from her wand and magic roiling off her in waves.

In the memory, she couldn't feel the bitter wind but even the faint memory of it lashing her skin made her shiver.

A second later Dumbledore appeared beside her and they watched in silence as she poured her soul out into what Hermione could now see was a truly amazing creation.

She watched the memory-Dumbledore apparate with the branch of Gubraithan fire, taking it to be hidden away in Devon, and then they followed her as she ran down the mountain and up to the Tower.

"Um, I'm going to – er change in a moment. Can you -?" she said suddenly.

She felt mortified. She'd forgotten this part! How utterly embarrassing.

"Ah, of course. Tell me when to open my eyes." He turned around and faced the wall, eyes shut.

She watched herself undress, torn between fascination and embarrassment. It was less horrid than she expected. But the pressure of what was to come couldn't be ignored and she felt nauseous, nervous. She wanted to scream at herself to stop, go to bed, to slam the door shut and keep her memory self here, safe in her tower.

Hermione waited until they'd left her room before she said Dumbledore could look, and he politely pretended not to notice her burning cheeks as they followed memory Hermione into the Great Hall.

She sensed rather than saw Albus stiffen at the conversation over dinner, the anger at the wearing away of Wizarding traditions and glanced up to see him frowning.

Watching herself interact with her friends was bizarre: watching herself do anything was bizarre. It just wasn't how she saw herself. The Hermione in the memory looked as though she belonged in that elegant cluster, all internal turmoil hidden beneath a poised surface. And, then just as mortifying as watching herself change, was the flick of her eyes towards the Slytherin table.

But wasn't the point of a Pensieve memory that she didn't have to watch herself? She turned her back, and walked a little way away from the table to watch Tom Riddle. And it was no wonder she caught his eyes so often, Hermione realised, because his were drawn to hers even more frequently.

That was disturbing.

He was so beautiful in the candlelight. She'd never had an opportunity to freely observe him, always on her guard, or too busy trying not to but now from her safe vantage point outside the events she couldn't tear her eyes away. Hermione watched him watch her other self, his face almost unguarded, a frown flickering over it. Even when the girl – Mabel Jefferies Mabel Mabel Mabel, say her name – stood up and started shouting he was still watching Hermione.

She shut out the girl's words as best she could, focusing all her attention onto Tom Riddle, who was watching her memory self with an expression of concern and what seemed like faint glee at the same time, which was a singularly unsettling combination – he was truly mad, he must be – and then she closed her eyes because she didn't want to see the girl kill herself again and it was coming.

"Hermione, I know this is hard but you must watch," Dumbledore admonished quietly.

Wasn't this cruel of him? she thought suddenly. It had been traumatic and he was forcing her to relive the experience second-for-second in full colour, the volume high.

Tom was easier to watch so she rebelliously kept her gaze on him and was surprised to find horror flick across his face when Mabel pulled the knife across her throat and then he was on his feet, coming round the table to stand beside the girl, checking her. He even cast a healing spell, she saw, before giving up and standing to let the teachers in.

Probably part of his act, she thought, turning to observe the faces of those around her. The other students looked reassuringly horrified, even the Slytherins.

She didn't know she'd remembered this bit. She'd actually wondered if she'd fainted, but now she watched herself sit numbly, covered in innocent blood, as the future Lord Voldemort put himself between her and the sight of the body, almost as though he cared. But he'd told her he'd done this. So why was he so worried - or was it all pretence? Yet Hermione thought she could read him fairly well now: she knew the subtle tells of his face when he lied, absent here – and she, memory Hermione, was letting him comfort her now, his arm around her shoulders and she was leaning into him, god she must have really been in shock, and somehow that was so much more terrifying that the blood soaked girl lying dead on the floor.

She watched Marcus help Claire away, and realised – how had she been so stupid – that the girl loved Marcus, and she'd probably ruined that, in ignorance but painful nonetheless –

- but she'd think about that later.

And then she was hissing did you do this at Tom Riddle and he finally looked happier, as though he'd got something he wanted, which was even weirder. He cast after her as she left the room and Hermione was shocked to see the blood disappear from her clothes and skin and then she and Dumbledore were falling upwards and out of the nightmare of it.

She lurched against the desk, stumbling into Albus, nauseous and even more confused than she had been before.

They stared at each other for a moment, the horror she felt mirrored on his face.

"I think we had better sit down," he said quietly.

Neither of them spoke for a long while, but when he finally did she realised they weren't quite on the same page after all.

While she'd been watching Tom Riddle (and it hadn't been creepy, she told herself), he'd been intently focused on the gi – on Mabel Jefferies.

"She sacrificed herself in the name of Samhain and dedicated it to you, Hermione. She may not have intended to do that but I believe the words themselves were close enough. And after the fire magic from before – she unknowingly completed an ancient, terrible ritual."

He was silent again, staring into the fire thoughtfully. Hermione wasn't sure she wanted to hear the rest, but she stayed quiet.

"I believe she has… passed some of her magic to you," he said after a long pause.

Oh. Oh. She'd never read about such a thing! Well, that wasn't so bad. Actually, that seemed quite positive, really, compared to the hideous possibilities that had been running through her head.

"It was not normal for this ritual to be dedicated to a person." He continued. "A god, usually. More commonly the land. Almost all records of such practice have been destroyed although there are suspicions the practice lingers on in some of the old families and certainly it does in other cultures. A willing sacrifice, usually burned, and the transferral of their power. It is a gruesome thing."

"Yes," she agreed, wholeheartedly. She would never, to the end of her days, forget seeing the girl die and even with the emotions dissociated it was a ghastly thing. "But… is there not a price for such a thing? It seems like dark magic and that, well, I've always been told that using dark magic takes something."

"If there is a price I do not know it. That concerns me, but – you didn't ask for the sacrifice. I don't know. It is unprecedented. I will have to think on it further. Are you alright?" he asked, almost as an afterthought.

Student welfare had never been his top priority, she reflected. Or perhaps it was simply that the Wizarding world had different expectations of a person's resolve than the Muggle world?

That seemed… actually that seemed like something she should consider more deeply because it was so obvious and of course she'd noticed it in a hundred hundred different ways but it had never quite clicked.

This world was a crueller one. The moral lines were drawn differently. Harry and she had been brought up away from it: perhaps that was why they'd been so resolute in fighting against what seemed like injustice, was injustice, but was also… a part of the world they'd entered.

"I think so. I mean, it's actually better with the memory in there. Away from me. So. You know. You keep it. I didn't know Pensieves dulled emotions attached to memory without wholly removing it. I can… remember the facts of what happened without the horror of it."

"Sometimes, it is better to face the full impact of a thing, Hermione."

"Not this thing," she said firmly. She wanted no part of it. She couldn't act on it, she wanted it gone from herself.

And what potential this had! If only there were somewhere safe enough to store her most painful memories of home, how much easier the next fifty years would become.

She could dissociate the most poignant of her memories and so live here, without the ever-present pain of missing everyone, of missing Harry and Ron and the Weasleys and her parents.

But there was nowhere safe enough to risk that - and who would she be without them?

"It's almost time for supper. If you're sure you're alright… I was so eager to see, I didn't think on how it might be for you to see it again."

"No, really. I'm fine. Thank you. But like I said, I don't want it back in my head. I'll even sacrifice how happy I was before dinner to not have that back."

"Well. Perhaps just for now," he agreed. He was still frowning as she bid him good-night, and left the room.

 

 

After supper she sat quietly and pretended to read in the common room, as though nothing untoward had happened – as she had for weeks.

And when it was time for bed, Marcus followed her up the stairs and she let him take her in his arms and kiss her thoroughly, pressed against the door to her room because what did it matter, what did anything matter, when she was so helpless, so utterly removed from everything she could act on

At least his kisses helped her numb away her stagnant, powerless position.

Pureblooded Hermione Dearborn, sweet and smiling and good with a wand but oh, how naïve.

She changed for bed, the silver lettering of a strange invitation to Malfoy Manor for New Years Eve glittered in the dim light, reminding her of the terrible price she was paying every day for traveling in time.

She'd accept, of course. Sophia had made her promise to go.

Every unbearable acquaintance, every moment she had to turn her head and remember that it would be fifty years before she could change anything was part of her punishment for traveling so far back in time.

It's all research, she told herself. Think of it as research.

And as she drifted toward an uncomfortable sleep she thought she had a new empathy for Severus Snape.

 

 

The nightmares held their ground that night. Bellatrix staring out of the mirror as Harry and Ron attacked her, standing behind crying as she stared in awe at her face.

Why didn't you fight harder Hermione? They asked.

Didn't you love us enough? Didn't you love us enough?

A new figure, auburn haired and blue eyed and smiling, roved through her dreams, controlling and merciless.

Do this, he said and she obeyed, as they all did.

Do this and all will be well. Do this and you will be free. Do this and you will be the saviour. Harry is nothing, now. Harry is nothing here, he said. It is for the greater good.

And she woke, gasping, staring at the Dark Mark on her forearm, a mark that didn't exist, a blank clean, pure arm…

You're my best friend, Harry had said. Why have you abandoned me?

 

 

(But she didn't dream about Mabel Jefferies, and that was enough.)

 

Chapter Text

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.

- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


Hermione decided, as she sat through her morning lessons the following Monday, to do as little magic in public as possible. She would have to practice in secret: whether from subduing her wand or some creepy extra magic, it was a little temperamental. Relearning to control her magic before she accidentally blew something up like an incompetent first year was crucial.

She ran to the Owlery at break: she'd written a letter to Mr. Ollivander, asking him about her wand and if there was anything she needed to know that he hadn't told Dumbledore in his previous letter.

Pevensie hooted softly at her, his comforting weight on her arm reminding her to reply to Cerdic's last letter.

"Bring the reply to my room, not breakfast alright darling? Fly safely," she told the owl and he blinked his big eyes at her before launching into flight. Usually owl post ought to be sent at night – too many owls flying around in daylight was hardly subtle – but she was impatient.

Hermione checked her watch and hissed in frustration. She was going to be late to Arithmancy. She arrived, slightly flustered, but glad no one had spotted her taking shortcuts through the secret passageways and sat down next to Marcus, who'd saved her a seat.

"Thanks," she whispered, wishing she could trust herself enough to cast a cooling charm.

"That's quite all right. Are you, er, you look a bit flushed?" he replied, grinning. "Not like you to be late."

"Oh hush," she muttered, rooting through her bag to find her Arithmancy homework.

"Accio Arithmancy homework," she hissed into her satchel. Nothing came out, but she knew she'd put it there before breakfast. Perhaps it had fallen out or –

But no, it wasn't the first thing she'd misplaced over the past few days. Little things, now she thought about it. They'd all turned up and she'd thought she'd just been distracted but she definitely remembered putting the roll of parchment in. And her bag was spelled so things wouldn't fall out.

"I'm sorry Professor, I think I must have left it in the Tower," she said, cheeks burning as the dark haired teacher came round the classroom.

"You're such a good student, Hermione. I'm sure it's just a mistake. Get it to me by tomorrow morning," Professor Wolfe said, her cool blue eyes smiling.

"Thank you, Professor," Hermione murmured. It was so embarrassing. She'd never handed in an assignment late in her entire schooling career. She was sure she could feel Tom Riddle's eyes on her, judging her, thinking she was an idiot.

Not that he'd spoken to her for weeks.

Which was a good thing, she reminded herself. An ideal scenario.

Is everything alright? Marcus wrote on the charmed parchment they used to communicate in lessons. You don't seem yourself.

She wondered what 'herself' seemed like to him. She wasn't ever herself here. Was she?

Yes it's just – I know I put it in my bag before breakfast. I think someone's taking my things. Is that mad?

A little bit, darling. It'll turn up.

Hermione frowned. She needed to put some more spells on her bag – whoever had taken it must have got it at breakfast or in morning lessons. But she'd also something that might identify the thief… She'd go to the Library at lunch, she decided, and concentrated on the lesson.

"Today we'll be covering the first strand of meromorphic warding," the Professor said, a chalk flying up to write on the blackboard behind her. "I hope you have all done the assigned reading."

 

 

There was a ghost on her sofa.

Ghosts never, ever entered the students' rooms at Hogwarts so the sight on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday pulled Hermione up short in surprise.

The silvery outline of a woman, the same colour as the memory she'd pulled from her mind stood gazing out of the window into the darkness of the late November evening.

"Hello Hermione Dearborn," the woman whispered.

Her inflection was strange, as though she were unfamiliar with speaking. She was the soft grey of rainclouds in spring.

"Good evening," Hermione said politely, confused. In her eight years at Hogwarts she'd largely been ignored by the ghosts. With a few exceptions, like Harry Potter, they had little interest in the living. "Can I help you?"

"I hope so." The woman turned and glided towards the sofa, sitting for all the world as though they were to take tea together. "You are the reason I am here, after all."

Hermione put her satchel on her desk (and sure enough there was her damned homework – was she going mad?) and pulled out its chair.

"I don't understand," she said at last.

"Three weeks ago I was brought out of hiding. I had faded into the castle. It took me years to conceal myself. Hundreds of years. Do you know what it's like to be trapped forever in the same place as your murderer? But you – I've been watching. Listening. You wrought some ancient Samhain magic and here I am."

Hermione's brain went into overdrive. There was something about the woman that caught at a memory – her medieval gown, her waist length hair, murderer – of course.

"Miss – er - Lady Ravenclaw?"

"Of course," the woman said irritably. "This was my room, you know," she added, gesturing with a glimmering, insubstantial arm. "Her – my –on – ee. Helen's daughter."

Hermione frowned. It was Shakespeare, really, but… she didn't want to be rude. And, she was learning, if people thought they had a special connection with you they were – well - more forthcoming. Helpful.

And she didn't want the Grey Lady to decide she'd like to hang out in her old bedroom all the time, which she might if Hermione accidentally inspired a fit of pique. Harry had said she was difficult.

If she'd brought this woman here… then she was the reason Tom Riddle had been able to find the diadem – the diadem that had killed so many people.

Was this why she was here? Her heart sank.

"Yes, that's right."

"What do you know of ghosts Hermione?"

"How do you mean, Lady?"

"My perfidy to my line, the betrayal of my own blood… my anger – I could not move on. I have been watching you Her – my – on – ee, and I believe you are here for me. You will help me leave this earthly realm at long last. Instead of fading perhaps I can be finally free."

That was… not at all what she'd been expecting.

And she wouldn't help her move on. She already knew that. Harry would speak to her in May 1998 so she definitely didn't help this poor, lonely, trapped woman. Hermione couldn't imagine how awful it would be to spend a thousand years trapped in the same building as your murderer. Unless helping Harry was part of this? It was so confusing.

"We are connected. I see it. You have my room, you are Helen's daughter… you are loved by a Slytherin as I was, as my mother was. You brought me out of hiding. You will help me."

"I am not loved by a Slytherin, Lady," she snapped.

The wistful face smiled the saddest smile Hermione had ever seen, pearly tears glimmering in her eyes.

"The men of that line love differently, it is true. You will see, Hermione, Helen's daughter. And you will help me."

She was quite repetitive, not to mention stubborn and probably completely insane. Connected indeed. What utter rubbish. Hermione changed the topic.

"What do you mean "faded"?"

"I do not know how to explain it to an earthly creature. I became… aware but formless. Trapped within the walls of the castle. I wished not to be seen for so long I was not. My blood built these walls, there is magic here that still responds to me."

She was too tired to deal with this, on top of everything else, but the woman was so achingly sad…

"Tell me your story, Lady, and I will do what I can," Hermione said, remembering both her manners and that she wasn't supposed to know Helena Ravenclaw's story.

"Not tonight. You are weary. I will leave you now and we will speak again, soon. Good night, fauntelet," she whispered and rose, brushing Hermione's hair with her intangible hands, leaving only the sense of a soft coolness on her forehead.

It had been the very strangest of all of Hermione's conversations in her eight years at Hogwarts, and tired as she was, she lay awake for a long time, turning over the Grey Lady's words and all their implications in her mind.

 

 

There was little time to dwell on the bizarre conversation in the days to follow, however, and indeed Hermione had woken the morning after half-convinced it had been one of her weirder dreams.

The teachers, as was their wont, were piling on the work before the Christmas break and as always Hermione had to spend extra hours cross checking to make sure she hadn't added in any undiscovered knowledge to her essays.

So she buried herself in that and went to her classes and to the Library and spelled her bag to burn anyone who tried to steal her things and Tom Riddle avoided her and she warded her door and it was enough to distract her.

Then, one night, when she was working on a Charms essay, tucked away in a nook in the Library, she overheard an uncomfortable conversation.

Hermione wouldn't have heard it at all had she not needed to find a book (Aigisthus Kline's Charme Work Light and Darke) from the History section, but hearing her own name whispered caught her attention.

"Hermione isn't like that." It was Anya's voice, she realised and froze.

"I think she might be – especially after Halloween. She's only not with Tom because he's a half-blood, surely you can see that?"

Claire, she thought, feeling sick to her core.

"That might be true, but I don't think she actually had anything to do with that mad girl's death. She was too shocked."

"We don't really know her, though, do we? I mean, she's so aloof. Even with Marcus – "

"Claire… Marcus loves Hermione," the other girl said softly.

There was a long pause before Ancha added, "I'm sorry. You need to let go."

"I don't think she does," the girl whispered, her voice shaking. "I think she wants to be with Tom Riddle but she won't because of his blood. Because she's a supremacist. She's never really liked me. She only likes you and Sophia. And the way she and Riddle look at each other when they think no one is watching – I've seen it Ancha. It's like she hates him and wants him and hates herself for wanting him. He's such a pleasant boy, what other possible reason could she have for hating him?"

Hermione crept away, shaking.

Like she hates him and wants him and hates herself for wanting him.

She left her books on the desk and hurried to the nearest lavatory before emptying her stomach, the words ringing round and round in her head.

Blood supremacist.

Blood supremacist

blood supremacistbloodsupremacistbloosupremacistbloodbloodblood

It was so monstrously unfair, so fantastically ironic, she thought as she gripped the porcelain, dizzy and retching with sobs.

The worst of it all was that she was so alone. Who could she turn to here? There was no one - no one - who could begin to understand.

hates herself for wanting him

Was it true? She asked herself. His dark eyes gleamed in her mind and –

No. Of course she didn't want him. She didn't hate him for ignoring her, for avoiding her. She didn't burn to feel his eyes on hers again.

You are loved by a Slytherin as I was.

"Help," she whispered to no one. "Help me."

But there was no one there.

 

 

198 Diagon Alley

London

Friday November 17th 1944

 

 

Dear Miss Dearborn,

I was delighted to receive your letter. So few of our kind take a proper interest in their closest companion, and it was a joy to find you have done so.

Each and every wand I forge is special, of course, but as I told you on the day it chose you, yours is a particularly interesting one. Much is made of a special wand core, and indeed there are those I have made that are special because of the creatures that gifted the cores. An unusually intelligent and loyal Phoenix, with whom I believe you are acquainted, chose to bestow his feathers to create two wands I believe to be some of the finest I have ever made. And several years ago I was fortunate enough to be allowed to take three tail hairs from the Queen of the Unicorns. I have only found the tree for one of these so far and it is unclaimed but I am delighted with it nonetheless.

It is less usual for the wood to impart something special. When I am creating a wand not just any wood can be used for a core: it often takes several tries to find a fitting match. But for the most part it is chosen to set off the magical core.

The wood from your wand has been in my family for centuries. No Ollivander ever found a strand to fit it, and so it remained in our collection of such things for many years, passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, I believe there is some truth to an old family story about the tree from which it came.

It is said, and this is conjecture, for that wood is more than a thousand years old, but it is said the wood from your wand was part of a gift made to Rowena Ravenclaw from the High Priestess from the eternal realm of Avalon.

That island is now lost to us and the veil between closed forever. But some believe the Four Founders once visited Avalon to learn from the lady Nimue. In return for the knowledge she shared, Nimue asked them to close the entrance from our realm, which was found on Helga Hufflepuff's lands. She feared the turning tide of those we now called Muggles against those with magic.

Rowena Ravenclaw devised a way, alongside Helga and Godric Gryffindor and in payment the lady Nimue gave them seven relics from the Isles: Ravenclaw's diadem, now lost, a sword for Godric Gryffindor, a cupful of water from the lake, which could heal any wound, three golden apples, and a branch of wood from the tree that grew over Merlin's grave.

But Salazar Slytherin refused. He believed the immortal realm should not be closed off because of Muggle fear. And so, the founders argued, and he chose to stay on the Isle. The tale goes that Rowena Ravenclaw loved him, and it broke her heart to seal him away forever and that is why Nimue gifted her the golden apples, so that she might live in eternal youth and open up the island again when it was safe, and be reunited with her love. Some believe she did not love him and that the apples were simply to ensure she would live to open the Isle again.

But she did not eat one. As you perhaps know, she took a lover and had a daughter, and died many years later - taking the secrets of Avalon with her.

As far as I am aware this version of the tale is known only to my family, and so I cannot verify it. Perhaps it is just a myth. But if it is true, then the wood from your wand is that wood. Certainly it has resisted any wear of time.

I should add, I believe the sword of Gryffindor could only have been forged by those same smiths that made Excalibur, if it is not the self-same sword, for it shares many of the same properties. But that sword's hilt was jewelled with diamonds, not rubies so I suspect they are not the same. All the relics are thought to be lost now, all but the wood of your wand.

If I may add it seems singularly fitting that you should have won your wand's allegiance with the creation of eternal flame. Indeed, I can only believe your relationship with time will be quite unique.

If you should ever wish to learn more about wandlore, I would be honoured to teach you. However, I would ask you keep my family's tale to yourself.

Your servant,

Garrick Ollivander

Hermione closed the letter, and laid her head on the desk in her room in despair. He'd replied more quickly than she'd expected and it had just added to the swamp of confusion dragging her down.

These were Harry's sort of problems, not hers. She wasn't the one who had special wands and weird spiritual connections to the Founders, and the double whammy in one week was simply too much.

She certainly hadn't expected such a ridiculous tale when she'd written to ask a little more about her wand, hoping the extra power she'd been feeling had been caused by it and not because of poor Mabel Jefferies as Dumbledore believed. From what Mr Ollivander had said that was possible.

Surely it was just too coincidental for words that this letter should arrive four days after Rowena Ravenclaw's daughter had reappeared in Hogwarts?

Surely surely surely.

But - clearly not.

This was her life now, manic pixie adoptive fathers, obsessive Dark Lords, special wands and all. And while she'd always been sympathetic to Harry, she hadn't quite appreciated how simply terrifying it was to be the person it all happened to. What a burden being special was.

Rising from her desk, she called out softly, "Helena?"

She thought she'd felt the Lady's presence drifting in and out during the four days since she'd met her, but if she was watching she didn't show herself.

Hermione picked up her wand instead, and stared at the delicately marbled wood, the warm colour. She felt the weight of it in her hand.

A wand that made her more powerful, and –

Apples, she thought. Apples. Avalon's apples.

Tom Riddle must never, never, never know of those.

Never. The diadem was bad enough, horcruxes were bad enough. But fabled apples of eternal youth seemed like something aspiring Dark Lords who were obsessed with immortality would be all too interested in.

And – a cup that could heal any wound? How had he twisted such a thing into a Horcrux? And how had he been stupid enough not to use it for its original purpose?

Although… the cup had been empty. Perhaps someone had undone its magic long before he ruined it.

She'd held that cup, that sword, seen that diadem.

And having done so, even her cynical mind could believe they were gifts from a mythological enchantress, because it made sense, really. It explained why Slytherin's locket had had no special power: it had just been a locket. It explained how something as extraordinarily powerful as the diadem could exist, when no Wizard today could create such a thing (for many had tried). Why Gryffindor's sword could only be pulled from the Sorting Hat by the right person.

It just… fit.

And Tom Riddle could never know.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

- Soren Kierkegaard


 

 

Albus stepped away from the Pensieve, deep in thought. He'd watched Hermione's memory several times over the week since she had left it with him, and what he saw both interested and concerned him.

Tom Riddle was even more interested in the girl that Albus had originally planned for. He'd hoped the boy would find her fascinating, had indeed set it up so it would be impossible for Riddle not to be curious, bait to get the boy to expose himself. Albus was as sure as he could be that Riddle was behind the deaths of Myrtle Warren and Mabel Jeffries, but any mention of it to other staff members only drew ridicule. He'd become certain after his future self's hints in the message Hermione had brought with her that summer.

He had never been a man to overlook such an opportunity.

The boy had always had a jealous streak, and so Albus had created a fairytale witch with the kind of background that might draw Riddle out a little. To keep her safe, he had publicly declared his own interest in her, though he had become fond of her on her own terms. An if that interest only added to her allure to Tom Riddle, well, that was just an advantage.

He'd hoped the boy would let something slip to Hermione, recruit her to some cause or indicate his future intentions. If he had done so, she had not passed it on.

It appeared, however, that he'd inadvertently sparked an obsession. If he was not much mistaken, Tom Riddle had set up the stunt on Halloween more to catch Hermione's attention than anything else. The boy had looked shocked; perhaps he had lost control of the situation.

He thought back to the conversation he'd had with his future self on the night Hermione had arrived in his life. What exactly had he said?

She may at times appear to be… tempted, but have faith in her… you must unlock her potential for greatness…

He'd explicitly told himself to use her to get to Riddle, had he not? Already hinted so much to the girl...

She can be your eyes and ears in the student body… one student in particular who might be made curious about her… Allow him this interest but he cannot know the truth.

He felt torn. He could continue to encourage this relationship, but Hermione seemed very reluctant to admit her obvious attraction to the boy. All the signs pointed towards her knowing and loathing him in her past and his future.

Instead she had chosen the insipid Blishwick boy, which was curious in itself. For someone so determined not to live fully in the past she seemed unconcerned with putting down roots. And likely it had only increased Tom's interest: even as a child he'd lusted after other people's things.

It had been Albus who had asked Slughorn to pair Hermione and Tom together in Potions. That had certainly helped forge a connection between them. But would Hermione pass on anything even if she did find it? And would he be pushing her towards danger?

Albus longed for a way to prove the boy's connection to the Chamber, even as he felt guilt for the way he'd treated him. The dislike he held for Tom Riddle was visceral. And yet, perhaps if he'd looked after the boy...

But he'd known as soon as he set eyes on him the boy would be a Slytherin – and to be a Slytherin orphan was a terrible thing. He'd only hoped to help prepare the boy for the cruelty he'd face at Hogwarts, and quash any bad behaviour before he arrived.

He hadn't meant to wholly alienate him, to turn him even more defensive and cold.

Hermione seemed to bring out something better in him. Throwing them together might even save the boy – even if they were just friends. Tom had never had a friend and Merlin himself knew the boy had needed one.

Certainly his elder self had indicated it was a good idea… And she was strong, brave and powerful. Albus was fairly sure she could handle anything Riddle threw at her. He was just a boy.

But how to go about it?

 

 

A few days later, an opportunity arose.

Snow had coated the lands around the castle overnight, a thick white blanket that transformed the world into something pure and bleak and majestic.

It was quite beautiful, though Albus preferred the warm colours of mid Autumn: winter in the Highlands was uncompromising and even magic could only ward off so much of the chill.

He was concerned about his protégée. She had withdrawn inwards again, as she had at the beginning. He'd been watching carefully and his sources in the castle agreed. On top of that, she and Tom Riddle hadn't spoken outside of classes since the day after Halloween.

He might have a use for her but he had come to genuinely care for the young woman. She was quite extraordinary after all and she brought… warmth to what had become a relatively lonely life.

His Seventh Years were working in silence, as they tried to silently conjure cats from thin air. Only two felines roamed the classroom so far neither was Hermione's. Albus knew she was more than capable of the spell, but she was sitting quietly, gazing out of the window.

Tom Riddle was watching her, ignoring the perfect tawny brown cat he had conjured mewling at the back of the classroom.

It was a fascinating dynamic. Was it possible the boy had a heart after all, but didn't understand it? Albus felt old and tired and regretful as he studied him.

Riddle's handsome face shifted slightly, and he almost looked relieved. Albus looked over and indeed Hermione had finally produced a cat – a scrawny, black haired thing with vivid green eyes. She stroked it idly.

"Mr Riddle, Miss Dearborn – a word please," he said, mind made up. If there was even half a chance Hermione could bring warmth to Tom's life and turn him away from the dark path Albus was sure he was set on, he had to take it.

And, if not, he needed to know the boy's plans.

They walked forward reluctantly. Hermione was frowning at him, obviously confused.

"As you have both finished, I wonder if I might ask you a favour," he said, making sure to send them his very best twinkle. "I am supposed to be decorating the Great Hall after this lesson, but there are some errands I must take care of. Could I possibly entreat you both to sacrifice your time? I will, of course, excuse you from the rest of your lessons."

Tom looked, not to put too fine a point on it, flabbergasted, and again Albus regretted alienating the boy. It had been a mistake.

"Of course, Professor," the boy said ingratiatingly, in what Albus thought of as his Head Boy voice.

"Thank you. I trust you will bring great Christmas cheer to us all tonight." A big, smile, directly especially at Hermione who was glaring at him. "Off you go."

 

 

 

Hermione was seething. How could her one ally in this world quite literally throw her to the wolves (well, wolf) like that?

And with her thus-far unsuccessful research into the Founders' connection with Avalon, the fact that Helena Ravenclaw seemed to have vanished again, and someone still playing nasty little pranks on her she was hardly feeling the Christmas cheer.

Decorating. It was unbelievable.

She picked up her books, and followed Riddle out of the classroom. He paused to hold the door for her, and then strode off.

She didn't bother trying to keep up. His legs were practically twice the length of hers and it was quite obvious he wasn't feeling chatty.

That ought to have been a good thing, but it didn't feel like it. Piqued, she deliberately paused to admire the snow-obscured landscape from a window until he'd turned a corner ahead of her and then took three shortcuts down to the hall.

But he was already there, holding open the doors to the Great Hall.

"The trees are here," he said, gesturing. "I'll do one side and you do the other."

"Fine. What's the colour scheme? I've never seen Hogwarts' Christmas decorations before," she lied.

He paused.

"Green and silver."

"Prat," she said, mildly, and just like that he was smiling slightly – the real smile that touched his eyes and sent her dizzy with confusion.

"Alright, that won't work. What do you have at home?"

She closed her eyes, a shock of pain running through her.

Home.

What a cruel joke that word was now. Christmas was going to be difficult. She remembered seeing the Hogwarts decorations being put up that first time, with her new - but already so close - friends Harry and Ron. She remembered streams of golden bubbles floating out of Flitwick's wand. Hagrid carrying the trees, Weasley jumpers and magical crackers. Her father holding her up to put the star on the top of the tree. Sugar-free chocolate, and sensible underwear and books and her stocking….

Her parents' tree had always just had gold decorations, and it had been so beautiful. As a child, when her mother had turned the lights off so they could see it in the dark, Hermione had believed the tinsel and lights were the most magical things on earth.

"Are there decorations somewhere? Lights or candles seem a good starting point." she asked, changing the subject.

"No idea. This is usually the teachers' job. Lights is a good idea, I know a really good spell actually. Auream Luminaream."

A string of tiny golden lights, drifted out of his wand and she watched as he directed them onto the tree. It was… distracting.

He looked back and caught her unguarded expression and she turned, confused.

"Yes, that's a good spell. If you show me again, I'll do the left side and we can work out decorations afterwards."

"I've never actually decorated a Christmas tree before. I'm not sure we're the best people for this job." His tone was off-hand, but she was already emotional enough and it stabbed through her.

Of course he hadn't. He'd never had a family, never had a home.

"Well – um – usually you decorate together. It's a… a ritual in many people's homes. Everyone has their own traditions. What's your favourite thing about Christmas?"

"Staying at Hogwarts."

She stared at him.

He's not a house-elf, Hermione. He's not Buckbeak or Crookshanks or Neville in first year. You can't just adopt him. He's not a cause.

He's a murdering psychopath who deserved everything that happened to him. Will happen.

But he wasn't, not yet. Not wholly. He was just a surprisingly awkward and emotionally – she didn't have a word to fully describe his lack of emotional growth – teenage boy who didn't know what Christmas meant.

Silently she conjured a glittering silver snake that looked like it was made of flowing diamonds, with gleaming emerald eyes.

"Well, here you go. A nice seasonal ornament for your very first tree," she said.

And he laughed. Properly, genuinely laughed.

It was amazing. He laughed so much he sank down onto the floor and then she was laughing too and the tears that had been pricking at her eyes faded.

 

 

"I like the purple one better," he said seriously. "It's more regal."

"Is purple secretly your favourite colour or something?"

The hall was… a bit of a mess, actually. They'd argued over every single tree (so much for doing them separately). Christmas – red and green and gold and silver – wasn't exactly a house neutral situation.

She'd managed to sneak some blue and bronze around, and he'd reacted by conjuring yellow fairies to sit all over one of the trees. She'd tried fifteen spells and they just wouldn't stop dancing around and the whole thing was such a mess but she was having fun and it was so weird and remarkable and she didn't want to stop.

"Why don't we pick six reasonable decorative schemes and mirror them?"

"'Decorative schemes'," he mocked.

"This is ridiculous! No wonder Albus didn't want to do it."

"Have you got some parchment?" he asked, suddenly.

She summoned some blank parchment and her quill from her bag and he pulled out a chair and drew the outline the hall with twelve circles.

"Right, if these four at the ends are silver, then the next four are gold and then the four in the middle can be, I don't know, covered in ice or something."

She watched him push his dark hair back. Watching him planning was… surreal. Almost sweet.

"That would be really pretty actually. Not the ice but – here," she took the quill. "If we don't do it so symmetrically… actually let's move these two trees so there's five up each side and two behind the High Table – they can be purple and gold, then there's a odd number so the first two silver and ice, then gold and then purple in the middle. How's that?"

"Frankly, it sounds revolting. But we can try it I suppose."

It turned out beautifully, with a few more adjustments.

She hadn't expected him to have any semblance of a sense of humour, but he kept conjuring more of the yellow fairies when she wasn't looking, and putting snakes in the trees, and generally being playful.

It was bizarre.

When they'd finished he turned the fairies into glowing silver and gold instead of yellow and they fluttered around the trees. The snake she'd made slithered around the top of the tree nearest where he sat in the Hall – he'd insisted on keeping it even though she'd meant it as a joke – so they she'd had to put all the house mascots on a tree, which took ages.

"Everything else is a bit bare, isn't it? I can't think what they normally do. I've never really noticed the details," he commented.

"We usually have holly and ivy at home. Do you think they'd conjure that or get it from the forest?"

"Well I'm certainly not going out to pick some useless greenery when we can just make some. What other," he gestured impatiently, "foliage seems appropriate?"

"Just evergreens, I think. Yew, mistletoe…" she blushed suddenly.

Mistletoe. The worst of all Christmas traditions.

Distracting herself, Hermione conjured a branch of yew and set it glittering with frost, before levitating it upwards, trailing ivy around the top of the panelling.

"Do you think you could get some more of your little faeries to sort of perch in the foliage?"

They were exquisite, now they weren't bright yellow, trailing dust as they flew like butterflies from leaf to leaf.

"I can try," he muttered. "I can't believe I'm spending my afternoon deliberately conjuring faeries. Makes me miss the cats."

She snorted.

"I think you've had fun this afternoon, Tom Riddle. Are you staying for the feast?"

"No, I'm – I'm not spending Christmas here this year," he murmured and she felt the playful mood dissipate. Surely he wasn't voluntarily going to the orphanage?

"Are you going to the um, going home?"

"I recently inherited my father's house. I'll be spending the holidays there."

Inherited was a strong word, she reflected. Had he imperiused some Muggle lawyer into doing his bidding? Or was his claim legitimate? It hardly mattered given that he'd murdered the man.

But if he was there surely that meant he'd be –

"Alone?" she asked before she could help herself and then wanted to hit herself over the head with a troll club. (Not Buckbeak, not Crookshanks!) It wasn't as if she was going to invite him down to Wales for the holidays so why ask?

Letting her guard down with him had clearly sent her completely round the bend.

Luckily a House-Elf chose that moment to pop into existence in the Hall.

"Jingo!" Hermione exclaimed in relief.

"Missy Hermione why has you not used the school decorations? If you'd have called, Jingo would have showed you. They is in the cupboard under the stairs."

Hermione thought she might cry. Of course they were. Right outside the Hall. Brilliant.

"Bit late now. Does it look alright in here? Oh, um, Tom this is Albus – I mean Professor Dumbledore's, elf, Jingo."

It probably wasn't polite etiquette to introduce an elf but it wasn't as though Hermione cared.

He nodded politely.

"It is looking beautiful in here, Missy Hermione. Jingo will bring you and Mister Tom a hot chocolate. Mister Tom is being quite pale."

She vanished again with a pop.

"She's an unusual elf," Hermione explained. "Just… go with it. She'll only try to feed you more if you refuse."

He nodded and sat down at the nearest table. It was, oddly, the Gryffindor table. In fact Hermione was pretty sure it was near enough exactly the very first seat she'd ever sat on at Hogwarts.

The elf reappeared bearing (predictably enough) a tray absolutely loaded with food and two steaming mugs of cocoa.

"Thank you Jingo. If you'd like, you can tell Albus we've finished so he can come and pretend he's been here all along."

The elf wrinkled her nose at Hermione in amusement and vanished again.

Tea with Tom Riddle.

The day couldn't really have been stranger, she thought, and imagined (as she so often couldn't help) what Harry would think when she told him.

And then he complimented the biscuits, Harry. Did you know he likes to dunk them in hot chocolate? And he's a cinnamon fan…

Smiling sadly, she joined him and eyed up the cakes: a big melting golden sponge, gooey looking chocolate, and some sort of orangey one that was probably something to do with pumpkins. There were hot buttery crumpets and sandwiches and biscuits and eclairs and custard tarts.

"Crikey," she muttered. "This is a lot even by Jingo's standards."

"The biscuits are excellent," he observed and she laughed.

Really.

She chose an éclair, and sighed in delight as the sour-sweet combination of cream and choux and chocolate hit her tongue.

When he eyes rose up to his, he was staring at her mouth and for the umpteenth time that afternoon the charge between them flickered up. She felt self conscious, and wished she'd picked a crumpet.

They ate in silence, too many questions weighing on her she knew she shouldn't ask.

Tell me about it, she wanted to say. She wanted to take his hand and say tell me about growing up in that place.

But she didn't.

 

 

"Very fine indeed. Prodigiously festive. Thank you, Tom."

As far as he could tell, the plan – or rather, the moment of inspiration – had paid off in dividends. The two children had laughed and talked throughout the afternoon, Jingo had reported, and from Tom's somewhat shellshocked expression he thought it had done the boy good.

The hall looked beautiful, if a little more elegant than usual. He liked a few more garish colours but all the purple around the High Table was very pleasing.

"Hermione, a moment?" Albus asked, as she made to follow after Riddle out of the Hall.

"Yes, Professor?" she asked.

She seemed slightly bit miffed with him, but not as much as she'd been earlier than afternoon.

"You've been quiet for weeks, even in our classes. Is everything alright?"

She nodded, her dark eyes inscrutable and features quite composed.

"Yes, I think so. Sorry if I've been quiet."

"Alright. I will see you after dinner for your lesson?"

She nodded, and turned away. He watched her walk out of the room and wondered if she realised how assured and elegant she was in comparison with so many of the young witches in the castle. There was something in the way she moved and held herself that drew the eye, a surety and self-belief that, when paired with grace, was pleasing even to his unappreciative eye.

The perfect trap, for a boy like Tom Riddle, he thought tiredly.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,

That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.

T.S. Eliot - The Dry Salvages [Four Quartets]


 

 

Tom watched the drama unveil though the stacks with a barely concealed smirk.

Everything was unfolding just as he'd planned.

Hermione Dearborn was openly, if quietly, having a go at a Muggleborn student several years younger than her. Not that many people were watching (it was the library after all) but there were enough to see, and therefore to gossip, and gossip in the castle spread faster than Fiendfyre.

He predicted by breakfast the following day at least one person would tell him Hermione Dearborn had cursed a Mudblood in the library.

Claire Hughes was about as ordinary as they came, in his eyes. She hadn't even been able to plan a proper bit of revenge until Tom had gone in her head and tweaked it to suit himself as well.

Honestly, who even did their own dirty work? How someone was so extraordinarily insipid as to not predict a witch like Dearborn would put some kind of tracing spell on the items once she'd realised they were going missing from that weird bag she had, Tom couldn't fathom.

He'd manipulated her into using a Mudblood fifth year to take the things, so Dearborn would throw a fit – ideally in public, as she was now doing – and be cemented even further into the niche created for her by Samhain…

Dearborn's thick, dark hair, which she'd tried to tame in a plait that was rapidly coming undone suddenly looked like it was actually sparking. He leant forward eagerly, trying to hear.

She threw her hands up and – yes that was definitely a spark in her hair. Was that normal? He'd noticed her hair tended to get bushier with her moods but it was crackling. And there she was, storming out of the Library. Brilliant.

The Mudblood Gryffindor (who'd have been under an Imperius, if Claire had done her job properly) would have no idea why a Seventh Year she'd never even spoken to would be accusing her of stealing her homework in the Library.

It was so simple, so breathtakingly easy, to destroy someone's reputation.

A few pieces set in play, and they'd do it all by themselves.

 

 

He followed her out of the library, unable to resist watching her when she was so riled up.

Her power roiled off her when she was like this. No one else seemed to notice but he could feel her. Like a storm lashing him with warm rain, or a fire after being out in the icy cold.

She was majestic.

Tom was obsessed.

He trailed her out of the castle, staying far enough back that she wouldn't see him unless she turned around. Eventually, she stopped by the shore of the lake and he watched, in silent fascination, as she completely lost her temper. He wanted to tear her open and look to see if there really was fire inside. Did flames dance through her blood?

If he ripped her open, would her secrets be burned into her skin on the inside? Would she tell him then?

She hurled fireballs out, sending them crashing through the icy surface of the lake or bouncing across it for about fifteen minutes and he watched, fascinated because she was so beautiful like that, elemental almost, like some sort of mythical fucking witch of old, and he could feel her magic and her rage and it was amazing and like nothing and no one else and he couldn't tear himself away.

He watched, even as the snow started to fall again, and watched until she froze halfway through the motion and said aloud, her voice ringing like a bell,

"Of course! You idiot, Hermione."

And then she was gone, hurrying back to the castle and, because he'd dived rather inelegantly behind a tree so she wouldn't see him, he'd lost her.

 

 

After the Yule Decorating Incident he'd been convinced she'd put a spell on him – or someone had on her behalf. He'd actually taken a bezoar (just in case) although he'd deny it till the world burned if anyone asked him.

He'd even dreamt about her two nights previously - so pathetic, so mundane - after that diabolical afternoon spent conjuring fucking fairies and sparkly things and he'd had to literally scrub himself raw in the shower afterwards, shaking and confused because the boy he'd once been would have killed for an afternoon like that, for the Christmases she spoke of in vague terms and –

He was stronger than that.

Those things were for ordinary people.

But now he knew how to manipulate her. He'd traced the language of her body, how her eyes softened, how her low voice warmed up, how her cheeks turned pink, how her words became open doors inside her when she thought he was vulnerable.

He knew how to get at her now. And if he told her enough secrets, maybe she'd tell him hers. It was almost disappointing that the poor orphan stories undid her, but then it wasn't just the stories, he'd come to realise, it was the truths that turned the cool dark eyes whiskey warm. Tom walked back to the library, alone, wondering how much of himself he'd have to spill to slice her open.

Truth could be a knife to cut someone open, but – she could just as easily turn it back around on him and if he wanted her to bleed out her secrets he'd have to cut himself first.

But still – progress.

 

 

 

She surprised him as she always did.

The rumour mill buzzed slightly Hermione Dearborn cursed Enid MacMillan in the library!

Isn't she a Mudblood?

I heard Dearborn won't talk to people unless –

Stuck up bitch, actually

But then

Apologised

Really nice, she said

Covering up?

MacMillan didn't think so –

A note - apologising. Said it was a mistake.

So well-mannered, they whispered. Beautiful and so clever.

His insides clenched. Smart little witch.

But some still had doubts. And that would be enough.

He eyed Claire Hughes at dinner the day after, as she sat white faced and eyes burning and he wanted to carve her idiocy into her skin so everyone would see it, see how unworthy she was to sit next to Hermione Dearborn, who burned next to her and met his gaze with peony cheeks that told him the blood was rushing beneath the skin, glowing skin, and he raged inside because what had she done to him, what was she doing to him?

 

.

 

Hermione was furious with herself as she hurried back up from the lake, not feeling the cold snow settling in her hair and turning to water. She'd lost control of her temper, which rarely happened these days, especially without Ron here to wind her up, and fallen into a stupid – and, in retrospect, obvious - trap.

Of course someone had been using a proxy to play tricks on her. She'd just followed the spell, which lit up the girl in a red glow only visible to her. She hadn't even known the girl's name.

Stupid stupid stupid. She was having a terrible week but still. Stupid.

She'd assumed it was Greengrass. It seemed more likely now. After all, she was clever and powerful and apparently jealous of her, at least so Claire said.

Clearly, whoever it was, wanted to make Hermione look like a total lunatic (which she probably had).

Damage control, then.

 

 

 

Dear Enid,

I'm so sorry about this evening. Someone has been playing some petty tricks on me, taking things from my bag, so I put a Thief Tracking spell on it and it showed you.

In retrospect, I realise this is highly unlikely and I must ask if it's possible you have been under a spell or curse or are missing any Time in the past few weeks? I think someone was setting us both up!

However, I suspect now I've made quite the spectacle of myself, whoever thinks this is droll will stop using you but I am terribly sorry you've been caught up in what is probably something very childish.

If there's ever anything I can do to repay you for the unpleasantness this afternoon, please let me know. Again, I apologise profusely – have a wonderful Christmas holiday and best wishes for the New Year.

Yours,

Hermione Dearborn

P.S. I do hope you like chocolate; this is my favourite bar from Honeydukes.

 

It was lucky the weekend before had been a Hogsmeade weekend for the Seventh Years, she reflected. She'd gone with Marcus, wandering around in the snow hand-in-hand, and now she had quite a good stock of chocolate, which always made apologies a little sweeter.

And some lovely dress robes for Slughorn's party.

She tied the parcel onto Pevensie's leg and stroked his beautiful face lightly.

"Just to Gryffindor tower please, dearest. If you come to my room when you're back I'll have some treats for you later."

 

 

"Happy Birthday!" Hermione said, poking her sleeping friend. It had been some time since she'd been into the girls' dormitory, but every time she went in she was grateful again for her isolated little room.

"Thank you, dearest," Sophia muttered, pulling the covers over her head. Then she sat up suddenly. "My birthday! Yes!"

"I brought you some coffee, and a little something," she said, handing her a prettily wrapped box.

"Coffee. You're an angel, truly. Oh wicked mother of Morganna, I'm eighteen. Pass me my presents."

"Wait for us!" Ancha exclaimed, sitting up and wiping her eyes. She shook Claire and the rest of the Seventh Year girls awake and they piled on to Sophia's bed.

"There's only one I really want to open before breakfast," Sophia said quietly. "I think – is there one there from Abraxas?"

They looked through the labels and Claire passed Sophia a box.

"He's home for Christmas now. In his letter he said he hoped I'd be wearing it when I see him tomorrow night for the party – I – I think – "

"Oh Merlin, really?" Ancha breathed.

Hermione looked from one to the other and it wasn't until she saw Sophia's fingers were uncharacteristically trembling that the knut dropped.

The blonde girl's sharp grey eyes were soft with unshed tears as she read the card and then opened the little velvet box.

A simply enormous emerald, surrounded by diamonds, sat glinting smugly in the box, and Hermione felt uncharitable that her first thought was each to their own and her second was typical Malfoys but then she looked back at Sophia's face, and really there was nothing to do but rejoice.

She looked up to gauge the others' reactions. Ancha seemed unphased, winking at Hermione and excitedly exclaiming put it on!

Claire wouldn't meet her eyes, yet again, on the other hand. In fact, she'd been uncharacteristically quiet.

"Isn't it beautiful, Claire?" she asked.

"It's splendid. I'm so happy for you, Sophia. Congratulations."

She still didn't look at Hermione.

Happiness looked different to different people, she supposed. And in an odd way, the ring suited Sophia, who was so chic and elegant, by Wizarding standards at least, that she carried off the gigantic ring.

And, well, that's what you got for marrying into a family that thought white peacocks were a stylish lawn accessory.

Girlish squealing over, and a few more presents opened, it was time for the rest of the girls to get dressed. As the others moved away, Hermione tied up and vanished the wrapping paper before standing to move away, but Sophia took her hand and stopped her.

"It was sweet of you to come and wake me, dearest. Thank you." She smiled, eyes soft and warm and Hermione felt a rush of genuine affection for the young woman. She'd never have pegged Lucius Malfoy's mother for a friend, but fate was a funny old thing. She continued in a hushed voice, "Look – don't worry about Claire. But… maybe we should have a proper talk? At break? No, damn, there's a Prefect meeting."

Hermione nodded. "We'll work it out." She raised her voice, "I'll wait for you all in the Common Room for breakfast. Don't take long - I'm ravenous!"

 

 

With the extra workload and Ravenclaws' predilection for getting their holiday homework done the night it was set, rather than on the night before it was due like Harry and Ron had always done, Hermione didn't get a chance to talk to Sophia that day. Instead, the headed to the library together that evening, settling into a secluded nook, with a mutual, if unspoken agreement that they'd talk after they'd worked.

But Tom Riddle dropped his books onto the table soon after they arrived. Hermione eyed him warily. In the few days that had passed since their afternoon of fun (which she'd resolutely ignored as best she could) he'd been relentlessly normal with her.

Normal, for Tom, meant hiding behind the façade of bright, handsome Head Boy – a façade so convincing to their peers and teachers that no one would associate him with Lord Voldemort when he returned after whatever it was he'd spend the next two and a half decades.

"Good evening, ladies," he murmured, sending Sophia his most polished Head Boy smile, Hermione noted. "And Happy Birthday, Selwyn."

"Thank you, Tom."

"Dearborn, I assume you've started your Potions research?"

"I might have done," Hermione acknowledged.

He examined her thoughtfully, and she felt a pang of regret that he couldn't stay this way; that he wouldn't settle for just be an extremely engaging and intelligent and handsome wizard. It was such a waste.

"Any clues?" he asked.

"Well, here's a Riddle, Riddle. Whatever gets you high will always bring you down, but while you're there – you're golden."

"That's hardly a riddle. Hardly even a clue" he scoffed, but he rocked back on his chair thoughtfully. "Solid or liquid gold?"

"No questions. Now be quiet and let me finish my translation."

She looked back down at her work and was pleased to have fifteen minutes quiet work before he pushed a piece of parchment at her.

Do you need to get lucky, then, Dearborn?

Hermione's mouth dropped open in surprise. Not because he'd worked out that she was going to brew (and write a dissertation on the relationship of the ingredients, their efficiency, effects, and ethical use) of Felix Felicis, but because he was flirting with her.

She glanced at him, and was gratified to catch a hint of pink around his cheeks. More mortifying was Sophia's smirk from across the table as she pretended to read her Charms textbook.

"What have you picked?" she asked him quietly. In the bright, warm light of the library she thought his eyes looked almost green. His dark hair fell with that effortless grace across his forehead and she sighed with irritation.

Did he use products? Or was it just some genetic miracle that despite being an orphan who'd probably never had had a decent haircut it was always flawless?

And did it ever look messy –

"I'm inventing my own, of course. An antidote that will work for all magical snake venoms."

"An antidote?"

His angelic expression was wholly unconvincing, especially because it was immediately followed by a very smug smile.

"You're distracting me," he muttered. "Do your work. We've only got one day left."

She scowled at him, torn between amusement and irritation, but obeyed.

Talking to him was too perplexing, anyway. It was better when he was quiet. At least then he contributed to the room in a decorative manner, without any confusing feelings of pity (sometimes) or academic admiration (less often), or friendship (worryingly).

 

 

"You and that boy," Sophia commented as they walked back towards the tower.

Hermione sighed and didn't reply. There was no point pretending he hadn't been flirting with her in the library, after all.

After a few minutes walking quietly, Sophia pulled her into a classroom and warded the door with silencing spells.

"Hermione, look, you're fantastic. You're probably my favourite witch in this castle, so I'm telling you this as a friend. It's all very well to disapprove of Muggleborns… lots of people do – most of my family included. They undermine our traditions and bring their misplaced judgement and morality and try and apply it to our world and that's difficult.

"But be careful. People gossip. Samhain, that Gryffindor in the Library… You're getting a reputation. I know it's a load of rubbish, and if anything you're a bit of a bleeding heart. But if you're not with Riddle because of his blood status I think you're making a mistake."

Hermione stared, gobsmacked. There were no words that could properly convey how mistaken her friend was, how utterly and completely wrong.

She couldn't even laugh at the knife-twistingly bitter irony.

"I'm only saying this because I've got a feeling Marcus might, you know, want to follow in Abraxas's footsteps as it were. His mother wrote to me and asked about you."

"What?" Hermione sat down in shock. "We've only known each other for three months."

Sophia shrugged. "It's not that unusual. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I think he may have said something to Claire, and that's why she's being so rude."

"This is going to sound mad, but I think she's been stealing my things. I thought it was Greengrass but actually it more makes sense if Claire… you know my things have been going missing and then turning up again? Well I enchanted my bag to show me who was taking stuff and it was that Gryffindor, that's why I lost my temper. Well, that was a tipping point anyway… But obviously it wasn't her, she barely knew who I was, she'd been imperiused or something vile, I suppose. Merlin, this is such a mess. I don't want to marry anyone, for one thing! And I don't have a problem with Muggleborns."

Sophia sighed and sat down beside her.

"What a mess," she agreed. "Just… I can't believe I'm saying this because he's my cousin and you're a fantastic match. Well-bred, beautiful, clever, and rich. But you should probably break things off with Marcus before he gets carried away with how suitable you are and asks you to marry him."

"He's been so sweet to me. I feel like I've lead him on. What happened between him and Claire that's made her hate me so?"

"They weren't together, not officially. I don't know the gory details, naturally, but I think he had a dalliance with her last year and she fell in love with him – no she'd loved him for years, actually – but his family probably wouldn't approve so whatever it was was pretty secret. Then the summer came and they just stopped and then you came along."

"Poor Claire. This may surprise you but I don't actually give a fig about someone's blood. I'm wary of Tom for a lot of other reasons, including his stance on the matter, but that's not one of them. And if Marcus liked Claire but not enough to openly court her because her mother's a Muggleborn then he ought to be ashamed of himself."

"I agree. She was brought up with our ways, by and large, so what does it matter? Oh doxies, it's almost curfew. Let's not get detention and have to miss the party! Isn't your father coming?"

 

 

 

The last night of term arrived with another flurry of snow, and, for Hermione, it was astonishing that a summer and a whole term could have passed without seeing Harry, Ron or Ginny. And yet also as though it had been an entire lifetime since she'd seen them.

Besides, she didn't have time to worry about whether she was being disloyal to their memories by making friends in the past because as soon as her last class finished, she practically ran up the stairs to Dumbledore's quarters.

He'd invited her to tea at the end of her Transfiguration class and to welcome her "father" before the party, as would only be fitting and normal, and added there is something we'd like to discuss with you.

Naturally, she'd spent the rest of the day worrying about that something.

"Father!" Hermione exclaimed, excitedly, remembering not to use his first name in case anyone could overhear. "You look tremendous."

And he did. Thick dark hair vaguely tamed into a respectable style and eyes sparkling with mischief.

"I've been in Edinburgh, gallivanting a little too hard. Don't feel tremendous. Funny how much there is to catch up on when you start seeing people after so long. Now, let me look at you. Superb. Come, come, sit down."

"How was your journey?" she said, gratefully relaxing into one of Albus cushy red armchairs.

"Fine, fine. I apparated from Edinburgh to Hogsmeade and they sent a carriage because of the snow. Wouldn't have had that treatment as a young thing – still, it's good to see the old place!"

"I'll bet. Has anything changed drastically?"

"Not a bit. Not even a new ghost as far's I can see."

They chattered on, catching up over tea and cake.

"Are you looking forward to the party?" Hermione asked. "Professor Slughorn is certainly looking forward to seeing you. He's mentioned it thirteen times in the past two weeks. I kept a tally."

He roared with laughter.

"Horace always has interesting people at these things, so yes, suppose I am."

Albus, who'd been quiet for the most part, allowing them to catch up, interjected before she could speak again.

"Time is pressing, Hermione, so I am afraid we must cut to the chase."

"Yes, indeed. Thing is, girl, I'm not without enemies," Cerdic said, placing his teacup down on its saucer and picking up a biscuit.

Hermione frowned in surprise. She hadn't known what to expect, exactly, but this wasn't it.

"There have been threats," Albus explained, without actually explaining anything as usual.

"They've heard about the gold," Cerdic added, dipping his biscuit into the tea. "They want to know the recipe to turn base metals into gold… I can't give it to them because that's not how alchemy works, but no one ever understands that. Blasted pest."

"They've made threats against you, Hermione. We're not too concerned about those at present: you are safe here, and I believe you are more than capable of looking after yourself as it is. However, it's possible someone will cast a spell to identify you as Cerdic's daughter. I'm sure you will agree, that could lead to some inconvenient circumstances."

"Thought we'd make it official and whatnot."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand?" she said, baffled by the double act, by the huge leap in logic, and as to what they were actually proposing.

"I'd like to adopt you, child. There's an old spell… families used to use it when they swapped their Squib children for Muggleborns I think. Rotten, really."

Adoption! This was unexpected.

"Am I not a bit old for adoption?" she asked.

They laughed.

"It's certainly not traditional," Dumbledore offered. "But one might venture that there is little traditional about your situation, Hermione. Being the binder will also make me officially your Godfather, as it were."

"Besides, I'd like to," Cerdic said.

And that was that, really.

"You are truly the kindest man," she said to Cerdic. "Are you sure about this? You could still meet someone and have children, not some lost girl you hardly know, who's been foisted upon you by circumstances."

He turned uncharacteristically serious and took her hand.

"Very few people are lucky enough to choose their children. You are a brave and clever young woman, and I greatly admire your fortitude. I am already proud to call you daughter."

She nodded, a little overwhelmed at the turn her afternoon had taken, and a little tearful.

And just like that, Albus made a cut in Cerdic's palm with his wand. He held it to her and she took it, tentatively.

"I, Cerdic, of House Dearborn, welcome this child into my family. May her blood be of my blood and her magic be of my magic. I recognise her as my kin and heir."

There was a golden glow and she felt a sudden sense of belonging; it was done.

Family.

 

 

Chapter Text

And when you appear
All the rivers sound
In my body, bells
Shake the sky,
And a hymn fills the world.

- Pablo Neruda (showing everyone who's boss even in translation)


 

The dress robes should have been unbearably heavy. They were a choice she'd never have made as Muggle.

But this dress – for it was more dress than robes – had been irresistible. The thick silk was covered in gold beading and it hung, heavy and glittering, bias draped and backless.

It was the kind of thing you wore on a balcony with red lipstick and a husky laugh, smoking a cigarette and drinking brandy, the kind of dress to set tongues wagging and men staring.

Hermione didn't know why she'd bought it, really. Probably because it was the closest thing they'd had to a Muggle dress and she'd been feeling contrary, bored of the conventional witchy attire of long fluttering bell sleeves and nipped-in waists. But there was no time for a rethink; she was going to be late as it was. She'd just have to wear it.

She pulled on the dress, gasping as the fitting charm pulled it tight against her skin for a moment before relaxing, and then checked her hair, spelled in the hopes it would stay it a braided up-do it was already trying to escape from, makeup and jewellery one last time in the mirror.

"You look beautiful, dear," it said.

Courage, Dearborn, she whispered to herself.

There was a knock at her door; no doubt it would be Hector. She and Marcus had agreed to take other people to the party, so that more of their friends who weren't invited would be able to go. She was glad of it now.

"It's open," she called out, turning away from the mirror.

The sandy haired Chaser looked handsome, if conventional, in slate blue robes with the barest hint of lace around the cuffs.

"Hermione! You look marvellous. Very French. Are you ready?"

French! Well, then. Acceptably scandalous, perhaps.

"Yes, sorry I had to set us back a little – we're so late! Let's go."

 

 

Professor Slughorn's chambers had been transformed into a winter wonderland. The walls and ceiling were hung with panels of ice blue silk. A cloud of what looked like a thousand silver faeries sparkled overhead. The effect was elegant, if a little frosty. The lighting was warm though, with candles housed in glittering crystal globes floating above the crowd, and there was masses of hoarfrost-covered foliage – including, she spotted with a practiced eye and made a note to avoid, what she suspected was enchanted mistletoe.

Hermione was impressed, despite herself. It was a far better theme than the rather tacky green, red, and gold he'd chosen – would choose – in 1996.

The ice sculptures of the four founders were probably a bit much though.

The room had been expanded to perhaps three times its normal size, but it was still crowded. She estimated at least double the amount of people there than when she had attended in the late nineties.

But, of course, she realised, this was still Slughorn at the height of his influence. Still young enough not to yet be completely tiresome, but with enough years under his belt to be very well-connected and bring a hundred-and-fifty or so people all together for a party. 

"Champagne, miss?" a house-elf squeaked and Hermione nodded, gratefully. She loathed mead.

"This is awfully fancy, isn't it?" Hector muttered, accepting a glass.

"Isn't it? Oh, look, there's Sophia and Marcus."

Marcus had brought Ancha, and Hermione now half-wished she'd encouraged him to take Claire. It might have made things easier – although perhaps not. Probably worse.

And if she had been the one playing tricks...

"Darling," he said, kissing her cheek, and she tried not to feel too guilty. There just hadn't been time to break up with him. Besides, it was better to do it before they left tomorrow, when he'd have nearly a month to recover before he had to see her again. "You look absolutely beautiful."

"Thank you. You look lovely as well. All of you."

"That's quite a dress," Ancha commented. "Where did you get it from? Paris?"

"No, actually in Hogsmeade, believe it or not. You know that tiny little robes shop? It was in there. I thought it was nice and seasonal."

Just then, Abraxas walked over, and handed a drink to Sophia. She looked very much a future Malfoy, albeit a beautiful one, in dark green velvet robes, with bared shoulders and full bell sleeves to her knees, diamond earrings sparkling madly in the candlelight.

"Hermione, how are you?" he said, kissing her cheek in greeting. "I like the gold. Good dress for an alchemist's daughter."

It was one of the canny observations that gave a flash of the intelligence he often concealed and made it almost impossible not to like him.

"Very well thank you. Congratulations –" she gestured to the sparkling emerald on Sophia's finger.

He grinned and Hermione relaxed, suddenly. She hadn't noticed how tense she'd been but there was something reassuring about how friendly he was, wearing the same face as her old enemies. It told her how good a job she was doing at hiding in the past.

"You're almost tanned," she noted, although he was never as pale as his descendants. Perhaps Narcissa's blood had sucked the colour from that boy's skin. "How was South America?"

He told her, at some length, before an acquaintance of his family joined them and she excused herself to find Cerdic, accompanied by Sophia and Ancha, who insisted they were simply dying to meet him.

 

 

"Oh no," Hermione hissed, freezing. "No, no, no, no."

Tom Riddle was standing chatting to her father, looking unbearably handsome in midnight blue dress robes. She felt a small glow looking at Cerdic because father was finally not a lie any more and the lies were so wearying. As she watched, Cerdic started laughing and slapped Tom's shoulder.

Sophia gave a choked laugh next to her.

"I assume that's your pater talking to Tom?"

She nodded, and Sophia silently handed her another glass of champagne from a passing tray.

Unfortunately, Cerdic spotted her before she could fully gather her thoughts and waved her over with a beaming smile.

"There you are child! I've just been talking to your friend Tom, here."

"I saw," she said, raising an eyebrow at Riddle. "Father, these are my friends Sophia Selwyn and Ancha Burke. Girls, this is my father, Cerdic."

"Delighted. Selwyn you say? I suppose you'd be Perseus's daughter?"

"That's right," Sophia said and Hermione had to restrain a snort. Perseus? Greek names were almost as ridiculous as star names, she reflected. Sophia had clearly been lucky with her own.

"Very good card player. Lost a fair bit of gold to him in my youth."

"They say you should never play cards against a Selwyn," she agreed, grey eyes dancing with humour in her otherwise composed face.

Hermione glanced at Tom as Cerdic charmed her friends. His face was composed in a pleasant smile, but his eyes were glittering savagely.

Family would be a sore point for him, she supposed. Especially all this upper class do-you-know-so-and-so Pureblood bonding. She had always hated it, too. Always a reinforcement that she didn't really belong. Until now.

"You look very smart," she said quietly, that traitorous pang making her chest ache again, because there was something so tragic about his envy. When he met her eyes her stomach flipped.

"I know," he agreed. "Apparently it's my colour. The older witches in here are very charming."

Hermione laughed.

"What a terrible burden you bear," she mocked.

"I know," he sighed. "Can I get you another drink? Girls? Mr. Dearborn?"

"Cerdic," her father insisted. "Thank you dear boy. I think I saw an elf headed towards that group with a bottle, go and grab it."

That's right, just my father casually ordering around the future Dark Lord in front of two of his future minions' mothers or aunts or cousins or whatever. Hermione almost laughed aloud, slightly frazzled as the situation fully hit home.

"So tell us, Cerdic, what were you and our illustrious Head Boy chatting about?" Sophia asked, smirking at Hermione.

"Well I won't bore you with the details, but we were talking about some of my recent work on using salt to negate magical properties – very clever boy, that." He launched into an explanation, and it was clear Riddle had been doing his research on Cerdic Dearborn – and had made quite the fan in him.

Fortunately Tom returned before he could really set sail, trailed by a house-elf holding a bottle of champagne almost the same size as herself, and the flow of academic talk, most of which she'd already heard, was cut short.

Hermione wondered if it would be strange to read the label to find out if it was the same as Muggle champagne, but decided that would probably look a bit odd. She'd ask Cerdic later.

"Thank you," she said, politely to the elf.

"I need to go and rescue my fiancé but it was very nice to meet you," Sophia said to Cerdic, who kissed her hand charmingly. "I'm hoping to visit Hermione over Christmas, if that's quite alright?"

"Yes, yes, you're all welcome any time. When are we going to my brother's?" he asked Hermione, who huffed at him fondly.

"The twenty-third, and going back to Wales on the twenty-seventh. Or at least that's what you said in your letter, Merlin knows if it's right."

He laughed. "True enough. Ah, Horace, hello, hello."

Slughorn bustled over to join them, bearing yet another bottle of champagne, and made a tremendous fuss of Cerdic.

"Quite a coup, having you here! Everybody's dazzled you're out of hiding."

The fat Professor stayed, parading a collection of acquaintances of varying importance in front of them.

"And this must be your daughter! One's heard the rumours," one commented, a wizard Hermione was informed, though she couldn't quite believe it, was called Fustius Trimble. She almost felt sorry for him, but the more he spoke the less pity his awful name inspired. "And what a pretty one."

"Clever too," Slughorn assured him. The transparent networking was nauseating. She felt like a cow at auction.

"Are you going to follow in your father's footsteps?" Trimble asked.

"No," she said, and smirked at Tom, who was still standing there, remembering how she'd answered when he'd asked her that question. The answering glint told her he, too, remembered that day. "I'm afraid I have absolutely no ambitions, Mr Trimble. I think I shall travel the world and waste my fortune on fripperies. If you'll excuse me, Father, I'm going to go and find my friends, and my date who I quite abandoned more than an hour ago. It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Trimble."

She kissed Cerdic's cheek, and whispered, "Have fun."

"I'll escort you," Tom offered, clearly as keen as she was to escape Horace Slughorn's particular brand of favouritism.

"Oh, no, Tom there was someone I very much wanted you to meet," the potions master protested. "This is our Head Boy you know!" he added, turning to yet another guest.

Laughing, Hermione left him to the wolves.

 

 

The evening passed pleasantly after that. A band played soft jazz, pipe and cigarette smoke filled the air, and the drinks flowed freely. Hermione realised she was actually having fun. Far more fun than she'd had when she'd spent all evening trying to escape Cormac McLaggen's attentions and wishing he'd been Ron instead.

The memory of Ron brought no pain with it, and it occurred to her just how silly he'd been to kiss another girl out of jealousy after agreeing to be her date to that long-distant party. She'd begun to think she would have made him quite unhappy in the end. Ron needed to be adored and her sharp tongue and high expectations always got in the way of that. She hoped one day the sixth brother would finally come come first for someone.

She stood quietly as someone made a speech, and then the music was louder and people started dancing – including Cerdic, she spotted, who was whirling rather smoothly around the dance floor with Professor Wolfe.

Tom Riddle was talking to one of the Slytherin girls now, and Hermione wondered if she was his date. He'd been dragged pretty well around the room by Slughorn, the price of being the favourite child. She didn't envy him for a moment.

"Shall we have a dance?" Hector asked her, interrupting her contemplation.

"Why not," Hermione agreed, thankful she'd learnt all the Wizarding dances for the Yule Ball.

 

 

So she danced with Hector, and Anthony Steele, and Lorcan McLaid and Jasper Brown and the handsome Aldfrith Diggory, and Abraxas, and Cerdic and eventually Marcus, who extracted himself from the very long conversation he'd been having with a tall, white-haired wizard.

"You do look beautiful," he said, smiling down at her as they moved into a slower dance. "Sorry I've been so occupied all evening. I've neglected you."

Hermione didn't reply; she wasn't sorry, so what was there to say?

As they turned, she saw Tom leading Penelope Greengrass towards the dance floor. The girl looked stunning– as blonde as Tom was dark, and almost as tall in her heels. They cut an elegant figure together.

Tom's eyes met hers and Hermione felt that lurch in her stomach again, so she turned her face away from him.

"We haven't really talked about the break. Could I visit you?" Marcus asked.

She stiffened. "I'm not sure that's a good idea, I –" but there were no words, and she definitely didn't want to break up with him on the dance floor at a party. That would be mortifying and horribly unfair to him. "Let's talk about it tomorrow."

"I want to see where you live, where you're from. You're so elusive… I've tried to give you space, I know you're not used to much company and I understand that, but lately you've been more distant than ever. Let me in, Hermione."

His warm brown eyes burned down into hers and she was struck by how awful she'd been. She could never be honest with someone, never give even half of herself to them, never not be hoping to get back – forward - to Harry and to everyone, everything, else she had left behind.

Letting someone fall for the lying scrap of herself she could share was the most singularly selfish act of her life.

"Marcus you're wonderful, and you're patient and I'm so sorry I've been distant. But please let's just enjoy the party and talk about this tomorrow?"

"It's him isn't it? I... I'm not a complete fool, Hermione. I see the way you look at each other, but I'd hoped…" He shook his head and stepped back, away from her.

"I'm going back to the tower. Just... just think about what you really want. I love you, what little of yourself you give me," he added bitterly. "I'll see you in the morning."

He was gone before she could reply, and she swallowed the unsaid words. They left a bad taste in her mouth, sour with guilt and self-reproach.

Sophia joined her, as she stepped off the dance floor, and handed her a drink.

"Are you alright?" she asked, more bluntly than usual. "I saw Marcus leaving."

"Yes I'm fine. He said lots of true things and I'm a horrible person." She took a sip but couldn't hold the rest in, not with Sophia. "Oh, he asked about Tom. I wish everyone would stop doing that," Hermione admitted. "He's not… a good person. I couldn't–"

"Why do you think that?" Sophia asked. "I mean, he had to prove himself to his house, but then they did think he was a Mudblood and it's Slytherin. They have their own distasteful traditions. That's why I asked the Hat not to put me there; not really my thing. Abraxas told me last summer… they did some terrible things to Tom. I expect he did whatever he had to do to survive."

Hermione absorbed the unsurprising fact that Sophia ought to have been a Slytherin silently.

"It's just a feeling I get," she said at last, watching him dance with Greengrass. "Like he's capable of great evil."

She pulled her eyes away and turned slightly, to face her friend.

"Aren't we all? Look, we've all… wondered about Tom. Even me, I suppose. Silly really," Sophia shrugged and grinned as she cast her eyes meaningfully over Hermione's shoulder, "but I mean just look at the man."

"The thing is," she carried on after a moment, "he's never blinked half an eye at a girl, or boy for that matter, not really. Not until you came along… and suddenly it's like he can't look away. Anyway, he's coming over, so if you don't want to dance with him you should probably run away now."

But, despite herself, despite every cell of her mind screaming at her to leave, to walk away, to run, Hermione turned and there he was.

"Well?" he asked, hand out.

She stared at it for a moment and then took it.

They'd never touched before. She hadn't known that in her mind until they did and her hand met his sending a violent rush through her body, down her spine and up her neck. Her chest felt too small and her cheeks too hot, like her skin had been waiting to touch his, and every cell was set rejoicing at it. He could feel it too; she could see the shock of it in his eyes.

As he pulled her close to him, Hermione wondered what she'd done wrong. Surely, surely this was a form of hell, especially created for her, where her body betrayed her mind and memory and everyone she loved and owed loyalty to. Hell, because she could finally acknowledge to herself what she'd been denying for so long: she wanted him, and wanted him desperately.

"I didn't say it earlier but you are exquisite tonight," he said. The words sounded rough in his throat, and they burned down her core and left her floundering.

 

.

 

He'd hardly been able to look away from the moment she'd walked in, dressed like the rich women he'd seen as a boy going into the opera house in London or the Café de Paris. Slughorn had been telling him some rubbish at the time, and of course the professor had clocked on to where his gaze rested.

"So that's how it is," the fat man had chortled. "Her father's here tonight, you know."

Tom had known that already, because Professor Slughorn had mentioned it repeatedly. The man leaned in a little lowering his voice, and Tom's interest had been caught.

"He's a great alchemist, I'm sure you know. Rumour has it that he's found out how make a Philosopher's Stone. I doubt it though. No one's done it since Flamel, and besides people always say that about alchemists. But some say he can turn metals into gold and that the man's richer than Midas. And he's very well-respected, if rather eccentric. It would be a good match. Come, let me introduce you."

The Philosopher's Stone, Tom had thought disdainfully. What a pointless endeavour: who needed that? He'd found a far quicker path to immortality. And as for gold, well that was irrelevant. Useful, but fundamentally uninteresting.

Tom had organised, with a little magical assistance, that he would inherit all his late father's money as well as his house. Finally having money had been a relief, he supposed. He'd loathed being poor, though he had used it to his advantage.

Once, he'd contemplated picking a girl to aid access to places and people he, as a half-blood, initially found resistant, of course. And on nights like tonight, where it was made so clear that names were power it was tempting. But he despised the idea: why marry for status when he could forge a new name, a name worthy of the last of the Slytherins?

A name that would last forever.

Slughorn was pathetic for suggesting it - but he was like everyone else in the room with their ordinary little minds and ordinary concerns.

Everyone but her.

For Tom Riddle, looking at Hermione was like looking straight at the sun before it sets, still ablaze but low in the sky and golden, setting the world aglow. He'd watched her, eyes burning, but unable pull them away. She was dazzling and dangerous and she lit up everything and everyone around her.

He hated her for it.

But she was in his arms now. He'd watched Blishwick walk away, watched her face – an open book for once, the rampant play of emotions screaming discomfort, and a wish to escape, and he hadn't been able to resist.

 

 

"You like the dress, then?" she asked in reply, that slight edge of irony he found so appealing in her voice. He was grateful for it too: he hadn't meant to tell her she was beautiful though surely she must know it.

"Very subtle," he acknowledged, smiling. "The alchemist's daughter, draped in gold. A good joke."

He felt her relaxing, as she turned easily in his arms, her body as in tune with his as though they'd danced this dance together a thousand times before. The skin of her back where his hand rested was like hot silk and he wanted to pull her closer, to dance a different dance, to feel that soft warmth pressed against his bare skin.

The song ended all too soon and not fast enough and she pulled away.

"I'm tired of dancing," she said. A lie, he thought, but he'd been too thrown by his own reaction to her presence to mind.

Dangerous, he thought again.

"It's only half past eleven, and I think it would be very bad form for you to go to bed while your father is still out dancing. Come, let's sit down."

He liked the surprised smile that flickered through her dark eyes when he teased her, hovering at the right hand corner of her lips, like a kiss in an old story half-remembered.

 

She was quiet, sipping at a glass of water, her eyes full of some sadness he didn't understand.

It was irritating, not to know why she should be feeling so. Was she upset about Blishwick going off in a huff? The man was so bland, Tom couldn't fathom it.

"I've been wondering all evening," he began, jealous of her attention. He could tell she was listening even though she didn't look at him. "Where on earth do you keep your wand dressed like that?"

Hermione smirked at him, brow raised slightly. She raised her right brow when she was amused and her left when she was being disdainful. He had noticed. He was ashamed of the triumph capturing her gaze had sparked.

"Perhaps I left it in the tower," she murmured.

"No. I don't believe you ever do that."

"You're right. There's a holster in the strap. I enchanted it so it can't be felt. They always make it invisible but forget how clunky it feels. Silly really."

Clever.

"Why did your pet wizard storm off?" he asked at last. He'd been patient but, really, enough was enough.

"My pet wizard?" she repeated scathingly, ignoring his question as usual.

He smiled at her. If he was quiet she would fill the silence. She did, but it was unsatisfying.

"I assume you mean Marcus, and frankly that's none of your business."

"Quite a scene," he pressed, and the flash indicated he'd hit the right nerve. "Must have been embarrassing."

"We just want different things, I think," she said, effectively telling him nothing. Again.

"And what is it that you want, Hermione?" he asked in a low voice. It was getting easier to use the techniques that sent other witches fluttering on her. That was pleasing; it had been mortifying to be the one made ill at ease.

Her eyes filled with tears he didn't understand.

"I don't think it really matters what I want," she said softly, and he wondered if she actually was a little drunk. "But I can't be tied down to something. All those creepy pals of Slughorn's asking what do you want to do, at least the ones that assume I'm going to work and not just get married that is, and I don't know. I just want to learn. There's so much to see, and do and so much time to fill. The idea that I'd just get married to someone and wait around, I don't know, gardening or something is unbearable. As for working for the Ministry, well I don't think so. I don't want to teach, not yet anyway, although perhaps one day… I just… I want to do something good and I don't know how to that here."

That wasn't what he'd meant at all, but it was interesting. Very interesting. She'd never shown any real vulnerability before and he hadn't expected to see her unravel.

Fascinating.

But before he could probe her further, her father joined them at the table, cheeks red from dancing and a broad smile on his face.

This man wasn't ordinary, at least, although Tom wasn't entirely sure what to make of him.

"Very shoddy from you both," Cerdic said, setting a bottle of firewhisky on the table. "Not even midnight and you're both sitting like you've been fed glumbumble fluid! Here, drink up m'boy. Night's still young. Hermione, go on, here you go child."

Tom took the conjured glass, in some awe at the man's ability to drink. He'd hardly stopped as far as Tom could tell and yet there was very little difference in his demeanour now from when they'd been first introduced.

"What's your story then, Tom? Why has old Sluggie been prostrating himself for you all evening?"

Hermione tilted her head and he felt annoyed. She always seemed to see through his lies, so it would have to be honesty.

"I'm his favourite student and the top of our year, but I'm an orphan. A half-blood with no wizarding family left alive. I suppose he feels the need to, er, take an extra interest in my prospects."

"What's your blood got to do with anything?" the man demanded, from the privileged position of a name a thousand years old.

Still, it wasn't the reaction Tom was used to.

"Most of the truly powerful wizards in history have had mixed blood," Cerdic continued. "Besides, it's a load of old tosh. Every family that calls themselves pure is lying. All of 'em. Even the Malfoys, you know."

"You're such a gossip father," Hermione scolded, but she sounded amused.

"No, it's interesting – go on."

"Well, you know they're the family that really pushed for segregation – all because some Muggle queen wouldn't marry one of 'em. A Muggle king gave them the land that ridiculous house is built on too." Tom wasn't sure how a man with a castle could say that straight faced, but Cerdic managed to. "And they've long made a fortune in the Muggle world, converting it back into ours. Then there's the changelings… you know the family motto? Sanctimonia vincet semper – well let me tell you, that means a little impure mixed in doesn't matter to them in the long run. Very charismatic, though, all the Malfoys. Hyperion and Brutus – that'll be your friend Abraxas's father – were at Hogwarts with me. Not very long ago of course."

"Changelings?" Tom asked, genuinely fascinated.

"Not a tradition widely in practice now of course," Cerdic said, with a strange look at his daughter. "But in the old days, when a Muggle family would kill their child for its magic, some used to adopt them, or swap them for squib children. It was quite common. But then the population of Muggles increased so much and we lost track of them - to our detriment. Often worry about these children, well children like you, who don't know a thing about the world you really belong in till you're in it, just chuck you on a metaphorical broom and expect you to fly without ever telling you how."

 

 

Two firewhiskys later, the conversation turned to the holidays. Cerdic was curious about Muggle traditions, and when Tom mentioned he'd be going to Wales for a private research trip the man actually hit the table with his hand.

"You must come and visit, then, and see the salt experiments for yourself. Hermione'll give you the address."

"Alright," Tom said, calmly, although inside he was overjoyed. Perhaps seeing her home would reveal Hermione Dearborn's secrets to him? "Thank you. That would be very nice."

And it was doubly a win, really, because Hermione looked furious for a moment before she controlled her face.

He'd one-upped her, at last.

"Now you two children, go and dance. I'm going to have a nice talk with your charming head of house, Hermione. I'll see you at the station tomorrow, if I don't see you again later."

"My charming head of house, indeed," Hermione grumbled to him as they walked over to the dance floor again. "Can you believe him?"

"I think he's brilliant," Tom said, honestly. "Not at all what I expected, though."

"What did you expect?" she asked.

He took her hand and there it was again, but not as much as that first time, and pulled her close. Her body was more pliant now, and he could feel it against his all the way down, the curve of her waist, the smooth skin of her back.

"I don't know, really. Someone more like you, I suppose. Quieter, certainly."

She laughed.

"You didn't look pleased when he invited me to your house. Scared I'll finally discover your secrets?" Tom said, turning it into a seductive whisper in her ear.

"Maybe," she said quietly. "Or perhaps I'll find out yours."

 

 

When Tom got back to his dorm, sleep wouldn't come. Thoughts danced in his head, taunting him, out of control - the moment they'd touched as though their magic had combined for a second in breath-taking alchemy, stealing away his sanity for just a moment; his body's traitorous response, the possibilities seeing her home offered, what could possibly make her so different. The way she faded into the foreground and demanded to be noticed. The way her skin had felt under his hand, her red lips, the curves of her body, how it might look without the burnished dress...

Perhaps I'll find out yours, she'd said. And even as half of him thought that was a very, very bad idea, the other half yearned to tell her everything, to open up the festering wounds of his buried youth and let her burn him clean. If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. The verse rang round his head like a bell, as it had since the summer. But he could not die, would not.

 

The bible verse reminded of something. He found the book he'd stolen from her weeks ago. A Muggle book he hadn't been able to bring himself to open again, but tonight...

He began to read.

 

 

Of Mans First Disobediance, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

He drank up the words like black whisky, lying on his bed, the glittering snake she'd conjured wrapped around his wrist. Naturally he hadn't wanted her to know how much he liked it, or that he'd keep it, so he'd had to double back after dinner one evening and taken it from the tree, conjuring a replacement instead.

Tom Riddle had never read anything like Paradise Lost.

They'd forced the Bible on him, of course. Church every Sunday, prayers in the morning, prayers before bed. Prayers to thank the Lord for the gruel placed before them three times a day. Prayers over them when they were bad. Prayers and beatings too if you put a toe out of line. More than beatings, sometimes.

He'd survived. He was special.

[You are nothing, Riddle. Nothing nothing nothing.]

But the book made him remember.

[You are full of wickedness, Tom Riddle. God sees All and He will punish you.]

Unnatural! fiend! (the marks the nuns had left had never lasted overnight on him so they'd tried harder and harder before they gave up at last, when he became too big and he fought back with things neither party understood).

Hell is full of fire, Tom Riddle. You'll be straight there if you carry on like this.

It wasn't, though. He'd always known that. He'd grown up there, after all. They'd exorcised him, but it hadn't helped.

[Do you known what happens to boys who wet the bed? He'd learnt not to. He'd had control other children hadn't had and they'd hated him for it. Hated him because he'd always been in trouble, always treated worst. Hated him for being different, just like Mrs Cole and her army of bitter, twisted help who called themselves Godly].

[Have you been touching yourself you disgusting freak? Wash his palms in carbolic acid.]

[I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; he'd recited to Mrs Cole once, She is to keep silent. That was when they'd moved him to his own room and locked him away from the other children as much as possible. It would hardly have been a punishment, if they hadn't also half starved him.]

 

 

But this hell – this man, this Milton - this was different. This wasn't the excruciating dullness of Sunday school, or twice-daily scripture class.

 

 

Knowledge, forbidden?

Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord

Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know?

Can it be death?

Why should they not dream of other worlds? Tom thought in a rage, and threw the book across the room, immediately glad the rest of his dormitory was out cold, snoring.

It would have been truly mortifying if anyone had seen the effect this muggle book was having on him.

The knowledge he'd been told was wrong to want, the feeling of being cast out of a better world, the unfair portrayal of snakes… Swept away in the rhetoric, and unaware he'd fallen into quite the same trap as so many before him in admiring Satan, Tom read the whole thing twice in the night and turned up to breakfast the morning after with black-ringed eyes burning in his pale face.

He felt clean.

Hungover, and tired as hell, but clean.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"History is written by the victors."

– truism, often misattributed to Winston Churchill


 

19th  September 1999

 

Harry and Ron left Hogwarts feeling rather less optimistic than when they had arrived. Never before had Harry had such a uniquely answerless discussion with Dumbledore. Even the time he'd been shown Professor Slughorn's false memory and cheerfully told to go and get the real one paled in comparison.

"Pub?" he suggested to Ron, as they walked down to the gates, the late afternoon sun setting the lake ablaze and picking out those leaves that had begun to show off their autumn colours. Even in the golden light, Ron was even paler than usual, freckles standing out against his skin, ears still red with anger.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Yeah, I could do with a drink."

They apparated from the gate to Hogsmeade, and, dodging the inevitable well-wishers, found a table in the Three Broomsticks.

"1944," Ron said, eventually. "I wish we knew a bit more about time-travel… where's Hermione when you need her, eh?"

It was a weak attempt at a joke, but Harry smiled anyway.

"Yeah. I wish…" he murmured, then added, "Riddle! She must always have gone to school with Tom Riddle. She went back and she knew what was coming."

"With Riddle?" Ron asked, shocked, and Harry could cheerfully have throttled his friend for being so dim.

"Yes with Riddle. That's when he was Head Boy."

"Dumbledore said she was safe, though. And – still around?"

"That's true."

They lapsed into silence, as Rosmerta brought over two butterbeers.

"On the house for you two," she said, with a wink. Ron flushed a bit, Harry noticed fondly. Twit.

When she'd gone Ron looked at him, a look of horror spreading across his face.

"D-do you think she'll be old?" he asked, and Harry would have laughed, except…

"Yeah," he said. "I suppose so. Maybe. I don't really know."

"You've time travelled, Harry!" Ron said, as though it were a revelation.

"For three hours, not fifty four years," Harry pointed out. "We just caught up with ourselves."

"That's what I mean," Ron said, having one of his moments of clarity that still surprised Harry. "When you went back you did everything you'd seen happen, like the patronus and saving Buckbeak, and then you caught up with real time. That's what Dumbledore was trying to tell us."

"What you mean she's been around this whole time?"

"Must be. Yeah. So she's probably trying to find us, if I know Hermione. She'll have marked down exactly when she disappeared. She's probably at the Burrow, Harry!"

"Let's go then." He stood, eagerly.

"Just… let's finish our drinks?" Ron was looking uncomfortable.

"Don't be a prat, Ron. So what if she's old? She'll still be Hermione."

 

 

But when they arrived at the Burrow Hermione was not there. Instead, they walked into a scene of some confusion.

Percy Weasley had arrived and was looking harassed with a stack of official looking scrolls.

"Oh, thank Merlin – you're back," said Mrs Weasley.

"What's going on?" Ron asked, scowling at Percy as though he were personally responsible for Hermione's disappearance into the past.

"You've been summoned to testify at Hermione Granger's trial," Percy said. "I'm sorry, that's all I've been told so far although of course as Senior Assistant to the Minister's Undersecretary I'll be present at the trial. It's all very hush hush at the moment though."

"Her trial?" Harry asked, the word belatedly resolving itself into meaning.

"Yes, she's at the Ministry. Something about time traveling?"

"An owl came with a letter for you Harry. It's Hermione's writing," Molly said, handing it to him.

He ripped it open.

 

Dear Harry,

Sorry for the rather dramatic day you must be having. Don't panic – everything's going to be fine.

In short: the globe Albus sent to me sent me back in time, and I have spent many years living as another person. Fifty-five years, in fact. Today I will finally, finally be able to be  both  the people I am, if that makes sense.

I'm going to the Ministry to explain what's happened, because a hex I put on myself when I was two will have broken the moment I went back. It was necessary to prevent people recognising Hermione Granger as Hermione Dearborn, the name I have borne for many decades. Enough people have met both 'versions' that it was necessary – I'm sure you remember the first rule of Time Travel, Harry, is don't be seen! Well, I've broken that of course.

Obviously, I have been preparing for this day for many years. There will a trial, and so I request that you and the Weasleys come and simply explain what happened today. Please give Percy the note that came with the present as well.

I expect you've already been to Hogwarts to speak to Albus's portrait, so hopefully you know a little already. I have an affidavit of sorts from him for the Wizengamot, so don't worry about fetching his portrait to testify or anything – it wouldn't stand up in court under Article 198 C of the Wizengamot Constitution (if you can call it that), which states portraits can't be used to testify because they're susceptible to trickery and threats.

Anyway, I'll see you soon I hope – it's been a very, very long time, Harry, and you can't imagine how much I am looking forward to seeing you again.

Hermione

 

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. Of course Hermione had fully prepared for this. It was Hermione. Whatever her surname was.

"I think it's alright," he said, and read the letter aloud.

"Hermione Dearborn?" Arthur and Molly said at the same time.

"Yeah, that's what it says. Why?"

"She's married?" Ron said, ears turning red.

Harry wanted to tell him that that probably wasn't the most pressing issue, but tried to imagine if it were Ginny… Perhaps it was the most pressing, for Ron at least.

"I don't think so. She's… goodness me. Hermione Dearborn was our Hermione all this time. Well I never. I thought she must be dead." Molly sat down, cheeks turning pink.

"She helped found the Order," Arthur said to Harry. "We'd better get to the Ministry. It says the trial starts in half an hour," he added, brandishing the summons.

Harry reflected, not for the first time, that the Magical world was a far cry from the Muggle one when it came to the legal system. The Ministry could say come immediately, or be damned, and you had to just go.

 

 

When they arrived at the Ministry, a flustered looking bureaucrat whose name Harry couldn't remember met them in the entrance hall and ushered them to the Minister's office.

"He's expecting you," he said. "So sorry about all this, Auror Potter."

Harry nodded in response.

The chamber outside Kingsley's office was filled with a large and rather mixed looking group of people, including, Harry noted with some surprise, the Malfoys, whose shining blond hair made them easy to spot in almost any crowd. Lucius was still serving his original sentence in Azkaban, but Draco had been exonerated and Narcissa had served a year of house arrest.

"We'll wait here, dears," Mrs Weasley said. "You go on."

Harry took a deep breath, and clapped Ron's shoulder.

"Come on, mate. It'll be fine."

Ron, looking a bit green, nodded.

The door opened.

Kingsley was sitting at his desk, clearly laughing at something the witch sitting opposite him had just said.

She turned as the door opened and it took Harry a moment to place the elegant young woman. She was dressed in pale blue robes, thick dark hair braided back either side of her face, falling loose down her back, a pointy hat the same shade as her robes perched atop the desk next to her. 

By the time he'd registered who it was, she was standing in front of him.

"Harry Potter," Hermione breathed, eyes wide. She was hardly a day older than she had only hours before.

To his surprise, she offered a hand and he shook it, bemused. She was close to tears, and if her face had hardly changed, her eyes had, although he couldn't work out how.

"So," he ventured, "all-in-all you've had better birthdays?"

She choked slightly, and a grin lit up her face.

"You're not old!" Ron interjected, tactfully.

She laughed.

"Oh, I am Ron. It's very nice to see you both. Come and sit down, we don't have very long. Kingsley, do you mind if we have a moment?"

Something in the way she phrased it seemed more command than question.

"Of course not. I should go down anyway. Again, I'm really sorry about this, Hermione. Formalities."

"I understand. Have the Goblins brought the rest of Albus's Will?"

"I believe so. Best of luck."

He left, with a half-bow to Hermione.

"You, um, you look nice," Ron said.

"Not bad for a seventy-five-year-old at least," Hermione replied. "Now, we have very little time but I just wanted to see you both. You can't begin to imagine how many times I've imagined this moment - or how hard I've worked to make it possible."

There wasn't much to say to that; they'd seen her not five hours earlier.

Harry thought of all the strange days he'd had, this was probably the strangest. 

She continued, looking rather nervous. Her voice was a little different too, Harry thought. Hermione had always been well-spoken but now it was slightly old fashioned, like something from a film or an old newsreel. Low and precise with the slightly odd inflections of someone who has spent a great deal of time abroad.

"Lots of people are going to be at this trial, including some people who might surprise you a bit so I thought I'd better give you some fair warning. My cover story in the past included an adoption by a very wonderful wizard, who you'll meet later, called Cerdic Dearborn. I went to Hogwarts, as Dumbledore's mentée."

A knock interrupted her, and Percy put his head round the door.

"Sorry, Hermione. It's time to go down."

"Curse it," she muttered. "I thought we'd have more time. Alright."

Another man came in, and bowed.

"I'm coming, Dingleford. Is she here?" Hermione asked.

"Yes, she's here, Madam Dearborn."

"Good, that's good. Right. Let's get this over with."

 

 

Trial hearing of the 19th of September 1999, into offences committed under the Decree for the Restriction and Prevention of Time Travel Without a License by one Hermione Jean Granger, resident at Number 7, Canonbury Square, London, and also under the Decree Against Fraudulent Identity.

Interrogators, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister for Magic; John Dawlish, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; Percy Ignatius Weasley, Undersecretary to the Minister; and Levinia Monkstanley, Head of the Department of Mysteries. Court scribe Ralph Lackley.

Witnesses for the Defence: Harry James Potter, Ronald Bilius Weasley, Arthur Weasley, Molly Weasley, Horace Slughorn, Sophia Circe Malfoy, Cerdic Giwis Dearborn…

The list of names Harry didn't recognise went on, until finally, "and Albus Dumbledore," sent a shocked thrill running through him, and murmurs throughout the packed courtroom.

As he looked around, the full Wizengamot stared coldly down in their plum-coloured robes, their benches high up above the witness benches and those filled with the public.

"Dumbledore?" Ron muttered. "How's she managed that, then?"

Harry just shrugged, helplessly.

Witnesses for the Prosecution, Hermione Jean Granger.

He definitely didn't understand, he thought. But he trusted that Hermione at least knew what she was doing.

 

 

Hermione sat at the witness stand with her pointed hat on like the elder members of the Wizengamot, looking composed and even a little amused. She was in a chair that looked far more comfortable than that which Harry had been offered down in Courtroom Ten.

"Hermione Jean Granger, you are charged with illegal time travel. How do you plead?" Kingsley asked her.

"Not guilty," she replied, firmly.

"You have signed a witness statement, dated 18th September 1999. Please recount the statement for the court."

"On the 19th of September, 1999 I was celebrating my twentieth birthday at The Burrow, the home of the Weasley family. I opened a gift. There was a note attached which said it was from Albus Dumbledore. I believe it has been submitted to the court.

"The next thing I knew," she paused, looking around the court, "I was face to face with a young Albus Dumbledore. He informed me that it was July 24th… 1944."

She stopped again, as the murmurs increased, and then continued calmly.

"He later informed me that the object that had sent me back contained a message from his future self, informing him that I had always been present in the past. As I'm sure everyone in this court understands, you cannot alter time, because the effects of what do have already been felt and so forth.

"Albus took me on as his protégée," she continued, "and organised a cover story. I've never been party to the details but I believe he forged a birth certificate and magical registration. I was adopted by a friend of his, Cerdic Dearborn."

She smiled at a distinguished looking wizard, dressed in forest green, his dark brown hair threaded through with barely a hint of silver, who was sitting a few rows away from Harry.

"I started Hogwarts, and finished the Seventh Year there. No one has ever detected me as a time-traveller, and those few who suspected were offered sufficient explanation for my oddities or obliviated by either myself or by Professor Dumbledore. I have lived a full life as Hermione Dearborn."

She was apparently done with her story: the Minister was nodding and Hermione stood and walked over to sit down beside her legal council, although it was more of a sweep than a walk.

"The court calls Arthur Weasley," he said.

Arthur nervously confirmed what Hermione had said, followed by Molly, and then Harry and Ron were asked similar questions. Nothing more or less than to describe what had happened that afternoon at The Burrow, and had they ever heard of Hermione Dearborn before that day? No, they both said.

It was very straight-forward, with no tricks.

Back in his seat, Harry started to wonder if Hermione had orchestrated the entire trial before it had even started.

"The Court calls Cerdic Dearborn," the Minister intoned.

The tall man walked to the stand, green robes billowing. Harry thought he must have been a strangely young man to be chosen by Dumbledore adopt a twenty-year-old daughter. But then, Hermione didn't look her age so why should her pretend father?

"Mr Dearborn, what is your connection to the Defendant?" Dawlish asked, taking over the questioning.

"She's my daughter," he stated. "Adopted under the Concipia Familia spell."

The man's plummy voice was warm and kind.

"Conkipya familiar?"

"Full adoption spell, what. Very old. Means you're magically bound as family. People used it to when they swapped Muggleborn babes with their Squib children to turn them 'Pure' as they call it."

Harry scanned the assembled Wizengamot for their reactions to that, and noticed that a few of the very eldest looked surprised, and very interested. Most of them looked baffled.

"Why did you adopt Miss Granger?"

"Well, my very old friend Albus asked me to name a girl as daughter, said it was important. I owed him a favour – and you know, it was Dumbledore. He'd just defeated Grindlewald! Not the sort of man you'd turn down. Then he took me to meet her, and I grew fond of her… but, as a man with a few enemies knocking around myself, I – we – thought it was safer to make sure the cover was more than just my word. Albus performed the spell, and that was that. I'm her father, sure as day, and Albus her godfather as he did the spell. Neither of them told me where she'd come from and I didn't ask."

"Some might say it was an extraordinary act…"

"Is that a question, young Dawlish?"

"No, sir. You say Hermione Granger never revealed where she'd come from?"

"Never," the man agreed.

"How old are you Mr Dearborn?"

"One hundred and fourteen," the man said, rather smugly Harry thought. And with good reason; he didn't look a day over fifty-five.

"You look very young, Mr Dearborn," Dawlish replied kindly. "Why is that?"

Hermione's father's eyes twinkled.

"My dear old thing, you simply can't ask an alchemist to spill all his secrets."

Dawlish laughed, as did quite a few others, as though this were an acceptable answer.

Harry raked a hand through his hair. There was an undercurrent he didn't understand, something to do with Hermione's very traditional robes, the in-jokes, something that was relaxing even the members of the Wizengamot he knew for a fact were the most bigoted and traditional, and who should not be smiling warmly and nodding thoughtfully at this particular trial.

"Thank you, Mr. Dearborn."

As he returned to sit down, Cerdic Dearborn shot a wink at Hermione. She was still sitting with what Harry could only assume were her legal advisors, including the man she'd called Dingleford. In the Magical courts, your legal advisors prepared the Interrogators - which for a high profile case like this included the Minister himself - supposedly ensured legal proceedings were fair, and made a summary speech to the court.

"The Court calls Horace Slughorn," Kingsley stated. Ron stirred next to him.

"Wonder what old Sluggy's got to say," he muttered.

"Professor Slughorn, how do you know the Defendant?"

"Well, I've had the true pleasure of teaching Hermione Granger Dearborn twice," he gushed. "First in the school year 1944-5 when she joined our existing Seventh Year class at Hogwarts, and again in the school year 1996-7. As an outstanding student we naturally stayed in touch when she left Hogwarts the first time. Second."

"Did you recognise Hermione Granger as the girl you had previously taught as Hermione Dearborn?"

"Indeed no, not until today. I didn't make the connection."

"Did you ever suspect the girl Hermione Dearborn of time travel?"

"Merlin, no, no not at all. Why would I? Her father's a tremendously well-respected Wizard, we all knew he was a bit eccentric, and besides Albus Dumbledore said he was her cousin and godfather. Who would ever have even questioned it? To be sure, she was an extraordinary student – joint top of her year – but aside from that, there was nothing odd about her at all."

"Thank you, Professor Slughorn."

Harry grew restless.

"The court requests Sophia Malfoy's witness."

An elegant woman in her seventies stood and walked across the floor, long dark blue robes flowing behind her. She looked incredibly grand, Harry thought, and from the rustle of hushed voices, he presence was something of a surprise.

"Madam Malfoy, thank you for joining us," Dawlish said, reading off a piece of paper. "The Court appreciates your time."

The elegant woman inclined her head slightly. 

"Madam Malfoy, please tell us how you knew the defendant."

"Hermione Dearborn was my house-mate at Hogwarts in my Seventh Year. She became my closest friend, and is the godmother of my only child, Lucius," the woman stated crisply.

"Did you ever suspect Miss Grange – Miss Dearborn of time travel?"

"No. I did not know of her… origins," the woman said, frowning.

"And to the best of your knowledge, did any other students or friends become aware of Miss Granger Dearborn's past?"

The woman tilted her head, and looked at Hermione, as though assessing her.

"Tom might have. No one else," she said at last. "She didn't let many people in."

"Tom?" Dawlish asked, looking at his notes confusedly. Harry sensed they'd gone off script and Hermione's rigid posture indicated that indeed was the case.

"Tom Riddle," Sophia Malfoy said, a flicker of a smirk on her lips. "But I suppose you can't really ask him, can you?"

The court erupted. Harry saw Hermione whispering to her lawyer, as though reassuring him. Kingsley called for order. 

"Tom Riddle?" Dawlish asked, floundering. Clearly this hadn't been prepared for in the questions on his parchment.

"Yes," she replied simply, and offered no further explanation.

 

When the tall witch had returned to the stands, Hermione's lawyer took a note to the Minister.

"The Court calls for the testimony of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore," Kingsley stated.

Hermione stood, and returned to the stand, shortly followed by a goblin carrying a small chest. There were again murmurings of wonder and Harry began to see how she'd staged this, keeping the Wizengamot on their toes with a series of surprises. It was a masterpiece of theatre, and he was impressed, despite himself.

"The court recognises the object as part of the estate of the decreased Professor Dumbledore, and states for the record that the box could not be opened at the time of his death. Miss Granger has claimed that she alone can open it. Please proceed, Miss Granger."

Hermione held her hand over the box and flicked the fingers of her other hand. Two bright drops of blood fell onto the lid and there was a scraping noise, like a key being turned in an ancient lock.

"That's blood magic," Percy Weasley gasped, breaking his solemn countenance for a moment. "It's Dark!"

"Don't be so narrow-minded, Percy," Hermione said, coolly, as the Goblin presented the box to Kingsley Shacklebolt. He opened it and took out a globe, which shimmered into life at his touch.

A translucent imprint of Albus Dumbledore rose up, as though out of a Pensieve, but larger than he'd been in life.

"Good afternoon," the figure said, "I trust that you are all well. I have left this testimony to ensure the safety of my ward and apprentice, Hermione Dearborn, born Hermione Granger. I believe my own death is drawing near," he gestured with his ruined hand, "and so I have taken steps to ensure that all remains as it should and that the timeline is not disturbed, if indeed such a thing is possible.

"On July 24th 1944 a young woman appeared at my home in Devonshire. I was taken aback at her arrival, as I had exceptionally good wards on the house, but appear she did. She informed me that I had sent her there, and when I examined the object that had brought her to me I found this was indeed the case: there was a message from my future self explaining the circumstances.

"I took steps to ensure the girl's identity could never be discovered, providing her with documentation and a family. It was essential the girl pass as wizard-born, both for her safety in the climate of the time, and to explain her absence from Hogwarts, and as it happened I had a dear old friend, who seemed to fit the hat rather well. It surprised no one that Cerdic Dearborn, well-known as an eccentric, a reformed rake, and a recluse, and who looked enough like the girl, would have simply not told the world he had a daughter, and educated her at home in the old fashion of some families. He willingly agreed, and later adopted her so she is now as much a Dearborn as though she were born one.

"I took steps to discover how such an extraordinary trip was possible, and in doing so found that it was – a secret I do not believe should ever be shared, and one I will die in the knowledge it cannot be used by those of limited understanding and faulty ambition, who would attempt to alter the past for their own gain. Only I knew the full spell to send her back and I shall tell no one.

"I tell you this, time cannot be altered. Hermione Dearborn came to me because she had always done so, and she assures me now that nothing has changed. I also tell you there is no way to go forward that I have ever discovered. And so, in order to prevent her discovery I admit I did commit several crimes, but with the very purest of intentions.

"Hermione has dedicated her life to the cause of the light, at great risk to her own life. She was the very first member of the Order of the Phoenix, and its first spy.

"I move towards my own impending death with a light heart, knowing that I have left our world in the very capable hands of both Mr. Harry Potter, and in Hermione who is my heir, and in whom I have the very greatest trust and the strongest affection. I accept all responsibility for the crimes committed in this instance. I wish you all well. Goodbye."

He bowed, and was gone.

The court remained silent this time, more than one person moved to tears at the sight of the great hero. Hermione looked triumphant.

 

 

The rest of the session was lengthy, with repeated testimonies from people who'd known Hermione at various points over her life stating how good and wonderful she was, and no, of course they hadn't known she was a time-traveller.

An expert on time-travel testified that all known evidence pointed to the truth of her story, a man who was apparently the ruler of a small West African nation Harry was ashamed to admit he'd never heard of testified that Hermione Dearborn had briefly been a freedom fighter there, helping overthrow a corrupt regime, another testified that they'd been lovers for several years in northern California, and no he'd never even suspectedman

Hermione took the stand one last time.

"Do you agree to the use of Veritaserum for our final questions?" Percy asked her, holding a small crystal bottle.

"Of course," she said, smiling. "I have nothing to hide."

She accepted a glass of water with three drops in it, and drank it unflinchingly.

"Please state your name," Percy said, reading off a piece of parchment.

"My name is Hermione Dearborn."

"And your birth name and date?"

"Hermione Jean Granger, born on the 19th of September, 1979."

"Miss Dearborn, have you ever revealed that you were a time traveller deliberately or otherwise?"

"With the exception of my meeting Albus Dumbledore in 1944, no."

"Miss Dearborn, have you ever used your knowledge of the future to change it?"

"Yes," she replied baldly. "I tried to prevent Tom Riddle from becoming the Dark Wizard Voldemort."

More mutterings, and Harry felt a surge of relief. She was still Hermione.

"Please explain for the court."

"We were at school together, and it became clear to me that he was far from the Dark Lord that would come to terrorize our world. He had taken the first steps down that path, yes, but there was still hope. We became friends…"

She paused for a moment, and Harry heard a delicate snort. Turning his head, he saw Sophia Malfoy was smirking at this, and he began to wonder.

"We were very close, for a time. Albus asked me to befriend him, to keep an eye on him – he suspected something, even then, although he had no idea of the extent – and I could not tell him.

"I hoped it – hoped – would be enough… But alas, it was not to be and there was nothing I could do. I tried to kill him, once, but my wand simply wouldn't fire. I realised then, something I had known but denied even to myself, that there was some force outside of myself that prevented me taking any steps to change the timeline as I'd known it. And so, with great regret I watched, helpless, as people I loved walked blindly towards their fate. My cousin, Caradoc, who died in the First War. The Potters, who I knew a little, and their baby son Harry, who was and is as dear to me as though we were blood. Albus Dumbledore himself, my mentor and lifelong friend. So many others… There was nothing I could do."

She was crying, Harry saw, a few tears sliding down her face, before she took a deep breath, and turned her large brown eyes towards the Wizengamot. The murmurs were sympathetic now, and Harry's own heart burned with the realisation of how terrible that must have been.

"Merlin," Ron whispered. "That's rough."

"Yeah," Harry agreed, a lump in his throat.

"I still can't believe she's Lucius Malfoy's godmother, though," he snorted.

 

 

After a vote found overwhelmingly in Hermione's favour, the proceedings reached an end. Harry's watch told him it was long past dinnertime though his rumbling stomach had reminded him more than once.

"The court recognises the co-operation of Hermione Granger Dearborn, and wishes to state for the record that it has sympathy for her plight. However, as you were party to several crimes committed by the wizard Albus Dumbledore, and for the crimes of being seen in the past, and trying to change the future, the court fines you forty-thousand galleons"

Ron and several others gasped audibly, but Hermione didn't bat an eyelid.

"I have it here, Minister. In cash," she said, gesturing to the Goblin. He brought a large chest that Harry hadn't noticed before, and, sparing a very dirty look at Harry and Ron, took it to Percy, who bowed.

""In addition, let the records reflect the former Miss Granger and Miss Dearborn will henceforth be Granger Dearborn, as per her request. The Court is dismissed."

 

Hermione stayed in the stand, watching people leave, and as the crush of people leaving pushed them towards the doors, Harry decided to wait for her outside.

He and Ron weren't the only ones lingering outside. The stately Madam Malfoy stood with her family, and Harry nodded awkwardly to Draco, reflecting happily that the young man looked as though he'd been smacked over the head with a brick. Rita Skeeter was also there, to his disgust.

Hermione at last came through the door, accompanied by the Minister, both smiling merrily.

"Thank you very much Kingsley. I have some things left to tie up in Libya, but I'll let you know when I'm free and we can begin."

The Minister bowed to her, and left, smiling at Harry and Ron as he passed.

Harry started to move to congratulate her, but held back as he saw Sophia Malfoy step forward.

The witches paused, looking at each other, and he remembered how Hermione had tensed during her testimony. He wondered if there would be trouble.

"Look at you, you utter bitch," the older woman said, for it was still hard to think of Hermione as old. "How did you do it?"

"Jealous?" Hermione asked mockingly, and then to Harry's utter surprise, they laughed and embraced.

"It's very good to see you. You look tremendous."

"I do, don't I? So do you. Not a day above fifty."

"Hag. There is much to say, Hermione, that can't be said here. I will be at the Manor for the rest of the week before I return to the continent. You will come and explain yourself in full tomorrow at five o'clock. But… it really is wonderful to see you."

They embraced again, and Hermione nodded to the other Malfoys. Draco looked gratifyingly sick as they walked away.

 

 

"I trust you're content?" Hermione asked as Rita Skeeter walked up. She sounded politer than Harry would ever have imagined.

"Oh, yes. Yes very much so. A picture to go with the article?" the other woman asked, her voice gleeful and greedy.

"Yes, of course. With Harry and Ron?"

"That would be splendid," the odious woman beamed. "Just splendid. Bozo?"

"Do you mind?" Hermione asked him and Harry shook his head stupidly. "We have an… agreement. I'll explain later."

She seemed to be saying that a lot, but Harry put his best Saviour Smile on, and they stood by the sign to the courtroom, a happy trio.

"Super, super. Best of luck, Miss Granger Dearborn."

"I should have something else for you soon, Rita."

The blonde woman left, looking delighted.

"I'm sorry about that. I had to get her to agree not to put me in that atrocious book she wrote about Albus – she tracked me down, amazingly enough, she's actually a decent hack I suppose – so I offered her a deal. Of course, it'll actually benefit me because she's reporting today exactly as I've told her to, but she doesn't care as long as she gets the scoop. The Prophet will have a special evening edition out with the story."

"I wondered why you weren't in the book," Harry lied, having not actually thought about it at all. "Did you really know my parents?"

"Yes, Harry. I did – I thought you'd like to hear about them when I saw you again so I made sure I met them. I've got a Pensieve full of memories I collected for you."

"Thank you," he said, hoarsely.

"I've used it quite shamefully in my own favour today, but I can't wait to sort out the legal system. Anyway, I'm absolutely starving aren't you? Let me take you to dinner. I've booked a table at The Ivy – out of the way of prying eyes in our world."

"Yeah," Ron said, looking much perkier suddenly. "I am starving now you mention it."

"Oh, Ron," Hermione said, rather sweetly, "you haven't changed at all."

And then she apparated them straight out of the bowels of the Ministry, passing through the anti-apparition wards as though they were nothing. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald


 

 

When she returned to her room after the Slug Club party, Hermione found the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw waiting for her.

It was long past midnight: less than ideal timing for a visit. And besides she was tired, a little drunk and very disturbed by her own desire. But she made a valiant effort to pull herself together.

"Good evening," Helena said, a touch sarcastically as though Hermione were late for an appointment.

"Hello," Hermione replied, sinking onto her sofa and taking off her shoes. She winced in relief, feet sore despite the cushioning charms. "I've been looking for you."

"I know," the ghost replied in her soft whispery voice. "I was not ready to share my story with you. But now I think perhaps I can tell you a little of it."

And so Hermione sat and listened to the long-dead woman's tragic tale, the gist of which Harry had already told her.

"Help me leave this place," Helena said at last. That seemed strange suddenly, hearing of her death in Albania. Why would she be here?  

"Why are you here? Can't you just go somewhere else?"

"I was the last Ravenclaw heir," Helena said. "My mother's only child. When I chose not to pass on, driven by spite against her, I rose as a ghost returned to the very place I had fled from. She awaited me Beyond, and I thought to punish her for sending that terrible man to me by denying her the reconciliation she desired. I did not know, then, that it was myself I was dooming to punishment. I was the heir to my House. The last one. It ties me to Hogwarts."

She floated upwards, and turned to face out of the window.

"He chose to come here. He claims it is to atone for what he did. But I think it is because he would follow me even in death." She said this with distaste. "We both came here, and I have been haunted by his presence for a thousand years. He will not leave and I cannot stay."

Hermione suddenly felt quite startlingly sober.

"How does that work? The heir part?" she asked.

"I was her only child, heir to her estates, her secrets, and her power. My mother and her comrades tied their magic to the castle. I do not know the details. All I know is that I am tied here against my will, even in death. To guide and help those of my mother's house so that there may always be a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts."

There was a lot to say, but nothing came. It was a dreadful fate, but the implications for other heirs were unpleasant.

"Thank you for telling me your story. I'll do some research over the holidays and see what I can find out," Hermione told her after a moment's thought. She suppressed a yawn. "I'm so sorry. It's very late."

"You will find a way to free me. I believe it, it is meant. Good night, Helen's daughter, and may your Yule time celebrations be merry and the New Year bring blessings."

"And to you, Lady."

 

 

Hermione slept fitfully, Helena's story pricking at her consciousness. She woke a few hours later, heavy-eyed and dry-mouthed. Outside, there was little promise of dawn: the sky was still dark and forbidding and the snow-covered ground eerily reflecting what light there was.

She lit her fire, and took down a slim volume from among the books she'd bought in Hogsmeade. Four Quartets. It wasn't clear why such recent Muggle poetry had found its way to the village's little bookshop, but a vague memory that her mother had loved it made her choose that one. She'd read about a quarter of the books she'd bought earlier in the term, but not that one. In fact, she'd never read any of his work before before. Eleven wasn't really considered the proper age for T.S. Eliot and she'd never taken much interest in poetry anyway. 

There had been too much to learn about her new world for so long so she'd prioritised Wizarding books over Muggle ones. But now, with no need to prove herself, little need to study, and a recurring need to escape her own head, she was finding she liked literature. Her parents had always liked reading novels and going to the theatre, but she'd thought it was something she'd cast off when she'd started having fantastical adventures in her real life.

The words leapt out off the page immediately, burning into her skin, her brain and sending it racing.

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

She read on, devouring the words like a woman staved. He knew, she thought. This man understood.

The poetry gripped her, and she read the whole collection, in all four parts.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

It felt like a moment of guidance when she'd most needed it. But it was also a terrible reminder that there was no we in her exploration. She would be alone. How could she share herself, her life, when its purpose was to arrive back where she'd started?

Anyone she took with her would have a half-life, a journey forward to a previous existence.

She dressed, filled with regret for the boy with the soft brown eyes whose heart she was going to hurt from selfish fear.

Poor Marcus, she thought. How cruel she'd been, to seek comfort in his arms when she had nothing to offer him but a lifetime of exploration and learning and waiting, hiding her true self behind a mask for everyone's safety.

 

 

"I'm sorry," she told him, looking out towards the lake, as the half-risen sun lit up the water and set the snow glittering. "I can't be what you want."

"I am sorry too, Hermione," Marcus said bitterly. "Is it him?"

"No," she replied. "No. This is me. I'll never settle. I want to explore the world and see all its wonders and keep learning; and you want to live and love and make a home. I have a home, I don't want another one. One day, I hope you'll understand that I'm setting you free."

He left and she let him go, heart hard with righteousness.

This was kinder, in the long run. It was right.

 

 

Later, she found an empty compartment on the train, letting Marcus find comfort in their shared friends. It was ridiculous she even had to take the train, instead of just going home with Cerdic, but Professor Dippet had insisted.

Hermione had received enough special treatment, he'd said, and this wasn't just a school rule, it was the law. All students had to travel on the Hogwarts Express. Cerdic was probably enjoying a leisurely lunch with Dumbledore before Apparating to London, she reflected jealously.

Sophia had caught her boarding and kissed her and said, "I'll see you soon – at New Year if not before. Promise you'll come?"

"Yes," Hermione had replied. "I'll be there. I promise. I'll write to you and we can pick a day for present shopping."

"Perfect. Goodbye darling, and don't worry about Marcus."

But Hermione's compartment was not empty for long. The small red-headed boy who'd joined her on the way to Hogwarts peered in and then entered with a big smile. She'd seen Henry a little over the term and it was good to see him bright-eyed and not as small as he had been in September.

Henry told her all about the things he'd learnt, and the friends he'd made, and wasn't everything so exciting. She'd forgotten what a chatterbox he was, and she began to struggle to remain similarly enthused. Her head ached. It was ironic, she thought, that her journey to and from the castle should be so similar and yet feel so different.

Henry stayed until the door opened again, making him look up and gasp. He jumped to his feet.

"I um, I should rejoin my friends. I'll see you later Hermione. Have a marvelous Christmas."

It was Tom Riddle, of course. The Head Boy's presence automatically terrifying for a First Year.

"You too, Henry. Owl me if you're still finding Transfiguration difficult and I'll see if I can help."

"Oh thank you. I will," he replied, and cheeks aflame, he dashed out of the compartment, ducking under a rather amused looking Riddle's arm.

"Friend of yours?" Tom said, dropping onto the seat opposite.

"Yes, actually," she snapped.

He raised his hands innocently.

"I should tell you that one is a Hufflepuff, so probably not worth your time."

She glared at him and he smiled back.

"Not with your Housemates?" he asked, gesturing at the empty space and she raised an eyebrow.

"Clearly not."

"I meant," he said, irritated, "why are you not with your friends?"

"I could ask you the same question."

"Hermione," he sounded exasperated now, "you know what I'm asking."

She gave in. It was easier, and she was tired.

"I broke up with Marcus," she explained, very determinedly not looking at the boy opposite her. "It seemed polite not to force my presence on them at present."

He didn't say anything, just let out a sigh that could have meant anything, but as she was very specifically not looking at him, she couldn't search for that flash of emotion that always snuck out, that she'd learnt to spot.

"You look tired," he said at last.

"Charming."

"Why are you being difficult this morning? Would you like a hangover potion?"

Actually, yes that's exactly what she would like. She was also starving. After her talk with Marcus, breakfast had seemed singularly unappetising.

But she didn't want it from him!

"I'm fine, thank you Tom."

He rolled his eyes and she noticed how tired he was. But his dark eyes were ablaze with something she'd never seen before, something unguarded and glorious and when he muttered something about obstinate witches and pulled a half-empty bottle from a pocket and offered it to her, she accepted it.

Her Inner-Harry voice screamed at her not to be a lunatic. You're not here, she told it firmly, and drank.

She felt better almost immediately.

"Bloody firewhisky," she said. "Thank you."

Thanking him was hard. The words tasted like bitter betrayal on her tongue but then he smiled, and there was something so genuinely relaxed about it that she couldn't help smiling back.

"What are you reading?" she asked, clutching for a safe topic. He had only a small book with him. It looked oddly familiar. To her surprise, he flushed.

"Ah. Remember when you fell asleep when we were looking after our Polyjuice potion?"

"Yes…" Vividly. She'd been terrified.

How far they'd come since then, Hermione reflected. Whatever this boy would come to be, she suspected she would feel only awkwardness falling asleep in front of him now. It was an unpleasant realisation. She brushed it aside, too interested in why, for the first time ever, he looked sheepish.

"Well, I'd seen you summoning things out of your bag in the Library and I was… curious. And about you, as you know perfectly well," he added, as though that wasn't quite a creepy thing to say.

Not that it sounded creepy this time. Not like it had when he'd pulled her into a deserted classroom and told her he'd warned the Slytherins off her because he found her interesting.

"Well anyway, I had a look in your bag, very nice and very illegal Undetectable Extension Charm, by the way – people say it's hard to work on leather – and I made a copy of your book."

"Yes, people add a strengthening charm but that makes it brittle, you have to – wait, what? What book?"

"Paradise Lost," he muttered.

"My Muggle book? You're reading one of my Muggle books?" she asked, flabbergasted.

"Clearly," he snapped, guard shutting down and she regretted the outburst. She'd forgotten how defensive he could be.

"I didn't mean it like that. I was just surprised. You seem to have so little… time for them usually. Like most Wizards."

"Most Wizards don't have as much reason as I do to hate them. You should see what they've done to London, all those bombs. But it appears they are not all completely hopeless."

"What did you think?" She was fascinated. Tom Riddle reading Muggle poetry about God and Adam and Eve and… Satan. Ah. No wonder he was clutching it like a lifeline.

"I think it would be a cruel God indeed that would forbid someone to seek knowledge. It's… a trap, and an unconscionable one. Heaven is for thee too high To know what passes there. Be lowly wise; Think only what concerns thee and thy being; Dream not to other worlds, what creatures there etc. etc. Unbearable."

She made a valiant effort to stop herself being impressed as his ability to reel off chunks of the text.

"I… thought exactly the same thing," she said, frowning. "It is unconscionable. It felt like we were supposed to dislike God. But everything I've read or heard about Milton indicated he was a very devout man."

"Does Satan… love Eve?" he asked her, and there was something in his voice she couldn't quite read.

"Love? I don't think so. He... envies her. But – not in that he's jealous, but, um, envy and sympathy are very related, right? So he feels this connection to Adam and Eve, to their innocence and goodness. I mean, we obviously are set up with him as the structural hero – and we feel tremendous sympathy for him but he just… he falls short. And he's too proud to repent and go back to goodness. I think."

She wondered what resonance such words might have for his own future: O then at last relent: is there no place Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? None left but by submission; and that word Disdain forbids me and my dread of shame Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc'd.

"The typical warning against ambition," Tom said, crossly. "And here's another thing - I didn't think anything said Satan did or said was as bad as Hee for God only, shee for God in him."

He'd never looked more handsome, she thought. Or surprised her more. This wasn't what he was supposed to be like. He was supposed to be off torturing First Years and controlling minions and plotting, not sitting discussing how appallingly anti-feminist Muggle religious doctrine could be, and especially not when it was interpreted into poetry.

"Well I hated that too. But, and I'm no expert, I mean isn't that just what Muggles believed then?"

"Yes, it's all in the Bible," he said thoughtlessly. "Although, I once pointed that out to the Matron at the orphanage during Bible study. She was displeased."

"You had Bible study?" she asked, curious. Another unexpected facet of his character.

"Twice a day, and then Church and Sunday School. There were Nuns in the orphanage, doing what they called God's work but did not seem like that to us. They thought I was quite the little abomination."

His face was dark with hatred, and she wondered what they'd done to a boy with magic. Her own, largely kind, teachers had struggled to reconcile strange incidents with the otherwise well-behaved and intensely studious child. Still, they'd never really punished her for it and nor had her parents. Not physically. She'd been told off, of course, like every child in the Muggle world with magic. She wondered how her accidental magic would have reacted to true punishment by an adult. Causing a girl trying to steal her lunch to burn their fingers, or making Camilla Arnold's teeth grow to look just like hers when she'd finally had enough of the girl's cruelty, was hardly comparable.

There had been newspaper stories in her time of the abuse people had suffered in orphanages in the 20s and 30s. All sorts of horrific stories, unfathomable cruelty to the most vulnerable children -

And then, quite without thinking she leaned across, and hugged him. A moment later, they both tensed together in shock at what she'd done, but it was too late.

"Sorry," she muttered, her face burning as she pulled away. "I just – it doesn't sound like the sort of place any child should grow up."

She really shouldn't have danced with him.

He nodded, and the awkwardness was unbearable. She looked down at her hands. Stupid stupid stupid. He's Voldemort! Not Harry or Crookshanks or Dobby. He's evil, Hermione. You can't just go around hugging him and feeling sorry for him. A bad upbringing isn't an excuse!

"It's fine… Um –" he floundered, as though she'd completely uprooted him with a moment of accidental kindness and she just couldn't help it, couldn't help wondering if anyone had ever held him as a child. If he'd ever actually been held kindly before.

She was tremendously relieved when someone knocked at the door, breaking the awkward moment. 

"Anything from the trolley, dears?" the old woman asked, and Hermione leapt gratefully to her feet.

"Oh, yes please. Can I have two – no four – chocolate cauldrons and two pumpkin pasties. And two bottles of pumpkin fizz."

She paid for the food and wordlessly handed him half. He frowned, muttering a thanks, and they ate in silence for a while, as the snow faded away from the landscape, the mountains flattening into rolling grey-green hills that lead into towns and then moors and fields ploughed brown and empty, trees bare with winter.

"Why are you like this?" he asked, as they pulled out of York.

"Like what?" she asked, confused.

"You are… kind," he said tentatively, like he was tasting the word for the first time, as if it was a word he'd never uttered before.

"Why am I kind? I don't understand."

"I have never met anyone who does anything without some personal gain but you… you don't even seem to think about it. You just are. I've seen you help the younger students, even when you don't think anyone can see you. You feel… something for my circumstances that isn't pity and yet… What is it that you seek?"

"I don't seek anything. I'm just not – I mean, I think a better question – or – no one? Really? How is that possible?"

She stared at him, confounded. What an awful way to see the world.

"Forget it," he muttered, pulling another book out of his bag. A textbook, this time.

 

 

As King's Cross drew closer, and the darkness drew in, Hermione broke the silence again.

"Are you really coming to Wales?" she asked, because it had been preying on her mind, and although they'd both avoided mentioning the night before, as though by tacit agreement, she really needed to know.

If he was actually – surreally – going to pay them a visit, there was a lot she needed to prepare for. She wasn't stupid enough to think that he wouldn't go snooping around to uncover the secrets he sensed within her.

He closed his book and examined her.

"That does not please you," he stated.

She felt embarrassed, caught out her need to be polite.

"No, it's not that. I've just never had a school friend to stay at my house before." And that wasn't really a lie, because Harry and Ron had never come. They had never shown an interest in seeing her life, really, something that she'd tried not to let rankle because after all The Burrow had been more interesting than her parents' house in Islington, and she had cast off a great deal of that life to spend time there or at school without sparing a thought for the people who had raised her.

He seemed to believe her, because his face relaxed again a little.

"I have business in Wales, so yes, I will take your father up on his invitation. Just after Christmas, before I go to Malfoy's party."

"Oh, are you going there for New Year as well?" she asked, without thinking.

"Yes. If it would be convenient, I could escort you there?"

Hermione bit her lip in consternation. She wondered if he'd laid that down as a little trap. She'd walked straight into it if he had. It was a turn of events she frankly could never have imagined even after a dose of the Weasleys Wizard Wheezes' strongest mind-altering potion (available to of-age Wizards only). Even if she'd chased it with half a gallon of firewhisky. 

Did he want to be her date? That was ridiculous. Refusing without a good reason would be rude and she just didn't have one.

And besides that - she really didn't want to turn up to a party at Malfoy Manor by herself. Sophia would already be there, of course, and several of her friends. 

"Yes," she said, "I suppose that could work. We can take my father's carriage. It's… I don't know why but it's considered uncouth to Apparate to a party. I think it's actually just to stop people splinching themselves on the way home, and Portkey invitations are only one-way so–"

"You're babbling," he said, amazed.

"Oh, shut up."

"I've never seen you babble. Do I make you nervous, Hermione?"

"Tom, stop it. I'm going to read my book."

"Yes, Thirty Six Rules for the Intermediate Arithmancer does look fascinating, and not at all below your level."

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit," she retorted, glad to be back on familiar ground.

"That's a bit rich, coming from you."

She smirked.

"For you information, I'm revising for NEWTs."

"You're revising? It's December. And you could pass them tomorrow without batting an eyelid anyway. Why are you revising?"

"Do you really think so?" she asked, pleased.

He rolled his eyes in response.

"I'm not going to pander to your ego. You know you're quite clever. Almost as clever as I am."

"Almost! I beat you on three tests in the last month, and two essays."

"The fact that you've treasured those small moments tells me all I need to know."

She huffed, but after all it was true. And wasn't that why she was sat there, contentedly talking to him? Because she'd never, ever met anyone her age cleverer than her before, and it was intoxicating and amazing and he didn't make her feel ridiculous for being so fascinated by everything, didn't make her feel like a freak.

"Just wait till I beat you in the dueling contest," she hissed.

"I am eagerly anticipating our duels, Hermione," he said, eyes glittering with a savage fire that scared and enticed her at the same time. "We're nearly there. I'd better go and change in a minute."

"Where are you going after this?"

"My father's house, I told you. I'll apparate there from the station. It's strange - I've never left Hogwarts for Christmas before."

He looked a little melancholy at the memory.

"Tom – don't spend too much time on your own. It's not healthy. Go to the pub, meet some Muggles. I don't think they'll be as bad as you think they are."

"There's a War on, Hermione. If I go out the Muggles ask me why I'm not fighting for my country and call me a coward and give me white feathers. I don't look like a schoolboy."

That shut her up completely for a moment. She'd never considered it, not really.

"Will they ask you to fight?"

"They… sent a letter. For my 'National Service'. I'm turning eighteen soon, but as I'm still at school I'm not eligible until the summer."

"Surely you're not going to do it?"

Actually, the War would be over by then, as she knew, but National Service wouldn't be and many Allied soldiers would remain abroad.

"Fight for the people that – no I'm not. That's not my country. It doesn't matter, I'm not a part of that world."

"Hypothetically speaking," she said, her mind so used to plotting the answer came easily, "you could cast a charm on your name that would just make them skip you whenever it came to anything official, without removing yourself completely. You'd just need to sneak into wherever it is the Muggles hold the first copy of records, or it might even work on a certificate of birth – do Muggles have those?"

Her face was a picture of innocence.

His eyes glinted for a moment with greed and admiration.

"Yes, the original copy. What charm would you recommend? Hypothetically."

She named two that might work, and then another thought occurred.

"But don't we have an agreement about this with the Muggle Prime Minister? I thought every new Prime Minister was introduced to our world when they took office."

"I think this one would be more interested in making Wizards fight his battles for him, rather than letting us avoid signing up, don't you?"

That was true. Perhaps they'd skipped the customary introductions. 

But they could help, she thought. And yet… that might do more damage – weren't there just as many magical people who might fight for the other side? And that could cause untold damage.

No. It was better – essential – that the Wizards stayed out of Muggle conflicts.

"Cripes," he muttered. "We're in London. I'd better change. I'll see you after Christmas."

"Have – have a good one. Don't spend it on your own."

He just frowned at her as though she was being ridiculous, and then he was gone.

It had been her strangest journey on the Hogwarts Express to date: even the Dementors' visit didn't really compare. And yet she couldn't remember one that had flown past so quickly.

When the train pulled into the station five minutes later, she pocketed her shrunken trunk, and Pevensie's cage (he'd opted to fly to Wales by himself) and, not bothering to change, went to find Cerdic.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.

- Maya Angelou


 

December in Wales that year was grey and wet. The trees dripped with incessant rain, and the sky hardly seemed to lighten for a moment. To stave off gloom after the perfect, though likely magical, snows around Hogwarts, Hermione threw herself into preparing for Christmas. 

She decorated the castle, with free rein from Cerdic and the willing assistance of Buttons the house-elf. Festoons of foliage – yew, holly, ivy and even mistletoe – were cut from the surrounding woodland and hung on walls, wound through bannisters and balustrades and draped around candelabras. Golden streams and decorations set off the lush evergreens. She chose a beautiful tree for the hall, brought warmth into the castle with roaring fires and filled every dark corner with tiny golden lights and merriness and vibrancy.

And if she cried, once or twice, for Christmases past, it was at night and alone.

 

 

 

Dearborn

I will be in Wales from the 28th , in and around the Valleys in South Wales. I'm coming from Cheshire, so you are on the way down. Would the 27 th  suit? I'll come back and pick you up on the 31 st  for the Malfoys' ridiculous party.

TR

P.S. Have you started Professor Wolfe's assignment yet? There's a book I can't get hold of here that's referenced in three other texts – Perfect Numbers by Malgrif Gosthard. Do you have it?

 

Hermione searched the attics and shopped for old toys and Wizarding children's books, and put signs all over the castle that a child had lived there, recently. She redecorated her beautiful tower bedroom with warm pinkish reds and soft greys to counteract the dark panelling and the mullioned windows, and filled it with books and paintings and worked to create a home.

She bought copies of every old textbook, potion making kits for all ages (all used), built herself a potions lab and prepared and over-prepared and left nothing uncovered that might give away her actual lack of presence there before that summer. Tom Riddle was coming, and he couldn't suspect that she'd done anything but grow up there. 

 

 

 

Riddle,

That's fine. Are you coming by train? If you let me know the times I will meet you at the station at Brecon. Fortunately, I'm told the Muggles don't think using a carriage is strange because of the war, something called petrol has been rationed.

I'd quite like a Muggle car, they seem efficient.

Anyway, yes I have the book – or rather, my Father does and you'll definitely want to read it. I'll put it out for you when you come.

HD

P.S. So – Cheshire? Is that where you live?

 

 

She sat with Cerdic for hours, learning and revising her family's history, details of his work, hundred of anecdotes about his boyhood and past and she –

She prepared.

She was Hermione Granger, the girl who'd packed a library to fight the Dark Lord, the girl who had managed to keep Harry Potter alive against all the odds. She was an expert in covering every eventuality.

 

 

For Hermione, buying Christmas presents had always seemed like one more thing you could fail at. It was an annual examination. on your relationships with people. You could choose something the recipient already had, or hated, or found boring. You could even seem overly-thoughtful. On the other day you could ace it and give someone a gift they loved and reminded them of you. That year she had a far odder list to buy for than usual.  

Sophia, Ancha and Albus were the easiest: she picked up presents for them during her whirlwind preparations for Tom Riddle's visit after Christmas. Ancha got a bottle of perfume and Hermione booked a famous Wizarding portrait artist to photograph Sophia and Abraxas together – not something she personally would have wanted, but it was right up their street. Photography, a relatively new concept in the Wizarding world, was terribly chic and as personal cameras had not yet been adapted it was not yet available to the individual. For Albus, she knitted several pairs of thick woollen socks (she'd never, ever forgotten when Harry had reported this conversation to her as a child), to go with a very rare book she knew he didn't have, two Muggle novels she thought he'd like and a lemon cake she'd baked herself. 

Three days before she and Cerdic were due to leave for his brother's house, she went shopping with Sophia and Ancha. They'd agreed to meet at the Leaky Cauldron, and browse Diagon Alley on their way to the upmarket shopping district around Belenus Road to look for New Years' Eve robes for Hermione and Ancha. Sophia, of course, had chosen hers in the summer.

It was the sort of girly day out Hermione had rarely been able to enjoy, having few female friends in the Magical world. She'd tried meeting Parvati and Lavender once in the holidays after second year, but it had been utterly boring because they were so close to each other - a pity invite, really, and the seal on what was never to be a true friendship. 

Hermione apparated to the Leaky, slightly early as usual and warmed herself by the fire. It was strange to think that one side of the pub's wall were scenes of hardship, entire streets bombed to rubble, rationed food and clothing, telegrams bringing news of lost fathers and sons and brothers, and all the while on the other side, on their side it was Christmas as usual.

Shaking off her maudlin thoughts, as Sophia appeared in a swirl of grey velvet Hermione walked over and embraced her friend.

"We match," Sophia exclaimed, stroking Hermione's dove-grey velvet robes.

"How dreadful," Hermione teased. "You should go home and change."

Sophia laughed. She looked radiant, her grey eyes were glowing with laugher, dark blonde hair piled on her head, pearls gleaming in her ears.

"You can change," Sophia said, waving her wand and turning Hermione's robes fuschia.

"Gorgeous," Ancha said coming up behind them and promptly collapsed into giggles. "Actually, I think you could pull that off – in the summer, maybe. How about…"

Lime green this time and Hermione retaliated, flicking a mild hex to send both her friends' eyebrows growing past their nostrils.

"We surrender!" Ancha said, gasping with laugher.

"Finite," Hermione commanded, and then gave her friend a hug.

"Where are we going first?"

 

 

It was fun. The sort of silly, friendly, stress free fun she'd been missing, and if she occasionally saw something and thought Harry would love that, or That would be perfect for Ginny, she'd learnt not to let those thoughts take over. She managed to find appropriate presents for her as-yet unknown family, and the rest of her friends at Hogwarts, and a collection of things including a beautiful new pipe for Cerdic.

They had lunch at Sigil, a restaurant in the smarter end of the Wizarding shopping district, and when she'd finished her meal Hermione raised something that had been worrying her.

"Do you think I should get Marcus something?" she asked. "Or is that inappropriate?"

"Difficult," Ancha said. "Probably not."

"I think you should," Sophia said. "Just send it as a peace-maker. Something small, though. A book, or some nice chocolates."

And it was quite by accident, when they were in an old bookshop filled with the sort of rare tomes she'd never been able to quite afford before, that Hermione saw a book about the Founders.

She opened it, curious to see if any of the stories she'd heard from Mr. Ollivander were in there and although they weren't, it was a beautiful thing, artistic and quite lovely, filled with details about the castle's complex magic and anecdotes about the lives of the four Founders.

Tom would love this, she thought, and hesitated.

It was admittedly stupid to buy him something when she'd spent the past week trying to think of ways to undermine his interest in her. And yet –

And yet, she couldn't help wondering if he'd ever had much in the way of Christmas presents. She thought of the clever, lonely boy, in the empty house where he'd killed his only family and she felt that inconvenient stab of pity and understanding and no one should be alone on Christmas.

She bought the book.

"I wonder who that's for," Sophia commented quietly. Hermione ignored her.

She could always keep it.

 

 

"That one," Ancha said, nodding. "Definitely, definitely that one."

"I preferred the silver one," Sophia countered.

"You just don't like Gryffindors. She looks amazing in the red one."

The dress robe was cut very fashionably, with a jewel encrusted chest, and a cinched in waist and billowing translucent sleeves that reached the floor and it was red red red and beautiful.

"I'm with Ancha," Hermione said, eyeing herself in the mirror.

That one, the mirror agreed.

"Would you like it sent to your home, Miss Dearborn?" the assistant asked, helping Hermione unfasten the dress.

"Thank you. To Bronllys Castle, please."

Was this how the Pureblood girls lived in her time? Hermione wondered. If so, perhaps their arrogance was more understandable. Growing up with this as normality would certainly limit your worldview.

Half the shops they'd visited recognised Sophia or Ancha or both on sight, and when her own surname was mentioned they fell over themselves to help – much as they'd started to do in her own time, actually, but she'd earned that.

The power of a name, she supposed. It was uncomfortable, albeit convenient.

"There's just one last problem I have," she said when they'd left Madame Rochard's Finest Robes. "What do I buy for Claire?"

"You're sure she's the one who's been playing tricks on you?" Ancha asked, frowning.

"A dungbomb?" Sophia suggested at the same time.

"Yes, almost certain. But I want to be the gracious one. Keep up appearances and all that. If it was her then she's rotten and I'll get my revenge - but in due time you know?"

"You were definitely sorted into the wrong house," Sophia said gleefully.

"You're a fine one to talk," Hermione said playfully. "Both of you, I suspect. Sneaky Slytherins hiding as Ravenclaws so no one would guess… don't think you have me fooled for a moment."

 

 

"We'll see you on New Year's Eve," Hermione said, kissing Ancha goodbye. Sophia was returning to Wales with her, but Ancha had to visit her ghastly-sounding Great-Aunt.

"If I'm still in one piece," Ancha said gloomily. "She likes to give us all a few rounds of curses before dinner to test how tough were are… She says it's good for the constitution, honestly she's such an old bag."

"When my aunt's – Marcus's – family come and stay, my father makes us duel for our supper, and the loser can't use magic for the rest of the day and gets called 'Muggle'. And the Selwyns are always supposed to beat the Blishwicks."

"Really?" Hermione asked, shocked. "That's awful."

Sophia shrugged. "It's 'character building' apparently."

Even after nine years in the Wizarding World, its casual brutality could still shock Hermione.

A stark reminder that magic – and the subsequent ability to fix or undo most harm caused with a potion or a spell – made the world crueller.

It put a lot of Fred and George's high jinks in perspective.

"That makes me even more grateful to be an only child whose never met her cousins," she told them.

"Your family is full of bleeding hearted Gryffindors, I shouldn't think you have quite the same traditions."

"Well that's a relief."

 

 

"Well," Sophia said, as they landed outside the house, Hermione staggering with the effort of side-along apparating someone all the way from London. "This is nice. Very romantic, isn't it? With the moat and that tower – please tell me that's my room?"

"Don't be silly," Hermione said. "That's obviously my room. Come on, I'm absolutely starving. I'll show you around after I've had something to eat. You're harder to apparate than you look…"

"Hag!"

 

 

 

Dearborn,

Thank you.

Cheshire. Indeed, that's where my house is. Not a hard deduction – but I have your address so we're even.

TR

 

 

Hermione waved Sophia off on the morning of the 23rd. They'd spent two wonderful days walking in the hills and along the river, playing cards, practising spells and duelling for when Hermione would face the other house champions, riding Cerdic's horses, wrapping presents and sending them across the country from the tiny Owl Post Office in Brecon, and revelling in each others' company.

Now, though, it was time to meet her family. When Sophia was gone, Hermione went to her room and collected the travelling case she'd packed, and pulled on her thick winter cloak.

 

 

Cadwgan Dearborn lived in a grand, slightly rambling pile in West Sussex, set in rolling green hills with a large stream running nearby, and acres of woodland and smoke pluming up out of all eight chimneys. It was idyllic and utterly, completely English – the sort of house people would put on chocolate boxes and postcards and Hermione loved it the moment she set eyes on it.

Cerdic had landed the carriage rather expertly on the lawn, the Abraxans' hooves tearing up the grass with the impact, and even before Hermione had climbed out of the carriage she could hear loud voices and exclamations and raucous laughter.

"You're late!" a voice, just as plummy and booming as Cerdic's announced and she looked up to see a younger, leaner, laughing version of her adopted father. The same thick, dark hair and warm eyes and a face weathered with laughter and a life lived outside. Her immediate impression was of a great similarity to Cerdic, but with the vital energy of someone who preferred Quidditch to books.

"We are not," Cerdic said. "In fact, I'm sure we're early. We made excellent time."

"Twenty years late, you arse. Let's look at her then!"

And Hermione was embraced and inspected and proclaimed to be "much prettier than I expected, old thing," and "quite the young lady, however did my brother produce you?"

And then more people were pouring out onto the lawn, taking the horses to the stables, elves collecting their luggage and she was being introduced and kissed and –

It felt like being a Weasley, suddenly, surrounded by warm and welcoming family. There was Cadwgan, his wife Hestia, their son Caradoc and then Hestia's brother Freddie Mckinnon and his wife and two children – one of them a Second Year at Hogwarts, in fact. The other, Iris, was Hermione's age, and Hestia's sister Marlene Jones and her husband and three children.

"Come on, cousin," Caradoc said. "I'll show you your room."

 

 

He reminded her most of Bill Weasley, or perhaps Sirius when he'd been talking about his youth and not haunted by sadness and regret. Caradoc was the consummate Gryffindor; handsome and loud and full of energy, and confident and she felt –

She felt kinship with him, like she had so easily with Harry and she didn't know if it was a result of the spell that had made her truly a part of this family but she felt like she belonged.

And with that belonging, she felt the pang of slight regret that she hadn't grown up with a huge Magical family, who teased and understood each other. She'd always stood out, always been different but here she was just another brown haired witch, quieter perhaps than Caradoc and Iris who were as close as siblings, and peppered her with a hundred-and-forty-seven questions while they showed her to her room.

"I can't believe you're the secret daughter, you're so normal. We've been just fascinated – we thought you must be mad or hideous or a Squib or something!" Iris said.

"can't believe you're in Ravenclaw," Caradoc said mournfully. "I can see a glimmer of hope in you though… Listen don't tell the olds but we've got a plan for tonight – have you got any Muggle clothes?"

"Yes, I packed a dress in case. Why?"

"Well, we thought we'd go and have a dance in Muggle London when they're all asleep. Normally I'd tell them, but Ivy's father ticked us off something terrible last time we went – he's worried about the bombs but it'll be fine, I think they've stopped that now anyway. Are you in?"

"Yeah," Hermione said, grinning suddenly. She hadn't had an adventure in too long… "I'm in."

"Great! Ivy's boyfriend's a Muggleborn – we're meeting him and some of his friends. They don't know about magic though so, you know, be careful."

A house-elf popped up beside them and told them lunch was ready.

"Cracking!" Caradoc exclaimed, throwing an arm around Hermione's shoulder. "I'm absolutely ravenous."

Lunch was great steaming piles of roast chicken, and perfect gravy and mountains of crispy roast potatoes and pumpkin pie and gallons of wine and merriment, and Hermione managed to eat a decent amount despite the endless questions everyone had for her.

Then they showed her around the house and gardens and then there was more food, tea and dark, moist fruit cake and then they played board games and cards in front of the roaring fire and Hermione forgot to be nervous and she played hide and seek and laughed until her stomach hurt and she was happy.

Cadwgan had been an Auror, like his son, and when she mentioned that she was House Champion he got very excited and started giving her tips and teasing Cerdic.

"Ah, so she gets her good genes from me then," he told his elder brother.

"I taught you everything you know," Cerdic disagreed and they went off, bantering as though they were boys again and the day passed in a happy haze of firelight and warmth and good food and company.

Indeed, it was such tremendous fun Hermione couldn't help wondering what had caused Cerdic to remove himself from such welcoming happiness, but he was so terribly eccentric, capable of withdrawing completely into himself even in good company if a particular intellectual problem gripped him suddenly.

 

 

Hermione's first moment alone was when she went to change for dinner, choosing velvet robes that might need a cooling charm in the warm house. As she was tidying her hair, there was a knock at her door.

"Come in," she said and Caradoc peered in.

"I was bored," he explained. "Everyone takes so long to get ready, it's so silly."

She smiled, pleased.

"As you can see I'm almost finished."

"Very presentable. I bet all the boys have been chasing after you at Hogwarts – pretty new girl like you," he winked, and she remembered Albus telling her he'd had quite a reputation Hogwarts.

"Oh – no, just one or two."

He sprawled on the chaise longue by her window and gestured invitingly.

"Do tell, I love hearing gossip about Hogwarts."

"Well," she said, wondering how to explain. "I just broke up with someone – Marcus Blishwick. He was very nice, lovely really, but a bit – a bit keen to settle down."

"Blishwick – I know his elder brother. Nice family, bit dull. So you've got a wandering spirit have you? You really are a Dearborn. I'd wondered…"

"Yes," she said, honestly. She hadn't, before, but now she was on this great adventure in the past the thought of setting anywhere for too long was both impractical and strangely disquieting. "When I leave Hogwarts I'm going to try and travel a lot – Professor Dumbledore has kindly offered to send me to some of his acquaintances all over the world to learn…"

"Dumbledore?" Caradoc asked, surprised. "You must be something special.

She blushed slightly because it wasn't as though he'd chosen her, more had her thrust upon him by his future self, but even so…

"I suppose so. He's a bit lonely, I think. He's been mentoring me since last summer – it's why I finally went to Hogwarts, actually."

"Ah, that makes sense. Granny Dearborn believed in home education too, you know. Well, yes you probably do. I'm glad you're finally here, Hermione. It's strange, feels like I've known you my whole life."

"Same," she admitted. "I was really nervous, actually, but everyone's been so kind."

"Why haven't we met you before? Father said Cerdic's just like that, but I haven't seen him since I was about three so I wouldn't know."

"He is, really. He's just… he's very happy to be alone with his books and research and it's not a lack on interest in the outside world or that he doesn't like people or anything – actually he loves a good party. I don't really know. He just lives completely in what he's doing at any one time, I suppose. Sometimes I wonder if something happened – I've never really asked though."

"Ah well. Families are funny things," he said. "Come on let's go down and have a drink. I hope you've inherited the family constitution as well as a thirst for travel and you know… the hair."

 

 

After dinner, she, Ivy and Caradoc bade the adults goodnight, saying they were going to stay up and play some more cards. After about half an hour, they snuck upstairs and changed, Hermione magically altering her one Muggle dress to fit the evening, coiling her hair into as close to a 1940s style as she could remember from television.

Thanking whatever whim had inspired her to bring some Muggle money, she transfigured a small handbag and some gloves. A coat would require tailoring charms she didn't know, so she took her cloak, hoping it would just look eccentric.

A soft double tap on her door informed her it was time to go.

It was exciting. She'd been so curious about the reality of wartime London since she'd been in the past, the urge to see history happening itching at her.

"Very convincing," Ivy said, eyeing her outfit as she opened the door. "Well done."

"Right we'll apparate from outside," Caradoc whispered, looking surprisingly stern and handsome in a Muggle uniform. "So as not to wake anyone. Come on. Ivy can you side-along both of us? Or shall we go to the Leaky and get a taxi?"

"I'll take us," she said. "I know somewhere close we can go to."

 

 

London was darker than she'd ever seen it at night, the enforced 'dim-out' mimicking moonlight. It gave the city an eerie, almost romantic feel.

They'd landed in the ruins of a bombed building, and even Hermione, a native Londoner, couldn't quite recognise the area – so different to the city of the eighties and nineties that she knew so well.

"Come on, this way. We're meeting them at Piccadilly." Ivy switched on a small torch, and Hermione admired her foresight.

As they walked, Hermione gazed around in awe; the buildings were great dark monoliths etched against the smoggy night sky, the streets like canyons, different and terrifying and unnatural, like walking in a forest made of stone and brick. The air was clogged with fumes and coal-dust. It was dirty, post-apocalyptic.

Their breath flumed out into the freezing air, a harsh frost glittering on the pavements.

"Where are we going?" she whispered to Ivy, her voice automatically hushing in the strange, dim light.

"The Ritz," Ivy whispered, "and then probably Soho or the a dance hall. Maybe Tottenham, it's supposed to be wild."

 

 

The Ritz was jarringly glamorous, after the dingy, ruined streets they'd walked through. A pale blue sign was the only indication of life until they were inside the bar, and suddenly there was music and lights and laughter, groups of clean, uniformed, important looking men in corners, smartly dressed, arrogant waiters and a haze of cigarette smoke and Ivy was greeting a terribly handsome young man at a table, three other uniformed officers standing up to greet them.

"My cousins Caradoc and Hermione," she said, and Hermione was greeted and handed champagne and it was like a film.

The boys were all officers, upper class and torn away from the lives of leisure and Oxbridge they would have had in peacetime. But they were charming, high-spirited and older than their years, home on leave for Christmas (a privilege, she imagined, that came with their names).

They drank champagne and pink gin and Hermione was allowed into a world she'd barely even read about, a world of grand hotels and black market booze and exiled royalty brushing shoulders with spies and cabinet ministers and officers and prostitutes. It was fascinating.

They piled into a taxi to go up to Tottenham, and while the haze of cigarettes remained, everything else was different; the great dance hall was nothing like anything Hermione had been to.

 

Despite the stiff surroundings and the conventional glamour of many of the women the spirit of the place was unmistakably bohemian, quite unlike anything she'd expected – visions of stiff dances and Englishness vanishing in the face of the jitterbugging dancers, the loud, laughing GIs in their collar-and-tie uniforms. The women, red-lipped and hair rolled and glamorous, were so like those she'd seen in films and at the same time they weren't. These were the reality, their faces both plainer and more interesting than the actresses who would play them later, their hair simpler, their laughs more throaty, their eyes glowing with a fragile form of liberation that had come hard-bought.

It was sexual somehow, erotic, but not the sort of eroticism fashionable in her time, this was a naïve and joyous freedom, where young women could dance with foreign soldiers, kiss them, go home with them.

"Bloody Americans," Roger, one of Ivy's boyfriend's friends muttered. "Can I buy you a drink, ladies?"

"I'm fine for the moment, thank you," she said, feet itching as she gazed at the dance floor, carefully watching the steps of the half-familiar dance.

They found a table at the side, and gin was bought, and when a GI called Kenneth came over and asked her to dance she said yes, yes alright, and spun and was lifted and she was laughing and this was adrenaline and adventure and history.

"You sure are pretty," Kenneth said. "Can I buy you another drink Hermione?"

"I should go back to my friends," she said, and she could tell his eye had already started to scan the room for another girl.

As she was walking back to the table, a handsome black soldier passed her and stopped.

"Good evening, Miss," he said.

"Hello," Hermione replied, smiling nervously, because he was easily the best-looking man she'd seen that evening.

They stared at each other for a moment, heat flickering.

"I'm John," he said, deep, slightly Southern drawl melting her.

"Hermione," she replied. "Would you like a drink?"

He grinned, "Aint that my line?"

"I'm a liberated woman," she said.

"You're the prettiest thing I ever saw, but if those boys see you buying me a drink there could be trouble. I just thought I'd say hello. Have a good evening."

"Wait –" she said as he moved to carry on walking. What sort of trouble? And then she realised – stupid, obvious – that this was about race, and how absurd to forget but she was Hermione Granger and while she had to bite her tongue at Wizarding bigotry she didn't have to put up with it in the Muggle world as well.

"You're the most handsome man here, and I'd like to dance with you. They are, after all," she pointed to a couple on the dance floor, and he paused then nodded.

"I guess it'd be worth it," he muttered.

And indeed although there were scowls, no one stopped them and eventually he relaxed and it was, if not as charged as dancing with Tom Riddle, by far the most fun she'd ever had out dancing. Nearby, Ivy was dancing with James, her boyfriend, and Caradoc with a pretty girl in some sort of uniform.

Breathless and sweating, she eventually cried off with sore feet, and they sat for a while, and he told her how ghastly the war had been for them, how London was an extraordinary refuge, how amazed they'd been at the open-mindedness of many British women, of the beatings the white Americans – and some white British – gave them when they became romantically involved with girls. He was open and unassuming and kind, and a bitter reminder that prejudice and hatred weren't limited to people like her or her time or her world.

At last, though, it was time to go home, and when she was there, she fell into bed exhausted and exhilarated and sad and angry all at the same time.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


 

Christmas morning in Sussex dawned bright and cold. Hoarfrost clung stubbornly to the trees and laced across windows. Hermione woke up to the sight of a little house-elf lighting the fire in her bedroom, and drowsily sat up. She'd cried herself to sleep the night before. Her eyes were aching and red-rimmed. But today – she could face her first Christmas without her family or Harry and Ron. She was ready.

"Sorry Missy Hermione," she squeaked. "Manny did not mean to wake you."

"That's quite alright, Manny. What time is it?"

"Half past six. Can Manny bring you some tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate?"

"Oh yes - please – a hot chocolate would be amazing. I can come and get it though?"

"No, no Missy. One moment."

She vanished with a small pop and Hermione's eyes spotted the cluster of presents by her bed. Mostly they'd be under the tree, she knew, but anything from her friends would have been brought to her room, and a stocking full of treats from her Uncle and Aunt.

She sat up eagerly, glad as the warmth from the fire washed over her, and piled them onto her bed. Caradoc had told her not to open anything before he and Iris woke up, saying they'd sit and open them together, but the pile was too enticing not to look.

Sophia's writing on a small, beautifully wrapped box was the easiest to identify, and that was Ancha's name, and some of her other Ravenclaw friends had signed little tags or cards. Nothing from Claire, interestingly enough, which made Hermione glad she'd sent one to the other girl.

And – yes! – her heart raced.

His writing.

It was small and thin and wrapped neatly and efficiently in grey tissue paper. Her fingers hovered over it, the other presents temporarily forgotten.

She hadn't thought he'd actually send anything, as dismissive of the holiday celebrations as he was. She felt it, but it gave nothing away, a hard, oblong box. A new quill perhaps?

The house-elf popped into the room with a tray laden not only with a beautiful porcelain pot decorated with weaving dancers, gently steaming at the spout, but a plate of hot buttery crumpets as well.

"Breakfast won't be until ten or eleven o'clock today, Missy Hermione, so I thought you might be hungered."

"Thank you. That's very thoughtful," Hermione said, taking the tray and placing it on the little table by her bed. "Is Caradoc awake yet?"

"Young Master is still asleep," the elf informed Hermione with something of a twinkle in her wide tennis-ball eyes.

When she was gone, Hermione got back into bed and poured hot chocolate out into the matching mug, admiring the dancers as they paraded across the porcelain. Munching slowly on a crumpet, she eyed the little charcoal rectangle. What had he sent her? It was agonising.

Bollocks to it, she thought, and ripped the paper off.

The discarded wrapping revealed a box made of what she thought might be walnut. The wood was whorled and glowed warmly in the firelight. She admired it for a moment before tentatively unlatching its little gold hook and lifting the lid.

A tiny golden compass rested against velvet lining. She frowned in surprise. A golden chain was threaded through a small hoop in the top. A necklace.

What? She whispered. The disc had a slender needle that span slowly round and round as she watched, never resting for long as though it were searching for the north. But, she realised, it wasn't a compass after all: there were no directional markings, just a series of tiny skulls finely etched around the edge of its face.

It was beautiful, but quite baffling. She picked up the envelope that had been attached and opened it.

 

 

 

 

Happy Christmas,

TR

 

Well, that was helpful.

Curious, but slightly wary, Hermione touched the smooth metal. It glowed softly for a moment, the needle spinning rapidly before settling back into its languid motion. It was hardly bigger than her thumbnail but exquisite. Delicate and interesting and fascinating. She wondered purpose it served, but there was no indication other than the little skulls.

She put it on, and walked to the mirror. It was pretty and unassuming, small enough to pass as an ordinary necklace at first sight, the long chain meaning it could lie hidden behind all but the most revealing of her robes.

She loved it.

He was so frustrating! How utterly like and yet unlike him to surprise her with such an intriguing - and possibly usefulgift but not tell her anything about it. It was probably some sort of ridiculous test.

Her inner voice, the one that she thought of as Harry's voice, had been unusually silent. But now it chided her for recklessly putting on something he'd given her. She ignored it. Whatever else Tom was, he wasn't interested in hurting her. Not now. Not yet. Not here.

She returned to bed and, resentfully eyeing the presents she'd promised not to open, picked up her book to try to pass the time until her cousins awoke, fingers drifting to the compass as she read.

Thankfully, it wasn't long before there was a soft knock on her door.

"I'm awake," she called out.

"Thank Merlin," Iris sighed, opening the door. "Caradoc is snoring his head off – let's go and jump on him. The little ones are all awake - making such a row. I've got too much of a headache to sleep any more - or find them charming." She giggled at this and stole some of Hermione's hot chocolate. "Oh that's good. Merry Christmas!"

"And you! Come on then," Hermione said, pulling on her long velvet dressing gown and embracing her cousin.

They slipped quietly into his room, and then, laughing, jumped on the bed, shaking him awake.

"It's Christmas!" Iris exclaimed. "Come on lazy-bones, wake up."

"Gerroff," he muttered drowsily. "Eh – what – oh!" he sat up, blearily wiping at his eyes, his thick dark curls sticking up dramatically. "Yeah, Happy Christmas. God, my head. What time is it? Manny?"

The elf popped into the room.

"Young Master you is awake!" the elf squeaked.

"Merry Christmas Manny – please bring me a coffee."

"It's eight thirty," Hermione informed him and he groaned.

"Coffee for me too please Manny," Iris chimed in. "Both of you come to my room - and bring your presents!" she added.

"Manny will bring coffee there," the elf said and vanished again.

Hermione suppressed a sigh of irritation on the elf's behalf – she was almost used to having them around now but that didn't make her any more pleased to see another species enslaved. Even well-treated ones, like Buttons and Manny and Jingo. One day, she thought.

"Five more minutes," Caradoc promised Ivy, and rolled back over, eyes drifting closed. Amused, Hermione and left him to drag himself up.

Slightly later than the girls had planned, they reconvened in Iris's room, clambering onto her bed and heaping up their presents.

For a newcomer to 1944, Hermione thought she had a surprisingly good hoard. They took turns opening them, and of course her most lavish presents were from Sophia and Ancha.

From Ancha, who loved clothes, she received a thick cashmere winter cloak, charcoal grey with a soft fur trim, and from Sophia a delicate gold charm bracelet.

Wizarding charm bracelets, unlike their Muggle equivalents, were actually charmed, and in her note Sophia specified what each little figure carried. The tiny eagle that stretched its wings when Hermione touched it carried a charm for wisdom. A little castle held one for surety, a potions bottle for inventiveness, a white jade flower for friendship, and two runes for happiness and luck. Hermione felt tears prick at her eyes.

"That's so beautiful!" Irish exclaimed, examining it. "I've never seen one like that before. Where's it from?"

She picked up the box and showed the maker's logo to her cousin.

"You might mention this to James around my next birthday, Caradoc."

He laughed and nodded. "Alright, alright."

There were books and chocolates and perfume, and a lovely new quill set from Hector and more chocolates, and she sat giggling and happy with her cousins, playing with the games that had come in their stockings until it was time to get dressed and join the rest of the household.

 

 

Christmas Day passed like this: food and presents and a big walk in the hills and then more food and wine and laughter and roaring fires and Hermione felt, truly, strangely felt, like she was with family. Whether it was some magic from the adoption spell or her own yearning to find a place to belong, she felt more at home with the Dearborns than she had since she'd been torn from her own time. Perhaps, in some ways, more so than even The Burrow. She'd always been welcomed, but had never not been a guest. Here, there were no well-meant but insensitive questions about her Muggle-relatives from Mr Weasley or moments of suspicion from the family's matriarch.

Her two most noteworthy presents, were a Pensieve from Albus, who'd traveled to Alexandria for the holiday, with a note warning her to Use with caution, and, from Cerdic, a car.

A Muggle car, sleek and silver, which in the climate of war must have been so difficult to find. A car. She'd mentioned, off-hand, how useful one would be and he'd bought her one. Just like that.

"You have to take a test with the Muggles," he warned as she opened a box containing a key and a photograph, "but I expect you'll pick it up soon enough. You said you'd like one."

"Father," she said, surprised, hugging him tightly. "Thank you!"

He beamed merrily at her.

"Is it here?" Caradoc asked, excitedly. "Oh, wow. This is amazing."

"No, boy – it's at home. Some officious little man is coming to teach Hermione - ah, tomorrow actually, don't forget - to drive it before the two of you go off gallivanting around Britain in it."

"A Muggle car?" her aunt Hestia asked doubtfully.

"Well, the man I bought it from is a wizard so it's all kitted out with safety charms and so forth. Terribly useful sounding thing, might see how this goes and get another one. Better than a carriage, or that ghastly bus, what?" Cerdic said,

"I think it sounds spectacular," Caradoc said, pouring over the picture. "Look Iris!"

"Oh, it's beautiful. James has one, Aunt Hestia, and it's really quite wonderful. He's quite mad about it. He'll be so jealous when I tell him you've got an SS 100 though Hermione."

"That's the one. The man said it was the best one," Cerdic said, pleased.

"It's the fastest car the world," Iris told him. "Ooh, I can't wait to see it."

"I'm just not sure they're safe," Hestia commented, apparently unaware of the irony coming from a woman who only the day before had gone for a fly around the grounds for fun. Brooms did not have safety charms built-in.

.

.

Slightly more than two-hundred-and-fifty miles north west of Cadwgan Dearborn's house in Sussex, Tom Riddle was spending a very different Christmas Day in his empty manor house in Little Hangleton.

The housekeeper-cum-cook his father - not that the man deserved any such title, really - had employed, who lived in a cottage on the grounds, had been slightly disgruntled at Tom's visit for the holidays. She had done little to hide it. He didn't need a Muggle servant, but firing her might have aroused suspicion and so he'd continued paying her menial wages. He suspected she'd been enjoying a life of relative leisure with him away at Hogwarts and would have preferred he remain at a distance. The house was certainly dusty enough, and meals appeared with apparent indifference to quality.

At least she was gone now. She had prepared enough food for three days and gone to stay with her daughter, whose son (she'd told him several times) was home on leave.

She wasn't wholly useless. The orphanage had never bothered to teach the boys how to cook and he had little desire to learn. But now that there were no other magical people in the village he couldn't even imperio her to be silent. The use of strong magic in such a place might attract Ministry attention. It was deeply irritating, and made him almost regret framing his repellent uncle.

Tom had been tempted to send her away for good, not least because she reminded him of the matron at the orphanage. But she was old and would die soon, and even despite that he had to pretend to be a normal boy who'd inherited an estate before he'd even left school and unfortunately he needed the house for a little while longer.

When she was dead and he had no more use for it he'd leave it to rot. A secret tomb for the ghastly Muggle side of his history.

With nothing else to do, he went out. The manor sat above the village, arrogantly looking out over the little houses, and as Tom left, not bothering to lock the door, he surveyed the frosty landscape, the hills shrouded in a thick mist that had lingered for the past few days rising up behind the house and across the village, enclosing it. To other eyes it might have been beautiful, but Tom was indifferent to the landscape.

He missed the city, sometimes. London was vast and sprawling and he'd been invisible as a child, sneaking out to roam like a gutter rat.

Cheshire was bitterly cold - far colder than was usual for England in December - and Tom wished he could wear his expensive new winter cloak, the first he had owned that was imbued with expensive warming charms, rather than the overcoat that had once been his father's. His breath turned to mist in the morning air before dissipating, as fragile and transient as the lives of those around him.

As lonely and cold and dusty and Muggle as the house was, Tom took a perverse pleasure in using it, in taking advantage of the dead man who'd given nothing to his only offspring.

(The man who'd refused his very existence, who'd tried to turn him away when he'd arrived that summer night, filled with such cringing fury that his Magical lineage had sunk so low that to then be consummately rejected by his Muggle one too –)

 

Unwilling to dwell on that particular memory, Tom turned his thoughts to Hermione as he made his way towards the church, its bells pealing out and echoing through the quiet valley, summoning the parish to worship.

There was little else to do on this inconvenient holiday, when a young man would get strange looks for being alone so he couldn't even research the locket. Every shop was closed and transport extremely limited. The world came to a senseless standstill, and so he followed the pealing bells to church.

Because the Riddle Manor was the largest house in the village it was separated from the church only by the servants' cottages where the gardener (a strange, surly man who glared at Tom from a distance and would not speak to anyone) and the cook/housekeeper lived, the graveyard, and the grounds of the rectory itself.

As he walked, Tom wasn't sure if he was going out of habit, to prevent suspicion in the village until such a time as it wouldn't matter, or because of his conversation with Hermione on the train and the harsh words of a long dead poet that had haunted him since.

Poetry was a form of immorality, after all.

He wondered what she would make of his Christmas. Don't spend too much time on your own, she'd said, with that infuriating kindness that radiated out of her, the damnable compassion that even he couldn't despise as weakness because Hermione Dearborn was anything but weak. Strange, fascinating, suspicious, talented, powerful, kind-hearted, dangerously astute: she was all of those things. And trustworthy somehow. She'd sent him something; it had arrived a few days ago but he'd restrained himself from looking.

Lots of people had sent him parcels, but Tom gave very few presents. Slughorn, of course, best to keep the man sweet, and a few other tactical choices. And her.

He hadn't even been embarrassed when he'd wrapped up the little box by hand. He'd seen the little compass in a tiny shop in the Wizarding district in Manchester, the tag saying it was from the early eighteenth century, and that the little arrow would point to whatever in the vicinity offered the greatest danger to its wearer.

It was interesting and beautiful and sharply attuned to danger - just as she was. Some instinct had told him she'd like it, appreciate it. And Slughorn's gossipy words about her father rang in his mind – that the man had enemies, that there were those who might kidnap Hermione to ransom her.

It had seemed a worthy and apt gift. Even if it was… sentimental.

But then – anything that tied the girl closer to him was good and lead him closer to obtaining her. And if she wore something of his around her neck then wasn't that a sign that she was his?

Tom walked up the pathway and through the open door into the old church, nodding greetings at all the nosey old villagers who liked to gossip about him as he passed them, and took his place in the front pew, his family pew.

He heard the whispers the Riddle boy - grew up in an orphanage – yes that mad woman's son - murdered - the old scandal - inherited unexpectedly last year - and so on. They named him as though they had power to do so, claiming him with the label Tom Riddle.

A doddery and ancient vicar began a dreary service, seemingly intended to remind everyone as much as possible that there was a war on, in case they'd forgotten. After some rising and kneeling and singing, the man took it upon himself to give an enormously long sermon about the christianity of sacrifice – talking about the son of God along with the soldiers abroad, and how all those at home must make sacrifices this Christmastime.

Tom's eyes wandered to the wall of the church where his last name was inscribed on the wall over and over on ancient plaques to his dead relatives. He loathed it and loathed the pride that he couldn't keep away at the sight. He had never been in the church before, though he knew there was a whole section of the graveyard set aside for them too. They'd given their name to the manor and to at least two lanes of houses built primarily for those who laboured on their land. They'd been here for centuries - smug and rich and comfortable and he had been tossed away like a bastard.

Finding them, a year and a half before, had been too much for his temper. It had been the most humiliating moment of his life. Damned and unwanted by both sides of his family. No one could have borne it.

So he'd cleansed the world of their cankerous presence. That had been easy enough: two birds with one stone, two ancient names ended forever. And if the word whispered only in his head - patricide - had haunted him since, a bible verse much appreciated by cruel nuns caring for those who had no parents, If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death, now, here, in the church itself, he felt absolved.

Tom queued for communion with the rest.

Yes, he'd killed his father, with his uncle's wand – though he'd only thought to torture him initially. His father, whose last words had been, You're no son of mine - you're a disgusting freak just like her. Tom had read the man's mind beforehand, seen the whole bare hideous truth of his conception.

He accepted the wafer and wine and blessing.

And yes, he'd killed the old man and woman – his grandparents, he supposed – who'd witnessed it. How pathetic that the man of forty still lived with them, and yet hadn't it been fortunate that he'd been home on leave from his cushy job safely away from the front that particular evening.

He went back to his lonely pew.

Afterwards, Tom had disillusioned himself and slipped back down the hill in the darkness to bespell his uncle into believing he had killed them.

It had not been until later, when his rage had simmered down, stopped burning so white-hot it felt like ice instead of heat, just as he'd turned to leave the village, that he'd thought of it.

And so back up the hill he'd gone, rushing now, because he'd realised that he didn't have to be homeless any more. Like all the orphans, he'd been unceremoniously booted out of the system at sixteen. He'd had nowhere to go that summer, or he wouldn't have bothered finding his family, not with an ancestor like his – not even with the irrepressible child's dream of what they might be.

No, the gossip had told him what to expect from the Gaunts, but he'd been... in need of a roof. If only Dippet had let him stay at Hogwarts, he'd never have had to kill the Riddles. But that was beside the point now.

The house was his by blood anyway and his sharp orphan's instincts had taken him back over the fields and into the house, stepping around the undiscovered bodies, to find letters from the Riddle's lawyer. Then he'd slipped away again, quickly, traveled miles to Chester to find the office, and altered the will so that everything – the manor, the attached farms, the tenanted cottages, the money – everything came to him. He'd had to wait, hidden, to make sure the old lawyer had believed it himself, and then find a way back to London without using magic.

The stone wall of the old Norman church looked bleak in the cold winter light, and Tom rose with the rest of the congregation to sing the last hymn.

Hail the heav'n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness, Light and life to all he brings. He kept his face carefully pious.

Tom had killed to avenge his rejection, his mother's rejection - and oh, how hideous the memories had been in the other Tom Riddle's mind. His pathetic, embarrassing, desperate mother, weak and ugly, and driven to madness by love of all things. But the benefits had been astronomical.

He'd gone from being a penniless orphan with no home to being a relatively wealthy landowner, albeit a Muggle one. He had little interest in money for its own sake, especially the muggle kind, but money was a form of power and Tom – Tom liked power.

Besides, he knew that money was money and food was food: it wasn't preferable, certainly, to have such Muggle roots but it was better than nothing. Preferable would have been the Gaunts maintaining their former glory, would be being an heir to a worthy house not a madman in a hovel. Preferable had many forms and the least of them was this.

But it would do, for now, while he was a student, until he'd tracked down the locket that was his by rights, the last relic of Salazar Slytherin. His fingers itched against the hymn book as he thought of it.

To achieve all of that from one night's work – and to make a Horcrux – well, it was just a shame he couldn't boast about it really. It was so impressive.

(He refused to remember the sting of humiliation, the sick feeling when even his pathetic Muggle relations hadn't wanted him, to learn that his mother had resorted to magic to breed, his own desperate need for a home.

Worse still, and never to be thought of, was the moment of hope when his uncle had said you look mighty like that Muggle and he'd thought any father is better than no father. No he wouldn't recall that in any retelling, not even to himself any more. It had been a cleansing, well-deserved justice handed out to a Muggle who'd dared to distain magic instead of giving it its rightful reverence. A Muggle who'd left his mother, thinking himself above her, his mother whose blood was pure, who might have been ugly and pathetic, who might have soiled herself, but who had been worthy of respect from that man nonetheless.)

Staring back at the plaque to some Muggle ancestor, as the last prayers wafted past his unhearing ears, Tom thrilled in the knowledge that one day he would cast off that name.

That one day he would simply be Voldemort, so powerful that even wizards would fear to name him. Because names were power, and history and he –

He wanted to break free of all of his own history, Gaunt and Riddle alike.

 

 

When the interminable service finally ended, on a note of the weakest Christmas cheer even Tom could imagine – and Christmas was never a particularly wonderful time to be an orphan – he spent a few minutes by the door charming the old women of the village.

It never hurt to advance your approval rating in any circumstances, and while he didn't think anyone had ever connected him with the murders, or even knew he'd been to the village before he'd inherited the unfortunate property, one could never be too careful.

"Thank you, and to you Mrs Grimsby," he said, forcing a smile to an old woman who he'd met before while walking in the village the previous summer. She was a uniquely nosy specimen and, he suspected, the epicentre of the village gossip.

"How was your term at school, dear?"

"Oh very good, thank you. Still top of the class. Gosh I think I had better get back to the house – the turkey will be burning! Have a wonderful holiday."

(Five people had tried to take him home for lunch: it was unbearable.)

As he hurried away from the stifling questions and deeply unwelcome curiosity, he could hear her telling her friend Margaret how much nicer he was than his father and he –

He smiled.

One day they might learn that was very far from the case.

One day, when he was free to be fully himself.

But for now, village duty done, he could go home and let himself open that parcel from h e r.

Tom ate the cold chicken Mrs Jeffery had left and poured himself a glass of wine. Good wine, wine he supposed his Riddle grandfather had bought and laid down years ago, wine he hadn't known was good but he'd been researching because that sort of thing mattered to people and even pureblood wizards drank Muggle wine (unknowingly, or at least uncaringly). He opened his presents sitting in the smallest sitting room of the house, the one Mrs Jeffrey wasn't allowed into, piled with his magic books and the fire dancing, the only room in this godforsaken house that felt like home.

There was the usual small collection of duty gifts from current and former Slytherins, most of them to keep him sweet. Tickets to this and that, although why anyone though he'd be interested in hippogriff racing escaped him, expensive but essentially useless trinkets – usually with snakes on -, and books of Dark Magic that no one sold in shops. A card from Mrs Cole wishing him well, which he threw on the fire, an enormous box of fancy candied fruits from Slughorn that he idly dug into, and, interestingly enough, tickets to the top box of the Quidditch World Cup the following summer from Penelope Greengrass.

He wondered who she'd had to charm to get those, and considered again what a useful addition she'd be to his little band of dedicated followers. It wasn't for any interest in Quidditch, because she knew he didn't care much about it as long as Slytherin won. The brutishness of the Quidditch team when they were not victorious, their legendary punishments to the member voted to have let them down, turned even his stomach. Not for the violence, but for the pointlessness of it.

No, Greengrass was stating very clearly to him I can elevate your status. It was a networking opportunity, a chance to be seen by the right sort of people, a foot through a door he'd been fighting against having shut in his face for seven years.

And yet, that sort of social climbing was so boring and ordinary. He tossed them down, frowning. Being conventionally successful was so limiting. One had to conform to rules of society and etiquette and the Wizarding world's equivalents of going to church and smiling at Mrs Grimsby and telling her about his term at school.

It was the same power attainable to anyone with the right name – and he wanted to go far, far beyond that.

Finally, he opened Hermione Dearborn's present. Her owl had delivered the parcel, wrapped in brown paper, with a note saying she was going to stay with her family and was sending it early, but to keep it until today. Even on paper, she could sound bossy.

There was more inside than he'd expected. First, a shrunken tin that enlarged in his hands and turned heavier (her spell-work really was impressive, even to him). When he pulled the lid off he saw a sticky delicious looking loaf shaped cake. The smell of it suddenly his nostrils and he realised she'd put a statis spell over it, that had dissolved with the featherweight charm and shrinking spell. Clever witch. It smelled like apples and cinnamon and something nutty and had he not been impatient to see what else was in the parcel he'd have immediately eaten some. Living in the Muggle world over Christmas, with its pinched wartime rationing, had reminded him all too much of the hideous orphanage food.

Next was a poinsettia, also bursting from miniature to full size as he picked it up, a small note tucked into the edge of the pot in her neat, flowing handwriting: I assumed your house needed cheering up.

It was followed by a ridiculous card with a flying Hippogriff on the front pulling a sleigh full of presents. He snorted with laughter when he opened it and it began to sing loud carols.

She was, under her sophisticated exterior, actually rather funny. No one else – no one ever – had teased him as she was beginning to. And anyone else would have been tortured for it, but with her it was different.

Another tin revealed mince pies and it occurred to him that she might have made them herself. The thought of her baking for him made his stomach lurch with a strange and completely alien emotion.

And then at the bottom, beautifully wrapped in velvety dark-red paper with a ribbon tied in an obnoxiously perfect golden bow, a piece of parchment tucked into it, was his present.

He unwrapped it, revealing the battered brown leather cover. The title had worn away and for a moment he was disappointed that she'd bought him a book like everyone else. Until he saw the spine. It was a Founders book – one of the rarest, one he'd only seen mention of and never found and she'd – how had she known?

He stared at it, gobsmacked. It was the only present he'd ever received that he'd wanted. The urge to see her stole up through his body, pinching at the glow that had spread when he'd opened her parcel. Tom knew all about missing people who didn't exist, missing the mythological father he'd created in his mind as an eleven year old, missing the dead mother he'd imagined as a smaller boy, but he'd never missed anyone real before.

And as he stared at her merry, teasing little note, the note that said she wouldn't bother wishing him a Merry Christmas, because she knew he didn't really celebrate it, but that she'd seen the book and thought of him anyway, even the fire warming the smaller sitting room he used as a library seemed cold in comparison.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!


― Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None

 


Tom's journey to Brecon took him right down the Welsh Marches. The railway ran through what seemed like endless rolling green hills, forests and fields that were only occasionally interrupted by towns and villages, but the glorious scenery left him indifferent and flashed largely unnoticed passed the window.

Thankfully, he had the compartment to himself most of way, and even more thankfully there was a direct wizarding train at Platform Five-and-a-half from Manchester. A plump old witch joined him for a while between Crewe and Shrewsbury and made some dull conversation, which he made a decent attempt not to be rude about but found frustrating. Although he could hardly concentrate on his book.

He was distressed to find himself excited. Most of the anticipation was to have a chance to see Hermione's personal life, to look for the secrets he was sure existed, to finally satisfy the instinct that told him something is not right. But, loathe as he was to own it even to himself, a part of him was looking forward to seeing her.

After what seemed like days the train finally pulled into Brecon and Tom disembarked, bag in hand, hoping Hermione had received the owl informing her of his arrival time. The station was tiny enough to share platforms with the Muggles, just one either side of the track with a bridge across to the ticket office and waiting room. There was no porter in sight and only one wizard, who was sitting reading The Daily Prophet and eating a sandwich.

There was no sign of Hermione outside the station, and he set his bag down in irritation. He hated to be kept waiting, but at least the weather was dry and crisp after weeks of rain. His breath came out in icy plumes. The late afternoon sunlight bathed the hills behind the town with golden light. She'd said she was coming by carriage, and he scanned the sky hopefully.

The roar of an engine disturbed the quiet station and he glared as a sleek car pulled up in front of him, his irritation swiftly turning into shock as it got close enough for him to see her through the windscreen.

"Sorry I'm late," Hermione said, jumping out of the car and for a moment Tom was too overcome with surprise to answer. "I got a bit lost actually. I'm not used to going by road."

He stared. Her hair pulled on top of her head and she was wearing a cream silk blouse tucked into brown trousers, which emphasised her tiny waist. He'd never seen a witch dressed like that, with all the casual glamour of a Muggle film star posing in one of the magazines Mrs Cole had hidden from the nuns in her office.

"Hello," he muttered, trying not to react. "Is that a Muggle car?"

"Yes," she said, grinning. "It was my Christmas present from my father. Do you like it?"

There was a familiar teasing edge in her voice. It told him she knew very well he wouldn't like it but didn't care and it recovered him.

"I'm just not sure it'll be safe… Not the car, I'm sure that's fine – more the driver."

"Oh, honestly. I have actually passed my test. This morning actually."

"Well, now I feel fully secure," he said sarcastically, and eyed the vehicle again. It was low-slung and sleek and silver with a soft black roof. He didn't know much about them, truth be told, but he knew enough to see this one screamed expensive and impractical and...

- it was a Muggle car. She was a witch and here she was with a car and trousers and he felt displaced somehow, like he'd been thrown into a narrative he didn't understand.

"Come on," she said, biting her lip as she waited. He was relieved to see it: she must be as nervous as he was. "Let's go."

She put his bag in the boot, and he warily climbed into the passenger seat. He couldn't remember the last time he had been in a car, although there was one sitting in the stables at the Riddle manor. (The horses had been sold off immediately of course. Tom had absolutely no desire to prance around the county playing the country gentleman on his father's hunters - found the very idea revolting). Indeed, aside from the odd taxi, he'd never been in anything like this one. It wasn't as though anyone he knew owned such a thing. This car smelled of leather and Hermione and it made an aggressive purring roar. The dashboard was covered with incomprehensible dials, needles spinning between numbers that made no sense.

He watched her as she drove, studying how her eyes flicked up to the little mirrors, the relaxed, focused look, and the way her beautiful mouth curved in concentration, how she handled the stick between them with calm assurance.

"You're better than I thought you'd be at this," he said, eventually.

"Yes," she agreed. "It's quite wonderful actually. Driving. It's very freeing, in a strange way. I think I prefer it to flying."

"Really?" he asked, surprised yet again, off balance because as always she'd cut through his expectations and sent him spinning off-kilter.

"Yeah, I used to be scared of heights and I'm much better now but I've never really loved it. Let's just say I'm not a born Quidditch player. And, gods, have you ever ridden a hippogriff?"

"No."

"Well," she said, turning off onto a winding lane. There were no houses now, just endless trees and sheep and hedgerow and hills, "it's very strange. It's a bit like riding a non-magical horse, except a thousand times more disconcerting. Oh, I wish we could have the top down - it's much nicer, but it's too cold."

"Honestly, are you a witch or not?" he teased and she choked slightly, frowning. She didn't answer.

"I love flying," he admitted, unsure of what he'd said that had caused her face to shutter.

Hermione was driving quite fast now, the hedgerow speeding past in a green blur. She looked surprised for a moment.

"Why don't you play Quidditch?"

He rolled his eyes at her and, catching it, she laughed.

"Loving flying and wanting to play Quidditch aren't the same thing. I do sometimes with the Slytherins at weekend and in the summer term. Naturally, I'm very good."

"What position?" she asked, and he could tell this time she was the one taken aback.

"Seeker, of course. I partly don't like it because it has the most ridiculous rules. What's the point in the other six players?"

"I've seen a team win even when they didn't get the snitch, but yes – I completely agree. It's so irritating. And as brooms get faster and the snitch gets caught more quickly the disparity in points will just get more unfair. Anyway – we're nearly there. If you look to your left you might be able to see the castle."

He peered out of the window, and indeed there it was in the distance, on the edge of a shining body of water he suspected might be an actual fucking moat, tucked into the cliff of a green hill rising behind, beautiful parkland flowing down the other side, with what looked like a herd of winged horses grazing among the great trees.

"We're almost there," she said, signalling left although there was no turning yet, and that was when it all went to hell.

She squeaked suddenly and his eyes snapped back to her, surprised at the noise.

"Tom, the compass you gave me – it just warmed up."

"Let me see it," he said, leaning over and pulling at the chain around her neck without asking. The needle was pointing straight at the wood they were about to drive through.

"Stop the car, Hermione, now," he ordered, grabbing his wand as she slammed on the brakes.

"What is it?" she asked, and he admired how quickly she'd reacted to the concern in his voice, how unthinkingly she'd obeyed.

But they were in the coppice now, and he scanned the shadowy trees for a sign, his eyes hardly adjusted to the sudden change in light. "I think there's someone or something in here who means you harm. Wait here."

He was out of the car before she could react, casting a disillusionment charm over himself. However, perhaps because of her instant reaction to his past order he'd forgotten she wasn't one of his Knights, who would have done as they were told: she scrambled out of the car almost as quickly as he had, and then there was a man's laugh, and she was firing a spell and Tom was on the wrong side of the car. He crept around quietly, hoping he hadn't been seen.

"This is awful convenient," the man said, his accent rough, with a curious intonation that was half Estuary, half foreign. Tom still couldn't see him, but he brushed Hermione's hand to let her know he was standing beside her.

"Why's that?" she asked, eyes straining in the direction the voice had come from. Tom wondered if the man had had the same thought as him and disillusioned himself, and wished he could use her necklace to pinpoint his exact location.

"Missed you on the way out, din I? Thought you was flying, see, so I was waiting on my broom… then I saw the Muggle car and I thought to myself, I'll catch you on the way back little goose. You was sposed to have a friend with you, thought I'd have two of you to deal with."

"What do you want?" Hermione asked, and Tom marvelled at how calm she sounded. There was no tremble in her hands as they kept up the shield around herself. She'd have to drop it to cast, which was perhaps what the man was waiting for.

"Me? Just my paycheck, pretty goose. Nothing personal, see?"

"So you're just a mercenary. Who do you work for?"

"You'll meet him soon enough," the voice was closer now and Tom cursed under his breath. The man had rendered himself invisible, or near enough in the dim light of the wood.

"Try hominum revelio," she whispered, from the corner of her mouth.

He'd never heard of the spell, which irritated him, but he did it anyway. Casting something for the first time non-verbally was far beyond most people, but Tom was not ordinary, and so the shimmering outline of a man, closer than he'd thought, appeared for a moment.

"Keep him talking. When I count to three," he breathed in her ear, "drop the shield and get on the floor."

"I don't think I'd like that," Hermione said to the man. "How did you know I'd be going to collect a friend today?"

"Been reading your post. Camped out in the hills for a fucking month, I've been, since you left that damn impregnable school. But Gaelfric always gets his mark in the end and I've got you now little goose."

"Why do you keep calling me goose?"

"Golden goose, see? You're worth a fortune little girl. Your daddy'll be paying like Croesus for his riches."

"One-two-three," Tom commanded, and as she dropped he fired six stunners in succession. A thud on the ground indicated one had found its mark.

"Thanks," Hermione said shakily as she she took his hand and let him pull her up.

The horror that she'd nearly been taken from him rose up inside him and, impatient and far beyond angry, he pulled her to him pressing his mouth on hers for the first time, pushing her against the car. It was rough and blissful and blistering and demanding and hard and comforting and when he pulled away from her her eyes were glazed and dark, black pupils eating into the brown.

And although she wasn't planned for, although she was more distracting than anything he'd ever seen, although she made him act irrationally and made him feel desires that had never occurred to him, he felt a burst of fucking triumph and something that might be joy, the sort of happy burst of feeling he'd only had after achieving extreme magic – but then she was magic, wasn't she, magic made flesh, he thought and he pulled her against him, his hand still wound in her hair.

The words burned at his throat, but he couldn't quite get them out: No one touches what's mine. No one.

"I told you to wait in the car," he said at last.

She pulled away, wincing as his hand took a few hairs with it.

"I am not the sort of girl that sits in the car, as you know perfectly well, you arse," Hermione snapped and spun around. "Hominum revelio," she cast, and then when the body glowed she followed it with incarcerous, the counter-spells to invisibility, and summoned the intruder's wand.

The man was enormous: blond and brutish, with tattoos peeking out from under his robe that didn't appear to be aesthetic choices but indicators of a life of hardcore crime and prison. Tom hoped he'd never have to rely on inept mercenaries like this one.

"Enervate," he said, walking over to the prone figure.

"What are you doing?" she hissed.

"Getting information, obviously. Stop acting like such a Gryffindor."

"Shite," the man muttered when his eyes were open, struggling with the ropes.

"Who are you working for?" Tom asked coldly.

The man spat in his face in answer.

"Legilimens," he commanded, and then he was inside the man's mind, one so shallow and idiotic that even its cruelty was mundane, ripping through his memories, extracting the information he needed so mercilessly that the man howled out with the pain of the mental ransacking.

Too late, though, to notice the man hadn't been alone.

He pulled back out of the man's mind and span around, but there was a wand pointing at Hermione's head, another rough-looking wizard standing behind her, and both the wands she had been holding on the floor about a foot from where she was standing. He took in the signals betraying her fear, and incandescent, Tom could hardly see for a moment, until the mingled rage and panic settled and he remembered that he was magnificent - far more than a match for these idiots.

After all, orphans learnt to fight dirty - and so did Slytherins without a proper wizarding name.

"Drop yer wand, boy," the man ordered and Tom smirked. If the man had been cleverer, he'd have picked up the spare wands and have one pointed at Tom as well as at Hermione. But he wasn't.

Hermione shook her head very slightly and he wondered if she also had a plan.

That would be unfortunate: he'd quite like to rescue her from this. Surely, surely she'd have to start trusting him if he did that? Coldly, Tom weighed up in his mind the speed at which he could curse the man, without giving the man a chance to hurt Hermione. They didn't want to kill her immediately, but kidnap and ransom, so overall the risk was worth it. There was a plan to kill her but only once the gold had arrived.. He couldn't kill the bearded wizard though. He was too close behind Dearborn and if Tom missed and struck her instead...

So, instead of dropping his wand, he made as if to lower it, and then, snake-quick, sent a well-aimed and highly potent diffindo at the man's wand-hand.

It cut clean through the wrist and his hand, still clutching the wand, dropped to the ground. Hermione's attacker stared down at the bleeding stump of his wrist in shock as she threw herself to the side, and so he didn't have time to duck the Avada Kedavra that followed, and toppled down to join his severed hand on the leaf-littered ground, quite dead.

"You killed him," Hermione said, frowning as she got up, wand in hand.

"I did," Tom agreed, thinking he was probably owed a thank-you, but as her voice was shakier than normal he didn't comment.

She walked past Tom and looked down at the still-living assailant.

"Are there any more of you?"

"Might be.."

She sent a silent curse that had him howling and Tom informed her that no, according to what he'd seen in the man's mind it had just been the two of them.

"They were going to grab you and go," he told her. "The other one was further back in case you got past this cretin. I suppose he heard something and came looking."

"What transport method were you using?" she asked the man, her wand still trained on him.

Cowed now, he told her. "Got a Portkey innit."

"How long until it activates?"

"About ten minutes," he said. "If ye can work out what we was usin'."

She rolled her eyes. "Accio portkey."

A tobacco pouch came flying out of the dead man's pocket behind them and Hermione waved it mockingly at their captive.

Tom watched, fascinated, as she calmly levitated the corpse over to the surviving attacker, Gaelfric he'd called himself. Ropes wrapped around them both, binding them together, but she ignored the darker haired man's screams of horror.

The wand-hand followed: she levitated that into the living man's pocket, at which point he began to cry. Hermione snapped both their wands by hand, and then scourgified them, curiously, before tucking them in another pocket. He wondered at her thoroughness, at how calm she was... as though she'd been attacked before - and often.

In fact, he thought, staring at the dark-haired girl bent over the corpse of her attacker, that made sense. If she'd been attacked - taken perhaps - it would explain so much...

"Obscuro," Hermione said, blindfolding the man, and then, "Obliviate."

What was still visible of his face became completely slack for a moment, and then he began to yell and scream for help, scream where was he, what had been done to him, scream who was he. She clearly wiped his mind completely. It would almost have been a pitiful sight, were it not for the gruesome corpse tied to him turning the scene into something from a nightmare.

Finally, Hermione tucked the portkey into his other pocket and then, as though she'd forgotten all about him, looked up at Tom. She looked half-defiant, half-embarrassed, as though he'd walked in on her changing.

He couldn't quite read her, but whatever she saw in his face seemed to relax her and she looked back down at the man who'd become her victim.

"Tell your master not to bother me again," she said, but he ignored her, thrashing on the ground, too panicked to listen.

"Silencio." She waited until he was still, and then continued, "I said, tell your despicable master not to come after me again. We know who he is and there will be consequences if he does. Repeat that back."

"Not to come after you again," he stammered when she'd lifted the silencing spell. "Know who he is. Consequences."

She cast one more spell, but silently, a soft red beam hitting the man's chest and then there was a blue glow from the portkey and the bodies were gone, leaving them alone in the coppice.

"That was quite brilliant," Tom said, admiringly.

"I like things... tidy," she said, all of a sudden looking fragile, her face white and eyes huge. "Um. Look - thank you. If you hadn't been here... that might have gone rather badly. I didn't - Father said - but..."

He stepped over to her and, for the first time in his life voluntarily pulled another person into his arms for comfort. It wasn't an automatic gesture by any means, and indeed he didn't really see the point of it himself, but he had seen people console others in such a way, and he presumed it was the correct action.

To his horror, she started crying; the vicious eyed, vengeful witch turning into someone who was just a girl.

"I killed him," she said, words muffled against his chest.

He wondered if she was in shock or something: he'd very clearly done the killing (and, unlike the time before, this hadn't hurt him, hadn't left an empty ache - he'd think on it later).

"You didn't," he told her, awkwardly stroking her back.

"No, I did. I spelled his blood to clot. I- I used a healing spell and made a little clot by his heart... He'll be dead in three days."

Unable to resist any more, he pulled her back and pressed his mouth back against hers again, overcome with desire.

 


Chapter Text

 

What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

― Alexander Pope, Essay on Man and Other Poems


 

 

Hermione drove in silence down the long lane to the castle. It turned out of the woods to wind through the small valley beyond, an avenue of bare-leaved oaks standing sentinel either side of the driveway. As they drove, Tom was preoccupied by the stinging imprint of her lips against his. They'd been soft as rose petals, and just as like to make him bleed. How desperately she'd returned his kiss for a single, glorious moment, her body melting against his, a moment that might have been seconds or might have been hours or might have been forever.

A moment that made him fear her for the strange power she had over him - and yet - in all seventeen years and three hundred and sixty three days, Tom couldn't remember a single occasion where he'd felt more. Better, worse, yes but never so much.

I killed him, she'd said.

Mine, he'd thought. Mine mine mine.

Hermione had pulled away from him too soon for his body, not soon enough for his racing mind. Her face had been shuttered ever since, retreating somewhere he couldn't follow.

But if he'd once been angry with himself for being so humanso ordinary, as to be distracted by a girl at least, he thought, at least he knew this one was remarkable. Efficient and calm and powerful and clever and so pragmatic - he could only wonder at her.

He eyed the parkland stretching either side of the avenue of oaks, ancient trees planted at what he assumed was an aesthetically pleasing distance, the grey-green of the winter grass on the hills in the distance, the arching woods that curved around the boundary, the tall winged horses that indicated this was a place of magic, the narrow valley itself, wooded down to the lake.

As they curved back around the hill the castle came into view. They crossed over a wide stone bridge, high above the wide stretch of water that seemed half-lake half-river. As the car drew up in front of the door he felt a surge of anticipation: finally finally he would see the roots of this strange, unpredictable witch, this witch that had him tied in the same knots he despised in others.

It was a stunningly beautiful place, even to Tom's eyes. The castle itself was smaller than he'd imagined and quite unlike the photographs and paintings of Muggle citadels.

It was perched on a rocky outcrop above the water, half-built into the cliffs behind it, with three towers. The warm stone grey of its walls was broken up by mullioned windows. At the far corner perched the tallest spire, gazing out over the wide band of water below.

That water, all around, was its most extraordinary feature - nothing to do with the building itself however charming it was. The river he'd thought was a moat widened into a lake that lapped at the rocks. A thunderous waterfall poured down from the steep cliffs, parting around the castle with what could only be magic. A balcony floated out of one of the towers, almost catching the spray from the falls. It didn't seem attached to anything at all. As he looked closer, there were other signs of magic. Trees with strange red and gold leaves. He caught a glimpse of exotic flowers peeking over a stone wall leading back the way they'd come and then retreating. It seemed to be some sort of walled garden. A stone griffin prowled along its top, turning to snarl back at a sulking dragon, which spread its granite wings menacingly from its perch on top of the second-tallest tower.

Hermione parked the car on a sweep of rock in front of a set of stone steps that lead up to the entrance's great, carved wooden doors, and turned to him. "Don't mention what happened in the woods to my father, alright?"

His eyebrows rose up.

"I don't want to worry him... he'll blame himself," she explained.

Tom nodded, surprised. It was her father's fault she'd been attacked - why wouldn't she tell him? He considered the correct response.

"Are you alright?" he selected, and was pleased to see her eyes soften. He felt a surge of some strange muchness in his chest, a pleased, possessive ache.

"Yes, I think so. Sorry I, um, you know. About back there." She turned away awkwardly, opening the door as she spoke. "Anyway, let's go in. You must be hungry."

He was hungry, now that she mentioned it and, remembering the cakes she'd sent, he clambered out of the car more eagerly than was perhaps wholly dignified.

"This is amazing," he told her, gazing back up at the house.

At last, a smile tugged at her mouth.

"It's something," she agreed. The doors swung open without a touch and Tom felt familiar envy rise up in him. He should have been born somewhere like this. He should have had a childhood where magic was normal, a great house filled with impossible and extraordinary things, a family to be proud of, instead of a bleak institution where the dregs of Muggle London were sent to be kept out of the way and then unceremoniously turfed out a few years later.

Swallowing the bitter taste jealousy left, he followed her into the house.

The first thing he noticed was the relentless dedication to Christmas: a flurry of snow was enchanted to fall from the ceiling in one corner, a tree bearing what he now knew were the hallmarks of Hermione's decorative taste stood gold and merry in another. A great fireplace dancing with tall flames took up much of the left-hand wall, stockings hung either side, an ancient-looking dog asleep in front of it. The dark, panelled walls were hung with richly coloured tapestries and despite its size it was oddly welcoming. As they walked in, the dog staggered up revealing its immensity. Tom paused warily.

"Hello boy," Hermione said, patting its great head. It was half as high as she was and Tom wondered why on earth you'd want such a dangerous beast in the house. The only canines he'd ever really encountered had been savage things: guard-dogs who had a taste for the ankles of small orphan boys stealing apples, and territorial strays that hunted London's rats. "This is Tom."

He inched forward, reluctant to show her that he did not like dogs. Especially dogs this size. It belonged in a field, with the other horse-sized creatures.

Gingerly he tapped its head and was rewarded with a smile from his hostess.

"His name's Alhabor. Let's go and put your bag upstairs - I'll show you your room - and then get something to eat. Father will be in his work room - I did remind him you'd be coming but if he's caught up in something we'll have to go and kick him out."

Taking a last look at the tapestried entrance hall, and backing away from the great wolf-hound, Tom followed Hermione, thinking how she fitted this strange, remote, magical castle with its unexpected warmth.

 

"This is your room," Hermione said, pausing in front of yet another wooden door. He was pleased to see her cheeks had a faint tinge of pink. She wasn't as collected as she was trying to seem, having him in her house.

He pushed open the door and took in the room. A vast window spread across the far wall, drawing his eye out and across the water. He dropped his bag by the bed and went to look out. Tom was often indifferent to the beauty of nature but he gazed, stunned, at the great impossible drop down to the lake. They'd climbed the steps up to the house, and one flight of stairs inside - and yet somehow they had ended up at the top of the house. Falling away below him was a sheer precipice of some two hundred feet. The lake, reflecting the setting sun in its burnished glory, spread away to the west, licking at the dark curve of the trees on the other side of the valley.

Hermione hovered nervously in the doorway.

"There's a bathroom through there," she pointed at an ancient oak door. It was low enough that he'd have to duck. "If you need to find anything the castle will... um, you know how the stairs and things move around at Hogwarts? It's like that, only it's helpful instead of making you get lost. Usually, anyway."

He repressed a sigh of resentment at the sheer, ridiculous, wonderful magic of this house, following her out of the room, and back down the staircase they'd come up. Despite taking what appeared to be the route back to the entrance hall, they turned instead into a little sitting room-cum-library.

Its square bay window looked out over the waterfall at the back of the house, still reflecting the dying light from the sun. It formed a small plunge pool in the rock before gushing down again to the lake, foaming white and green, a silver barked weeping birch just clinging to the edge, trailing its spiny branches in the water. The window had a door built into it, almost totally disguised, which seemed to lead onto a veranda. The room itself was neat and tidy, but full of books and paintings and yet more tapestries. A warm fire crackled under a great stone mantle. A little table in the window was heaped with tidy piles of Hogwarts textbooks and neatly rolled scrolls of parchment. This, it was immediately clear, was Hermione's room. Not her bedroom, but where she worked perhaps, and read and spent her time.

"Please make yourself comfortable. I'll be back in a minute."

She vanished and Tom examined the room in more detail. Some things leapt out - a gramophone, a painting of Hogwarts, more curious pictures that might be Muggle but he didn't know, various bottled potions with her neat writing on the labels, endless books. He paused to look and was less surprised than he once might have been to see three shelves of Muggle works. He spotted the odd sign of her childhood tucked away - some children's books, a few magical toys he supposed had been favourites, textbooks she wouldn't have looked at in years, books to practice reading and writing, languages and three editions of Hogwarts, A History.

Hermione came back in holding a tray piled up with food and set it down on the table in the window, pushing books out of the way. The sun had finally slipped away behind the wooded hills on the west side of the valley and it was growing dark outside, although it wasn't yet four o'clock.

"I hope you're hungry," she told him. "Our elf and I have very different ideas about the appropriate amount of food for an afternoon snack."

Tom watched as she crammed four cakes, a plate of cream buns, two stacks of little sandwiches, and a plate of scones with thick yellow cream and a dark purpley jam onto the table. He slid into a chair.

"Tea or hot chocolate?" she asked. "Buttons has provided both."

Tom sensed an old argument and took the opportunity to ask about this most secret relationship of wizards.

"Tea please. Doesn't the elf just do what you tell him?"

She pushed the pot and a cup and saucer towards him.

"Just... help yourself. To everything. And yes, technically, although I think it depends on the elf and the family they... um belong to. Buttons knows we'd never punish him, and the clothes he came with are long hidden in the castle so even if I wanted to I probably couldn't free him. He won't even let me in the kitchen usually," she huffed. "If I try to help he just sort squeaks mournfully and wonders what went wrong in my upbringing."

There was no book about house-elves, no way to find out how one might be acquired. They did seem useful, although he could hardly have one in Little Hangleton. Asking those sort of questions was usually a quick way to find yourself labelled a Mudblood no-nothing and Tom repressed the urge to fire off a dozen curious questions.

After weeks of war-rations, the food was quite astonishingly delicious. Tom had eaten three sandwiches, two scones, and a piece of bara brith before he noticed that Hermione had hardly touched a thing. Instead, she was blowing gently on a cup of tea, staring out at the darkening waterfall.

She was, he thought, unusually pale.

"You should eat something," he suggested, more gently than usual.

Tending to the younger children had been a hated chore, and indeed had left him almost unable to hear a baby or toddler cry without feeling a visceral urge to kill it, but he did know that feeding them usually fixed the worst of any shock. And she was, probably, in shock. The events of that afternoon had fled to the back of his mind in the face of her magical home, her searing kiss but he supposed shock would be a natural reaction to being attacked and killing someone.

She nodded, but didn't pick anything up.

(His thoughts skated past the memory of his own shaking break-down after -)

"You look terrible - paler than the Bloody Baron. I think you're in shock. Go on, you should have something to eat."

She looked tremendously surprised and a little offended, so he added, "Please."

As he'd expected, she softened and took a sandwich.

"Why did you do it?" he asked, when she'd eaten something and the colour had returned to her face. He'd wondered, because it seemed so unlike her, so unlike her warmth and kindness, her desire to see good in things that seemed so worthless to him. Then suddenly there had been that other her, ruthless and pragmatic, eyes as cold as when he'd first met her.

She didn't pretend to misunderstand.

"I won't be hunted," she said at last, her voice low. Her dark fathomless eyes swept to meet his. "It's a terrible existence, to always be waiting and waiting for something to catch you."

Her haunted gaze told him he'd been right, back in the woods, right to assume she'd been taken. The pieces of her were beginning to make sense and yet instead of satisfying him he thirsted to know more.

"The compass," she said, before he could press her, "it points to danger right?"

"It's more specific than that."

Hermione ran a hand through her hair, which had half-escaped the bounds she'd put on it.

"Danger to the wearer? Perhaps life-threatening danger?"

"Warmer," he agreed, mildly amused at how quickly she'd recovered her spirits in the face of an intellectual challenge.

She pulled it out from under her shirt, the chain sliding over her collar, and examined it. He wondered how long it would keep the warmth from her skin.

"The most dangerous thing. It's a compass so it would point to the most dangerous threat to the wearer?"

"That's much well it. It came with a little note about its history, I'll give it to you later."

"You're a prat," she told him mildly. "But thank you. It's a wonderful present."

"You're welcome," he said, stiffly. He didn't want to get into an oh no your present was wonderful too conversation and so he was grateful when she continued.

"And thank you for this afternoon. I wasn't prepared - so stupid of me. Can you tell me a little more about the people trying to take me?"

Her fingers ran along the gold chain, eyes distant.

"Yes, but not tonight. We'll talk about it tomorrow before I go," Tom said firmly.

Kidnappers usually didn't expect their victims to fight back - or for the captors to be returned one dead and one soon to die, so he thought her message would be quite effective in stopping a second attempt, although it was possible they would retaliate.

"Alright," she murmured. "Shall I show you where Cerdic is?"

 

 

Cerdic Dearborn's workroom was a vast hall built into the rock beneath the castle. An enchanted window gave the appearance of light shining through stained glass, stopping the room from feeling oppressive. But the air was tinged with damp despite a fire blazing at the far end, and the walls, carved with symbols, looked clammy. It was extraordinary despite that, filled with cauldrons, piles of half-transformed crystals, shelves bearing jars of powder in a dizzying array of colours, and stacks of scrolls and ancient-looking vellum texts. A great jar the same height as Tom stood against one wall, a tree-like structure inside the colour of blood. Shining gold lumps were carelessly piled in one corner, glimmering enticingly in the firelight, a taunting, garish reminder of Hermione's value to those unwilling to work for their own gold.

"Tom m'boy!" Cerdic greeted him enthusiastically, looking up from a great book half the size of the table it was laid out on, a richly coloured pentagram occupying most of the open page. "How are you?"

Hermione left him in the mysterious room with her father tasking Tom with making sure they both were upstairs before eight o'clock because they had guests.

Cerdic Dearborn was an excellent companion. He was both engaging and informative on a subject few had the privilege to learn about in person, and the hours before dinner wiled away far quicker than any of his recent Hogwarts lessons. Tom found himself intellectually challenged for once - and wishing Hogwarts took a more cerebral approach rather than focussing on the practical application of magic.

When he said as much to Cerdic the man snorted and gestured his hands, which came alarmingly close to a large bottle full of some strange purple fire.

"That's not how it works in our world. They teach you the basics and expect you to either be satisfied or go it alone. Sometimes I think it's deliberate - a way to stop Wizards and Witches learning too much. Most of 'em never access a fraction of their power. Just do the bare minimum of spells and then they're off to push paper for the Ministry and whatnot. Most folk seem happy enough like that, and too much magic can be a dangerous thing, I suppose."

 

 

Later, Tom found his way back to his room with disappointing ease. He'd been hoping for a chance to snoop, but the castle led him to his room where he changed into smarter robes. Hermione had apologised for the necessity, but he didn't mind. He liked the traditional robes. They made him look like he felt - powerful, belonging.

Wandering out of his room, carrying a bottle of wine he'd brought for Cerdic, and wondering where Hermione would be, Tom saw an archway down the hall that he was fairly certain hadn't been there earlier. Going through it took him to a walkway, almost a bridge, with windows either side that revealed a courtyard to the left and the steep drop to the lake on the right. The water reflected the quarter-moon rising from behind the mountain. There was a single door at the end, the dark wood cut thick and heavy. It looked ancient, with swirling, starry symbols scudding across it as though blown by some unfelt breeze. When he pressed against it he felt a rush of magic tingle up his arm, and stepped back in surprise.

A moment later the door swung open, inviting him onto the tiny landing with a spiral staircase. He assumed he was in one of the towers - perhaps the one at the far end of the castle.

A strange clacking sound from below drew his interest and so he chose to go down instead of up. The room he found was round, notably chilly compared to the rest of the castle. It seemed to be a disused schoolroom: largely bare with a few stacks of books and two old desks pushed together out of the way. But its most notable aspect was the eight pairs of knitting needles floating in midair, weaving khaki yarn into thick socks of various degrees of completion. He stared at them, baffled.

It was jarring - quite bizarre - not least because the clack of the needles reminded him of Mrs Cole. The needles weren't synchronised with each other. Instead, they seemed to be on some sort of rota and yes, that was right, he saw as a large box floated around to the a finished pair. The thread tied itself up and dropped down into the container, which zoomed off to wait for the next pair to fall in.

"What...?" he muttered.

"Oh, there you are," Hermione said, making him jump. He hadn't heard her shoes over the clacking racket of knitting needles.

He turned and felt his stomach flip, the beat of his heart change, as though his blood had thickened in his veins and it suddenly had to work harder. Her dress was green and gold, her dark hair smoothed, flowing loose.

But she looked unusually bashful, and, picking up on it as an escape, he gestured behind him.

"I was admiring your… factory."

"Yes, well, never mind that. Let's go downstairs and have a drink before dinner," she suggested, half-turning to go but he caught her arm gently, amused.

"Not until you explain this extraordinary set up. Why are you knitting socks?"

"It'sfortharmy," she hissed.

"Pardon?"

"They're for the army…" she said, concentrating very hard on something over his shoulder, cheeks as fully aflame as he'd ever seen them. "I read that the soldiers were getting chilblained feet and it's horribly wet this winter so… I thought I'd send some socks."

He stared at her.

"Magic makes things so much easier," she was babbling– again – and he wondered how nervous she got underneath that composed image, "so I feel guilty sometimes, you know? And if there's a little temperate or impervius charms woven into the yarn, who's going to know?"

"You are an extraordinary person," he said eventually, confronted again with her unusual goodness. "Although I feel obligated to tell you that you're wasting your sympathies."

"I don't think I am. Before Christmas I went to Muggle London with my cousins and it was rather eye-opening."

Tom bit back his jealousy at the thought of her spending time with anyone else, and tried to imagine her in the Muggle world. It was a strangely easy fit.

 

 

Tom, with practiced insouciance, handed the bottle of wine he'd picked from his grandfather's cellar to Cerdic, who eyed the label approvingly.

"You can certainly come back," he said, eyeing the label with a quick flick of his eyes.

He caught a flash of surprise on Hermione's face.

I can do it too, he thought, triumphantly. He was not just some poor orphan boy, to be thrown out with the bathwater.

Both Hermione and Cerdic looked up at the same time, as though they'd heard a sound.

"That'll be Dominic coming through the wards," Cerdic said, handing Tom a glass of champagne. "Haven't seen him for years. He's an interesting fellow, bit of an historian."

"I've never met these people," Hermione explained to Tom as Cerdic went off to welcome his friend. "But I am assured they are interesting. His friend wants to study the castle's foundations. I can't think why he didn't come in daylight, but here we are."

She looked much better than she had earlier that day. Colour had reignited her face. Her eyes were warm, her smile ready - and yet there was some barrier she'd erected between them. He noticed it in the subtle way she avoided his gaze, the pinking tinge of her cheeks when she did meet his eyes, the furrow in the brow when she thought he wasn't looking, the light, polite patter of the questions she sent him (about how he'd found Cerdic's alchemy lab and oh she'd got that Arithmancy book out for him, don't let her forget, and where was he going tomorrow). She was trying to disarm him with charming nothings, but he was patient. He knew her well enough to know it couldn't last.

Eventually, Cerdic and his friends returned. They had a displeasingly handsome young man, obviously a son, in tow, behind a plump witch with the most enormous pink-clad bosom and a short, thin bearded man with tanned skin, assessing green eyes and gold-framed pince nez.

 

 

Dinner was delicious and luxuriant. There were pigeon breasts to start, followed by an enormous venison wellington, with mounds of roast potatoes and buttery vegetables and pools gravy so potent it was almost as rich as the red wine from golden goblets that never ran low.

The other guests, the Gonzagas, weren't especially interesting to Tom, and, sitting diagonally across from Hermione, he was able to watch her as she charmed her father's friend, watch the play of candlelight on her skin the pink flush in her cheeks, the way her sleeked hair grew yearned more and more for the wild as the evening wore on.

His attention remained focused on her through an especially boring conversation with Deodatus, the son, who was a few years older than Tom and who'd been educated at a magical school in Italy. This was the most interesting aspect of their conversation, and both he and Hermione rather grilled the young man. Magical schools guarded their secrets jealously. She didn't flirt with him, Tom was pleased to note, but it was obvious Deodatus had been brought along to meet her. He remembered Slughorn's description and wondered what other young men would be dragged to Wales to meet the alchemist's daughter.

The meal drifted on, and Tom was halfway through his bowl of trifle (laced with whiskey instead of sherry and full of succulent raspberries) when the reason for the Italian family's visit came up.

"We'll have a look after supper," Cerdic was assuring the thin historian.

"If it is a fae-fall I'll need to come back and study it at length, no?"

Tom sent an inquiring look over to Hermione, who explained. "Dominic thinks the waterfalls were built as protection against the fae, but the castle was built after the last of them had vanished."

"The fae?" he asked, fascinated. "I thought they were just a myth."

"Who knows?" Cerdic asked rhetorically, passing a bottle of golden pudding wine around. "Dominic is trying to answer the question, although as he believes in them I expect the study will be quite tremendously biased."

Hermione's father sent his friend a wicked grin.

"Nonsense. This castle is very special," Dominic said, turning to Tom. "All across Europe we find magical dwellings built near running water. All with some foundation that's more than a thousand years old – that's when the last fae were seen. Not so very far from here, in fact. Wales and Ireland were their last strongholds – most of them were killed by Roman wizards you see when that Empire was at full strength - but around here they lingered on for another thousand years."

"Rounded them up and then killed them – they were too powerful, see," Cerdic interjected. "Just like Muggles tried to do with us later on."

"When were the last sightings?" Hermione asked Dominic, a strange look on her face as though she'd made a connection none of them could yet follow.

"Not long after your school was built," the little man said gesturing enthusiastically. His passion for the topic was infectious.

"But Father the castle is more than a thousand years old – or your alchemical room is at least. I'm fairly certain it's mentioned in Perceval Dearborn's diaries."

"Aha!" Dominic exclaimed, looking at Hermione as though she were the Grail itself. "There you go! I knew it. The placement is too perfect."

"So little magical history is shared, I think it's terrible. Texts are kept and passed down in families so we miss so many connections and truths and what scholarship there is is reliant on the goodwill of owners – most people don't want to share their family secrets," Hermione said.

"Quite right," Cerdic commented dotingly.

 

 

After dinner, when Cerdic had led Dominic and his family off to inspect the castle's foundations or something equally tedious, Tom followed Hermione back to the little drawing room they'd been in before dinner. It was the mirror of hers, but larger with with fewer books. They played chess for a while, drinking wine and talking of very little. The silence was heavy with the weight of all he wanted to say and do to her, the knowledge that mere hours ago they'd been pressed together, mouths melding and exploring, but he held back. The bond he felt – a bond of trust that he'd never felt before – gave him rare patience.

She was his. He was sure of it. He'd felt it in the brush of their mouths, in the way she'd turned to him when her tears came. And then Hermione looked up after moving a piece and he was look at her and if it was as if he couldn't drag his eyes back down to the board, she seemed equally as trapped in the moment, which stretched on until Tom felt vertigo, like he was on the edge of a great cliff deciding whether to jump or –

Voices carried down the corridor and Hermione's eyes flickered towards the door. The moment of possibility was broken.

The foundations were promising, Dominic told them. They sat for a while and then, later, as the family said goodbye Hermione handed him a little book.

"Don't lose that," she told him, smiling.

 

 

When Cerdic had gone to bed, and Hermione's eyes were as drowsy as his own must have been, Tom allowed himself to touch her again. They were sitting side by side on a sofa and he brushed a lock of her hair, rebelling into waves now, that had fallen across her cheek.

"Earlier… why did you kiss me?" she whispered, her voice husky with brandy and sleep.

He just looked at her, and felt that sense inside that – unlike most people – she looked back, assessing, reading, seeing. It was irritating, therefore, that she had asked such a question.

Words seemed like wind and so he brushed his fingers along the exposed skin of her inside wrist, drawing them round it and down the back of her hand, which was warm and smooth under his fingertips as they brushed it, feather light. Her dark lashes fluttered, a breath escaping the soft rose of her mouth and he knew it was answer enough.

"I should go to bed," she said softly, pulling her wrist away. "What time is your train in the morning?"

"Not until eleven. I'll Apparate from here."

"Alright. See you in the morning. Goodnight."

He let her run away to her room, half-relieved for the respite from the great burning thing that lay between them, and half-aching to close the chasm.

 


Thank you so much for your lovely comments! Don't miss my advent collab!

 

Chapter Text

 

 

You don't ask people with knives in their stomachs what would make them happy; happiness is no longer the point. It's all about survival; it's all about whether you pull the knife out and bleed to death or keep it in…

— Nick Hornby, How to Be Good


 

On the following morning, Hermione woke surprisingly refreshed and rather later than usual. She'd braced herself for nightmares; braced herself for Bellatrix's face staring back from the mirror she saw again and again, for new ones. For a screaming man tied to a corpse.

But no nightmare had come. She'd killed a man, in what could conceivably pass as cold blood and she hadn't even dreamt about it. She hadn't even dreamt about being taken. She'd just slept peacefully through the night.

War-hardened, she thought. But that wasn't just it –

More complicated, and more worryingly, was the fact that Tom Riddle had saved her from capture. She wasn't used to being rescued and, truth be told, it was heady. She fought a giddy smile because – stupid.

And then, after he'd rescued her, he'd made her feel safe. He had unthinkingly protected her, in a direct contradiction of everything she'd ever been told about him.

And all that had wedged open a crack that she'd known was there, a crack that said is he really unsalvageable?

(After all, she'd jumped fifty-five years in time. Surely anything was possible -

what if what if what if what if they were wrong and she could change the future?)

And even if she couldn't, didn't, was she –

no. She wasn't a murderer like him. She wasn't.

No.

"You are being quite ridiculous," she told her own reflection. "Chasing after false hopes."

What if? her mind replied. She ignored it, pushing the thought away and locking it up tightly. Dangerous.

Like Tom Riddle. How he'd become Tom and not Riddle, how he talked to her like an equal, how he was fascinating and engaging and her friend. Like his lips and his eyes and his touch and –

No, not that either. She wouldn't think about that. Taking a deep breath she locked away her wanting and the fire that danced over her skin at his touch and his dark eyes and his strange melancholy and her capricious heart, took them and locked them away so that she could remember Harry and Cedric and Moody and Mary Cattermole and Amelia Bones and Sirius and –

She went down to breakfast.

 

 

Cerdic and Tom were already there; she could hear their voices and, curiously, she paused outside the door.

"- so really it's actually very recently that boys from nonmagical backgrounds like you – parentage aside – would have been allowed to go to Hogwarts at all. I mean there was a good two – possibly three you'd have to check – hundred year period after the Statute where no Muggle-borns went to Hogwarts at all. Their parents wouldn't let them and the school was happy enough to let them go."

They were talking about the topic Cerdic has raised at Slughorn's party and Hermione frowned. It was strange that this interested Tom so much; perhaps he felt hard done by that he hadn't been adopted? Or, more likely, he was finding out skeletons with which to coerce his housemates…

"When did it change?"

"Well, you got the odd one or two coming a year but there were plenty more pure-bloods in those days, see, so it wasn't an issue. Then inbreeding started to catch up with families, well that's what some of us think at least, and we've been slowly dying out for years. Some families – most of the ones that still exist – have had a few Muggle-born children adopted into them but the magical adoption spell still limits the pool. It helps but… anyone who breeds animals will tell you new blood is important every now and then. Take you, for instance, I'd wager you're far more powerful than most of the children in your year?"

"Yes, I am. But then the few Muggle-borns that were in our year have either dropped out or struggle – so really, isn't it kinder not to force them into our world?"

"Well, that was the thinking behind early adoption, see. You get a few every now and then who weather the change well but most… most do struggle. It's the difference in world I think, not a question of ability. There was a boy in my year, tremendously talented, but could never quite accept our world. Always felt he was doing something wrong somehow, I think. Eventually, he went back to the Muggle world as so many do."

"Doesn't that pose a huge risk for our society though?"

"What, of discovery? Perhaps… more so now the numbers of Muggle-borns are increasing I spose. Not sure if that really matters though – Muggles aren't what they used to be."

"They seem fairly terrible to me," Tom said in a low voice, and Hermione was amazed at how open he was with Cerdic. He continued, "It's amazing how little history we're really taught at Hogwarts - Hermione was right yesterday."

"Yes, she's a clever thing."

That was quite enough eavesdropping for one day, Hermione thought, and opened the door, cutting off Tom's next question.

"Good morning," she said, stopping to pat Alhabor who surged up so greet her.

"Can you take Alhabor for a walk this morning children?" Cerdic asked.

"Yes of course," she said, sitting down and reaching for the coffee. "We've got a couple of hours before Tom has to Apparate."

"Smashing, smashing. Well, I'd best be off or something might explore. All a bit sensitive. Owl post for you in the hall, Hermione. See you in a few days, Tom m'boy."

He carelessly brushed a kiss on the top of her head and was gone, leaving an aching absence, a buffer removed. They were alone.

"Good morning," Tom said, politely.

"Did you sleep well?" she asked, equally politely as she spooned some porridge into her bowl.

Just be civil, keep him at arms' length, she told herself as they exchanged small-talk. Yes, he was charming and yes, she'd kissed him. Twice. Kissed him and felt like all the fucking stars were aligning for a moment for them, kissed him and felt for those brief moments a hundred thousand times more than she'd felt with every kiss from Marcus combined, felt a fire in her blood and light dancing on her skin.

Felt more than she had for months, possibly years. Felt.

(She wished she could tell herself she'd forgotten who he was, for a moment, but she hadn't and she'd kissed him despite that).

 

 

Robes were by far the most irritating things to walk in, and so before they left the castle Hermione ran upstairs and changed into one of the pairs of trousers she'd had made. Even Cerdic thought they were eccentric, preferring – like most Wizards – to wear proper robes, Hogwarts uniform aside.

She'd left Tom reading the newspapers while she changed; he was dressed in Muggle clothes for the day and although he hadn't told her much about his business in South Wales, and she had deliberately avoided asking, because, really, that was just easier. And, she told herself, being civil and friendly was the best way to stop him being more suspicious of her than he already was. She suspected he'd got up early to have a snoop, but that was fine.

After all, it would be a shame if all her hard-work in preparing the house for his visit went to waste.

 

"I didn't know there was a courtyard," he commented as they walked down one a passage at the back of the house, its windows opening onto the little quad.

"The castle probably wouldn't take you out to it in this weather – it keeps the wind off so it's a good place to eat in summer. Also it helps with all the… you know, magical shifting around."

The castle's awareness had surprised her, after she'd returned for Christmas. The adoption spell had, in making her a proper Dearborn, tied her to the place so that she could feel the thrumming magic, could almost communicate with the building. Indeed, it still held surprises; when Tom had touched her Tower door the previous night she'd felt it, felt the door ask for permission to enter. It had carried some magical imprint that was wholly Tom, an imprint that held intention – looking for her – as well as whom.

It had been an extraordinary moment, and she'd felt a strange pleasure that this was home now. Of course she'd loved her real childhood home, loved the Burrow too, but this –

It was a true magical home. And it was quite wondrous. Although a maintenance nightmare and, according to Cerdic, quite stubborn.

"Would you like to go up the hill or round the lake?" she asked Tom as she pulled on her wellington boots in the boot room at the back of the house. "Also it's quite muddy so help yourself if any of these boots fit."

"Whichever," he shrugged indifferently and she suddenly realised he was eyeing the dog warily.

"Are you alright with dogs?" she asked, trying to keep the disbelief out of her voice. It hadn't occurred to her that Tom Riddle would be scared of anything but Alhabor was trying to lick him and Tom looked endearingly uncomfortable.

"Um," he seemed tongue-tied for a moment and she took pity on him. She'd found the wolfhound off-putting at first and she was used to Sirius in his Animagus form – not wholly dissimilar.

"Alhabor. Stop that. Come on boy, off you go."

She unlatched the door for him but he ignored her, wagging his long, bristly tail happily and rubbing his nose against Tom's stomach. He reluctantly stroked the dog's great head, relaxing as he met the melting brown eyes.

"Why is your dog the same size as a horse?" he muttered, but there was a smile just dancing on his lips as his hand his fingers through the wiry dark grey hair.

"That's an excellent question – my father's choice. He's very sweet though, I promise. I think he likes you, he's usually a bit more wary of strangers."

"He's alright, actually," he said stepping away, and followed Hermione through the door and out of the castle.

It wasn't a beautiful day by any means, but there were lingering touches of frost in the shadows and creeping along tree branches. They left the castle through the back entrance, walking out onto a small path that would wind up the cliff behind, a myriad little staircases carved secretly into the rock.

"There's a path that goes round the lake and then up the hill and back down the front by the waterfall before it splits. It's lovely, we'll go that way."

She sensed her audience was supremely uninterested in the choice of walk – but he'd relaxed when the great wolfhound had bounded off.

They walked in silence for a while; and she drank in the beautiful scenery, the crisp air, the way the misty clouds clung to the hilltops in the distance, the dark arch of the woods reflected in the water.

She was shamefully aware of Tom, self-conscious of her shortened breath, of her hair and how she looked and moved and where her hands should be and that strange and underlying urge to touch him again, to perhaps take his hand and stroll together, a wish to feel his arm around her shoulders.

"Can you tell me a little bit more about the people who are trying to kidnap me now?" she asked, breaking the quietude.

He sighed.

"Alright, but I should think you've sent a fairly clear message. It's a man called Fletcher, some sort of gang. From what I saw, briefly, in that man's mind he runs a professional operation of thieves and kidnapping is more of a side-line. I spoke to your father this morning, he knew already don't give me that look, and they've sent him several threats so it's the same people."

"He knew?"

"Yes, he said they went through the first ring of wards. Anyway, it's being dealt with so you don't need to worry about it."

There was something in his voice that both reassured her and concerned her at the same time, something Harryish in the set of his eyes as she looked up at him.

"What aren't you telling me?"

And then in her head something clicked, Fletcher. Mundungus Fletcher had clearly not been the first thief in his family. She scowled at Tom misread it as directed at him.

"Can you please just trust me that you're safe?" he snapped, seizing her arm.

"I don't like people making decisions for me," she told him yanking her arm ineffectively. "And you have absolutely no right to do that!"

"No right?" he asked, dark eyes blazing and he pulled her towards him. "Perhaps not, but I would never let any hard come to you."

He stooped as though to kiss her, and she turned her head away, dizzy with want.

"Don't," she murmured. "Tom – don't kiss me."

"Why not?" he asked, holding her close.

"I'm just… I'm confused. I need to think."

"You think too much," he said, but he let her go, surprisingly respectful. "I know you feel this too, Hermione."

[She did, and that was the problem.

whatifwhatifwhatif, sang her traitorous heart.]

"Is this about the letter from Blishwick?" he asked, face pale and eyes suddenly seeking out anything but hers.

"What letter?"

"In the hall… you had one."

"Did you read it?" she asked, appalled.

"Of course not, it was sealed. It had his name on the back." The smirk on his lips flickered up and she found one on her own matching it, just for a second, because that was surprisingly honest and – actually he was so honest with her, with Cerdic. Was she a fool to think so? Was it just part of his act?

Instinct told her not, but unlike Harry she didn't rely just on instinct.

They walked on for about fifteen minutes, following the curve of the lake around until the castle was out of sight, and then up the path as it wound up the hill, trees thickening around it until they were in the woods.

Hermione felt a distinct tug of regret she'd chosen this way; she'd forgotten how much of the path went through the woods on the far side of the hill, hadn't thought it might make her feel so unsettled.

She looked behind her sharply as a branch snapped in the distance.

"We're still on your land aren't we?" Tom asked knowingly, but his voice was soothing.

"Yes," she said, embarrassed. She brushed her fingers along the chain of her compass and felt safe again. It would warn her if there was danger; she wasn't being hunted again. And besides; what could possibly come along that was more dangerous than the man next to her? The adrenaline that had surged up in her blood gradually faded away and her heart rate slowed back to a normal rate for climbing up a hill.

"Ally," she called out, as the dog gambolled ahead. "Don't go too far."

Like many creatures that had grown up saturated with magic, he was slightly more intelligent than normal although she couldn't help being suspicious of this when he trotted back towards them and affectionately head-butted Tom again. Animals were supposed to be good judges of character; perhaps that only happened in novels. She'd never had a dog growing up and so she couldn't tell if that was really true.

"I quite like this dog," Tom said and then as they broke through the woods onto the top of the cliff. "Oh, wow!"

The water, which bubbled up and formed a large stream slightly further back ran right to the edge before free-falling down a little while, forming the first of a series of cascades down the sloping cliff-face.

"Quite something isn't it? It's the highest waterfall in Wales, but don't tell the Muggles. They think it's Pistyll Rhaeadr but this is about four times the size. It's not wholly natural though, so I suppose it wouldn't count."

"Do you think it really is a fae-fall?"

"I think it's an interesting hypothesis. You'll see a bit further down that when it splits around the castle that that's magical, and I think the source is too to be honest. I hadn't thought about it and I don't really know much about these things but it's a funny place for so much water to spill up from the earth."

"I've never heard much about the fae at all," he said.

"No, neither have I – just from Dominic last night. I mean I think I knew about the fae but it's a footnote in books. I expect it's a horrible side of Wizarding history they've chosen to breeze past."

He peered right over the cliff-face and laughed, a joyous sound that rang out above the gushing water. Her heart leapt.

"Don't fall over," she muttered. "Come on we go down here."

The path was marked with two small beech trees trained to bow to each other in an arch, the last of their copper-brown leaves clinging to their twigs, many more scattered underfoot.

The trail was gentler than one would expect, sloping back away from the cascade for a while; it traversed down, criss-crossing one way and then back the other. Where it was too steep there were stairs cut into the rock, although some close to the falls were slippery and damp from the spray.

About halfway down the cliff widened out into a huge ledge, gardened and beautiful. Hermione dropped, thankfully, onto a little bench and Tom sat down beside her, closer than was quite comfortable.

Alhabor thrust his head onto Tom's arm, pressing his pony-sized body against him.

"If you pet him," she warned, "he'll stay there forever."

Bemused, she watched as he did, and wondered if it was bravado or if he'd genuinely got over his obvious dislike in the space of forty minutes.

"That's alright. Like I said, I don't mind this dog. In London all the dogs are scrappy mongrels and guard dogs – I was bitten a few times when I was a boy."

She watched his long, dextrous fingers as they reduced Alhabor to some level of ecstasy and found an errant, uncontrolled wish that she could throw herself as unthinkingly into his arms as the damn dog.

"Your house is amazing," he said after a moment. "You're very lucky."

And there it was, some acceptance of her story, something she knew he'd been suspicious of for months. It had worked. A tension she hadn't been aware of slipped away and she smiled.

"I am, aren't I?" And for the first time, she realised that she was, that although being ripped away from her life had been traumatic and horrifying and she still ached for it, that despite all that she was slowly beginning to feel as though she belonged in the Wizarding world in a way she had never quite felt before.

She hadn't sat up on the ledge before; most of her time at the castle had been spent learning it rather than enjoying it and she gazed around at the lovely garden, the grotto that cut back into the rock, the way the water cut through the middle, a pretty wooden bridge arching over it, the white flowers (only white) blooming despite the season, the red-leaved Japanese trees looking over the water where it pooled under the first cascade, before streaming across the ledge to fall again to the next one and then, after that, the last, greatest one, down around the house.

"We'd better get you back," she said after a minute.

"Yes," he agreed, glancing at his watch (she was sure she'd never seen him wearing it before).

"Where are you going?"

"Cardiff first, and then Swansea."

"Why?" she asked, baffled as she followed him along the next path. She'd tried not to but… they were very strange choices of destination.

He paused and looked back at her over his shoulder, frowning slightly.

"I'm retracing my parents' steps… they ran away you see. His Muggle family thought she was… beneath them. At some point she sold something – an old heirloom from my magical family. The Gaunts. I'd like to have it back."

"Gaunt," she said, unable to stop herself. "How interesting."

His face darkened and he walked on ahead of her in silence.

"They weren't," he called back after a few minutes. "They weren't interesting at all."

There was, she thought, a great deal of heartbreak in that sentence.

 


 

Chapter Text

 

She'd felt the wards shift to let her know that he was there almost an hour earlier, but she'd asked Buttons to show him in and take him to change and so forth.

Before she left her room, racked with nerves about the evening ahead (and not only because she was going to a party with Tom Riddle and his merry bunch of pure-blood fanatics) she'd glanced again at the letter Marcus had sent. She hadn't really needed to; the words were imprinted on her brain.

I love you... I'd do anything... Please let's try again... see you on New Year's Eve...

It hurt, hurting him. But how could she let herself love when she was just waiting to get her life back?

Hermione walked carefully down the steep stairs. Although the train of her dress was charmed not to trip her, she was still wary of it, and unused to wearing such fine robes. The red dress was made of fine silk chiffon, cut to recall the most classical witchy style with sheer, fluttering sleeves to the ground that looked like great wings, red devil's wings, if she raised her arms. It was scarlet red, blood red, Gryffindor red, with a beaded chest that glittered fiercely in the candlelight.

It was the sort of dress she'd never have worn before; a woman's dress. A witch's dress.

He was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, his beautiful face turned up. Her breath caught at the top of her throat, and she felt giddy with it, dizzy in his presence, her heartbeats reverberating through her body, as though it were pounding twice as fast as normal.

"Hi," she said softly, trying to hide the traitorously big smile that split her mouth, baring her teeth, and the exhalation of excited breath.

"Hermione," Tom said, his eyes swept up her body, darker than ever in the hall's low light. His gaze said the sort of things she knew he wouldn't say aloud in sincerity, sending her stomach skipping over itself.

She'd missed him. In the three days since he'd been gone, he'd been prowling through her waking thoughts, pushing to the forefront of her mind in the dark hours. In her mind, Harry's voice had been silent, replaced by stupid, ridiculous fantasies of Tom; Tom being good, Tom changing. Fantasies where he learnt to l-

"You look magnificent," Cerdic said, putting his head around the corner of a door. "Come and have a drink while Buttons gets the carriage ready."

"Thank you, Father."

Tom followed her into the little solar off the hall, a room hardly used, but it was obvious they'd been sitting there for a while; a half-drunk bottle of champagne and two used glasses on the little walnut table, a scroll pushed to one side.

I like that boy, Cerdic had said after Tom had left. He's rather troubled but at least he's not boring. And he thinks the world of you, my girl.

It was a strange relationship, but then Cerdic was extraordinarily tolerant - and kind - and Tom badly needed a father figure.

She accepted a glass of champagne and took a moment to appreciate the figure Tom Riddle cut in dress robes now they were in the light. Unlike most wizards, who still looked slightly ridiculous to her Muggle-raised eyes, he looked imposing, his jet-black robes setting off his dark eyes and porcelain he moved she saw the inside was faintly starry, as though a distant galaxy was stitched on the dark silk lining. It was the most flamboyant thing he'd ever worn, although he still looked conservative next to Cerdic, who was wearing a rather splendid rose-pink and gold combination that evening; he was going to a dinner party at Dumbledore's house in Devon.

"Now child, I've got a little something for you," Cerdic said, taking up a box from the mantlepiece. "Thought you ought to wear it tonight, look the part and whatnot. Girls always used to wear them to these things in my day."

Hermione opened the box and her brows almost hit her hairline in surprise. The tiara Molly had lent Fleur for her wedding had been beautiful, but this would have made that look clunky. The gold was so finely wrought it was hardly there, letting the diamonds speak for themselves; delicate and understated and quite beautiful.

"It was my mother's," he added, as though apologising for not having bought her one.

"It's beautiful," Hermione whispered, feeling embarrassing tears prick at her eyes, overcome by the kindness of this man, who had treated her as his own since the moment they'd met. "Thank you - Papa."

His own eyes crinkled with pleasure. She'd never called him that, but Daddy had been Richard Granger and Dad was too... Muggle. Too modern.

"Sweet girl," he muttered and poured out more drinks. "Better get Buttons to fix it in, he knows about -" he gestured "hair and things."

She placed the box on the table and caught Tom's dark eyes; she'd almost - just for a second - forgotten he was there. His gaze was heated with something she couldn't place, and she smiled shyly.

"How was your trip?" she asked.

"Unsuccessful."

She'd known it would be, of course. The locket he was looking for was tucked away in greedy old Hepzibah Smith's collection. One day, she reminded herself as she looked at his beautiful face, he would murder for that locket.

Hermione wondered if that was the point of no return for him. She could almost taste in him the possibility of redemption, could hardly reconcile this young man, damaged though he was, with the creature of nightmares, illogical, intractable, mad.

"I'm sorry to hear that," she lied.

"I will continue to search."

She had no reply for that; she could hardly advise him not to, beg him to give up his search and put aside his hunger for something that was supposed to be a family heirloom. She held her tongue sadly, and they talked for a while, Cerdic reminiscing about parties in his youth.

From what she could gather, the Wizarding world's grand parties were a confused mingling of traditions reminiscent of Medieval and Victorian Muggle ones. She'd researched, picking Cerdic's brain and reading, to her shame, back issues of Witch Weekly's society section. Eccentric though her false upbringing had been, Hermione was determined to pass the evening - surrounded by the enemy disguised as friends - unnoticed. She couldn't let down her guard.

Research, she told herself. It was all research on how the other half of the Wizarding world worked, research for the day, so far in the future, that she could rebuild the world.

Buttons appeared with a soft crack.

"The carriage is being ready Master Cerdic," he said with a little bow.

"Marvellous, thank you. Come on Tom, we'll go and get in while Hermione fixes that trinket in her hair."

Buttons' wrinkled face lit up at the sight of the diadem.

"Mistress's tiara, oh young Miss, Buttons will make it beautiful. Sit, sit."

"Thank you Buttons," she said, obediently sitting down as the little elf began to chant something, fiddling with her hair.

When he was finished he conjured a small mirror and held it up for her.

He'd gathered half her hair, twisting it into complex braids either side of her head. The tiara was fixed casually in front of where it was gathered, with curls tumbling down behind. Even she could see the effect was lovely; elegant and simple.

She looked the part, at least.

"Thank you."

"Buttons has taken Miss's case to the carriage."

The elf was much more confident with her these days; the familial bond settling him. He'd been delighted, Cerdic had confided in her once, to have a Mistress again. It still didn't sit well with her, but that was a fight for another day.

"This is for you," she said, handing him a small pouch she'd secreted in the hidden pocket of her dress.

His eyes widened even further as he opened the pouch to see the glittering silver coins within.

"I thought you might like to buy yourself a treat next time you go out," Hermione told him. She hadn't given him gold; that might raise questions, although the elf was often sent on errands and was solely in charge of the castle's food stores.

To her horror, huge tears welled up in his eyes as he seized hold of her legs.

"Miss Hermione is too good… Buttons would never presume…" he garbled, nearly incoherent.

She patted his little head, heart overwhelmed. She couldn't free him; he'd hidden his clothes away somewhere she'd never find them, and he wasn't hers to free, not really, but she could try and make his life better. Learn what elves really needed to improve their lot.

They were, she'd learnt, what Muggles had once called brownies, and their particular magic made them bound to serve houses. But long ago, wizards had learnt how to tie them to the house, far beyond their selfless offerings. Once, brownies had come freely, offering the clothes they came in, the only clothes that could free them, to be returned to them if they chose to leave.

Hermione intended to give them back that choice, one day.

 

 

The carriage flew unguided, drawn by the swift winged Granian horses that, once directed, would eat up the hundred-mile flight in less than an hour.

She was quiet as they flew, watching the clouds pass below. Cerdic and Tom spoke about the scroll they'd been looking at before she'd gone downstairs. She thought, again, nervously, about seeing Marcus and how desolate he'd sounded in his letter. How cruel she was, how cruel she'd need to be tonight to break him of her.

I saw a forever with you, for a moment, he'd said. Beautiful words that sickened where they intended to thrill.

And nervous, too, because she was going to Malfoy Manor, a place she'd visited before under less desirable circumstances. A night that still haunted her, though with less frequency now than before.

In fact, she reflected, she hadn't dreamt of it for months.

 

 

"Strange to think of Dumbledore having a house," Tom said, as they took off again, back into the skies.

Dropping Cerdic off had been, to say the least, an awkward moment. Albus had been immensely surprised to see Tom Riddle in the carriage, and Hermione had felt ashamed for a moment, as though he knew everything. But he'd beamed at them and wished both her and Tom a Happy New Year before waving them off.

At last, they were pulling up at Malfoy Manor, and the carriage thudded gently onto the lane in front of the gates, behind another similar one.

Tom leapt out and, to Hermione's surprise, held out a hand to help her down. It always threw her off balance when he acted chivalrously, and in her long, flowing red gown she was reluctantly grateful for his arm.

"Have you been here before?" she asked.

"No. Abraxas and I were… not close while he was at school."

Why have you been asked now, then? she wanted to say, but didn't.

It was his birthday after all, although she hadn't acknowledged it yet. There was no need to rub in the fact that he'd been something of an outcast in his own house for years.

The great gates stood open, and the driveway up to the house was decorated with floating silvery lights. A frost - that certainly hadn't existed beyond the great gates - laced the yew hedges, the ground crunching underfoot. As they passed through the gates, a bowing elf checked their invitation and took their night bags.

"Just ask for your rooms when you is ready," the elf squeaked.

"This is all a bit… er… " she floundered as they walked past one of the white peacocks.

"Malfoyish?" Tom suggested, amused.

She grinned and relaxed. He was nervous too, she realised, although he was hiding it well and, as strange and unexpected as it was, she was glad he was there.

They followed some other wizards and witches up to the house, where the great entrance doors stood open, music and laughter wafting out.

"Show time," she muttered, and to her surprise Tom offered his arm.

Abraxas and Sophia were inside, standing beside who could only be the senior Malfoys, welcoming guests.

"Hermione!" Sophia greeted enthusiastically. "Oh you look wonderful. Hello Tom," she kissed his cheek airily, and sent Hermione a very pointed look.

"Dearborn, you look splendid - Father, Mother, this is Hermione Dearborn, and Tom Riddle."

"Welcome to Malfoy Manor," the tall, blond man said, shaking Tom's hand. "Tiberius Malfoy."

To Hermione's embarrassment, he bent over her hand and kissed it.

Mrs Malfoy, as it turned out, was French, and Hermione vaguely remembered that she had been born Theia Millefeuille from her intensive pure-blood preparation over the summer. She spoke to her son in her mother-tongue, and expected the same of Sophia.

Grateful for endless holidays to her own grand-mère's house in the Auvergne, Hermione dutifully kissed both her cheeks in greeting and murmured enchantée, Madame.

Hermione could sense, although he gave no indication, that this sort of behaviour wound Tom up. She supposed that, unlike her, his Muggle education hadn't involved languages. In fact, although her French was hesitant and unpracticed it was at a conversational level, and she could follow what Mrs Malfoy was saying to Abraxas and Sophia, while Mr Malfoy made small talk with Tom before the next guests arrived. (It was largely acerbic comments, and criticism of her guests. She was, Hermione decided, not an especially pleasant woman).

She left most of the small talk to Tom. After all she had no real interest in making a good impression, as much as she liked Sophia, and as charming as she found Abraxas. That said, Tiberius Malfoy seemed rather keener to make her acquaintance than she'd anticipated - another reminder of the insidious power of money. He had, it was clear, heard plenty about Tom from his son and treated him with a combination of mild deference and feigned interest.

"Come and get a drink. You're the last of my people, so I'm off welcoming duty," Sophia whispered after a few minutes, and they slipped away towards one of the many hovering trays of drinks.

"I loved your present so much, we hired him for this evening!" the blonde girl told Hermione, practically dragging her and Tom over to the other side of the Malfoy's ante-hall.

Reluctantly, she posed with Tom for a photograph, and hoped to all hell that the pictures would be kept in the family and never looked at because he'd caught her smiling at Ancha and a photograph of a jubilant Hermione Granger standing with Tom Riddle wasn't exactly something she wanted to surface in the future.

Not that it ever had, of course. Draco Malfoy would have been much nicer to her at school if he'd seen such a thing - although, she supposed, in her red robes, with goblin wrought diamonds in her hair, she was hardly recognisable.

 

 

It was an incredible party. A celebration of wealth and power and excess, that translated into something that wasn't elegant enough to be chilly, but not overly exuberant and tasteless like so much in the Wizarding world.

The ballroom was simply enormous, and Hermione wondered if it was enchanted to enlarge when needed. She'd have to look it up, or perhaps ask Sophia later.

Sophia had done some wonderful trick with the seating arrangement for the feast that preceded the dancing that had put Hermione far away from Marcus. She was sat, in fact, in between Tom and Arcturus Black, who she'd met briefly at Slughorn's dinners but never properly spoken to. With Ancha on the other side of Tom, and Sophia and Abraxas further down the table, it was a merry enough gathering. Other familiar faces mingled with strangers that she took to be Abraxas's school-friends; confident and sleek young men and women in various levels of finery.

Dinner was predictably magnificent; scallops and then bouillabaisse to start. Swiftly followed by great roasted geese served on solid gold platters, piles of exotic vegetables, cheese soufflés, and the inevitable spiced pumpkin amid a veritable array of dishes that would have probably turned even Ron's sympathies in the Malfoy's favour.

Tom, Hermione noticed, really liked his food. She'd picked up on it before, when he'd visited her at the castle, but she was surprised at the earthiness of his appreciation. It was a terribly human, terribly boyish aspect of him that seemed quite at odds with any previous image she'd had.

"This food," he murmured at one point, "is even better than Hogwarts's."

"It is, much better," she agreed, merry with champagne. "I actually find Hogwarts food a bit… heavy. It's as though they've never heard of salad."

"Salad!" he said, appalled. "Why would you want salad when you could eat… bouillabaisse?"

He hesitated over the word and her heart did that irritating flip that it seemed to do whenever he was unsure or out of his element.

"I ate a lot of French food growing up," she told him. "It's my favourite."

"Yes, you were born there weren't you?" he commented and they both stiffened.

She'd never told him that. She was absolutely sure of it.

"You've been doing your homework," she said after an awkward pause.

"You were a mystery," he replied, as though that were an acceptable explanation, and Hermione realised she'd never, never been more grateful for Dumbledore's exquisitely comprehensive backstory.

"Well I've done mine too," she told him, and narrowed her eyes at his damnable ring. He'd stopped wearing it, but tonight it gleamed darkly on his left hand. "I know who you're descended from."

"We should talk about this later," he hissed and she was amazed at the savage blaze of anger in his dark eyes.

"Don't be such a hypocrite," she hissed back. "I told you - if you try and work out what you imagine to be my secrets I will find out yours."

They ignored each other for the rest of the meal, and Hermione found herself surprisingly enchanted by Arcturus Black. He was not only the only Slytherin she'd ever met with a really good sense of humour, but, with his black hair and glittering grey eyes, he reminded her of Sirius.

After dinner, Mr Malfoy stood and announced the engagement, to whoops and cheers. Once they'd properly toasted Sophia and Abraxas, with yet more champagne - pink this time in honour of the occasion, the tables rose from the ground and floated back a few feet, clearing a space in the middle.

"Duelling," Arcturus said. "Of course."

He rolled his eyes and poured Hermione and then himself another glass of wine.

A protective bubble slowly expanded around the audience and two exceptionally flamboyantly dressed people, a man and a woman, walked out onto the cleared area to shouts of encouragement and cheers.

It was all rather Medieval, but Hermione watched them closely as they warmed up.

"Fifteen galleons on Toothill," the girl next to Arcturus offered.

"I'll take that bet," Hermione said, although she disapproved of gambling in principle - still, she could see that the woman, who'd been announced as Cliantha Orpington, was holding back. "Hermione Dearborn," she introduced.

"Dearborn… alright. Aalia Shafiq."

"It's a bet," Hermione said, grinning and shook her hand.

She wasn't smiling, twenty minutes later, when Cliantha Orpington maimed her opponent severely, removing his wand arm in a bloody spray to cheers that shook the rafters and Hermione accepted her winnings rather reluctantly.

"When we fight," she told Tom, "you are not to remove any limbs."

His face lit up and their argument was momentarily forgotten.

"Hermione," he said, and she could see in the candlelight that his eyes, which she'd always thought were dark, were navy, a blue so dark it was almost midnight, blue like the sky long after sunset, "I would never remove your limbs. They're much too pretty."

"You're drunk," she muttered, embarrassed, and he smiled.

"I am, a little. So are you. And you're going to dance with me."

"Against my better judgement," she agreed.

"Why are you so difficult?"

She shrugged. "Isn't that what interests you?"

He hissed in frustration and she smirked triumphantly, turning back to Arcturus.

"So you're the nice Black," she said, accepting that yes, perhaps she had had rather an adequate amount of champagne and wine.

He grinned back at her.

"If you want me to be," he offered flirtatiously.

She cocked her head. It was tempting to flirt back; he was beautiful and he was funny and - but -

but she'd be doing it to wind up the boy on her other side, to demonstrate that whatever checks he made, whatever he thought or wanted, she was independent. And Hermione was too honest, too shy from hurting one person, to do that again.

She wanted Tom Riddle and she had an awful, crashing, sickening feeling of inevitability about it, about the fierce thing that connected them.

So instead, Hermione rolled her eyes at Arcturus Black, and, after Sophia and Abraxas had followed their parents onto the floor, she accepted Tom's hand and let him lead her out.

He held her tightly, angrily, at first, as the classical band moved into their second song. Then gradually, as the quickstep drew to a close, he relaxed and the dance began to feel less like a textbook demonstration of the correct steps.

"Calm down," she murmured.

"I'm fine," he said.

"You're furious with me, and you have no right to be. It's not my fault the Gaunt family connection to Slytherin is documented. Back off."

"You're right," he said, around ten bars later. "I'm sorry. Hermione -"

But whatever he was going to say was cut off by Abraxas and Sophia as the song drew to a close.

"Swap?" Abraxas asked, as though he were daring Tom, and Hermione chanced a little smile up at the dark haired boy.

"Yes, alright," she agreed, and, before either man realised what she was doing, she'd taken Sophia's hands, giggling, and swept the other girl away.

"I don't think that's what he meant," Sophia told her as their steps changed into a waltz.

Hermione laughed. "Not at all, but then I don't really like wizards treating me as though they have a say in my doings either. And Tom is cross with me."

"Why is Tom cross with you?" Sophia, who was, to be fair, taller, took over the lead.

"Because I told him I knew who he was descended from," Hermione said.

She trusted Sophia. She hadn't really noticed that before, but she did. And she was tired of secrets.

"You mean that he's the Heir of Slytherin?" the other girl asked, carefully.

"Yes."

"Well, no wonder he's cross. I think he wanted to be Mr Perfect for you and now you've gone and shattered that."

Hermione didn't say, as she might have, that Tom had killed someone in front of her so it wasn't as though he were really hiding anything. Instead she asked, "Why do you know?"

"That's how he won around the Slytherins… he took Abraxas and a couple of others down into the Chamber - you can't tell anyone this, I know you won't but be careful. Someone died Hermione. It was an accident, I think. He doesn't talk about it. But anyway, Tom had said he was the heir, and no one believed him - I mean you wouldn't, would you? So he showed them… Made them all stand there in front of the basilisk - there's a basilisk in there, that's what killed the girl - with their eyes shut in silence and then told it to turn around and they looked and - well. You can imagine, I suppose. They didn't know it was there, just heard him hissing."

"Merlin," Hermione breathed, following Sophia off the dance floor as the song ended. "He's so…"

She couldn't finish the sentence, because what he was was something else. Something she couldn't express. A potential and a past caught up together.

"It's not that bad. He didn't deliberately set it on them. And they were awful to him; Abraxas feels positively blue about it these days I think."

And then there they were; Marcus and Claire, right in front of her and Hermione paused, awkwardly.

"Hermione," Marcus breathed out, his voice husky and his eyes raking over her.

She feigned polite enthusiasm.

"Marcus, Claire. Happy New Year."

"Yes, you too. We're just going to dance, aren't we Marcus?" the blonde said, with narrowed eyes.

Hermione stepped aside and let them pass, avoiding Marcus's eyes as she did.

Not very Gryffindor, said the Harry voice.

You've been quiet, she thought back.

"Well," Sophia said sarcastically, "that was warm. Friendly, really."

"He wrote to me…" she replied, glumly. "I feel awful."

"Don't be so ridiculous. It's not your fault you're so appealing. Come on, let's go and chat up the French Minister for Magic."

 

 

"I suppose you thought that was terribly funny," he said, and she stiffened. She'd gone outside to admire the garden, lit up beautifully with more silvery lights, and to get some air. There were lots of people in the distance, admiring some sort of magical display, possibly involving animal, but the terrace itself had been blissfully empty.

"I did, rather," she agreed.

"Hermione," he said, gently pulling her around to face him.

"Happy birthday, Tom," she whispered, like a fool.

And then he was kissing her again, and it was far far far far better than any champagne. Heady and sharp and it cut straight through her, sending her mind spinning into orbit, and perhaps tomorrow she'd blame the champagne as she'd blamed adrenaline days earlier, but right now she melted against him, and there was nothing - nothing - but Tom.

"You're so beautiful," he murmured at last, as he pulled back.

"So are you," she confessed, flushed and dazed by him, "Whatever else you are," she added, bitterly.

He sighed in frustration, holding her against him, and rested his head on hers.

"I can't reconcile you," she said after a moment. "There's this you - irresistible - and some other you that's… you're not a good man and I don't… I can't fathom it. How can you be both?"

He didn't say anything for a long time, just held her, the heat of his body no real combatant for the icy air as the last moments of December faded into January.

"You are the single shining light in a world of hideousness," he said at last, his warm breath carrying the low words to her ear, and down they went, burning through her insides and sending her reeling.

Once more Hermione turned her face up to meet his, pulling him down to meet her, and she kissed him. She tasted his desire on her tongue and she felt powerful, a surge of desire so strong it was like a rollercoaster, like riding the dragon all over again, heady and terrifying and exhilarating.

"I knew it," came the bitter voice and she pulled away in shame.

Marcus.

"I knew it. Hermione - how could you?"

His kind, warm brown eyes were desolate, his face crumpled with sorrow. Broken. What fresh power was this, that she had, to destroy someone so completely?

What had she done?

She started to reply but Marcus just shook his head.

"I love you," he told her. "I love you."

And then he was gone, turning on his heel, and she was left with Tom, outside on the terrace in the starlight.

"Let's go and dance," she suggested, as fireworks exploded in the distance.

At least, she thought, at least with him the damage I do will only be to myself.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Hermione wasn't precisely nervous as she made her way down Platform Nine and Three Quarters. There was a lingering sadness at leaving her idyllic new home behind, the sort of home she could hardly admit to herself she wished she'd always had - inherently magical as it was, mixed with the usual start-of-term excitement and dread.

Sophia was bidding Abraxas goodbye, his shining blond hair easy to spot even in the muted January light, and so she made her way towards them slowly, returning various greetings as she did.

She tried to stop herself scanning the crowded platform for a darker head, but they drifted wilful and hopeful.

"Hermione!" Sophia greeted warmly, kissing her cheek.

She paused to make small talk with Abraxas, who was off to Asia for the next set of his travels. It had only been a few days since the wonderful, confusing, terrible night at Malfoy Manor. Days that had flown by far too quickly. He filled her in on the inevitable gossip that had emerged after the party and as he did someone shouted her name.

Hermione turned, and there was Caradoc, half-running down the platform, dark curls caught in the wind.

"Phew, thought I was going to miss you," he grinned, picking her up in a completely ridiculous spectacle of a hug.

"I didn't know you were coming!"

"Wanted to see you off. They grow up so fast," he said solemnly to Abraxas who laughed and shook his hand in greeting.

"Caradoc Dearborn," he introduced to the couple, giving Sophia a slight bow.

"I remember. You were hardly an inconspicuous figure," Abraxas said drily, and Hermione reflected that it was rather nice to see the arrogant aristocrat just ever so slightly intimidated. Caradoc, as she'd gathered even before meeting him, had been cool.

"If you'd owled me we could have had breakfast," Hermione exclaimed bossily. "Now I only have what, ten minutes of your company!"

Sophia gave a slight cough. "Tom," she said with a rather cat-like smile, "is just over there pretending not to wonder who the handsome man you're talking to might be."

Hermione's stomach lurched as though she'd been punched and lit up with a sunbeam all at once. She turned and sure enough, there he was, talking to Avery at such an angle that he was very deliberately not watching and also still at a vantage point to see everything that was going on. Just days and his beauty was a shock again.

She waved shyly, and as she'd known he would (because of course he was looking, honestly he was about as subtle as Ron sometimes), he turned and with a word to Avery walked to join them.

"Tom," she said, trying to remain poised.

"Hermione," he said with his awful fake head boy smile twisting his lips, the lips that had sent her body whirling far more than champagne.

"Caradoc, this is my um, friend, Tom Riddle. Tom, my cousin Caradoc."

She'd learned to read him well enough that his almost imperceptible relaxation, the smile's transformation into a real one, was as obvious as simple Arithmancy. His jealously should have irritated her, as Ron's always had, but instead it warmed her.

Whatever else he was, he did care.

"How do you do," Tom offered his hand.

"Ah," Caradoc said, smirking as he took it, "two. Nice to meet you Hermione's friend Tom."

Tom's smile broadened into smugness. Hermione wanted to fall into a pit. The downsides of family.

"I quite see why Blishwick didn't make the cut," he muttered in an undertone to Hermione as Tom greeted Abraxas with their customary mix of mutual dislike and respect, and Sophia with more genuine pleasure.

"Oh shut up," she hissed and he laughed.

The first whistle blew, interrupting, the signal for everyone to being scrambling for compartments but Sophia said, "Ancha's on it, don't worry."

"I'll see you to your compartment," Caradoc. "Where's your trunk?"

"I've got it, don't worry," Hermione said, pleased at the chance to show off.

"Where?" Caradoc scanned the platform around them.

Hermione pulled the tiny thing from a pocket in her cloak and he laughed. Tom didn't, but his eyebrows lifted slightly and his eyes warmed and she reflected how much it mattered that he saw those things. How nice it was not to have her magical feats considered less interesting or impressive than how someone flew a broom.

Perhaps that was why she was being so stupid, so reckless.

"I'll see you inside," she told Sophia. "Have a wonderful trip Abraxas." And then, to Tom, bravely, "Are you sitting with us?"

"I'll have to patrol for a bit, but I'll leave my trunk with you." He was pleased, she thought, to have been asked.

His was floating obediently behind him, she reflected smugly.

"Oh you're Head Boy aren't you?" Caradoc asked in a tone of despair worthy of Fred and George Weasley. "And I thought you seemed alright."

This rather confused Tom, who smiled politely but was unused to being teased.

 

 

And after Caradoc had left, with a promise to come and visit, Tom followed. Unlike her cousin - and what a glorious surprise that had been - he had been, Hermione reflected, rather stiff with her. She wondered if he would even have said hello had she not called him over.

"What's got him in such knots?" Sophia asked, voicing Hermione's own thoughts.

"I'm not entirely sure," she murmured thoughtfully, surprised at the other girl's ability to cut through someone's facade but knowing her well enough that it shouldn't be a shock. And after all, Draco had been able to pinpoint precisely the right thing to say to cut through someone. This was the flip side of that coin.

"Men," Sophia pointed out, "are rather silly when it comes to having what they want. And yours is more... shall we say, complex, than most."

"He's something," Hermione agreed.

You're in my veins, he'd written to her afterwards. Nothing else. Love letters from the Dark Lord.

She sighed.

"Would you like some advice?"

"I hardly think I could stop you."

Sophia smiled, pleased.

"He's never dated anyone, Hermione. Never been in the slightest bit interested. You're not, I think, part of his plan. And however you deal with that I'd recommend you do it slowly. It's difficult when you make someone completely reassess their priorities and call me a badger if I'm wrong but that's what you do to that boy. Shake him right to the core."

It wasn't, on the whole, the worst advice she'd ever been given.

 

 

 

Being back at Hogwarts was an unwelcome change after the peace of the Dearborn castle. Hermione missed the good-humoured magic of the house, the quiet space to read, the subtle melody of water crashing on rock through the castle walls. She missed Alhabor and the food. She missed Cerdic.

Hogwarts in contrast - and for perhaps the first time - seemed like a chore. July and the freedom it promised seemed miles away. And yet, as she met Tom's dark eyes across the hall, at least it was never boring. She was, she knew, being quite extraordinarily stupid. But at least with him she only had herself to hurt. They'd hardly spoken after those delirious kisses as one year turned into another, stars burning her skin from a distance of a million, real fireworks exploding the air. Afterwards, he'd held her in silence on the dance-floor, touch and eyes and skin singing a song to each other than needed no words. Someone had come over as though to cut in, but whatever look Tom had sent him - whoever it had been, she'd been entirely too caught up in him to notice - had sent them scurrying away again.

She could hardly contain the dancing joy that still flooded her, drowning out her caution, her disgust, her hatred. She'd never believed such a thing really existed - kisses from the sort of novels she'd found exasperating at best, for films she'd turn off halfway through.

Explosive. Dangerous.

You're in my veins.

But now, here, back in reality, she was confronted by who he was and what he stood for. It had been so easy to forget, even on the train in that liminal space between the outside world and here. But the familiarity of Hogwarts, the place, she thought with some coldness, that he would eventually die.

The Ravenclaw seventh years sat in the seats they always sat in, but rearranged as though someone had cleaned a desk and put everything back wrong. Hector and the others were a wall between Hermione and Marcus and Claire. The mood was tense, too-bright chatter in the middle of the group attempting to conceal it.

But across the Hall, Tom's gaze still rested on hers, fierce and proud and confused. He looked at her like no one ever had, and despite everything she knew would come it made her glow, insides fizzing like uncorked champagne.

Sophia nudged her side.

"Not very subtle, dearest," she murmured. Hermione forced her attention back to the table, embarrassed.

"Am I mad?" she asked her friend.

Sophia just smiled fondly and handed her the roast potatoes.

How far she'd come in less than six months, Hermione reflected. How changed she was.

She down the table and met Claire's cold stare. It was stupid, really, but how she'd come to dislike the girl - not least because despite everything she was clinging to Marcus like a barnacle. Hermione liked to think if a man had treated her as he'd treated Claire she would have more pride. And it was additionally ridiculous that she be blamed for his rejection earlier that year.

"You'll have to deal with that soon," Sophia muttered, her gaze slyly focussed up to the top table and far away from the pretty blonde down the table.

"I don't believe in kicking people when they're down," Hermione retorted. "Haven't I done enough?"

"We'll see."

.

.

As the days passed Tom continued to be slightly off. It wasn't so much that he was ignoring her, or not acknowledging her, as he'd become inexplicably busy and never around. His minions were, not so subtly lurking in the library or walking ten paces behind her in the corridors. Watching for something. It was frustrating, and yet - and yet - had he come on full and expectant perhaps she'd have run no matter how dazzling his kisses.

This unexpected reticence, on the other hand, was fascinating. It preoccupied her as she puzzled out what exactly was wrong. It wasn't a lack of interest - that much at least was obvious from the heated stares, the way his hand had traced her thigh in Runes one afternoon, his constant gaze.

And so, she wondered. Fear perhaps. Or, just as human, if more unexpected, a subtler fear - one of rejection, of doing it wrong, an awareness of his own inexperience. Perhaps she was fucking up his big, evil ambitions. Perhaps he'd never thought he'd be genuinely interested in another person.

Whatever it was, it was getting tiresome.

And so she threw herself into her work. Perhaps even a three months ago she'd have confronted him, pulled him into some classroom, asked him what was wrong. But that was then. That was a tactic for a different life. In this one the latent side of her that liked this game, liked getting the upper hand, liked plotting and second guessing and planning and - the side that had brew Polyjuice at twelve - took a step back. Because she knew he'd crack eventually. He would come to her.

And, so, she waited.

 

And while she waited, there was plenty to do. Oh, not schoolwork. That was the least of it. No, the more interesting project were the whispers of Avalon and apples that had been wandering through her head all of Christmas, and so she read. One of the things she'd read and reread until she could recite it was Ollivander's letter.

It is said, and this is conjecture, for that wood is more than a thousand years old, but it is said the wood from your wand was part of a gift made to Rowena Ravenclaw from the High Priestess from the eternal realm of Avalon.

That island is now lost to us and the veil between closed forever. But it is said the Four Founders once visited Avalon to learn from the lady Nimue. In return for the knowledge she shared, Nimue asked them to close the entrance from our realm, which was found on Helga Hufflepuff's lands. She feared the turning tide of those we now called Muggles against those with magic.

Rowena Ravenclaw devised a way, alongside Helga and Godric Gryffindor and in payment the lady Nimue gave them seven relics from the Isles: Ravenclaw's diadem, now lost, a sword for Godric Gryffindor, a cupful of water from the lake, which could heal any wound, three golden apples, and the wood from the tree which grew over Merlin's grave.

But Salazar Slytherin refused to help the founders: he believed the immortal realm should not be closed off because of Muggle fear. And so, the founders argued, and he stayed on the Isle. It is said Rowena Ravenclaw loved him, and it broke her heart to seal him away and that is why Nimue gifted her the apples, so that she might live in eternal youth and open up the island again when it was safe, and be reunited with her love.

But she did not, and she took a lover and had a daughter, and died many years later.

Rowena Ravenclaw, whose daughter haunted Hermione's room. Rowena Ravenclaw, whose daughter Hermione had apparently restored from some faded and invisible state.

The daughter who'd been returned to Hogwarts as a ghost and who was never around for a chat just when you wanted her.

The daughter whose founders' blood tied her to the castle.

Something about that bothered Hermione, in the sort of irritating and illogical way Harry had worried about things. Some intuition that it mattered, and she was being told those things for a reason. And really, she knew of the sword and the cup and the diadem. Those things held little interest or mystery outside of their role in a past-future she tried not to dwell on.

But the apples. Those had become very interesting when she'd been browsing through the book she'd bought Tom for Christmas (just to check she wasn't giving him a head-start on what to make into a Horcrux or anything unpleasant).

On one page, one she'd carefully removed, spelling its absence fifteen times over so Tom would never guess, if he could tell a page had gone at all, that she'd done it, on that page there had been a beautiful drawing wrought in fine gold leaf, of an apple.

The rumours, the Medieval book told her, had that Imortalitie was rejectede byy wise Rowan Raveneclaww who coulde hav bene a godde yf shee hadd so wished.

And then she'd remembered, that golden apples had been the source of immortality for the Norse gods. And she'd begun to wonder, in that sifting pathless way her brain had sometimes when it was at its most brilliant. She'd learned, at great cost, to trust her intuition.

Apples, Hermione thought, as she settled into the library with a stack of Arthuriana, ignoring her Charms homework, and Avalon.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Two masked Death Eaters stood there, but even before their wands were fully raised, Hermione shouted "Glisseo!"

The stairs beneath their feet flattened into a chute and she, Harry, and Ron hurtled down it, unable to control their speed but so fast that the Death Eaters' Stunning Spells flew far over their heads. They shot through the concealing tapestry at the bottom and spun onto the floor, hitting the opposite wall.

"Duro!" cried Hermione, pointing her wand at the tapestry, and there were two loud, sickening crunches as the tapestry turned to stone and the Death Eaters pursuing them crumpled against it.

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

 


 

The first Saturday of term brought the semi final of the much anticipated duelling contest, in which all four House Champions would fight each other for the first time. The atmosphere at breakfast was even more anticipatory than that of a Quidditch day; all four houses had a stake in this day after all - and all four hoped their champion would come up trumps and make it through to the final.

Henry was only a first year but, like most of his peers, he quite worshipped the tall, handsome prefect who'd be representing their house, and so he was practically bouncing on his seat with excitement. Aldfrith Diggory was Quidditch captain as well as prefect, and quite the best looking boy in Hufflepuff. Henry worshipped him but not, although Henry kept it quiet, quite as much as he worshipped Hermione Dearborn, with her cool smile and kind eyes. Hermione, who'd actually sent him a Christmas present, and who helped him with Transfiguration.

He'd got quite a few smirks when he'd put a galleon on her to get through to the final in front of his house mates, who'd all loyally backed Diggory, except a snide-faced blond fifth year who'd only backed the Head Boy.

Tom Riddle was, most people thought, probably the safest bet, but the odds on him were so bad it was hardly worth betting. At least you'd get some money back if Aldfrith went through. And someone had to fight Riddle, after all, or it wouldn't be much of a final. A tiny – even to Henry's eyes – Ravenclaw third year was the unofficial bookie for the whole school. Filius Flitwick had, by all accounts, invented the charm that floated above his head as he walked around collecting last-minute gold and silver, a list of constantly updating figures that showed the changing odds as people placed their bets. He had also apparently created several rather nasty anti-cheating jinxes. Hufflepuffs backed their own, so Henry had also put some sickles on Diggory for the other matches. He wasn't wholly disloyal.

But the real match that everyone was talking about in the older years was the one between the Hermione Dearborn and the much-beloved Head Boy. They'd been a source of hot gossip in the Sett the whole week, ever since Plum Blight said she'd seen them kissing on the dance floor at the Malfoys' new year party (which was mainly an excuse to remind everyone she'd been to the Malfoys' new year party, Henry thought). Out of loyalty to Hermione, he hadn't mentioned Tom Riddle coming to sit with her on the Hogwarts Express when they travelled up to London, but plenty of people had seen them talking on the ride back to Scotland, and pretty much everyone was interested in anything Riddle did.

Henry could see why. He hoped he'd be just like Tom when he was a bit older. And if Henry could accept that he was too young for Hermione, for now, at least, he thought that Tom (not that he'd ever dare to call him that aloud – he flushed even thinking about it) was a pretty understandable choice, even if he sort of hated him for it. The gossip was made juicier because they'd hardly been seen together all week, and Henry knew that was true because he spent a lot of evenings in the library watching Hermione do her homework and hoping she'd notice him and say hello in front of his friends. She did, sometimes, and it elevated him to a person of interest for a few minutes because a pretty seventh year he wasn't related to bothered to acknowledge him. And he'd noticed that usually Tom would sit with her sometimes, or at least near her or stop and chat, but he hadn't that past week, except for a brief, hushed conversation the night before.

One day, when he was handsome and tall and a powerful magician like Tom Riddle, Hermione would always notice him, of course. He comforted himself with that. Perhaps when he'd grown a bit more, and came up higher than her shoulder.

Henry looked over at the Ravenclaw table and watched as his very first crush and focus of most of his hero worship sat down, looking slightly paler than usual, but much calmer than the Gryffindor champion, who'd had to leave the table in rather a rush, green faced and sweating. She was wearing a dark grey cloak and had her hair pulled back tightly off her face, lending it more severity than usual.

"You're staring again," Amity Verrill said in her snotty know-it-all voice and Henry flushed, ducking his eyes back on his plate and moving his attention to the very excellent bacon. Someone had moved in the way now, anyway, blocking her from view.

"Honestly," she carried on, meanly, "it's not as if she'd ever look at a little first year like you."

"Oh shut up Amity," Milly Quinball hissed. "As though you didn't stare longingly after Finngal Heaney."

He tuned out the ensuing argument, which was not the first and nor would it be the last, until Amity, who really didn't live up to her name at all (but would, eventually, although Henry didn't know that yet), said she hoped no one would die, because did he know someone had in 1901 and –

Die. Surely Tom wouldn't let Hermione die? Even the bacon seemed unappealing after that.

The first duel was at half past nine, and the students filed out of the Great Hall, towards the Quidditch pitch. Henry gasped when he took his seat in the stands.

It had been completely transformed, the grass covered with flagstones and wooden floorboards and carpet. It was a house without a roof; a long dining table set out for twenty people ran down the centre of one room, a suit of armour guarding the entrance to a passage out. Walls twelve feet high divided off rooms around a clear space in the centre, black and white marble on the floor and nothing at all in the room. Corridors and rooms, furnished like an old manor house with paintings, beds, desks, bookshelves, carpets. It was amazing.

The model house floated about forty feet above the ground, about eye-level with the bottom stands and now Henry understood why all the older students had sat at the bottom instead of the top like they did for matches.

The stands were even more packed than they were were Gryffindor played Slytherin; no one was skipping this for the library clearly, and the bright blocks of house colours everyone was draped in made it easy to see at a glance who was where. The red black of the Gryffindor stands opposite stood out against the dull grey January sky, a lion banner roaring above the crowd and pacing its cloth agitatedly.

Professor Merrythought rose from a platform Henry hadn't noticed before, flanked by Professors Dumbledore and two people he didn't recognise. Her amplified voice rang around the stadium,

"Welcome. First and foremost, a reminder of the rules. All spells used must be legal. All battles must be umpired and must not continue outside the designated duelling` arena. Any Unforgivable spells will result in immediate expulsion and will be reported to the Ministry. Any permanent damage intentionally caused to a combatant will result in immediate expulsion and will be reported to the Ministry. All dark curses are banned from the competition. All duels must be fought in compliance with the International Duelling Regulations and the Hogwarts School Rules. Contestants in the final may not assist themselves with artefacts, enspelled clothing or dragon hide. In life, a battle will rarely be fought on a simple platform; and so for these final rounds the environment is a part and parcel of the duel itself. Within this house are hidden challenges, and extra points will be awarded for awareness, and creative use of, the arena itself. Each of our house champions will fight each other, and the two with the most points will progress to the final."

The first match between Tom Riddle and Jasper Brown didn't last long. About fifteen minutes into what seemed an awesome, dazzling array of spell casting to Henry's eyes, the Head Boy side-stepped a nasty mustard-yellow coloured curse before forcing the Gryffindor champion with a blast of red. He avoided it, but he'd stumbled into a desk and lost his balance.

"Nice stunner," one of the older girls said admiringly from a few rows in front. "Did you see how vivid it was?"

They'd left the main room by then, and as Brown hit the desk it exploded into a thousand-thousand pieces, bursting up. The crowd gasped as one, horrified as the dust cleared to reveal both boys bleeding, deep cuts across their bare skin, robes ragged.

But somehow Riddle kept his head and Jasper Brown was suddenly wrapped in rope, staining with blood before their eyes. He was carried away by the healers, and that was that.

Even the Gryffindors clapped Tom Riddle off the pitch, still bleeding but a smile on his pale face. He was the school's saviour, and that wasn't forgotten even in House competitions.

Hermione was up next, against Aldfrith, and Henry felt a bit sick. He hadn't recognised all the spells and curses in the first match, but it looked nasty – and difficult, and he didn't think he'd like to see her bleeding.

She was the only girl in the competition, but when she shed the cloak Henry was surprised to see her wearing trousers and boots like a Muggle man. They clung to her long legs, leather boots stopping just below the knee, and although she was properly covered it seemed rather an exciting choice of clothes for a woman. He wasn't the only one; some of the pure-bloods looked disdainful at the lack of robes.

"How daring!" Amity said, though, looking impressed. "Sensible, too, look you can see how much easier she's moving than Aldfrith."

 

 

She was trapped. Something built into the arena had snared her wand arm, wrapping around it like a Devil's Snare. But she'd beaten Diggory round the corner, dodging out of sight to fight a strategic position. They'd bowed to each other across the bare marble-floored room, but that was the hardest room to fight in – especially for Hermione who'd always been good at using her environment to her advantage. She'd let Diggory drive her slowly back towards the entrance to whatever was off the hall and then, spelling the doorway shut behind her, she'd dashed out of the room to find somewhere better to fight. But she'd barely made it around the next corner before the wall had reached out and grabbed her. She could hear his pounding steps as he ran up the corridor, casting wildly ahead of him.

Thinking fast, Hermione cast a bedazzling hex on herself. It wasn't as strong as she'd have liked but it might be enough for him not to notice her while she got free. He was nearly on her and she shrank back against the wall.

Hermione held her breath and he ran on past her and when he'd gone almost to the end of the short passage she fired two non-verbal Reductos at either side and brought the corridor walls crashing down between them. And then, moments later, she'd freed herself, severing the snaring spell with several successively cast Defindos. Diggory was trying to blast through the rubble mountain she'd created. Idiot; he should go over the top, she thought. But no matter – it gave her time and after casting Duro on the pile to make it harder for him, she went quietly back into the hallway she'd come through. She was the better spell-caster, she'd learned that in first minutes of the duel, but she'd tried to be too clever. She could face him head on and win easily.

He wasn't far behind and she'd hardly reached the big central room again and spun around before he flung a curse. She sidestepped, easily dodging the Furnunculus, which seemed an odd choice in the circumstances, and then, as she feinted and pulled him the wrong way Aldfrith stumbled into the fire he hadn't seen her cast at his back, a fire that gave off no heat – but burned terribly if you touch it. Thus distracted, it was easy to drop him with a stunner.

Hermione bent down, panting lightly. Young men, she found herself thinking, mostly all duelled the same. Lots of unnecessary running around and flailing that made their next move easy enough to judge – especially after months of private lessons with Albus Dumbledore and private practice. 

She almost wished she could go and re-do the war over. She knew so much more, now. Was so much more powerful, assured.

It was a thrilling feeling, and went some way to dispelling her nerves. The match had barely lasted twenty minutes and she'd been holding back slightly – nothing mattered except beating Tom, just once and she didn't want him to see all she could do before she faced him.

She watched, calmly triumphant, as the Mediwitch woke Diggory up with a Renervate. The judges pronounced her the winner, and she and the handsome Hufflepuff bowed to each other and climbed back off the platform as the blue section of the crowd took to their feet, a beckoning roar that thrilled through her blood. It felt like something was starting, she thought staring up at the crowd, all blurred together in blue.

Because Hermione had won the last duel, she was up next again, while Diggory recovered from his stunner. It took some time for the teachers to repair the arena, which itself was a marvel of magic. An enchanted house without a roof, creating a terrain that was quite unlike fighting in the old hall they'd used for the intra-House bit of the competition. This was far more like a fight in real life – and that gave Hermione an advantage because unlike her peers she was far more accustomed to fighting in such spaces.

None of them had been allowed to see it beforehand, although Albus had dropped a few hints and she doubted Tom would allow himself to go in blind. He'd have slipped in somehow, she thought, eyes seeking him out, a dark black figure with a blaze of green and silver at his back. Slughorn was sitting fatly beside him, talking and gesturing. Tom had an expression of polite attentiveness on his face, which meant Slughorn was giving him advice he planned to completely ignore. Professor Wolfe, other than praising Hermione and giving her a reinvigorating potion had done no such thing, for which she was grateful.

Could she beat him? She'd find out soon enough.

 

But the judge's called out Jasper's name next and she whirled through that duel in a blur of rapid-fire exchanges. He was good, but unimaginative, and she beat him in the end although it took longer than the first match.

Watching Tom and Aldfrith, though, was stirring. She was tired and grateful for the rest; complicated magic was tiring and The Hufflepuff seemed more prepared – perhaps he'd underestimated her, or perhaps her knew Tom better, but watching the two handsome wizards fight was something special. Tom, even hampered by being unable to use the full extent of his magical knowledge, was nothing short of awesome to watch. Even in the most vicious exchange, he never really seemed to lose control; dark hair hardly out of place. 

And yet – he was just a young man, for all that. There was nothing there that reminded her of watching Voldemort and Harry. He cast with a fierce joy and reverence for magic, using some spells even she didn't recognise, blinding in their power.

 

Finally it was time to face him. As she walked into the arena and took her position she thought of his whispered words and his dazzling kisses, and she thought of who he would become and all he'd do, of the lives he'd already taken and all those who'd die because of his ambition, and she smiled as she bowed to him.

We've both been holding back, she thought, but I know it and you don't. I'll ruin you.

And even before the bow was done they were off; and she set a huge fire fifteen-foot high burning between them, burning so high it rose up over the walls and the crowd screamed its appreciation. A fire too hot for his curses to get through, a fire she had invented. She used the hard-bought time – bought with sweating hours in Dumbledore's classroom – to cast on herself as she ran away. It was the same tactic she'd tried with Diggory, but this time she was more prepared. She had a plan. She strengthened herself with Salvio hexa, Protego horribilis, charms to heighten her senses, charms to speed her up, charms that turned her simple clothes spell-proof and fire-proof – not as good as dragon hide, admittedly, but he'd have a harder time landing anything on her now.

Wizards, being what they were, didn't often think of such things. But a Muggle-born witch from the future had far more scope of vision of what might be possible – and Hermione used every advantage. After pausing for only a moment to fling a silent curse into the first room she passed, Hermione ducked into the second side room, and waited, listening. Sure enough his quiet footsteps – for Tom Riddle wasn't Aldfrith Diggory and had a far subtler mind – paused further down the corridor.

Go in, she thought, desperately hoping she hadn't miscalculated. Because beating Tom would take trickery – he was too powerful and clever for her to be sure she could beat him face to face. But he did, and muffled clanging and crashes told her he must have brushed against something in the room. She smirked and darted out of her hiding place, and almost caught him with an Impedimenta as he rushed back into the corridor.

"Clever girl," he called as he flung something nasty and purple back at her. "What was that?"

"Oh, you've never heard of the Gemino curse? Obscuro!"

He ducked and a painting on the wall yelled as the blindfold dropped over its eyes.

"I don't think it's ever come up. Incarcerous."

The spell brushed her left foot as she dived out of the way and for the second time that day Hermione was trapped. Panic surged but she was its master now, and she used the extra adrenaline. Think.

Reducto was her friend again, and this time she brought the wall down on top of him, using the split-second of distraction while he cast a shield to release herself from the binding to free herself.

"Did you know some wizards and witches have a certain affinity for some magics, Tom?" she asked calmly, behind a shield of her own. Stalemate - for now. She couldn't hold a shield like this and cast, and anything less powerful wouldn't block him. Outside of school, perhaps even this wouldn't hold off what he could do. But he wasn't firing to kill and that made him weaker.

He didn't reply but he didn't cast either. Curiosity killed the cat, she thought, and smirked, gleefully holding out a hand dripping with bluebell covered flames.

"That was just a taste, earlier."

She twisted to the left as she dropped her shield, dodging the curse that he sent almost before she'd released it. And then she set the arena around them ablaze in a hundred different shades of fire. Every single fire spell she'd learned with Dumbledore or created herself came bursting out one after the other, surging up in scorching towers of purple and blue and orange and green ringing around them and a great blaze white white hot between them.

He laughed from behind the inferno, and a wave crashed over it, white horses galloping along the top and seaweed dragging along with it as it tumbled over, a spell she'd never heard of –icy steel grey seawater fighting the fire, a great haze of steam hissing up violently. The fire burned on, but smaller and as he jumped over it, stalking towards her she slashed her wand, vicious and quick and the whole side of his torso opened up, bleeding an angry crimson.

"The colour of your dress on my birthday," he said, uncaring as they faced each other. She almost hesitated at that – and then she was at the end of his wand. He was hardly even a foot away, but he'd miscalculated. Her fire wasn't given away to the world when she cast it. It was part of her and she controlled it, and horror crossed his face as his robes caught alight, and she laughed.

"Petrificus Totalus," she whispered, and took his wand from his frozen hand just as he toppled to the floor, eyes full of hate and desire.

He lay there and she smothered the fires all as one. His hands were burnt, she saw, and knew she'd pay for that later but none of that mattered as she took in the prone body of the Dark Lord on the floor at her feet, only his eyes moving. She dropped to her knees and kissed his cheek.

"Don't ever," she whispered, "underestimate me again."

She dropped his wand carelessly, leaving it lying four feet from his body as she turned and stalked out of the arena. The Ravenclaws were on their feet, stamping and cheering, and she let the exaltation wash through her.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

She didn't know how he'd found her room, but found herself uncaring as she took in the faint rose dusting the porcelain sharp cheekbones, illuminated only by the lamp by her bed. His eyes were serious, and as dark as the devil's.

She stepped aside to let him in.

As he wandered around her room, his open curiosity reminded her of how he'd been at home in Wales, a contrast to the pleasant but impenetrable armour he wore at Hogwarts. She watched him as he picked up the old inkwell on her desk, ran his fingers gently along the painting of the Dearborn castle that she'd hung on the wall, as he examined her books, and how he avoided looking at her unmade bed, still warm from where she'd left it to answer the knock at her door, hours after she'd left the Ravenclaw celebration. She hadn't been quite asleep but the mist of dreams had been pulling at her mind nonetheless.

"So this is what nepotism gets you." His voice cut through the hushed silence of Hogwarts at night, soft and yet too loud, illicit and bold and reckless.

"I have bad dreams sometimes. We thought it was better not to disturb the others." She didn't deny it though; Dumbledore had got this sanctuary for her after all. And now Tom was in it, and she could hardly breathe for excitement and fear. "You shouldn't be here. We could both get in trouble."

(She didn't ask why he was there. She didn't tell him to leave.)

He ignored the warning, and crossed the room to her, taking her hand instead, and pulling her to sit with him on the little sofa. He was so beautiful in the soft light, and she was aware of every aspect of him, every particle and fibre, the surprising warmth radiating from his thigh so close to hers, the electric ripple where the side of his hand was still just brushing her own, how his dark hair was slightly tousled at the back, the tension in his neck, the way his eyes lengthened into a frown that didn't mar the bow of his lips.

"You were captured, weren't you? I realised you must have been when we were at your house. That's why you learned to fight." It wasn't a question.

She remembered the Snatchers, Fenrir's rank breath, lying on the floor of Malfoy Manor; the screaming agony of it all.

"And tortured," she agreed, calmly.

His eyes tightened, meeting hers and she was surprised at the depth of the rage beckoning from the shadows there, at how she reacted, heart leaping with unbidden pleasure at the wrath in him for her. She added, before he could speak again, "But those people aren't… here any more. And I'm stronger now."

He looked like he would take the world to war for her, just for a moment, but there was no one here for him to kill – except his own future self. She pushed that thought aside. Let him think she'd killed them all, her captors. It didn't matter.

To her surprise, he smiled.

"You certainly are. Strong."

He paused and it weighed between them, the air growing as hot and still as it does before a summer storm.

"I don't know how to do this, Hermione." It was stark and blank and unfumbled; a confession unburdened by pride. "As you well know, I have no yardstick by which to measure the normal affections of a man and a woman. All I know is that you're magnificent and you're mine, and I will kill anyone who touches you."

"That," she replied, "is not very romantic, despite what the books say."

But it was, and the power he'd given her thrilled her. He'd kill for her, really kill for her. Will, he'd said, not would. Had, in fact. They'd stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a quiet wood and killed two men, one each. She pushed the thought away.

"No, I will punish those who wrong me myself. I am not yours," she said, "I'm my own self. I don't belong to anyone, anywhere, any time."

"Liar," he replied, and leaned in, lips hovering over hers for a moment that felt like an eternity, the storm around them beginning to boil, silent thunder rolling up across her shoulders, lightning teasing the bare skin of her legs where her nightgown ended, before his lips brushed hers as soft and silken as a spider's web, clinging to hers until she was trapped and melting against him, eager and willing, and he poured into her like a hurricane. His hand was iron rough in contrast, pulling her closer and closer, desperate and bruising.

"You're not angry?" she asked, pulling away reluctantly, head spinning. "That I beat you, in front of everyone?"

His lips lifted even as he frowned.

"Oh, I am," he told her, "but… I've never wanted anything as much as I want you. Besides, I'll beat you next time. In the final."

"Probably," she agreed. She didn't care about winning the contest. She'd just wanted to see him at her feet, and she had. She wondered if he'd been drinking. "You're not normally this candid."

"I am… experimenting with a new tactic. Besides – you're the only one in this place, perhaps in this whole world, that measures up to me. I've always known I was extraordinary, but I never expected another might be."

She hit him, and his eyes glittered with a savage joy at the reluctant laugh that spilled out of her.

"You," she exclaimed crossly, "are the most arrogant man I've ever met. There are so many wonderful, special people in this world. There's more to life," she realised she was repeating her younger self, but ploughed on regardless, "than books and cleverness. Bravery and compassion – those things can make someone far more special, Tom."

"Show me, then."

"I will," she promised, and kissed him again, kissed him as though there were no future or past, just that moment in the shadowy hours in her isolated room at the top of the tower.

 

Her hands on his skin and her mouth on his mouth lit him up in the dark, burning through him, until his mind was quiet and there was only the touch and taste of them creating together where they joined, lips and arms, his hand tangled in her thick dark hair, the bare skin of his chest against the softness of hers.

He could taste her like a joy he'd never known, pushing the world away until he could breathe for the first time, panting and shallow and desperate and raw. The press of her body on his, the sharp jut of her hips through the thin cotton like a knife that cut him open, beckoning him closer; he who hadn't longed for closeness for so long it was a half-remembered dream of childhood.

This, he learned, was power. The tiny gasp she made as he slowly trailed his fingers along the elegant precipice of her left collarbone, the hazy glow of her eyes, the dark flush on her cheeks, the way her lashes fluttered down to brush the faint freckle that danced on the upper edge of her right cheekbone.

"I have scars," she whispered, as her hands paused on the button of her nightgown, her robe a dark pool of velvet on the floor cast aside and forgotten hours or days or years before.

He realised, in that moment, when her body wasn't touching his but standing before him like an offering to the gods, how terrified he was. And yet, he didn't care; her voice told him she was scared too, and her body that it was a time to be brave.

"Show me," he said hoarsely, pushing her fingers aside and releasing the first button. She made him gentle, weakened him – and yet he felt like a god as she undid the second, the third and fourth and fifth and let the white shroud slip to the floor, bearing herself before him. She stood like an empress, and he drank in the curves and hollows of her body.

"What are you doing to me?" he asked in wonder as he knelt before her, and kissed her hipbones, her thighs, the secret places he'd hardly bothered to dream of before, marvelling at the landscape of her body, so unlike his own. He raged suddenly, at how weak he was before her, at how in that moment he'd have done anything she asked and gladly, grateful just for the touch and taste, how he was on the ground before her for the second time in a day and how he couldn't seem to care that it was the wrong way around, that he was Tom Marvolo Riddle.

She stepped backwards until her legs were pressed against the side of her bed, and he stood, awkward and half a pace away, and he thought she could consume me with her fire and her heat. And then he thought, perhaps it would be worth it.

And the other voice in his head, the one he could never quite silence, told him to take what was his. Before anyone else can, it said hissing and angry at the thought.

He moved forwards, pushing her back, less gentle now. The sight of her sprawling beneath him sent a shock of hunger through him, and he thought of wrapping his hand around her slender neck, of the power he had in that moment. He thickened at the thought, unbearable thought, and cast aside his unwanted trousers, the cool air a relief. He was aching as though he could burst, and he wanted to plunge into her, wild and conquering.

And yet, too, there was the wonderment of her, of how he might seem in her eyes, of the spaces still to explore, a whole continent of possibility.

Then he was on his knees before her, hardly aware he'd made a choice, her calves tangled over his shoulders, his mouth a prayer between her thighs, his tongue sharp as a knife, splitting her open. He did not, it had to be said, precisely know what he was doing, but she told him in her words and her sounds, in the half-gasp of yes, Tom, god, yes, the mewl, the soft cry, the surprising glimmer of tears in her eyes when he looked up, the burst of warmth in his chest as her fingers clutched at his hair. The sounds she made were earthy and human and he had never imagined he would relish anything so deeply in his bones as she came apart and, this he thought, is a far better revenge than torture.

 

 

Later, when he'd rediscovered again and again the power she had compared to his as her lips wrapped around him, when learned the agony and awe of such a thing, ripping her sheets in clenching hands, her dark hair spread across the pale hardness of his thighs, later they lay next to each other, and were quiet.

It was messy, this business of sex – or almost sex. He assumed the full act would come to much the same conclusion; the sheets still damp beneath him, the quilt a rumpled heap on the floor, the cool air catching their naked bodies up with time and place, returning them from the gorgeous torment of what had passed between them. Whatever this was had a name, perhaps, but he'd never learned a fitting word. Coarse words in the mouths of boys seemed unworthy of the woman next to him, and as he'd grown towards adulthood he'd been too consumed in other things to think much about it at all. Caught up in the pursuit of power and magic and he'd never understood that this simple thing, the most human thing of all, had all the beauty of the killing curse, the agony of the torture, the power of the Imperius. Never understood how easy it was to be a god.

"I'm sorry," he said into the quiet space between them, "about Halloween."

"Be better," she murmured. "I believe that you can."

 

 

The dawn light crept through her window before she woke and he lay on his side and watched.

No one had ever beaten him before, at anything. Afterwards, Avery had been the only one who dared approach him in the Common Room. He hadn't said anything, but Tom had seen the bit of Avery that was just his Knight, and not his friend, saying are you as powerful as you think and instead of punishing him he'd smiled at the boy.

"Now," he said, his voice carrying, "you can see why she holds my interest."

And that was the end of it; the discourse decided. It was not that he was weaker than they'd thought, but that she was far stronger.

In the half-light, he remembered how she'd calmly put a man's severed hand in his companion's pocket, tied the corpse of his kill to hers, still living, and broken their wands before she sent them back to their master. He smiled at the memory. Equal, he thought, or as near to it as he could imagine.

She looked peaceful. He'd never watched anyone sleep before, and her eyes twitched fascinatingly behind the thin membrane of the closed lids. What was she seeing?

She slept beside him, tranquil and quiet, the soft huff of her breath steady. Trusting. He could kill her and slip away more easily than anything, pull her legs apart and finally enter that still-unknown part of her. He could slide effortlessly into her sleeping mind and feel the flavour of her dream, watch the scurrying, sped up film rushing past. But he didn't.

Be better, she'd told him, the first person to ever really see him, and believe there was more to him than brilliance and power, than cruelty and ambition. I believe that you can.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

They nearly got away with it. Hermione kicked herself for her own stupidity a hundred times over in the weeks that followed, as she lay awake listening as her housemates fell asleep one by one.

It was her fault, really. She'd woken pressed close against him to find he'd covered them in the discarded quilt and fallen asleep, the sculpted marble angles of his face softened and content. He had looked, for the first time, innocent and at peace and she'd indulged herself by letting him sleep on so she could catalogue the tiny changes in his expression, revel in the way he reached for her when she pulled herself up to wake him. She'd lain in his arms too long and when he'd woken, eyes yielding into wakefulness as slowly as a winter dawn, it had been past eight o'clock and the castle was awake.

It was a portrait who'd informed the Headmaster, Dumbledore told her.

(He'd kissed her, before he left, not rushing to break the spell on the room. But they'd both known he'd been there too long.)

The portraits were tricky things; some were trustworthy and others weren't.

"You are adults, and as such you will not be expelled," Dippet had told them, as she and Tom sat white-faced and embarrassed in his office that Sunday morning after breakfast, "but there must be consequences."

And so, her private sanctuary was gone. The two cleverest students in years and they'd been so stupid. Fifty house points, and a month of detentions – and the loss of her room. It was a light punishment all things considered. But it stung.

("I went to make sure she knew I wasn't angry about the duel," Tom had told the Headmaster, charmingly. "We stayed late talking. I swear on my honour that we didn't…" and he blushed becomingly. The Headmaster softened. "I understand, Tom, but it's how it looks…. Justice must be seen to be done.")

 

Hermione was left far more mortified after her conversation with Albus. She'd never disappointed him, in all the many years and versions and certainly never since they'd grown so close. Just one day after he'd exuberantly congratulated his star pupil, his protégé, on her duelling, she thought. What a difference a day makes.

He'd been waiting outside the Headmaster's staircase when she'd left. Tom had had to stay for an extra dressing down; the price of being Head Boy. She could still hear Dippet's disappointed monologue (behaviour unfitting of a student leader, Tom, however kindly it was meant) as the Gargoyle statue opened to let her out.

"A chat, I think," Dumbledore said. She nodded, refusing to hang her head, and followed him to his office.

"I'm not going to tell you off, Hermione. You are an adult," he echoed the Headmaster, "but all I will say is that you have abused a privilege today. I had thought you would be more careful, or at least subtler."

It wasn't the words, but she realised it was the first time in months she'd seen him without that warm sparkle in his eyes. They were grey-blue and drawn, and he looked older than he had the day before.

And, she thought of the future, when he would know what Tom was and that she had known and remember this, with her sitting before him.

He didn't press her more than that, and she didn't make an excuse or apologise.

 

She'd had to move her own things that afternoon, no elves to help. She did it quietly, unblushing under the judgemental gazes of the other girls in her year, the girls who were not her friends, as she carried in her trunk and set it down by the bed. She'd cried just a little as she'd taken down the paintings, and packed up her books. What a fool she'd been.

Sophia and Ancha had come up to help, standing close in solidarity as they helped her carry Pevensie's cage and the other things that didn't fit in her trunk, but to the others she'd gone from the House's hero to a disgrace overnight, and it stuck in her throat. There was no sympathy; she'd been too privileged. This was a fall from grace, and they were pleased to see it. She had not realised how keen they'd be to see her fall.

And perhaps she'd scared them too much with her power. Greatness inspires envy, she thought. Tom's future self had been right about that at least. Perhaps he was the problem.

She stayed behind as they drifted off to supper, and stared around her new home. It was a beautiful room, but it wasn't a sanctuary. She'd rarely be able to be alone here. There were eight other beds; Sophia, Ancha, Claire and the five other girls whose presence had little affected Hermione before this point.

She lay on her bed and stared up at the blue velvet of the four-poster. She hated it. She felt trapped and exposed. She went to the library, and then back to the Tower, feet leaden as they headed to the dormitory, to bed.

Sleep was hard to come by.

 

Tom and Hermione served their detentions together, a tacit agreement of leniency by the staff, perhaps. Professor Slughorn took them for the first week, every other night at nine, and largely left them to their own devices. Like Dumbledore, he seemed more disappointed they'd been caught than bothered by the fact that Tom had been in her bedroom. Indeed, he made a point of leaving them alone for most of the hour, assigning them a simple task – a cauldron each to clean or twenty lines. The token punishment only emphasised how stupid she'd been.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the punishment brought her and Tom closer. He didn't apologise and he didn't express regret, but Tom was unusually gentle with her for a few days. She had told him, after all, why she'd had the room.

"These shadows grow darker by the day, Hermione," he said, brushing his thumb along the bruised parabola beneath her eye.

She shrugged helplessly.

"I can't sleep in there. I'm scared I'll scream myself awake, and then what will they think? How could I possibly explain it?"

She wished she could go to the Room of Requirement but she didn't know if he knew everything it could become, and bumping into him there would be too much to explain.

He had no answer, but he looked worried.

Eventually, she grew more used to sharing again and sleep did come, uneasy and light and never truly peaceful.

 

They fell together cautiously, at first, and then with a swiftness that left her dizzy.

Without her room, they found secret, hidden places to be together like every other couple. The spring rains kept them indoors, and the thing between them built like a fire buried beneath soaked peat, turning from tentative flames to a smothered furnace until she woke at night, sweating not from nightmares but from the raging thirst for him, for his lips and the trail of his fingers, woke aching to feel him inside her.

Weeks passed.

He beat her in the final duel, in the end, and was crowned Duelling Champion. It took him nearly two hours, and by the end he was burned and shaking, but he won and she didn't care. He'd wanted it more, this time. She'd driven him to the very edge of the spells he could acceptably use in front of people, though, and she marvelled at her own power.

Weeks passed, with gentle touches under classroom desks, the brush of his hand against hers as she passed him in the corridors, weeks of studying together in quiet corners of the library, of intense kisses in secret classrooms, pressed against the wall body to body and mouth to mouth, mouth to neck.

And even as she ached for more of him, he fulfilled her in ways she'd given up on; challenging her in hours-long debates, vying to out-do each other in class.

His reaction when she'd beaten him in front of the whole school had allowed her to shuck off most of her remaining doubts about what exactly she was getting herself in to; whatever he might one day become he wasn't that now. And she – she was still a girl torn out of time who would do anything to get back to her old life and claim all she'd fought for. The world, as it was here, was not the world she'd bled and starved and screamed for.

She had decades of waiting to do before she was back in the world she'd saved. Decades of time to kill, to plan, to learn. And, always, there was the logical decision that allowed her to do as she wished; she couldn't hurt him, she told herself, as she'd hurt Marcus. Tom didn't want the roots she felt unable to put down. There would be no marriage, no tiny versions of themselves combined. No dark haired devil children with angel faces hissing at snakes in the garden.

Marcus, who'd drifted from Claire into the arms of a fifth-year Gryffindor with auburn hair and green eyes and a family tree to match his own. Punishment, Hermione thought, enough for the girl who'd played tricks on her. The girl who now slept two beds over. She left it well alone, awkward in her own private joy at this reckless thing she had.

 

They kept it to themselves, of course, especially after the inauspicious beginning. The prying eyes of the school could watch them walk around the cloistered courtyard at break, or study in the library, or whisper as he sat with her at the Ravenclaw tables on a Friday evening or Saturdays, the only times in the week they were allowed to cross House boundaries at meals. They could try and interpret the sliding smiles, the way his eyes warmed as they met hers across a room, but that was all they got. Perfect Tom Riddle and his perfect, proper relationship. The rumours quietened, the judgemental stares lessened, although the envious ones did not. People moved on to the next interesting thing to gossip about. They became boring.

Those people were not party to Tom's passion, his moments of rage and fear, the dig of his fingers into the skin of her back, the way his fingers trailed the bare skin of her wrist beneath the table. They did not see the Sunday afternoons Hermione warded a disused classroom door on the sixth floor with every spell she knew, the afternoons he'd push her back across Professor Binns' desk, pushing up her robes, tongue and lips and fingers bringing her half-sobbing to ecstasy. They did not know how she longed to take him inside her. How wild and wanton he made her, so that she hardly recognised herself. That she had liked it most the day he held her wrists together above her head as he pinned her against the wall, that she'd told him yes, do it again. How very fucking badly she wanted more of him than those stolen moments could give.

And he – he was not privy to her very innermost thoughts; the ones that compared the way she and Ron had begun to learn each other's bodies unfavourably to this. The secret loathing that she should feel so much for Tom Riddle, knowing everything she did. The most buried, warded knowledge that if she looked into the Mirror of Erised now, she would see them standing together, in her own time, happy and successful and whole. That she hoped somehow, despite everything, wanting her might be enough to change the world.

 

She didn't dwell on it, though. There were too many distractions; even aside from their stolen hours together, she had her research into Avalon and the founders and the Fae to do. Helena Ravenclaw had been conspicuously absent since Christmas; for someone who wanted Hermione's help in moving on, she wasn't exactly forthcoming. Perhaps she too was angry that Hermione had been thrown out of paradise.

But Hermione had made a connection, sitting listening to Cerdic's friend talk, back in the castle. The Fae had vanished, if indeed they had ever existed, right around the time Rowena Ravenclaw had locked the doors to Avalon – again, if such a thing was true. The research was not exactly easy.

"The Founders' personal materials?" Dumbledore had asked, surprised, when she'd asked if there was a special collection in the Upper library (forbidden to students, the reserve of visiting scholars – once in a blue moon – and the staff. It was, she understood, usually empty for months).

"Please, can you ask? It's to do with something Mr. Ollivander said when he wrote to me about my wand, you see. Any documents from the first hundred years or so after the school was founded would be great."

He would, he said, see what he could do.

 

One morning, a Sunday in March, she was sitting at the Ravenclaw table eating a bowl of porridge when the post arrived. There would be two items of note in the newspaper that morning, but Hermione wouldn't see the second until much later.

She could hardly miss the first. The Sunday Prophet's headline screamed NO WANDS AT HOME. She read, interested, and found herself astounded for once.

The Ministry had passed a new law, it informed her, prohibiting the use of magic by underage witches and wizards in the company of a family member as had previously been the case. It was effective immediately, and applied to any student under the age of seventeen.

Hermione had never known the change in law came so late, and she'd actually read up on it when Harry had been in trouble for casting a Patronus. The books had all made it sound like the law had been in place for much longer than it had. She wondered why the date had been obscured.

Still, it seemed sensible enough.

Looking up from her paper, it was clear to see that her reaction was not the majority's.

"They can't do this," Sophia was saying and Hermione was shocked to see tears in her friend's eyes. "They can't."

"Does it say why?" Hector replied, grabbing Hermione's paper. He scanned the page, and then read aloud, "The deliberate underage use of magic has now been proved to be detrimental to a child's development up to the age of eleven, and as such the Ministry has taken steps to protect the future of the Wizarding world."

He looked up.

"So we're supposed to come to Hogwarts knowing nothing?" Ancha asked, plainly flabbergasted "Why?"

"Who proved it?" Hermione asked, interested. "What study are they quoting?"

"It doesn't say. This is awful." Hector looked worried, face absent of its normal exuberance and good-humour.

"This is because of Muggle-borns," Sophia said, lowly. "They've been complaining for years about the unequal start. So now we're supposed to all come in blind? How does that make sense?"

Hermione bit her tongue and thought. Her initial reaction had been that this was a sensible measure, but she thought back to the first days of Hogwarts. She'd never thought about it, but hadn't it been strange that pure-bloods like Ron and Malfoy and Wizarding-raised children like Seamus had known nothing about magic before they'd started? She'd received her Hogwarts letter on her eleventh birthday like everyone else, and in the eleven-month period before she'd actually started Hogwarts she'd learned everything she could, practiced spells with a stick, read about the history of the world she was joining. But she hadn't had a wand until the summer, she remembered. Professor McGonagall had told her parents not to buy one before then.

"And what about people like Hermione?" Sophia was saying, "People who choose to educate their children at home. That's a tradition as old as magic. Some people can't afford to send their children to Hogwarts!"

"Surely there's some sort of special dispensation for that?" Hermione asked. She picked up the newspaper again.

"No, there isn't," she said at last. "No exceptions, it says it on page three in the continuation. None of the evidence is listed, either."

"We have to fight this. There has to be a better way." Sophia wiped the tears away, furiously. "They've cracked down on so many of our traditions, but this is too much. I spend every holiday practicing what I've learned with my parents! How are we supposed to be fully prepared for exams if we can't practice at home? And what if there's a terrible teacher or we're struggling in something? What, we can't have a tutor? That's insane!"

Hermione remembered how she'd felt when Umbridge said they didn't need to practise Defence spells because the theory should be enough.

"You're right," she said. "Alright, here's what we have to do. Firstly, we need to find out what evidence they've based the law on – Sophia, can you write to Abraxas? His parents must have enough influence to get hold of that. There may be some truth in it, but we need to see the evidence. Secondly, we need to propose an alternative. If," Tom slid onto the bench next to her but she carried on, "this is because the head start children brought up in Magical households get is seen as unfair on Muggle-borns, then we need to offer a better way to make that even."

"I agree," Tom said, "and I have a suggestion. As you all know, I was unaware of this world until I was eleven despite my magical heritage. Why is that? I had a witch for a mother and yet I knew nothing of it. Magic is a gift, but the results speak for themselves. Most Muggle-born children leave the Wizarding world and the Ministry is scared our numbers are decreasing – so surely they should be brought in earlier?"

She stared at him, shocked. Around her the others were nodding.

Was this Voldemort? Then as Sophia answered, she understood.

"Muggle culture is a dangerous influence on ours. There is a constant danger our world will be exposed. But perhaps if those children weren't brought up to it, that risk would be diminished?"

"Do you mean taking them away from their families?" Hermione asked, shocked.

"We'll have to think about it. But that might be the solution. Traditionally, families used to foster Muggle-born children."

Hermione sat back and watched as they planned. It had taken a turn sharply in the wrong direction, but perhaps with her involvement she could ensure a fair and equal proposal so that both magic-born and Muggle-born children could come to Hogwarts on equal grounds.

Unequivocally banning magic was wrong, and she understood that. The gradual but insistent chipping away at magical traditions – so much so that by her time so many of them would have vanished entirely – was also wrong. There were a great many things about this world that were troubling; the ease with which magic could fix things bred brutality and recklessness in some ways. She'd grown slowly to understand her own Muggle ethics weren't a fit for a world in which the flick of a wand could leave someone bleeding out or healed. Magic and the lack of it didn't fit. Hadn't she grown gradually apart from her parents, until she'd taken their very knowledge of the existence of a daughter? To protect them, yes, but it had been easier, too. They'd been proud of her, but totally without a grasp on the dangers of her world. A world in which a fifteen-year-old girl could fight an adult man and win, because she had magic and magic was power.

And she knew, too, that she'd never felt like she fully belonged in the Magical world until she'd been thrown back in time and been given a family like a gift. How much happier would her life have been if she'd known about magic, known that she wasn't a freak, from a young age?

Tom's fingers brushed against hers under the table, tracing the creases and furrows like braille. He turned to her, and his eyes burned with confidence and passion and belief and she understood, really understood, why people would follow him all the way into the dark.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire hadn't exactly been invited to the gathering; she'd just followed along after overhearing there would be a gathering.

They'd always used to include her.

She'd tucked herself away at the back of the little group of Seventh Years. She knew what they were meeting about of course – that had been made pretty clear.

Hermione Dearborn was speaking, sat on the desk in an empty classroom on the Charms floor, one ankle crossed over the other in the vaguely scandalous trousers she'd taken to wearing at weekends since Christmas.

"I'll recap what we've found out so everyone's on the same page," she said, tossing her dark hair back over one shoulder in an annoyingly affected manner.

"The decision to stop children – a term I'm using as per the Ministry to describe everyone under the age of seventeen – practicing magic is basically being forced on the government by the Europeans, who introduced it as a post-Grindlewald measure to be seen to be doing something to control who's using magic – and how, and where. France, Germany, etc. – all the countries really affected by the war are trying to join together on various things and stop anything like that happening again. That's admirable in lots of ways, and sharing information is very much needed," she gave an odd smile, "but the downside is we're going to be affected by this particularly shitty law, and probably others in the future."

Her voice was so condescending. Claire wanted to rip her vocal cords out.

"Anyway, so in short – it's a political decision the Ministry's had to make to join the party. The reason I called it a shitty law is this."

A stack of parchment on the table dropped onto the table.

"Thanks to Sophia for this. It's a copy of the findings of study this law is based on. They're inconclusive, and woefully lacking the application of any critical thinking – and if that wasn't enough, this group of so-called Adepts tested a group of ten children over a six-month period."

This last part baffled Claire and, glancing around the room she saw mirrored confusion on several other faces. Dearborn shared an exasperated look with Riddle.

"To get even remotely reliable data on this sort of topic, I think you'd need to study the children over a several year period. You'd need a much bigger sample size – and a control group of course. It would be peer-reviewed in the Muggle world as atrocious crap."

"In the Muggle world?" Elaine Fawley interrupted, frowning. The Slytherin girl sneered.

"Yes," Dearborn replied, smiling dangerously as though she'd been looking forward to this. "Muggles have far, far superior research procedures to us. They're controlled, rigorous, and effective. It's called science, and with it they've done all sorts of really quite extraordinary things. Do try to catch up with the events of the last hundred years or so, Fawley."

Tom Riddle, Claire noted, was gazing at Hermione with what could only be described as adulation now. She frowned; he'd said some simply atrocious things about Muggles in her hearing before. Perhaps he simply enjoyed watching Hermione eviscerate someone.

"But - the argument that it is dangerous seems to have taken hold of people's imaginations and it's going to be very difficult to fight that. I've got some ideas but first, let's talk about the other more convincing argument – that inequality in this world is being perpetuated by the fact that Muggle-born children don't know anything about magic before they turn eleven. As far as I'm concerned, that is a problem – and before we can fight this law on scientific grounds we need to have a viable plan in place to deal with that."

This lead to a lengthy discussion, which Claire largely tuned out as she watched Hermione Dearborn. She'd learned to tune it out; that sort of conversation usually made her bitter and resentful of the ugly strain of mud in her own blood. A strain she blamed for so much. Instead, she watched how the group of Hogwarts' most elite students, with all four houses represented, listened to her rival in a way Claire had only ever seen them listen to Tom. She examined the slight tension belying nerves that sat like a blanket across the young woman's shoulders – well concealed, but not completely hidden from someone who'd studied her so long.

"But don't they steal it?" Roger Crabbe asked, frowning.

Claire stiffened. It was something people only said in whispers.

But Hermione Dearborn laughed.

"How," she asked scathingly, "could a non-magical child steal magic, without using magic?"

The boulder shaped boy flushed.

"They do, it's what we were told!"

"Do you also believe in Babbitty Rabbitty?" Sophia asked him. "Honestly Roge. Grow up. There are so many real problems with Muggle-borns, can we just stick to those?"

"One of them," Tom spoke for the first time and Claire felt that odd chill coupled with a yearning to listen, to make him notice her, to obey, that she always felt when she heard his low, sibilant voice, "is the danger of exposure. Unlike Hermione, I don't really keep up with Muggle current affairs, but as many of you know I did grow up in that world – and I encountered few, if any, people who'd be forgiving of the power we hold. Witch hunts don't happen now – but only for lack of belief. Displays of wild magic as children is dangerous, telling parents is dangerous, children – even adults – with too much contact is dangerous. There are unimaginable numbers of them compared to us. I have no desire to be enslaved and used for my power – or to be hunted for it. Traditionally, many families took Mudblood children and adopted them as their own. They grew up with our traditions, in our world."

"But they're dirty," Roger Crabbe protested again. "It's a different species."

"They're not," Hermione Dearborn cut in. "They're really not. I personally think it's even more extraordinary that someone can be born with magic to non-magical parents. Don't you think that's something special, something that we should cherish? All magical beings are sacred, Roger. And people without magic are still people."

She'd lost them, Claire could see, and it made her smile.

"Why such vigorous defence of Muggle-borns, Dearborn?" she cut in.

"For so many good reasons. Not least that being your own cousin weakens families. How many of you have relatives who are magically weak, erratic, hideous - mad?"

The room silenced suddenly. No one talked about these things. It wasn't done.

"That's inbreeding. Look at Tom. Half your pure blood – and astronomically more powerful than anyone you've ever met. That's not despite his Muggle blood – it's because of it."

Tom Riddle's face flashed with fury for a moment, but he didn't contradict her.

"That is possible, but unproven. Although," and he smiled now and Claire's hands shook with it, "I am certainly powerful."

"Back to the pressing issue at hand, I have a solution but it's not a short term one, I'm afraid."

Despite the witch's controversial words, and the frowns on some faces, they listened – even Avery and the Black cousins who were as staunch a set of blood-purists as she'd ever met.

"We'll have to commission an alternative study, carried out on a huge scale over a period of years. I want Adepts studying children in every country where magic's banned outside of school – and an equal number in magically open countries. The children's heritage, physical status, academic performance, power – that will all be studied over a period of at least five years in, if all goes to plan and I can find enough open-minded Adepts, twenty or more countries. We need to look at the short and long term effects on thousands of children. Not ten from one war-torn community."

"Well," Sophia Selwyn said after a stunned pause, "you don't do anything by halves. Who's paying for this?"

"I'm going to apply to the Ministry for funding. I expect they'll refuse – but when they do we can take that to the Prophet. I'll provide set up costs, labs – my father is talking to several well-respected researchers already to recruit people. I expect we'll have to find funding for it ourselves. But I really think this is important – and here's why. Looking at this pile of rubbish," she gestured to the German study, "I'm actually afraid it's damaging to limit magic like this. Has anyone gone without casting for an extended period? I think it could be linked to uncontrolled magic – as far as I can tell Muggle-born children have a much higher rate of damaging accidental magic, and I think that's because they don't have a proper outlet. If that's the case, then the importance of this study can't be understated – or the importance of finding a solution to the eleven years of ignorance. Children – magical children - have killed themselves with accidental magic. We can't let that happen.”

Hermione only paid half attention to the following discussion about funding and whose parents would be most on board to donate to such a radically new sort of research. She'd won a tremendous victory, a sort of mini-Enlightenment, and that was enough for now. Besides, watching Tom as he debated his peers – although they were hardly that – she was struck by how little she'd come to care about what he would be.

It had been cemented already.

Just two days before, Hermione had woken up to find that getting out of bed had seemed pointless, so she'd stayed there instead, staring at the canopy for hours. She'd tried to read, but that was pointless too. So she lay in bed, and thought about her parents, and couldn't cry.

Until Tom had come, sneaking in at lunch. He'd lain beside her in silence for a while, and when he'd gone he'd left an apple by her bed. She hadn't eaten it when he returned, everyone else at dinner, sliding back beside her, staying until she fell asleep. His silent presence had moved her more than any words, and she'd woken feeling able to face the world again. It wasn't her first grey day; there had been several at Hogwarts in her final year, and only Ginny had ever seen them. Ginny's method had to cajole, to feed, to tease. The days never lasted, and they'd grown less frequent as the rawness of the war faded.

As the others filtered out she watched him and when he looked at her, she looked back, the room drifting away somewhere less interesting.

She wanted him. All of him.

When they'd left, he slid onto the desk, head tilted to one side. His dark hair was perfect, robes pressed, face serene. Only the wicked glint in his dark eyes and the taunting pull in the left corner of his lips gave away his humanity.

"I think I'll go to the library and get some research done," she murmured, taking a false step towards the desk where she'd slung her bag.

His mouth pulled a little further to the right as he silently watched her gather up her things.

"What are you going to do today?"

"Something troublesome and evil I expect."

"Perhaps," she said, "I should stay and distract you, then." She was gathering the reams of paper up, very close to him now.

Wordlessly, he knocked them onto the floor and, hand in the belt of her trousers, yanked her against him.

"I think you'd better," he murmured, holding her still as he examined her face. "God knows what I'd get up to otherwise."

She trembled in place, the game not quite over as he slowly undid the first two buttons of her blouse.

"Is the door locked?" she asked.

"No."

She pulled away, but he grabbed her wrists.

"I'll lock it soon. Don't move."

She didn't.

"I like watching you plot to change the world with logic. I like watching you twist people's prejudices against them," he told her, slowly dragging a finger along the skin of her back, under the back of her shirt. "I like watching you fillet those idiots."

"They're your choice of idiots."

He smirked, but didn't answer just pulled her between his legs, knees clamping on her hips. He still hadn't kissed her, but she was curious enough to wait and play the mouse to his cat.

"I want you," he said eventually, "properly. All of you. Today."

She exhaled in surprise.

It was time to make a choice – but without realising she'd already made it. Deception didn't suit her, not really. Not about this, when she cared so much.

"I want you. But first," she paused searching for the words, "I think it's time I told you my secret."

She couldn't take that step without him knowing, without knowing if it mattered to him.

"You have to make a vow of secrecy, though."

"Don't you trust me, Hermione?"

"It's not just my secret." Dumbledore had falsified her birth records. Cerdic was implicated too. And she did trust him, mostly. They'd stood side-by-side and killed two men. "I've trusted you with everything I can."

That was a truth; and perhaps he heard it because in answer he held his wand out. Without a Binder, they couldn't do an Unbreakable Vow - but this was the next best thing.

"Do you swear not to repeat what I'm about to tell you to anyone, in any language or written form, to deliberately hint or in other way attempt to lead someone to discover this matter?"

"I swear, on my magic."

A string of golden light poured from his wand, wrapping once around both their wrists before vanishing. She felt the warmth of it sink into her arm, and took a deep breath.

Courage, dear heart.

"I'm adopted. My parents," she laughed, slightly mad even to her own ears, "my parents were Muggles."

Were. Not are. They were. Will be again. Then will not be. She pushed the thought away, the grey fog that followed those thoughts was a blank, mindless prison.

What she felt was relief. Stark and uncompromising freedom. One less lie.

Tom didn't say anything, but he didn't move either. His face had gone blanker than she'd ever seen it.

"So now you know," she said and began to pull away. His knees clenched tighter, holding her in place, but whatever he might have said was stopped short by the choking laugh from the back of the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment


 

 

Tom's wand was out. He'd released Hermione the second the laugh broke through the silence, and they stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to fight.

"Come out, come out wherever you are," he taunted. He looked alive, hungry.

Homenum Revelio, Hermione cast silently, scared sick to her stomach. How stupid she had been not to check the room before revealing her secret. Not her biggest secret, of course. Not The Secret, but one that could damage people she'd come to love nonetheless.

A skeleton in the closet that could lead to the discovery of that other, far more important one.

Tom sent a spell, dark purple and menacing, to the door, sealing it shut and ready to attack anyone who dared to open it.

Hermione's second spell found its target, the outline of a human glimmering in the back-left corner of the room. It fired back, a girl's voice crying out a blasting curse. Tom countered it, Hermione instinctively following it with a binding spell.

"Finite," she said. "Hello, Claire. This is a bit of a quandary, isn't it?"

The girl didn't reply. Hermione walked over, and looked down at the girl, bound in silvery cords.

"Accio wand," Hermione added for good measure, catching the wand. She inspected it curiously, half-tempted to snap it in half.

"Why were you spying?" she asked.

Tom slid onto a desk next to her, twirling his wand, violence in his eyes.

"I wanted to find out what you were really up to," the girl said at last.

"I don't believe you, but I don't really care," Hermione said, tiredly. Claire's hatred was so irrational and misplaced. It was almost relief it had come to a head at last.

"You ruined everything for me when you came."

There was nothing Hermione could say to that. She turned away in frustration. The situation was insane.

"Shall I do it?" Tom offered.

"We're not going to kill her, Tom!" Hermione whirled on him, hands flying to her hips. "There are so many other options!"

"None so permanent," he argued.

"I'll just obliviate her."

Damage was so easy to undo in the magical world; they played at gods with few consequences. It was no wonder it was a more brutal place.

"Killing her," Hermione added, "would create the need for more lies – and a second death would be very suspicious. It's unsophisticated and a weak move, at best. Not to mention it's never the answer."

Tom smiled, a glorious smile that lit up his dark eyes.

"Hypocrite," he said. She ignored him.

Hermione levitated the girl, who was crying now as she struggled against her bonds. She was no Gryffindor. But perhaps, Hermione thought, neither was she anymore, either.

"I'm going to change your memories of the last half an hour. It won't even hurt. Stop being ridiculous."

The room was cold and dusty and Hermione couldn't wait to get out of there. Still, doing it properly would take some time. And the thought of messing around in the girl's head – using the same spells she'd used on her parents – made her feel sick. It was almost enough to make her agree with Tom's solution.

But that way lay madness, and as hopeless as it seemed logically she wanted him to be better. To see there were other ways.

"This will take a while. Can you spell the door to distract people away?"

Wordlessly, he walked over to the it. Watching Tom cast was something special, under any circumstances. He was a lyrical spell-master, never one to shy away from flair and yet he tempered it with a ruthless sort of efficiency. There was a cold poetry to it.

Hermione took a deep breath, seating herself opposite the bound girl.

"Firstly, you will make an Unbreakable Vow never to reveal what you heard here even if you recover your memory."

"I'll do no such thing," Claire spat. "You're disgusting and the world should know you're just a fraud. A Mudblood."

Hermione sighed.

"You'll do it, or I will have to make you do it."

"I won't," the blonde girl said, more quietly. "I won't. Just let me go and I won't tell anyone. I'm sorry I stayed. Please."

Tom returned to his desk throne, lounging slightly on the scratched wood. A heart with an X through it was carved next to where his right hand propped him up. His presence was apparently threat enough because Claire started to cry again.

She begged for a while and Hermione sat, thinking. Panicking would mean a mistake. She couldn't afford to make another one. She focussed on her breathing for a few moments, mind rapidly sorting through the options and dismissing them.

"You can't force me to make the vow, anyway. They don't work under duress. And I can't make it if I'm obliviated. So just let me go and we'll forget this ever happened."

Hermione hadn't trusted the DA members in her fifth year; she was hardly going to acquiesce to someone so openly hostile. But Claire's words had given her an idea.

"No," she agreed, "I can't force you to make the vow. But I can make you take a blood oath."

"That's illegal!"

Hermione shrugged. "It's your choice." She just wanted to disentangle herself from this woman's life as soon as possible.

More begging and crying. She met Tom's eyes. He was watching, apparently fascinated.

"Don't you even care that she's a Mudblood?" Claire asked him, as though she'd given up on Hermione.

Tom didn't even look down at the other girl as his mouth quirked up in the corner. He ignored the question completely, as though no one had spoken.

 

 

He was beautiful like an aeroplane hurtling to the ground with its tail on fire, leaving a burning trail across a twilit sky. Beautiful in the way a glacier's cliff was at its most beautiful just as it was poised to crash into the sea.

"Imperio," Hermione said.

Claire took the knife Hermione conjured and sliced open her palm.

"I vow, by my life blood, that I won't reveal Hermione Dearborn's true birth, by any means," she repeated. "That I will never try to cause someone else to learn of it. I won't talk about anything I learned in this room. If I should even try, this wound will open and never close and I will bleed to death. My blood will choke the words in my throat."

She smiled as she said it.

The Imperius curse was unlike anything Hermione had experienced. She'd never been particularly interested in having power like that over another person. She could feel Claire fighting, but it was weak. For a wilful woman, whose opinion had too easily been cast aside or mocked, it was heady indeed to have such easy compliance.

She felt the loss of the imperiused connection as she let it drop away, and dove straight into the girl's mind to alter her memories. No cheap obliviate, this. She would rebuild the last half hour into another memory - a dark and complex magic. Sorting through the memories was tiring, but more difficult – and exhausting – was navigating the blank spaces.

Hermione followed them, curious, until she found a mistake, a strand left in a deserted corridor. She pulled at it, exerting her considerable magical will onto the little scrap of thread, so small she'd almost missed it. It resisted, but she persevered until it loosened.

 

Memories tumbled around her, and they were of Tom. Tom, asking questions about Hermione. Tom, reading Claire's mind. Tom, obliviating her. Tom, twisting her into a tool of spite. Tom.

Hermione pulled harder, until they were unbound and floating around the empty space in the girl's mind, and she rewove them into harmless conversations, into information freely given.

Her own anger was distracting, and she locked it away. She would release no more anger into the girl's damaged mind.

Finally, she found the tiny, scared space of the past half hour. She thought of conversations with Ginny, locked away in the tower, of healing and sharing. Of making peace with Lavender.

When she was done, she withdrew, exhausted and sweating, from the girl's mind. The clock told her another hour had passed. Claire had passed out, head slumped forward. Her mind would heal around the new memories in sleep, and when she woke she would remember staying behind to make peace with Hermione, of agreeing that Marcus had treated Claire terribly, and that she deserved better. She would remember staying behind in the classroom and falling asleep.

She would wake up free.

 

"What's wrong with her now?" Tom asked. He hadn't moved from the desk.

Hermione didn't look at him. "I think," she said, "that you should leave. I am very angry, and very tired. Go."

He did not leave, but stepped closer.

She looked up then, and whatever he saw in her face made him drop the arm reaching for her shoulder

"I'm not going until you tell me why you want me to go," he said firmly.

"You consistently spied on me, and twisted this girl into someone who made my life very difficult for months. Someone who hated me."

Realisation dawned and she wanted to slap it away. To hurt him.

"It seems we have much to discuss," he said, and left.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 


 

When Tom tried to approach her the next Monday the cool glare in her eyes stopped him short. He paused for just a moment before taking the seat two places to her left and one row back. She was careful not to watch as he piled his textbooks onto the old wooden desk, and scanned over the roll of parchment containing his essay. She was careful not to notice that he glanced at her exactly three times in the two-minute period before Professor Wolfe began the lesson.

Hermione had mainly spent the weekend in the tower, only emerging for meals and to go to the library with her friends, surrounding herself with an unwitting bodyguard.

But she was weak; she had missed him. She'd woken the day after, anger already dulled. After all, she had suspected he was spying at the time hadn't she? She'd deliberately lost a duel to Sophia and underplayed her hand because she'd expected him to check up on her. She'd used it to win.

However, that had been before. He'd been disguised in Claire's mind, mostly, but Hermione would have known the inflections of his voice, the way he cast, his unique intensity of focus behind any face. The disguises had been flimsy things, not meant to hide from a lover.

And by the end of Sunday she'd identified the root of her bitterness: the real betrayal was in his undermining her, in manipulating Claire to make her lash out at that Gryffindor girl. It was in the remembered sting of lost essays and wondering if she was going mad.

 

On Wednesday, Penelope Greengrass cornered her in a dim second-floor corridor. An icy draught drifted down the hallway, swirling around her ankles. There were no portraits here to pry, just a dusty statue a little further down of Hestia guarding an unlit fire.

"Please just talk to him, Dearborn," the beautiful blonde girl said abruptly, pausing as she passed Hermione, hand resting lightly on Hermione's sleeve.

Genuinely surprised, she had stopped short at the contact, at the blunt words.

"I'd never seen Tom happy until you turned up. Never, not really, not in six years. Just do us all a favour and get over whatever tiff you've had."

"I didn't…" Hermione trailed off, rubbing her eyes, unsure how to exactly explain that she'd never believed a Slytherin capable of such unselfish feeling. This girl could have been a rival, if only in her own eyes. Or so Hermione had thought.

"We care about him - although I doubt he's ever noticed - and he, well, he cares about you. Maybe only you. He smiles now. But this week he's been atrocious and it's unsettling everyone. So just talk to him."

And then she was gone, in a cloud of amber and musk, blonde hair shining in the weak spring sunlight just pushing through the clouds as she passed a window, leaving Hermione staring over her shoulder after her.

 

On Friday evening an owl arrived at the dormitory window. Kaitlyn O'Malley, whose bed was closest to the windows and who, incidentally, was the only other girl in the room opened it briefly. A sharp blast of wind followed the bird into the peaceful blue room, and Hermione glanced up to watch as Kaitlyn took the letter from its leg: evening owl deliveries were unusual enough to be notable events. It flew off without waiting for an answer, soaring wide-winged out into the dark, the window thudding shut again behind it. Kaitlyn read the name, and sent it flying to Hermione's bed with a flick of her wand and a smirk.

"That'll be from Tom I daresay," she said, her soft Irish lilt cutting through the quiet of the room.

Hermione thanked her, surprised at the delivery. She had thought he'd have more restraint. Her traitor's heart lurched in excitement.

It was just a rolled up piece of parchment with her initials in his distinctively perfect penmanship, the crisp H and the swooping D either side of the E – for Ellylw, her adoptive great-grandmother's name. That in itself was telling; she was reasonably sure she had never told him the middle name Cerdic and Albus had written on the notice of her birth. Nor indeed had she really thought of it in half a year. She hated the name, truth be told. Her Muggle aunt was an Eleanor and Hermione didn't like to be reminded of Aunt Elly. Memories of her inevitably led to grey-tinged thoughts of her removed and fearful parents, which already orbited around her mind, a constant, distant ache of loss and regret.

 

Out of principle, Hermione left the paper by her bed while she finished her reading and washed her hair. But she thought about it. She wondered what he could possibly have to say, tried not to imagine the letter's contents, told herself whatever he said shouldn't make a difference anyway.

The parchment, when she unrolled it, was blank.

She half-huffed in irritation, but a little smile betrayed her, creeping across her mouth at the puzzle.

A week of not talking had been empty. All the Avalon-related reading in the world couldn't replace Tom challenging her, Tom making her laugh, the warmth of him at her side in the library, the way he somehow brought light into this strange situation, pushed away those pain-tinged thoughts of those she'd left behind. Dazzling and bright, like a full moon outshining the stars of grief.

Eventually, she cracked it. A tricky, little-used spell with a Celtic, rather than Latin, tether. It was usually used to reveal the hidden writings on ancient stones.

He was, if nothing else, a swot.

Hermione, whatever brought us together was surely worth any cost – and yet, I find bringing you pain is something I now find so wholly abhorrent that I can only regret such a foolish act.

Being without you, even for such a short space has been unbearable. Wherever you came from, you are my only peer in this world. What is dark within me you illuminate. You burn so bright, Hermione.

Know this. I  am  on your side, now and forever. Forgive me.

Yours,

Tom

 

Attached to the bottom was a scrap of newspaper that unfurled as she finished reading.

 

NOTORIOUS THIEF ARRESTED AFTER INSIDER TIP-OFF

Lunarchon Glamgungle, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, says Aurors have rounded up and arrested a gang of at least ten wizards, known as the Magpies. They confirmed the gang's notorious leader Slurrungus Fletcher was one of those arrested. Fletcher and his gang have been linked to several kidnappings and robberies over the years. Glamgungle says the several of the gang members were taken to St Mungo's for treatment immediately following the detainment, but that their injuries were sustained prior to the Aurors' arrival. Fletcher and one other man remain in hospital but are thought to be in a stable condition. The DMLE chief also thanked the anonymous source who led the Aurors right to the gang.

"They were all tied up with several missing items in their possession. It was extraordinary," Auror Bliffney Pemckle told the Prophet. "We think someone betrayed them from the inside. Easiest job I ever had."

 

Hermione, who had carried out her share of vengeful acts in her time, took a moment to to really revel in what he had done for her. No one, not even Harry or Ron had ever tracked someone down and sent them to jail for harming her. That sort of thing had always been her job.

It was a glorious feeling, and she wondered how she was ever going to control her stupid, mad, insane, relentless hope that he was changing. Because he hadn't killed Mundungus Fletcher's horrible ancestor for trying to kidnap Hermione. She knew he'd have wanted to, but he hadn't. Had hardly harmed the man, if the Prophet was right.

The paper was dated the same day the law banning underage wand use outside of school had been announced. He'd been quiet about this for weeks. Clever, cunning, sly man to wait until now to draw her attention to it.

Hermione found her copy of that paper and cross-checked it just in case. She wouldn't quite put it past him to fake such a thing to trick her, but really she doubted it. He was, whatever else he was, on her side.

She believed him, and even if she was wrong she didn't care. She'd never, in fact, cared so little that she might be being deceived.

 

When she picked the note back up to read it again, a postscript appeared. How well he knew her, she thought, and it was warming to be so known.

Meet me, his cursive less neat here, in the girls' bathroom on the first-floor. I have a secret to share, too.

The first-floor girls' bathroom was, of course, one Hermione was more than usually familiar with. She had spent every spare moment for a month in there in her second year, after all.

She knew what secret lay within. It would be insane to go. She hid the letter in the secret compartment in her trunk and checked her watch. It was five minutes to midnight. Everyone except Kaitlyn was still down in the Common Room.

Going would be stupid. Beyond stupid.

Hermione got into bed and thought for a while about how it could be a trick, about how he knew she was a Muggle-born now and could be taking her to her death. It was the sensible hypothesis, given what she knew. But she also knew his taste and touch and that he was the only thing that made her feel alive sometimes and that she didn't care who he would or could become anymore. Who he was now mattered to her more.

Cognitive dissonance, she thought to herself, was a remarkable thing, and got out of bed.

Hermione opened one of her most niche transfiguration textbooks and prepared. She would go, with warded eyes transfigured into mirrors. She would go, and if she was wrong, if he was taking her to her death she would kill him for it and fuck the timeline.

Sneaking around after curfew was something Hermione hadn't done much of without Harry's invisibility cloak and the Marauders' Map. More than the boys had known, admittedly, but it was far more difficult. Still, that had been before she'd spent almost a year on the run from the Death Eaters.

The irony that she had learned the spells she used to disguise herself with as she slipped out of the tower and through the dark castle to evade the man she was now deliberately and willingly going to meet was not lost on her.

She had not, in that year, gone to the trouble of checking her legs were smooth. Nor had she worn matching silk underwear. Witches in 1945 did not wear modern bras – preferring spells and corsets - and even the Muggle ones weren't what she was used to. But they were pretty enough, and she'd grown used to them.

As she walked down the corridor, pretty silk underwear concealed under her robes, she listened to the sounds of the castle settling at night. Her own breaths were loud in the dark, and unsteady despite her careful, quiet steps as she slipped down towards the first-floor.

 

 

Tom was waiting in the dark when she arrived, tossing a ball of golden light back and forth between his hands. His head shot up and he nearly dropped it when she opened the door.

The slip in his façade calmed her own nerves, and she stepped close to him.

"I want to be clear," she said low and firm, "that that sort of thing stops, now. No scheming, no bringing innocents into this."

He nodded, and trailed a finger along her cheekbone before pressing his forehead to her own, and breathing in deeply.

"Do you trust me?" he asked at last.

"I'm here, aren't I?"

He took her hand, and his touch – familiar, electric, gentle – sent her heart racing again.

"Let's go then," she whispered, "wherever it is that we're going."

Perhaps her tone was off, because his shoulders tightened, and he froze halfway through turning towards the taps. One of them was leaking, and a few drops splattered down into the sink below, clinking out into the dim room as loud as gunshots.

"What," he asked, more curious than cold she thought, "do you know?"

"You're the one who told me you were a Gaunt, Tom," she said. "And I've never heard of Acromantulas petrifying anyone."

"Have you known all this time?"

"I've known for a while," she agreed. "Does it matter?"

Instead of replying, he tugged her forward and hissed at the tiny snake she knew was etched on the copper pipe. The tap glowed bright white in the dark and began to spin, baring open the enormous pipe behind, a black hole of nothingness.

"This wasn't always the entrance," he told her, looking suddenly and strangely awkward. "In the old plans… anyway this is an old entrance remade after they put in modern plumbing for, well, there's a basilisk down there as you seem to have guessed, and this was supposed to be for her. The other way in is in the Slytherin Dungeon and it's pretty well blocked off by new additions."

He was rambling, really, but it was soothing – and interesting. It was odd to think of the deadly serpent as a her, instead of an it. What he was saying made sense and she wondered if the little snake she knew was etched on the copper pipe had, in fact, been his work. She also wondered what other Hogwarts secrets had been hidden over time as the castle was reworked.

"It's not precisely what I would call modern plumbing," she said, looking doubtfully at the pipe. Last time, caught up in the rush before the battle, dirty from Gringotts and months on the run, from crash landing off a dragon, she had hardly noticed how filthy it was.

He laughed, looking relieved.

"It'll be worth it, I promise. There's a library down here," he said, smiling, and stepped in, sliding away into the dark. The golden ball of light he'd conjured stayed with her, as she took a deep, shuddering breath, cast several charms to keep the slime off, and followed, sliding down to face whatever lay beneath.

 

And it was worth it.

There was no slime on the walls here now: they were dark, clean stone illuminated by a cloud of golden balls floating around them. He'd caught her as she landed, staggering into him for just a moment. A safe landing.

Tom led her silently through the tunnel to the great stone wall, carved snakes entwined more beautifully than she'd remembered, emerald eyes sparkling in the golden lights.

With another hiss from him, they parted, the solid stone splitting soundlessly and sliding away.

Behind them lay the Chamber, but how different it was from its wrecked future self. The snake-carved columns rose elegantly to a great expanse of gothic carving lit with a thousand tiny lights like stars. Their reflection shimmered in the water below, two strips from which the bases of the columns rose up, tall and majestic and eerie. It reminded her of a scene from a James Bond film, a chase through a flooded underground hall in Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern, she remembered. From Russia with Love. That wouldn't be in cinemas for seven more years. A favourite of her father's.

"This is just the ante-chamber," he explained, his hand wrapped around hers the only warmth. "Come on."

"Where's the… the basilisk?" she asked, with as much bravado as she could muster now she was confronted with the reality: she was miles beneath the castle, or beneath the lake perhaps, with no easy way to escape. And still she trusted him.

"She won't come. I told her to stay in her cave, sleeping."

Hermione's breath surged out less evenly than she'd like and she stepped forward, gazing at the otherworldly space around her as they walked down the centre of the chamber.

Last time she'd been here it had been filthy, filled with the stench of rot, rats scurrying away from their wandlights into the damp, dark around them. A ruin of something she now realised was beautiful in its way.

The great statute at the end was as she remembered though, a wizened, bearded man carved from some dark and foreboding granite.

"I don't," Tom said quietly, "think I got my looks from that side of the family."

Hermione's startled laugh echoed loudly around the room, and then it was drowned out by the sound of stone moving, a grating sound as the statue slid forward and then began to turn around. Her mouth fell open at this wonder even in a world of wonders.

It stopped halfway round, and she saw it wasn't really a statue at all, just a huge, thick façade hiding the great doors behind it. The black marble gleamed darkly, reflecting their distorted forms back before swinging open at his command.

"Welcome to the Chamber of Secrets," he murmured. "I've never brought anyone here before."

"It's nothing like I'd imagined," she said, honestly. And indeed the difference had displaced her; she'd been so sure she'd known where she was going, and now she was clueless as to what might lie beyond.

A library, he'd said. She'd assumed it was a joke… but now anything seemed possible. A palace, a country, another world.

 

 

In fact, it was a suite of rooms. Unimaginably fine for their time, carved into the rock deep beneath the earth's surface. A study with piles of scrolls and thousand-year old leather bound books ("Later!" Tom promised, pulling her on), a rudimentary potions lab, and so on. They ran into each other consecutively in an ouroboros shape.

When they reached the chamber within The Chamber, Hermione gasped again. It was not exactly rose petals and champagne, but a fire burned bright and welcoming in the hearth, a bottle of wine stood uncorked on the little mahogany table, and merry candles lit up the dark corners. A four-poster bed, far grander than those in the dorms, stood, intricately carved and hung with green velvet. The walls were lined with tapestries; embroidered knights galloping across the silken surface until they were out of sight, a trees really waving in an invisible breeze, a pack of silent wolves emerging from a thickly wooded hill. The ceiling was hung with stars. It was like the Great Hall's and yet unlike; these were constellations she had never seen and far closer, dizzying and glowing and gorgeous.

Once she tore her eyes away, she realised there were signs of Tom here. A discarded textbook, a broken quill, a bowl of fruit, a stack of fresh parchment.

"I used to stay down here sometimes," he explained, following her eyes. "When… when things were less easy within my house. But then after fifth year it became too dangerous, so I have stayed away."

"How did you find it?" she asked. Harry had been led there, by Tom's old diary, a thought she refused to dwell on, but she couldn't fathom how he had pushed through to this inner sanctum.

"The Chamber?" he asked, surprised.

"Yeah. I mean it's pretty well hidden isn't it?"

"I felt it calling to me. As soon as I walked into the school I could feel it. This is my real birth right, all of this. This is who I am."

She realised he'd waited to say those words until they were here, in the deepest sanctuary within the Chamber. Not in the grandness of the ante-chamber, sprawling and huge and containing who knew what else, but here in the bedroom, humble in comparison. A safe haven.

This time it was she who tugged him forward for the kiss. And when their lips met, gentle at first and then desperate, she felt some fire unleash inside her for the first time, something wild and free, and she pulled his shirt loose sliding her hands against the heat of his smooth back. An hour or a minute or a day passed as they clung together, lips and hands holding a conversation she had no words for.

"I do trust you," she breathed against his skin, wandlessly casting the unbuttoning charm that sent her robes sliding off to the floor. She stood before him, clad only in her pale pink silk and he took a rough, gasping breath.

"You make me believe in… something more, Hermione," he said, some dark shadow passing out of his eyes as he took control of his breath, splaying his fingers across her stomach.

In reply she pulled his shirt off, sliding it over his head. They hadn't been naked together since that night in her room, every encounter since had been stolen moments in the castle's hidden corners. But here they were free, and their clothes fell piece by piece, discarded and unwanted on the woven rushes spread over the stone floor. Hermione undid the silly silk bra, letting it fall and bare herself to his hungry lips, until he picked her up and carried her to the bed, a romance fantasy come to life, dark and glorious and passionate in way she had never believed real outside of romances.

He slid the last barrier away, pulling her knickers slowly down her legs and she gave a half-giggle, propped on one elbow as she watched. She felt glorious and wanton and powerful as he met her gaze, dark eyes hungry, his hair falling forward onto his forehead as he kissed his way back up her legs.

He had learned how to kiss her there in the weeks past, how his tongue and fingers could dissolve her into a writhing mess beneath him but there was an extra level this time, the anticipation that finally they would cross that last line, that he was delaying an inevitable, prolonging her pleasure and frustration as he explored her anew.

She came, his hands bruising her thighs as he held her still around his head, sweat beading between her breasts. Time seemed outside of them here, an irrelevance so far removed from his place and this time.

And when he pushed into her, holding still for a moment, she knew there was no going back. How could she throw this aside when her body felt full and joyful, when they were entwined like the serpents on the chamber doors. The act moved beyond the sex she'd experienced before into another plane and it was this: intimate and slow and tender and outside of consciousness. It was this: long-burning embers fanned with oxygen bursting into sudden flame. It was this: her body turning into molten magic. It was this: a world made only of them together, where he had no beginning and she no end. It was this: a desperate need to finish, for there to be no end.

It was this: the bed's hangings catching flame as she screamed, crackling and dangerous and unnoticed.

He shuddered against her as he came, and they clung together on Salazar Slytherin's bed as the fire spread, forcing their attention. It was this: laughing as they rushed to extinguish them, naked and giggling, before lying back on the singed velvet eiderdown, the rumble of his joy vibrating against her, deep in his chest.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

…There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover's whisper, irresistible—magic to make the sanest man go mad.


― Homer, The Iliad


 

 

He awoke triumphant.

It was freezing in the chamber. The fire had died down to embers and the soft, slender heat of her naked body was pressed against his.

Hermione was still asleep, eyebrows puckered together, an oddly endearing smudge of drool at the side of the pouting lower lip he'd last bitten just a few hours before. She looked younger, and more vulnerable, and yet as his eyes adjusted to the light he saw her wand within easy reach.

She was as damaged as she was imperial, he thought. And yet she trusted him. Hermione Dearborn was his, bound to him with murder and flesh. His, but occupying a role he'd never allowed for. His, but a queen.

His stomach rumbled loudly in the quiet room.

Hermione was in his realm now; she'd voluntarily tasted the pomegranate seeds. Here, in his Chamber, where the very air settled on his skin like a whisper of power.

They'd set the bed on fire.

It was hard not to feel smug that he was as good at this as he had been at everything else he'd ever tried. Hard not to feel like a god.

"You are magic made flesh," he whispered, running a long, pale finger along the smooth arc of her hip. As a child they'd told him hell was full of fire, but he'd knew the opposite was true. He'd left hell behind at the age of fourteen and one day he'd burn it to the ground.

Hermione murmured and pressed closer against him, burrowing away from the cold of the room. He reached for his wand, which had clattered to the floor some time in the night, and set a blaze burning in the hearth.

Tom rarely dreamt, but when he did it was dreams of power or nightmares of the orphanage, of being a god and being punished by one, or - more recently - dreams of her. He'd dreamt of cutting her open, inky words spilling out with her secrets, and he'd dreamt of taking her, and he'd dreamt of her dying, being taken away, killing and torturing. He had had bitter dreams and ecstatic dreams but they were shattered things, twisted and broken.

The dream he'd awoken from had been a new one. A dream of a summer day in a garden watching her read. She had been eating a strawberry in the dream, that pouting mouth curved around the red fruit, a dream both tender and inexplicably erotic. It was unsettling.

"Tempus," he commanded. It was only five and a Saturday at that. There was no need to leave the underworld for many hours yet. Possibly, neither would be missed until dinner. He pulled her closer against his side, and began to think.

Now he'd tasted this, he understood why the Greeks had camped on the shores of Troy for a decade. Why even the least boring of his housemates made fools of themselves for women.

But this was not what they had. This was elevated far beyond what those fools called love. There were two beautiful things in this world; power and Hermione Dearborn.

He understood he'd kill anyone who took her away. That when she looked at him, she saw him.

"Are you my making, or my ruin?" he wondered aloud.

"Both," she muttered sleepily, stirring at last. "What time is it?"

"Only five," he reassured her. "No one will miss us for hours yet. Go back to sleep."

"Don't do that again. Don't push me away with one hand and pull me closer with another." She'd never sounded so vulnerable before and he felt something stir inside him, a shade of guilt perhaps.

"I won't."

"I shouldn't trust you," she whispered into the dark room, "but I do. If you betray me, I'll kill you for it."

In response, he slid his hand to the juncture of her thighs, into that hot, wet place until she was awake and writhing against him, and he was inside her again in a magic they'd never cover in class and he felt again that burning triumph and that this, this, was a form of divinity in itself.

 

After that came the halcyon days that not even exams could ruin. Spring became summer and even the Scottish Highlands revelled in it, the mountains basking in the June sunshine. Time seemed to speed up as the NEWTs rushed towards them, a ladder to the edge of a cliff they would have to jump off into the world beyond the castle. Their peers became snappish, overtired. Two students were treated in the Hospital Wing after taking an illegal memory-enhancer, and another for overdosing on energy potions.

They studied outdoors, claiming a spot by the lake just for them. Revision become less a chore than a joy as they showed off to each other, basking in their own cleverness, arrogant and carefree and happy. Hermione because she'd done the exams before and had the luxury of not caring about her results the second time around, and Tom because he simply couldn't imagine doing badly.

"No," she said gleefully, "it was Marion not Mary Fishburne who created the Draft of Living Death..."

 

 

"Where are the apples?" she asked the Grey Lady, who was waiting on her bed one Wednesday night while the others were studying.

"With the diadem, where I died. Bring me a map and let me show you."

Hermione summoned a magical atlas from the very depths of her trunk and the Grey Lady showed her the closest approximate spot in the forest where she'd died. It was a radius of several miles; no small task.

"A boy... my Slytherin friend - he'll find you to ask about the diadem. Tell him of that if you like, but cannot know about the apples. I must find them first. Please -"

"He has already spoken to me many times but you are the reason I am here, Helen's daughter. You are the only one I shall tell of apples."

Hermione understood there was a greater secret to be held from Tom than a diadem. They would search together but she had to find it first and hide the true source of immortality from him.

"Another boy will ask, many years in the future. A boy called Harry. He will destroy it, for the greater good."

"I will wait, for this Harry."

"Perhaps after that, after the diadem is gone, you will be able to pass on."

 

 

They snuck away to the Chamber when they could, although they didn't stay all night again. Stolen moments turned a place she had believed wicked beautiful. She fell in love with his passion, with his gentleness, with his hand around her neck.

 

 

"I don't want to leave," he told her one day, staring out over the gleaming lake, the angles of his face sharpened with longing. "This is the only place that's ever felt like home."

They were three days into NEWTs now, and revision had become tiresome, the exams unsettlingly easy. Hermione was leaning against his chest, testing him from her notes. She was surprised he'd told her the cause of a now-rare bad mood so easily. Almost suspiciously easily, she thought, but then she was trying a new tactic. Perhaps it was her most stupid and Harryish plan ever, but no one who'd mattered to him had ever believed Tom Riddle could be anything better than Bad. Not just bad, but capital-B- Bad. Not even Albus, who perhaps could have changed everything if he'd given Tom a chance instead of suspicion.

"What are you going to do, when we're out?" she asked, knowing sympathy was not something he accepted easily. And she couldn't tell him that once she had felt the same, that Hogwarts was the place she had most belonged. She couldn't tell him how hard it was to go back to the Muggle world every summer and watch herself slowly leave her own family behind. How when Harry had said it was time she had followed because she had to, because Harry was as much home as Hogwarts. How odd it was to not feel like this was home, to have left her own in a place so unreachable it was like a tortured memory of happiness. To have, against the odds, fallen swiftly into a new one, one that had made a bitter little coil inside her that whispered sometimes she had been robbed of a magical upbringing. She couldn't ever tell him she understood his bitterness, but she did.

She loved her parents, loved the memory of her childhood, but she had never felt fully at home in their world. She had lived for twenty years with one foot either side of an unbreachable divide, long before she'd even known about the world she'd been thrown into.

She'd had a period before she'd ever had a wand.

No, she couldn't tell Tom that. But she could show him that a person could be a home, too.

"I'm not really sure," he said, trying to sound casual but she wondered at the tension in his face as he did. "We haven't discussed this in a long time."

She smiled, and ran a finger down the cut-glass jawbone.

"I still want to change the world," she told him, leaning her head on his shoulder, remembering their first real conversation. How different, how human he was to her eyes now compared to then.

"So do I."

"You called me a ludicrous creature," she told him teasingly and was rewarded by the glimmer of a smile. "It was the first time you ever said my name."

"You were very frustrating, then. You still are - with your irritating morals and your hypocrisy and the way you use your smile as a weapon when you don't want to answer a question."

His tone shifted from fond to something darker as he finished and she sensed something beneath the teasing.

"What question," she ventured, "did you want to ask?"

He twisted round and took her chin in his left hand, fingers pressing hard into the bone, an angry reversal of the tenderness moments earlier.

"Are you going to stand by my side while I do all the things I want to do, or are you going to decide one day that I am too broken, too dark, too ruthless?"

They stared into each others eyes, tension amping up as she wondered for the first time in weeks if he'd actually hurt her.

"I told you to be better," she said eventually. "That's the deal, Tom. Be better or yes I will walk away from this."

He laughed bitterly and let go.

"I thought love was meant to be unconditional," he sneered.

Love? she wondered. Was that what this was? They sat in silence for a while, the wind stirring the surface of the lake, shadows beginning to lengthen.

"I don't think so," she said eventually. "You deserve a Hermione who challenges and pushes you, who can keep up and who balances you. Would you want me if I chose the simple life that, say, Ancha wants? No. You want the best version of me. And I want the best version of you. I want the apex Tom Riddle, not someone corrupted by power into madness."

He rolled his eyes, and the anger melted from him as turned over onto his stomach, pulling out another book.

"That's not going to happen," he told her dismissively.

There was nothing she could say in the cliff-face of his arrogance, so she opened her book and they read together in silence for a while.

"More than anything," he says breaking the slightly sullen silence, "I want to learn. Your father said it best in fact. He said they teach us the basics and expect us to be satisfied. He said most Wizards and Witches never access a fraction of their power. They just learn the bare minimum of spells and go and push paper for the Ministry or have children. He said it's because too much magic can be a dangerous thing... But I am already a dangerous thing, my love, and so are you, and I want to find out what, if any, limits exist."

"What if you lose yourself along the way?"

"I won't. I have you to tether me to myself."

He was tense again now, she could feel it vibrating between them, thrumming through her own disquiet at his words. If she was truly his tether, what would happen between them to break it?

"I want to learn too," she conceded. "Learn like that - I want to know."

He was kissing her before she'd finished her next exhalation and his mouth dripped with the promise of power. A dangerous thing, indeed.

 

 

"I know you are... involved," Albus said, over a firewhisky in his rooms on the night she finished her last exam. "And he certainly seems the better for it. But I find I cannot trust him. If there ever is anything..."

"I would tell you," she reassured her godfather. "He is good to me but he is not a good man. I hope he can be, but I fear he can't."

"Then why...?"

"Surely," she said, "you of all people can understand that."

 

 

"I'm not leaving till August," Hermione told him, rolling over in the Chamber's bed. "And it's only for a few months."

"Why can't you tell me where?"

"Because," she said firmly, "it's not my secret. a friend of Professor Dumbledore's - I can't tell you where - and I don't know exactly anyway - but it's somewhere in northern Europe so I'll be miserably cold and missing you the entire time."

He smiled at that, and kissed her.

"I can't fault your hunger for knowledge," he said. "It's what makes us the same."

"Where will you be? Have you decided?"

"No. I am looking for something. Something important. Besides, people like us don't need to work. We have all the time and money and power to make our own route."

And it was true; in that, they were the same.

 

 

"Do you know," he asked her on the last night at Hogwarts, in almost the same spot, their spot, tucked out of sight of most of the school grounds, with only the lake spreading out below them for company, "what the official difference between light and dark magic is?"

Hermione thought she did know, but she was curious enough to see where he was taking this detour from Ancient Runes revision and gestured for him to continue.

"They have a list of spells that are forbidden, but it doesn't say why. No one has ever defined why. But they don't understand that any spell can be dark, really."

"Any spell?"

"All magic has a price; most so-called light magic uses an infinitesimal amount of magical energy. It's not permanent, you see. You can change a needle into a mouse, but it is just a needle that looks and acts like a mouse. Only a so-called dark spell can make a needle become a mouse. You can kill a person with light magic and you can hurt a person with light magic but you cannot fundamentally and permanently change a person with light magic. If I turned you into a cat, a Professor could undo the spell... a cut could be healed. It's simply timing, you see. The spell you used on our mutual acquaintance near your house... a healer could have stopped the clot. But Avarda Kedarvra - that cannot be blocked if performed correctly. And so, the cost is far greater. Dark magic takes something as it's cast... but it gives back too. That's the bit they never remember to mention. It rewards the user but it demands a price."

Tom liked to ramble. He liked the sound of his own voice. He was not a detail oriented man. And yet, what he was saying, made something she had missed about magic click into place.

Great magic required sacrifice. She had made one earlier this year, when she promised herself - promised her rage - to create Gubraithian fire. She had made an oath, she realised, to magic itself that she would wait and learn until she could step into the smoking ruins of a world wrecked by war and change it for the better.

And she remembered that as she smiled up at him and spoke a truth she had been swallowing for weeks.

"You say you want to change the world... but problem is that you've never been able to understand that power and glory are separate. People with real power don't get much glory. They certainly don't allow themselves to be ruled by a chip on their shoulder or a need for revenge."

"How would you do it then?" He asked, white faced and furious.

"Oh darling, I'm not telling you that. You can have first shot - say the next forty years - and then when you've failed it's my turn, and you can watch my masterclass. Agreed?"

To her surprise he took her wand hand in his and said. "I won't fail. So it's a deal."

A lick of magic flickered over their hands and Hermione realised she'd quite by accident made a binding vow to this man.

"I'll let you burn the world to ash," she told him, "and then I'll come in and build it up in my image. And they'll love me for it."

 

 

She wore red and blue to the Seventh Years' farewell party. Floating silk robes in blood-red burgundy, the colour of blood as it returned to the heart, a jaded sister to Gryffindor red, striped through with the blue of uncut veins on the surface.

They hadn't danced since New Year, and with the knowledge of uncountable nights naked between them their steps flowed together, majestic and seamless.

"You should be queen of all of this," his whispered, half-drunk on champagne, holding her tight against him. "I'll make you a queen."

"A queen of ash," she replied. "I can make myself queen, if I want."

But she had promised, and so she let him guide her.

And after the feast, he took her down to where his Knights were waiting for one last time, and she watched unflinching as they celebrated their release onto the world.

 

Chapter Text

 

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

 


 

People always talked about the power of imagination and dreams and hope, and how those things were pure and good and saved the world.

Hermione Dearborn thought those wise old men with their aphoristic pens had never met Tom Riddle.

Tom Riddle was a voracious collector of knowledge, but he was also very specific.

He had an extraordinary ability to ignore key events or facts because they simply didn't interest him. He was obsessed with power, but couldn't tell you who the Minister of Magic was. ("That's not power," he told her once. "It's an irrelevance.") He had not noticed the ending of the Second World War. He knew the most obscure spells, but forgot fairly simple ones that struck him as pointless. Likewise, Tom was uninterested in the rules of magic as she understood them, exerting his seemingly limitless will and imagination to redraw the lines.

It was why she got fractionally higher marks overall in her NEWTs than he had, and it was why after a tense moment he laughed and said he didn't care.

"You're a better essay writer," he said, one August morning after they'd opened their matching parchments. "Who cares about that? Besides, I wouldn't be here if you were ordinary."

Hermione cared; his strengths were not hers and the victory was not hollow. But Tom's practical marks were off the scale in every single subject, and he'd gained a record result in Defence Against the Dark Arts earning him a special commendation from the Ministry.

 

Tom was a creature of dreams, but unlike most dreamers he could make them real. His dreams weren't contained in the sleeping night to be wiped away by the sun's rise: he dreamed with his eyes open and his wand in his hand and there was no part of him hindered by the doubt of ordinary men. If he wanted to do something, he did it.

Hermione suspected a great part of his power came from that unquestioning certainty.

It was how he'd been able to frame Hagrid for the Chamber, his uncle for his father and grandparents. There was no line Tom wouldn't cross - but the flip side of it was that he performed magic she didn't think even existed before he did it. He believed, and so it was.

He created as much as he destroyed.

It was intoxicating and she couldn't walk away.

 

Hermione Dearborn was a logical creature who let her heart rule her far more than she'd ever realised. She remembered almost everything she'd ever learned, and could coolly apply it to complicated situations. Hermione had turned tapestries to stone in the midst of a battle. She'd solved mysteries and kept Harry Potter alive for years against all the odds. She'd blackmailed and used others to do her dirty work, she'd prepared for treachery and she learned to use her imagination to complement her logic. She could reason away morally problematic acts, so long as they didn't seem selfish. She had grown up questioning everything, except the rules.

She'd begun to learn that the impossible was possible over months in a tent with a boy not wholly unlike the one whose bed she shared.

She sometimes thought if she could teach herself to be as limitless in belief as Tom, and still be sensible, she'd be unstoppable. Tom's arrogance would one day be his downfall. He would make mistakes, she knew, that she would never make if she ever decided to bypass the rules. He was not good at planning or detail and he consistently under-estimated other people.

But she knew it would be twenty-five years before he returned to begin the rise of Lord Voldemort, and as Hermione looked across at him in her little sitting room in the castle in Wales one morning, the summer sun shining through the mullioned windows, to see him smiling at one of her Muggle novels, she wondered again how it was possible that this boy, this dreaming and intoxicating boy, could transform into a monster.

"What are you reading?" she asked, distracted from an obscure C14th scroll Dominic Gonzaga had sent her on the fae. It was one of the rare written records of their vanishing and she was starting to believe in the leap of intuition she'd had about why they had disappeared – a connection she had made thanks to Tom.

(A year ago she hadn't even believed they'd really existed. What a limited thinker her younger self had been, and how grateful she was now to Xenophilius Lovegood for pointing it out, to Albus for the hard lesson of using her to slow Harry down with her doubting.)

"The Heart of Darkness," Tom replied. "It's very good, although the main character is a bit weak."

Perhaps she was deceiving herself and he was already a monster. A murderer, certainly, but so was she. She wondered what made someone a monster. She wondered if she was one too.

"What do you mean?"

"He's half of one thing and half of another."

She called for coffee, and as they sat and debated the novel Hermione wondered if she would ever meet anyone else who challenged her as he did. Perhaps monsters needed other monsters to feel truly alive.

They'd never really discussed the oath they'd taken, but it had unleashed something in Tom. He'd begun to open up about his goals and dreams and desires, even his past. She was surprised to find his plan for world domination far more moderate than she'd expected, with the notable and unwavering exception of achieving complete immortality.

She could not tell him that he'd put two and two together and made seven. That she believed he should stop at three. He hadn't told her about the Horcruxes or that he'd killed his father, but she thought he probably would one day.

Tom was a boy who dreamed of death, but she'd slowly gleaned it was the fear of his own that consumed him.

 

 

They spent much of the summer together in Wales, reading and walking and falling closer together and she woke one morning in July with the realisation that when she slept beside him her dreams were a riot of warmth and colour and that she was no longer afraid of meeting her reflection in the dark.

Tom made the world sharply technicolour, and the grey tinged miseries of her past and what she'd lost became unfocused, fading into the background until she could hardly see them.

She was happy.

 

 

The days passed and they read and rode horses in the hills and valleys and kissed by the waterfall and boated on the lake. Sophia and Abraxas visited - a dull and unsunny day made luminous with a picnic by the lake, empty bottles of champagne sprawling on the tartan rugs, red wine dripping onto the white tablecloth in the candlelit night as they howled with laughter at Cerdic's jokes, cigar smoke blowing out into impossible ships and dragons and stars. A week in the south of France with the Rosiers, whose second son was a friend of Tom's. Dinners with Caradoc and Ivy and Ancha in London, more cigar smoke and endless laughter and

she was happy.

 

 

August drew towards its close, and she left, biting back tears with a case of thick wool and cashmere robes and fur-trimmed cloaks. Tom went to London, researching the ill-fated heirloom he so coveted. The locket was his focus still; his letters full of news of his search. He mentioned the diadem only in passing, asking if she would accompany him on some unspecific future trip to Albania. (Yes, she replied from the Norwegian castle where she was studying Higher Transfiguration, of course. Perhaps next summer, before the wedding. I don't fancy it in the winter.)

She wondered if he knew she knew what they were for.

 

 

 

Fingers freezing, Hermione held her wand steady as her host and teacher watched her try to turn a mountain into a lake. The island was bitter enough in summer, but in mid-October it was desperately cold and warming charms were forbidden. The mountain was the only high ground for miles, in the witches' territory and invisible to Muggles.

"My ancestors were burned to death on this ground," Innegborg Lauritzdotter, who was as tall and proud as she was terrifying, said coldly. "Feel the power of their ashes, the blood spilled out on this earth." Her white hair whipped back in the sharp knives of the wind whipping in from the ocean behind them.

Hermione looked across to where the mountain stood gazing out to the arctic sea.

The devil himself was said to have danced with witches on its peak before leading them down through its entrance into hell itself for a tour. She'd never heard the stories before coming to the strange and barren place.

They'd been out here on the cliff every day for a week, and nothing she'd tried had even shaken the earth. Her protestations that it was too far, too large, had been dismissed with a steely glare. It was the latest in a series of transfigurations Hermione would never have dreamed possible.

Not that she'd ever wanted to turn an entire mountain into a lake before. Nor had it occurred to her to learn the obscure branch of Untransfiguration she'd spent the first few weeks learning. And the process of preventing something from change had baffled her initially but it was starting - slowly - to make sense.

This, though, was the first test of her power rather than her ability to understand theory that the elder witch had given Hermione in two-and-a-half-months, and frankly it had been embarrassing so far.

And so, she tried, opening the senses Innegborg had forced her to get in touch with over the last few, rather miserable, weeks. Hours of meditation staring out to sea from the cliffs had not been how she'd imagined she'd learn magic from Albus's most esteemed contacts.

But this place, a village at the end of the earth, seethed with the angry magic of sacrifice. Two sets of witches had been executed here, a hundred in total, killed by god-fearing Muggles decades apart. They'd returned their power to the earth, driving away Muggles from the barren lands. Four hundred years later, it was a thriving magical community with only a small Muggle village nearby in a relatively peaceful co-existence.

But those living here did not forget the dead.

"You are not separate from the mountain. Magic is a force of nature and so are you. Don't exert your will weakly onto it with these little pushes... bend it to your will, child. You are mountain and lake and wind. You are the blood spilled and the axe that spilled it. Magic is in everything. Call to it. Invite the wild in."

As Hermione stared at the iron-hard earth, shadowy figures rose up, commanded silently by her mentor. They showed their story; the invention of Animagi had happened here, centuries earlier, a secret they had shared with the world. Then had come the fear and two terrible mass hunts and executions. She felt their power and their fear and as she did she realised she could taste the bitter rust-tang of blood on her tongue, that it was rising, dried to red brown dust, from the earth. It settled on her fingers and as she spoke the spell again the earth let out a sound beyond thunder, the mountain collapsing impossibly in on itself, a symphony of pure destruction, flocks of birds sent shrieking into the sky in fear, until in its place a churning lake spread out. The waters stilled and then froze and Hermione found herself on her knees, tears pouring from her eyes, exhausted.

"Good. Now, get up and turn it back," the white-haired witch queen told her, eyes like iron in her wrinkled face.

Shaking, Hermione tried. She tried until she threw up onto the barren earth, and still Innegborg made her push on.

"You will stay here until you succeed, however long it takes."

She drew a line of frost.

"You cannot cross this line until a mountain stands there again. You will not eat or drink. You will not warm yourself or protect yourself from the elements. Make a mountain, girl."

She left.

Hermione grew weaker, starving and freezing, tears turning to frost on her face. Two days became three. She thought of Tom and summer and belief. The shadows of past witches rose up from the ground and whispered to her. She thought of a wand that would do whatever she commanded. She thought of sacrifice and power and blood magic and -

She thought of the centuries old ash of burned witches still dusting her hands and she reached out, too desperate to doubt, for their strength.

The ice of the lake shattered, cracking through the wind. The earth shook, uprooting trees, water streaming down.

The mountain rose back up to meet the sky.

 

 

As a reward, Innegborg allowed her to leave to visit her family.

"You have more potential than I had anticipated," the old woman told her. "You will return."

 

 

"What's the point, though?" Tom asked, holding her close in front of their hotel room fire. He'd been researching a new interest in Georgia, of all places, so she'd taken a hideous international floo trip from the northern tip of Norway to a hotel in the Wizarding quarter of Prague to meet him there instead of going home. The Muggle part of the city was still recovering from German occupation and the end of the war, still so raw, and she was happy to spend the three days they had together in the Wizarding quarter. Then it was back to the barren northern island for her, and Hogwarts to interview for a position he desperately wanted but wouldn't get for him.

"To get in touch with all of my power, apparently. She wants me to scrape right down to the bottom and find out what I'm capable of."

And how to borrow power when you needed it, but that wasn't something Tom needed to know about.

"That," he said, kissing the top of her head and then once again behind her ear, "seems a very worthy goal. Would you show me?"

"Show you?"

His teeth grazed her ear and he murmured, "Let me into your head so I can watch you bring down a mountain."

Hermione stilled. That seemed like a terrible idea; who knew what he might see - or what he really wanted to look for - inside her head. She knew he was excited watching her perform difficult magic - and for all that he was driven by his whims, he often did things for more than one reason.

She'd read Harry's Occlumency books of course and had taught herself as best she could; how else would she have fooled Bellatrix? But it was too great a risk to let Tom into the library of her mind.

"There are things in my head I don't want even you to see," she replied softly. "What if I showed them to you by accident?"

He was quiet for a moment, and then said, voice low, "You can show me anything, no shadowed skeletons in there could scare me away. But, if you prefer, I can find another way."

She wondered what he was looking for. She trusted him not to harm her, but she wasn't stupid.

Great magic, as Tom had taught her, required great sacrifice. She could bring down a mountain with her own power, but it would tire her out. To keep it down she would need to give something more. A Horcrux took a life for a life - or at least the first one did. She wondered if the price was the death itself or the loss of innocence.

(She wondered what else the spell took - would take - from him.)

"If you can find a Pensieve, I'll show you the memory."

"A what?"

"A Pensieve," she said, "They are extremely rare but someone here must have one. You can deposit a memory inside it, and take someone in to watch... Albus gave me one for Christmas but it's in Wales."

Tom's breath hissed out.

"What an interesting gift. Is that the strange stone basin in the locked and warded cupboard behind the painting by your desk?"

She laughed, used to his prying, and twisted round to look at him. It had become a game for her now, what she could hide around her homes for him to find that would reinforce the mythology of her backstory. How many steps ahead of him she could stay in the dance of secrets.

Inside the cupboard he would have also found a portrait of herself as a child with Cerdic. She was almost glad he'd managed to break in, justifying the effort she'd made to have it created, and pleased she hadn't been stupid enough to leave any incriminating memories in the Pensieve. It sat empty. The only memory she'd taken from her head and not returned had been that Halloween. She thought she probably would, eventually, collect it from Professor Dumbledore, but she was in no rush to feel the attached emotions again. She wondered if it would change how she felt about Tom. She didn't think she cared to find out at present.

Harry's voice in her head was silent. It had given up long ago.

"Yes," she said, "the locked and warded secret cupboard where I keep all my most private things."

"Don't go in it again, you might not like what you find a second time," she warned. She would leave a nasty little curse for him to find next time they were in Wales, she decided. Something more embarrassing than painful.

"I thought," he said, his hand travelling to the apex of her thighs, "I'd uncovered all your secrets already."

 

 

Prague's main attraction, for two knowledge hunters, was its enormous library.

They wandered through the twisting streets to find it later. It was their first afternoon in the city, after a morning spent reuniting in their comfortable hotel room. Prague's magical quarter was extensive; bustling gothic alleyways with niche shops selling potions and artefacts banned in much of Europe. The city had long been a haven for the occult, famous for its astronomers and craftsmen. Hermione had never visited before and she gazed around in wonder - the small part of London that was still wholly magical was far smaller and less crowded and it was a joy to see their world so full and open despite the war that had affected this part of Europe only a year earlier.

"Which way is it?" Tom asked, as they came to a narrow fork, improbable buildings jostling for space.

"Left," she replied, rolling her eyes. She'd bothered to read a map before they set out. "Just down here."

There was a well-known Muggle library too, of course. Far grander than its Wizarding equivalent, but not nearly so large. The magical version had several pleasant, but functional reading rooms. But the real wonder of it stretched for miles, in caverns deep under the city. It was manned by tiny, rather demonic-looking creatures called domoviye.

"Welcome young mistress and master," the guardian at the front desk said. It was half Hermione's height with enormous yellow eyes and a beard covering its entire body.

"Good afternoon. We'd like to -"

"Follow me please madam," another one said, cutting off Tom's courteous inquiry as it appeared next to them. "We is aware of what you seek. Young master will be escorted shortly."

Hermione met Tom's eyes and shrugged. She'd been hoping to wander off to conduct her own research. This was easier.

"I'll meet you in that bar down the street in, what, five hours?"

"The Hag & Bone?" he asked, tone slightly mocking.

"That's the one," she grinned.

She followed the domovoi down a stone passage, to the main reading room. A place was prepared with a stack of ancient looking books.

"How did you know?" she asked as she caught the dulled-gold title on the top book's spine. Rowena Ravenclawe's Sacrifyce.

Hermione thought it might have smiled behind the beard, but it was so bushy she couldn't really tell.

"We's always knowing."

That was hardly an answer, but it was a mystery for another day and she'd didn't have long.

"Well - thanks."

It bowed and vanished and Hermione settled into her afternoon's reading. It was nothing short of a revelation.

Ollivander had told her that Rowena Ravenclaw, Helga Hufflepuff and Godric Gryffindor had closed the borders of Avalon. In payment they were given seven relics: a diadem, a sword, a cup, wand-wood from the tree by Merlin's grave and three golden apples. Salazar Slytherin had refused to help and chose to stay on the isle. The apples, he had said, were for Ravenclaw so that she might live eternal and young and be reunited with her love if Avalon was ever reopened.

This book's author agreed with this theory - by hand, for this was a vanity binding of an ancient text most had dismissed as mad - and went on to say that she had sacrificed the last Fae to close the borders of Avalon. It was the confirmation Hermione had needed to satisfy the burning question of how Ravenclaw could have closed off an entire realm; and to help a budding theory of her own to take root. The writer, Armand Cadeau, went on to theorise about magical sacrifice and the offerings ancient people had made to their gods.

Great magic, as Tom had taught her, required great sacrifice. She could bring down a mountain with her own power, but it would tire her out. To keep it down she would need to give something more. A Horcrux took a life for a life - or at least the first one did. She wondered if the price was the death itself or the loss of innocence.

She was longing for a photocopier after an hour, hand cramping as she made notes in the coded shorthand she'd developed to speed up the process at Hogwarts. She could duplicate it, but that was strictly forbidden and there was no spell to help make notes.

Time, according to her watch, was passing quickly and she'd only had time to gauge the main points of the book before she had to move on to the next one.

The other books, all focused-on Time Travel, were less revelatory; although they were interesting, there were no easy answers here. She made notes to discuss with Albus, and lists of other texts to find and they were fascinating but vague.

Until she got to the smallest.

It was a diary, written by a frankly ridiculous witch who complained about ageing so frequently Hermione almost stopped reading. It didn't help that her translation spell struggled with Venetian, but the other books had all answered questions she had - or at least posed new and better questions - and she flicked through looking for something to tell her why the domovoi had chosen it for her.

There was nothing, and then there was.

A merchant sorcerer had come to Venice offering the rich witch something impossible: a potion that stopped time. A potion that would keep her young and beautiful.

The stupid witch had no idea what she was drinking, but paid an extraordinary about of ducats for the little vial. She was given a gold potion, and claimed to remain ageless for the rest of the book.

Hermione thought about the years stretching out until she returned to her own time and she thought about little gold vials and she shut the book in a huff.

She wasn't that vain, she reflected furiously. There were, she thought, far more important things to worry about. How to stop her boyfriend from finding mythological apples that just so happened to be tucked away with something he would one day go looking for, and which were said to grant true immortality, for one. Golden apples that had made the gods gods. She didn't believe that, exactly, but it wasn't something she was going to risk. Horcruxes were quite enough of a problem for one wizard.

 

 

She got to the pub before Tom, and was left to sit and wonder what the library had chosen to reveal to her power-hungry lover. Or whatever it was they were. Hermione didn't like to think of Tom Riddle, future Dark Lord, as her boyfriend.

Boyfriend had been Ron, who'd been innocent and gentle and young. Tom Riddle had never been allowed to be young, or gentle, or innocent. Boyfriend had been Viktor and Marcus, of a sort. Marcus who she'd hurt so terribly. She knew in whatever this was she would be the one left heartbroken. Hermione was fairly sure she was the only human Tom had ever cared about, but he didn't love her. There was something else between them, something both more and less than love. A catastrophic sort of inevitability that sometimes passed for romance and sometimes seemed more like obsession and sometimes simply like need.

You didn't put a collar on a wild creature, and underneath the mostly-normal face he presented to her she could see the storm broiling. It was still many years away, but she could see it in the way dark clouds passed occasionally across his face... it was in the way his knuckles turned white and his jaw clenched. But they hadn't argued since the day she'd found out how he'd manipulated Claire - rigorous academic discussions aside - and indeed she was shocked really now that she thought about how well he treated her.

She allowed herself a rare fantasy of what it might be like if he didn't descend further into wickedness. If, against all the odds, he chose not to step off his current, mostly law-abiding, path onto the hell-bound descent into madness and tyranny. Normally she was more disciplined, but he'd been so lovely and indeed it was such a nice change from the tip of the arctic she couldn't really help it.

She was still day-dreaming in the increasingly crowded Hag and Bone when a thickset bald wizard with a dark moustache dropped into the empty chair opposite her.

"გამარჯობა," he said in a language she didn't recognise. "My name is Iakob Khurtsilava. Can I buy you a drink?"

"No, thanks," she replied, polite despite the abrupt greeting, and looked down at the notebook she'd been ignoring in favour of her fantasy.

"I insist. No one as beautiful as you should be drinking alone."

She didn't look up as she replied.

"I'm waiting for my - my boyfriend. You should leave."

"Ah yes," he said, "your boyfriend. I vas hoping he would show up soon. He's been asking the wrong questions."

"He's," she answered tightly, meeting the man's dark eyes, "got rather a habit of doing that. Perhaps you should fill me in."

"Heard he's looking for something. Something that doesn't want to be found."

Hermione had absolutely no idea what Tom was after, but she suspected this man must have followed him from Georgia, so whatever it was was probably important.

"That's tremendously helpful, thanks for clearing that up."

"Little witches don't need details." He waved at the barman, who was at least half-goblin, and commanded him to bring brandy.

Hermione didn't reply. If this man wanted to take on Tom Riddle, he could be her guest. He was extremely rude and she doubted whatever it was that they both wanted would be very interesting to her. She began to read through the notes she'd made that afternoon, rather irritated now that Tom was so late. But if she left, this oaf would follow. Perhaps Tom had seen him and had gone to take advantage of his distraction.

That would make sense. If he'd carried on reading she'd be cross though; she'd left earlier than she'd like so as not to miss out on spending time with him. She chose not to dwell on that fact - or consider that she'd never have left a library early for Ron.

"Late, isn't he," the Georgian wizard said nastily after downing several glasses of brandy.

"You're welcome to leave," she replied with a charming smile, and then after a pause. "I wonder what he could possibly be doing while you sit here watching me read."

Something seemed to dawn on the man and he chuckled.

"He's not looking for it here, girl. I'll wait."

Hermione sighed, and put her notebook down.

"What do you want?"

"Just to buy you a drink, little lady."

"I wouldn't," Tom's cold voice cut down through the loud chatter of the crowded pub, "irritate her any more than you already have."

"Why's that then?"

Tom ignored this and met Hermione's eyes. They communicated silently: an apologetic smile from him was met by a sardonic eyebrow raise. Caught up with his books, she surmised. He was biting his lip, which usually meant he was thinking hard - and that meant he'd come in unprepared to find this man here. It also meant she'd probably have to help get rid of him if they were to leave the city without obliviating dozens of people or earning an arrest warrant.

"You're in my seat," Tom said, and the chair tipped the bald wizard onto the floor. Khurtsilava had clearly had a fair amount of brandy before he'd sat down because he positively splayed out across the tiles. The pub went silent for a beat.

"Drunkard," Tom said with a shrug and a grin, and they returned to their conversations.

The black-haired source of her irritation didn't take his seat, but stood with his wand out over the Georgian wizard as he tried to get up. Focused.

Too focused to notice the other bald, moustached wizard at the bar who promptly fired a spell at him. Hermione blocked it, annoyed at having to get involved at all, and even more annoyed that someone would dare attack them here.

This was clearly Tom's fault, but still. It was ruining her holiday.

A moment later, the ancient half-goblin publican was over waving his hands and levitating them outside.

She was so shocked at the audacity, and because fighting someone who'd picked it was one thing but attacking staff doing their job was quite another, she let it happen and they were flung out onto the cobbled pavement, followed by her bag.

Then, the real fight started. Or at least it tried to. The wizards were hardly a match for Tom alone and both of them together saw them stunned and on the ground too quickly to be an interesting duel. Grumbling, the pub's patrons returned inside for their drinks, leaving Hermione with a headache and two uninvited guests to deal with.

"Don't kill them," she said firmly. "You'll spoil our holiday. What are you trying to steal that could possibly be so important?"

"Medea's cauldron," he replied laughing, "it was supposed to be your Christmas present."

Medea. Hermione's brain clicked: Colchis, of course, was now western Georgia.

"Well that's terribly sweet of you darling, but perhaps just go to a shop next time," she said sarcastically, waving at the two men, stunned at her feet.

It was sweet actually, if rather over-dramatic. She didn't need a magical cauldron, but she did need a holiday.

"If I'm not allowed to kill them, what am I allowed to do?"

"Just obliviate them and send them on their way. They weren't exactly threatening! Or tell them you don't want the cauldron any more and let them go. I don't care, just fix it."

He gave a long-suffering sigh, but did as she'd asked in spirit if not to the letter, using the Imperius to return them back to where they'd come from.

 

They ate a tense dinner tucked into the corner of a rather lovely restaurant in an ancient stone cellar, with arched ceilings and walls lined with wine, and as she ate she slowly calmed down.

"I am sorry," he said at last. "I did not expect to get followed."

"Were you really there for me? I can't believe that's all you wanted."

Brown eyes met midnight-blue in the candlelight. He paused.

"Not in Georgia just for you. But that's what they were worried I'd find. They're called Fleecers and... they're, how shall I put it kindly? A gang of morons who're trying to find the country's artefacts as part of a nationalistic movement."

Hermione didn't really care, if she was being completely honest. What she was really interested in was the fact that she'd asked him not to kill and he hadn't. It was the third time he'd accepted another path, despite his instincts. First Fletcher, then Claire, and now these men.

It made her believe this was right, that she was causing less harm being with him than not. It gave her hope. It was arrogant to think perhaps she had at least postponed his rise to power, but it was not impossible. And if he had tried it earlier, she thought, knowing him as she did, that might have been far worse. This man was not as powerful as he would become, but he was far saner and that was a danger all its own.

"Let's not let it spoil the evening, then. How was your afternoon?"

"It was," he said thoughtfully, "not what I'd expected. What an extraordinary place. How was yours?"

She poked at the sauerkraut on her plate and took a sip of wine before she answered. She knew how to distract him from any real knowledge about what she'd learned.. but it might lead to another difficult conversation.

"Not," she agreed, "what I'd expected. One of the books was a diary about a Venetian witch who claims to have taken a potion to permanently restore her youth... It didn't wear off at least within the three years the book spanned. I should add that it was a very salacious read. She was very vain and easily flattered."

She repeated some of the witch's more outrageous stories to him, as they nursed their wine.

"I am immortal," he told her in a low voice a few moments later.

She bit her lip. Here it was, and sooner than she'd thought.

"I killed my father, and my grandparents, and as you know, that girl who haunts the bathroom at school... although that was more of a failed experiment."

He sat back and took a sip of the dark red wine. She considered again that if he was a monster, then perhaps so was. She had murdered the man who'd tried to kidnap her in the woods near the castle, bespelling him when he was tied up and unarmed. Perhaps with provocation, but it was murder nonetheless and motivated by revenge.

When she'd killed in battle it had been easier to pass off as necessary.

"Are you expecting me to be shocked, after all we've been through?"

His shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly.

"I suppose not. I thought the patricide might bother you. He was a Muggle."

"It does. Of course it does but I'm not a hypocrite... and, I mean, not to condone it because it's terrible and I hope you can see there are other ways - but he clearly left you to rot in an Orphanage so I can't imagine he was very nice. No, I'm more concerned with..." she looked around at the diners unaware they were almost close enough to hear a murder confession, "...the other part. I'm not sure this is really the ideal place for that discussion however."

She wondered why he'd chosen that moment. Why he'd tried to get her a mythical cauldron. She couldn't remember what it had been used for; she'd have to look it up. Medea was an interesting woman, though, now she thought about it. She'd never had much interest in that particular myth as a child but now she had some sympathy for the wronged witch and of course Tom would admire anyone who took such uncompromising revenge.

"If those men had hurt you, today," he hissed, looking suddenly dangerous again, "I would have killed them. Whatever you said."

"Tom, if those men had hurt me, probably would have killed them. I don't need protecting."

"But you could die."

Oh. Oh.

He looked terrified at the thought, gripping his knife as though he could use it on Death himself.

"I'm not murdering someone so I can live, like you did. I may be... I've killed but never for that."

As it happened, Hermione had a vested interest in not dying before she lived long enough to see her friends and family - her other friends and family again. But she would never make a Horcrux: it was inefficient and the price was too high.

"That," he said rolling his eyes, "was what the cauldron was for."

She remembered now: another thing that supposedly restored eternal youth.

"I think," she said, "I'll find my own way."

He sighed and tucked back into his roast pork.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us.

― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

 


 

Early hours of September 20th 1998

 

"So," Harry said, his voice a study in nonchalant horror, "Tom Riddle."

His scar looked very stark against his skin in the candlelight as she examined him. It had been hard to guess exactly how he would react to this, hard to decide if she'd ever tell him. But Sophia had removed the decision and here she was, getting an answer to a question she had been asking herself for five decades.

She was glad he'd waited until Ron had left to ask this. He had gone home after dinner at The Ivy, too overwhelmed with the unexpected end of his relationship to stay. He'd said he needed time. She'd had too much of it to really feel for him, but somewhere there was the memory of having loved him and she understood the hurt even as she was unaffected by it.

Harry, more perceptive, had not been distracted by the new friends she'd gathered to celebrate her victory and had come back to the flat she'd been using in London while she arranged the court case. It was one of several properties she'd collected over the course of her life, but not one she used often. There was little in the way of personal effects, but she rather liked its stark modernity after so many years of living in the past.

"Before we start that story, and we will," Hermione replied, summoning a bottle of firewhisky from her desk with a flick of her fingers, "you must promise not to be too angry with Albus."

"With Dumbledore?" he asked, surprised, accepting a glass.

"The Tom Riddle to whom you were introduced in a few very brief, very select memories was hardly the full picture, you see. Did you never wonder that it was so hard for someone of Albus's calibre and resources to collect memories of a boy that in fact few people ever connected to Lord Voldemort?"

"I - well, no, not really," he replied honestly. "He said everyone was scared."

"You and I are very similar Harry in the way we see the humanity in others. Albus couldn't afford for you, his sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, the sword of justice he had to wield beyond his own death, to see Tom Riddle as anything but an inhuman enemy. Especially when you already identified with him so much. And had you seen more of him when he was young perhaps you would have seen too much of the human in him and not enough of, shall we say, the monster that you needed to see to give you the strength to defeat him."

Harry, who had matured enough to consider his words before speaking, fell silent.

"I suppose," he allowed, having had a long time to accept that Dumbledore had both loved and manipulated him, "I can see that, yeah."

"In actuality there are hundreds of other memories he could have shown you of Tom. More of his own, for example. But so many of them would have included me and even if he'd manipulated the memory to disguise who the girl was, it was so very important for you not to see that side of things. Besides, Albus never liked him, never saw that he was balanced for a while, before he took the fatal misstep of killing that stupid old woman."

The anger there had never really faded, and she fought to keep it in check.

"The truth is Harry, Albus is partially to blame for how Tom turned out. Just a little. He made most of his own mistakes, to be sure, but if he had met him with kindness instead of suspicion as a child I truly believe Tom would have been a better man than the one he became."

"So," ultra-casual now, "you knew him well?"

"Yes, Harry. Better than anyone else. I don't know what you want to call it, but he shared my bed and I loved him, I suppose. He was fascinating and brilliant and odd and - oh, Harry. I tried so hard to hate him, but I couldn't. I hate who he became, but I couldn't hate him back then."

"But you knew. You knew what he would become. He killed my parents! He killed so many people. He tried to have your kind removed from our world. He was a monster."

He was getting angry now, knuckles white as he gripped the desk; so like Tom in how he tried to restrain it and couldn't.

"I think it would be easier if I showed you," she said gesturing to the Pensieve on her desk across the room. "I'll show you any of it. All of it, if you like. I have nothing to hide. Not from you."

This was a calculated move, of course. Harry wouldn't be able to resist Tom any more than she had; they were too alike in ways that mattered too deeply to him. Nor did he question the convenience of the Pensieve being here. He trusted her; still seeing the Hermione he'd known only hours before.

"I don't think it'll help."

"Just one memory," she bargained, injecting her voice with force of will. He was strong-minded, but unaware of subtler magics.

"One."

She hid her smile and walked over to stand next to the Pensieve, raising her wand to her temple.

"Anything in particular?"

He shrugged.

Hermione concentrated, and pulled the thick silver thread out from her mind, letting it spool off the end of her wand and swirl around the shallow stone basin.

"This is the first time he kissed me. My father invited him to visit after meeting him at Hogwarts. We weren't really even friends by this point but we had a certain... repartee. I was attracted to him, but of course I didn't trust him. This is what changed all that. Are you ready?"

Harry stood and walked over, looking curious despite himself. She took his hand and they bent down, falling into the past together.

 

 

They were outside a railway station, Harry realised. A sign on the Victorian building told him it was Brecon in Wales. As he read it, an easily recognisable, extremely handsome young man stepped out of the station's doorway. Tom Riddle seemed to have been the only passenger getting off here; there was no one else around. His face flashed with irritation as he scanned the sky and checked his watch. After a few minutes, Riddle looked up as an elegant, very old fashioned car pulled up and Harry was jolted to see his face light up. He followed his eyes to the car, and there was the other Hermione, driving the car.

"Sorry I'm late," the other Hermione said as she got out. "I got a bit lost, actually. I'm not used to going by road."

Riddle was staring at her with an expression Harry had never expected to see on his face. He looked oddly vulnerable, almost longing, before he hid it. Harry listened as they bantered about the car, Hermione relaxed as she wound him up, Riddle snarking back at her. They both looked slightly nervous.

The real Hermione gestured to Harry to follow her and they climbed into the back seat.

"This is really weird," he told her as Tom Riddle told the other one, "You're good at this."

"I know," the real Hermione replied. "I've never quite got used to watching myself."

That wasn't what Harry had meant, although he supposed that would be odd.

"I didn't know you were scared of heights," he said, surprised, as she told Tom Riddle about flying hippogriffs.

"Well I wasn't going to tell you and Ron that, you already thought I was wet enough about Quidditch as it was."

Watching the boy he'd only ever seen as menacing ask Hermione if she was a witch or not, hearing the gentle, teasing edge in his tone, the charm of it, Harry began to see why Dumbledore would have hidden this from him.

"He played seeker?" he snapped, jolted again.

The real Hermione rolled her eyes.

"Of course he was. The most powerful position on the team... obsessively chasing after one goal... the glory of it."

Harry snorted. There, at last, was a glimmer of his best friend, and indeed there she was, lecturing Tom Riddle at the same time.

Then the mood changed suddenly.

"Tom," the other Hermione said, "the compass you gave me – it just warmed up."

"Fuck, let me see it," the other boy replied, as he tugged at something around her neck, and ordered her to stop the car.

"Compass?" Harry asked, baffled, but the real Hermione just put a finger to her lips and gestured to him to get out of the car.

"To warn me of danger - it was a Christmas present."

"'Repartee'," Harry quoting how she had described their relationship, mockingly, but he was too caught up in the memory now to put any real vitriol behind it.

She was right. This was not the Tom Riddle he had expected to see. He watched as the other boy vanished, a faint ripple the only clue there was a person there.

Another man's voice came from somewhere in the clearing and Harry grabbed his wand out of instinct, before relaxing. It was just a memory.

"Missed you on the way out, din I? Thought you was flying, see, so I was waiting on my broom… then I saw the Muggle car and I thought to myself, I'll catch you on the way back little goose. And you was sposed to have a friend with you, thought I'd have two of you to deal with."

"What do you want?" the other Hermione asked the disembodied voice. The real Hermione was leaning back against the car, her eyebrows drawn together. She looked sad.

"Me? Just my paycheck, pretty goose. Nothing personal, see?"

"So you're just a mercenary. Who do you work for?"

"You'll meet him soon enough."

The man's voice was closer now and Harry realised he, like Riddle, was disillusioned.

"Try hominum revelio," the memory of Hermione whispered to him, but it wasn't him and Harry realised he was standing where Riddle was in the memory. He sprang sideways, but heard the whisper back, almost next to his own ear.

"Keep him talking. When I count three, drop to the floor."

"I don't think I'd like that," Hermione said to the man. "How did you know I'd be going to collect a friend today?"

"Been reading your post. Camped out in the hill for a fucking month, I've been, since you left that damn impregnable school. But Gaelfric always gets his mark in the end and I've got you now little goose."

"Why do you keep calling me goose?"

"Golden goose, see? You're worth a fortune little girl. Your Daddy'll be paying like Croesus for his riches."

"What riches?" Harry asked the real Hermione as Tom Riddle said, "Three," and began shooting stunning spells. There was a thud, and the other boy, pale faced and focussed, swung around and kissed the memory of the girl Harry loved like a sister. But she was far from the woman he'd known, he thought, as she froze and then melted against Harry's sworn enemy.

"I told you to wait in the car," Tom Riddle told her when finally they stopped kissing.

"I am not the sort of girl that sits in the car, as you know perfectly well, you arse!" the other Hermione snapped at him before swivelling and revealing the unconscious man with a spell.

It was Riddle who woke him up, cold and in charge and, to be honest, doing exactly what Harry would do under the circumstances. Although he thought, with wisdom granted from his Auror training, he'd have taken the man somewhere else before he woke him up. Of course, he wouldn't have been able to dive straight into the man's mind either. But Harry's instincts were right, and seeing Tom Riddle's face as he realised he'd made a mistake was oddly... endearing.

"Drop yer wand, boy," the second man ordered Tom, who smirked. He and Hermione appeared to be having a silent conversation and then Tom feinted, lowering his wand for a second before cutting the man's wrist off with a third-year spell.

The one after that, though, was more what he'd been expecting. Avada Kedavra. A spell he, Harry, would never cast. He felt vindicated.

"Are there any more of you?" a very shaken looking memory-Hermione asked the man on the ground.

"Might be.."

She sent a silent, purple curse in response, one Harry recognised from the war.

"It's alright, Hermione, it was just the two of them. They were going to grab you and go. The other one was further back in case you got past this cretin. I suppose he heard something and came looking."

Harry watched Tom watch Hermione as she summoned their portkey. He looked fascinated, although the fearful, hungry expression he'd had before he kissed her still lingered. Harry recognised Hermione's pragmatism from years of experience, as she tidied up the scene, but Tom looked like he'd never seen anything like it - like her - before. His lower lip caught in his teeth, his eyes fierce. It was a face unguarded, unaware of Harry's future scrutiny and even he could find no motive there, no reason to doubt its authenticity. As she tied the dead man to his still-living colleague, Riddle's face changed suddenly, mouth dropping as though he'd come to some realisation.

"Obscuro," memory-Hermione said, "Obliviate."

She tucked what Harry supposed was the portkey into the man's pocket and then looked up at Tom, defiant and satisfied and slightly embarrassed, just as she'd looked when she'd told Harry and Ron about putting Rita Skeeter in a jar

"Tell your master not to bother me again," she said after a moment to man, who was still screaming.

Then the memory became scarier, and not because of Riddle.

"Silencio. I said, tell your despicable master not to come after me again. We know who he is and there will be... consequences. Repeat that back."

"Not to come after you again. Know who he is. Consequences."

She cast one more spell before the portkey took the men away, leaving the four of them alone in the memory of the woods.

"That was quite brilliant," Riddle said.

"If only he'd known you weren't a pure-blood," Harry said scathingly.

"I told him," Hermione said, "not long after this. He didn't care."

"YOU TOLD HIM?" he wasn't listening to the memory now, just staring at her. "What were you thinking? He could have killed you!"

"Look at him, Harry."

Harry looked, and saw something he couldn't quite believe. Tom looked uncomfortable and unsure, but he was holding the other Hermione in his arms, hand stroking her back as she cried.

The words were hard to make out, so the other Hermione told him. "She's saying she killed him. I killed him. The other man."

"You didn't," Harry and Tom said at the same time.

"No, I did. I spelled his blood to clot. I- I used a healing spell and made a little clot by his heart... He'll be dead in three days."

Their reaction to that was different, though. Harry looked at his best friend in horror as the tall, black-haired memory of his nemesis kissed Hermione again.

"Why?"

"I didn't want to be hunted again," she said simply. "Come on, that's the end of this for now. Like I said there's plenty more. Although I don't think I'll come back into my head again. It's hard to remember him like this."

The floated back up to their bodies, and Harry was grateful for the whisky she'd poured. She returned the memory to her mind and they sat in silence for a long time.

"I want to see more," he said, breaking the silence at last. "I want to understand."

"Don't you want to see your parents first?"

His parents. Harry's stomach lurched. No one had ever offered him that, and now he wondered why. Only Hagrid had ever tried to truly share them with him, collecting photographs for him.

"Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I want to... but I think I need to understand all this first. I need to see who you've become. All of it."

I need to know I can still trust you.

"I can't speed up the memories by much. It will take days. And it's... it's very draining to part with a memory for a while and then have it returned you see. Mentally and emotionally draining. But I'm strong enough to show you a few more tonight, if you want. The ones of your parents are yours to keep. Here."

She gave him a box. He opened it, fingers shaking a little, to find several crystal vials, little gold ribbons holding labels on them in her neat writing with the date of each one on. It was a great effort to close it. But he had to know who she was before he indulged his own desires.

And so he watched them, alone this time, for hours. He watched as they tentatively grew together at Hogwarts, watched Hermione break another boy's heart, watched her sadness fade as time passed, watched Tom make her face dance in amusement. He saw the girl he'd known grow more assured, more beautiful. He watched them dance, he watched Tom Riddle collapse at her feet, surrounded by fire.

She was white-faced as she returned the last one to her mind. Dawn had broken outside the window as he'd sat watching the past play out, and he was exhausted too, but fascinated.

"You're right," he said as he collapsed into the chair next to her, eyes closing of their own accord. "I couldn't have seen him like that, before. What happened?"

"You'll see," she murmured, curled on the sofa, eyes drawn and older somehow than her youthful face could truly allow. "He was an idiot."

 

Chapter Text

 

Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only — if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty?

― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

 


 

Samhain came, and Hermione went up the mountain to dance with the Norwegian witches. They had a different name for it of course, Vetrnaetr – a word as harsh as the winter winds it welcomed - but the spirit of the night was the same as the one her friends would be celebrating illicitly back in Britain. The veil between the dead and the living thinned on this night, and on the mountain Hermione could understand why Muggles had once believed it a gate to hell.

Why they had said the devil himself danced on its peak.

Around their writhing, hooded bodies, cloaks floating eerily, the howls of the Wild Hunt seethed through the air. Those nightmare creatures were no longer released on the world, but their jubilant, anarchic cries echoed up through the dark on this night, mingling with the wind and sending chills down the interlaced nerves of her spine, seeping into her bone marrow, sending a thrill of fear through her blood. They raised up spectres of her past and future as she danced and she wondered at it; at the thrill and terror of it.

She had not made friends here, but these were witches she respected and thought she was beginning to understand. And lonely though it was, it was a privilege to see the rawness of their magic unleashed on the night.

But raw magic was brutal too. Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót, the old texts commanded. This night, as it had a year before, required a living sacrifice.

 

 

An owl came the following day. Hermione opened the scroll, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, still awed at the power she had seen the night before even as her guts were twisted with the memory of the sacrifice made to the incoming winter.

I was not accepted, his scrawl was furious, the 'i' in her name heading up the letter a smudged blot of anger where he'd stabbed the quill down too hard: They believe me too young to take up a post that is mine by any sensible right. Hogwarts is my home. Merrythought is gone and in her place is some fool under the spell of your godfather. As I have told you before, it has long been my great wish to teach and to be rejected in this way for someone far inferior is grating.

She tried to placate him, but letters were not soft things; stark black ink on parchment was no replacement for voice and touch and gentle hands.

You can apply again, in a few years. After all, it would be terribly strange for them to have someone just a year or so older than them as a Professor. I know what you are capable of, but wait and, in a few years, when you have done some of the things I know you can achieve, they'll be begging to have you.

It was a lie, but it was intended well. Hogwarts would never again welcome Tom Riddle.

Hermione was curing fish for the winter when the witch queen sought her out. They had come in great shoals to the harbour that morning, the water boiling with silver flickers. A biblical amount of fish; an impossible sight.

On the mountain, when the witches had cut the throat of the old woman, she had been smiling, her fingers buried in the ground. Willing and glad to give up her life to ask the barren northern ground to be kind, to bring fish to the harbour and let seeds take root. To keep the community safe and hidden.

Hermione had felt the responding surge of power as the woman's blood hit the ground.

Far less than the one she'd felt without knowing it exactly a year before: this was not a sacrifice to her. But she recognised it now. This power was in the earth itself, not in her. She had been sent into shock by the power transfer from that unintentional, horrific death a year before. This had been an ecstatic thrill in her veins.

And she understood something deeper now about sacrifice. The witches took a life and they spilled blood - but in doing so they honoured their victim. They were made beholden to her by the gift of her magic. Innegborg explained it to Hermione as they sliced and salted the fish, dozens of knives flickering in the weak sunlight as they obeyed the will of the witches.

"Muggle fire needs fuel to burn, just as magical fire needs magical energy. This is the way of all things," she told her. "But the fire must obey the wood - it cannot burn beyond what it is fed."

The sacrifice, Hermione learned, went both ways.

 

 

Albus's letters were more circumspect than Tom's. Little progress to report on time travel. He hoped the ways of the northern witches were not too brutal. They follow an older path, one that we fortunately have turned from. And yet, there is much to learn there.

Hermione wondered if it was a fortunate thing to turn their backs on old magic. She wondered if it would wither magic or if the magic found another path, like water going around rock but carving through it at the same time. She wondered what she owed to Mabel Jefferies.

She had been forced to confront something about this world she lived in up on that mountain. She came to terms with it slowly but surely. Magic changed things. Magic changed everything. Including her squeamish Muggle morality. That belonged to the universe she had effectively left at the age of eleven. It didn't fit here, and trying to make this world fit the laws of that one was ruinous. How could magicians allow themselves to be limited, made somehow mundane, as many of the adults she had grown up with?

If a Muggle spilled blood onto the earth, or sent it to mingle with the earth as ashes, the earth did not listen. But magic was a force of nature, and nature needed magic to give back to it. An ouroboros of strength.

 

In the days that followed, Tom became more obsessed with finding the locket, as though rejection from the only place he really saw as home had reignited that desperate search to prove himself special, valid, belonging in the eyes of a society that valued blood even more than it power.

His letters shocked her with their emotional honesty -

It is the only place I have ever felt at home except for when I am with you, and you are not here.

 

He grew more possessive in his disappointment, furiously demanding by Owl why she had not responded quickly enough. He had never taken rejection well; from either side of his family, from Dumbledore, from Hogwarts.

 

In early December, Hermione went home, grateful to leave the arctic island. Bitter enough in early autumn, in winter it was almost unbearable. She was learning more slowly than she ever had, confronted by magics beyond most people, and returning to the castle in Wales with its warm fires and soft chairs and splendid views, lushly green even in early December was like sinking into a warm bath after one of Innegborg's mandatory dips in the ice-crusted bay.

A shock, and then a relief.

He came almost as soon as she had arrived at home. She was in her Potions lab when the castle whispered his impending presence with a rush of warmth along the skin of her arms. He'd come by Floo, but the clever magic of the building brought him out of her fireplace instead of the hall's.

They stared at each other for a moment, and then he was pulling her tightly against him, luggage cast aside as he buried his face in her neck.

"I wish," he said low and fierce into her hair, "you wouldn't go back again. Not yet."

"I have work to do here before I go away again," she reassured him, leading him through a door that was not always there into her now so-familiar little sitting room. "I'm not sure how long it will take. Come on, there's cake."

They sat in her little sitting room, as they had so many times before. But no familiarity could dull the force of his presence.

Tom's beauty always startled her, especially after some time apart. It did not romanticise itself with absence; there were no flaws to dream away. But now it was exaggerated by the gauntness in his face. His cheekbones were ice picks in carved marble, and she frowned as she examined him. He was, as always, immaculately turned out - clean-shaven, his dark hair longer but still neatly parted to the side - and yet there was something ragged around his edges as though an invisible fray had begun to unravel.

She felt the dread weight in her stomach stir to life.

 

But slowly the ice in his face thawed - over tea and cake and boozy dinners with Cerdic, and long afternoons in the alchemy workroom downstairs, and three days later he laughed that lower-pitched, genuine laugh she had missed so much.

"Would you like to stay for Christmas? I mean my whole family will be here, so I understand if you don't want to but..." she asked him that morning, reassured by that laugh, the more precious for its rarity. He was reading her Muggle books again and there was colour in his cheeks.

Tom looked up, surprised.

"I have to go away for a few days first. But I can come back. Yes."

Hermione dropped onto the sofa next to him, putting her stockinged feet on his lap. He ran a long finger up her sole experimentally and she giggled, wriggling them.

"Where are you going?"

"To look at flats in London," he said with feigned nonchalance. Hermione poked him with her foot.

"Tom..." she drew it out so it was two syllables, not one. To-om.

"Hermione...?"

He turned a page.

"Why are you going to look at flats in London when you have a perfectly usable and probably enormous house in Cheshire that, may I add, I still haven't been invited to?"

He wrinkled his nose.

"Cheshire," he said scathingly. "I don't want that house. Why would I take you there? It's boring and surrounded by Muggles, so I can't do anything interesting anyway. I have rented it out."

"Rented it?" she was flabbergasted at this turn of events. She'd never exactly thought about what he'd do with the Riddle manor, which he seemed to occasionally occupy when he wanted to be alone, but letting it was not precisely what she'd have predicted. It was a very mundane thing for him to do. She couldn't begin to imagine him showing prospective tenants around.

"Abraxas is dealing with the particulars," he waved an unconcerned hand. "You know how tiresome I find that sort of thing. I want to live somewhere magical."

Somewhere, he didn't say, like this.

"So live here, with my father."

He laughed and gave up on what she now saw was Crime and Punishment. She'd have to hide that one later, he'd only misinterpret it.

"I am not," he replied firmly, "going to live with your father."

That was fair enough (although she thought it would be a neat solution to the both of them seeming to go a bit mad without her). Cerdic had told her, quite surprised at her reappearance in the castle, that he hadn't seen a soul since she'd left. His hair had become even bushier in her absence, and she was convinced he hadn't been eating properly.

"Well, fine then but why London? It's so horrid, you won't find anything nice."

Hermione knew from experience that Wizarding residences in London left a great deal to be desired. Most people preferred to floo or, if they were capable, apparate in from villages like Godric's Hollow. The Magical part of London was small and had never developed out like it had in Prague or other cities. Wizards and Witches had tried to blend into Muggle places instead, or chosen to live far out in the country. Theirs was a small and unsophisticated community as a result.

"How would you know? You never go to London, my contrary little queen. If you keep wriggling your feet like that you should probably lock the door, by the way," he said casually.

He picked them up, his full attention suddenly directed at her, and tugged her down the sofa until she was straddling him.

She allowed herself to be distracted with sex; he would tell her when he wanted to and not before.

She could feel the whisper of his breath against her skin as he very, very slowly undid the buttons on her robes, inching them down to bare her shoulders. He left them there, mapping the bones of her collar, her shoulder, her jaw with his finger.

"You are the finest thing I have ever seen," he muttered. "How are you encased inside a bone and flesh shell like any mere mortal when I know you are as much a storm as you are a witch?"

She whimpered with need as his hand encircled her throat, tilting her chin up to meet his eyes.

"Who do you belong to?" he asked, voice rough and low and filled with the whispering promise of the sea before waves crashed against cliff.

"Myself," she half-teased.

His fingers tightened, one hand in her hair, one round her neck.

"In here, in this particular moment, I am yours because I choose to be," she said, reaching up to rest her fingers on his thumb as it pressed into the bone of her chin, pushing up. "But in life, Tom, I'll never belong to anyone except myself. I am not a thing to be claimed."

A dark shadow flashed around his face and she ground her hips down, leaning forward to press her lips to the juddering pulse in his neck.

In this, at least, he was just a man.

 

"Slughorn means well, but god he's a fool," Tom said later, tossing a letter onto the dining room table. They'd had a perfectly nice late lunch but his mood had soured again as he read the letter from his old Head of House. "He can't understand why I don't want any of the simply marvellous opportunities, Tom that he's set up for me."

His imitation was frighteningly accurate and Hermione choked on her tea, amused despite his irritation.

"What do you mean?"

"He has taken personal offence that I don't wish to become," he picked up the letter, "assistant to the Under-Secretary to the Deputy Junior Minister for Magical Archiving."

"I expect you could gain a lot of influence there," she tried, keeping her voice even.

"No, Hermione. They would see me as a Mudblood charity case. Some former pupil doing his old Professor a favour in return for some past contact or whisper in an important ear. They would give me a desk and a pile of useless scrolls and leave me to rot, until I retired or died of boredom or learned my place."

"That is probably true," she acknowledged evenly, "for most people. But no one who met you,

Tom, could write you off."

"Well I'm not going to be anyone's assistant and I can't think of anything more tedious than working at the Ministry, can you?"

"No," she said honestly, freed from the need to fit convention by a distance of some five decades. "I can't say it's a tempting thought. Do you want to get a job?"

She didn't think he needed to, really. Even if he hadn't had some money of his own now, he was the sort of person people like Abraxas Malfoy's father liked to open their vaults for. His so-called friends automatically picked up the tab when they were around him, she'd noticed.

"I wanted to teach. Failing that, I shall find another place."

She pondered that, but didn't reply.

 

He left for London, kissing her hard before he stepped into the Floo, and Hermione began to decorate the castle for Christmas and prepare to the onslaught of Dearborns. She saw her friends, bought gifts, and thawed out her bones after the Nordic chill.

Being the mistress of a magical household had its odd moments. Bedrooms appeared that hadn't been seen in decades in preparation for the extra guests. She and Buttons cleared and tidied and found odd remnants of former guests – from discarded quills and books to evening robes and jewellery. The dining room grew half again over the course of a few days, slowing spreading outwards, the gleaming mahogany table expanding to match until it could comfortably seat another twelve people.

The castle felt excited. The stone dragon on the tower flapped its wings, the snarling griffin statue paced more impatiently than usual. Hermione hadn't managed to get to the root of the old blood magic that tied the ancient building to the family and she was constantly surprised at its apparent sentience. It wasn't actually sentient, of course, but still she couldn't help but wonder at the thrum of anticipation she felt through her connection with it as they prepared to host the rest of the Dearborn family for the first time in more than two decades.

Cadwagan and Hestia would arrive first, a few days before Christmas and Caradoc on Christmas eve. More nerve-wracking was the addition of two of Cerdic and Caradoc's cousins and their families, a great aunt and uncle, and several assorted in-laws. Ivy McKinnon was spending Christmas with her Muggle-born boyfriend's family for the first time, and Hermione thought she would miss the other girl's easy-going presence.

How Tom would deal with this extensive crush of Wizarding relatives remained to be seen, but he had got on well enough with Caradoc on the few occasions they'd met. She hoped the warmth and love of a family Christmas might help keep away the shadows on his soul for a while.

He came back from London halfway through the afternoon her uncle and aunt were due to arrive, the house letting her know with that now-familiar surge of energy, like tiny fireworks were bursting all the way up the veins and capillaries of her left arm.

She found him, crouching down in the hall floor playing with Alhabor, whose long grey tail was thumping fast as a heart-attack on the stone floor. This laughing, bright-burning Tom Riddle was different than the one even she was usually allowed to see. This was Tom the boy, and the sight of him tugged cruelly at her heart, beating in time with the wolfhound's tail. Hermione leant against the dark wood of the doorframe to watch for a moment.

The dog was as poor a judge of character as she was, she thought, a little bitterly, as he turned around, face lighting up the dark hall.

"You're early," she said, by way of greeting as she stepped forward. It had only been five days, but with all she'd packed in and the constant dull ache of his absence it had felt like longer. As it was, here in his moment with his face unguarded and joyful, one knee touching the faded blue-and-red swirls of the ancient Afghan carpet, a dusting of ash still clinging to one dark curl as it fell forward onto his high alabaster forehead, she felt so much that it felt like there wasn't enough room in her chest for it all. She felt, just for a moment, like she might cry.

It was a mark of how far they'd come that he didn't stand, but stayed with his fingers curled into the thick iron-and-steel fur of Alhabor's neck.

"London seemed colder and drearier than usual," he replied softly, as though the words were a secret confession. Perhaps they were.

 

Twenty minutes later, his hand was fisted in her hair instead, hips thrusting her forward, her face pressed into the mattress. Afterwards as they lay in the soft grey December light in her tower bedroom, her cheek pressed to where his heart thrummed fast and then, gradually, steadier in his chest, he held her as though the world could come crashing down around them, sky and sun and stars all together in an apocalypse of ash and fire, and he wouldn't let go.

 

 

With the arrival of more Dearborns that Hermione had really imagined existed, the castle became less a refuge than a village. Their visit was this: a fire lit cycle of meals and walks and card games and riding and laughter and drinking and more meals. Her aunt and uncle had arrived as she was drifting off in Tom's arms and so she'd rushed down to greet them more dishevelled than she'd liked, Tom smirking at her shoulder as she was engulfed in their boisterous warmth.

As Christmas approached, more and more arrived – some by Floo and some by broom and some by carriage but all of them rowdy and eager to tell Cerdic off for his decades-long hermitage and meet his mysterious daughter.

Tom was superficially charming to her family, but as he was with most people he was largely uninterested. Polite in a cool way, he didn't fit in with the unruly, privileged Dearborn clan. And yet, he was so charismatic even they were wooed. Tom was polite, but it was a politeness that made the other person less powerful and he more. It made people want to be charming back to him, to somehow gain his approval.

And in any conversation, across any room or wood or hill, his eyes sought her out and she wondered again at this enormous thing between them. No library in the world held the answer, though. Only his eyes and his touch and the sometimes-soft-sometimes-violent press of his arrogant lips.

 

 

Christmas came, and Hermione woke early, as she always did. Tom, who had learned to sleep on a hard bed shared with at least one other child was a far better sleeper than she – and he had absolutely no interest in Christmas. She slipped out of the bed quietly, and pulled on her thick velvet dressing gown and sheepskin slippers and, taking her wand, snuck out; down the stairs, through the hall, past the slumbering hound and out of the castle into the dark dawn. She climbed through the woods and up past the waterfall, until she was on the highest point overlooking its turrets and grounds, and the lake.

The spell for snow was no great magic in comparison to bringing down a mountain, but it wasn't easy and it still drained Hermione. She felt the winter chill through her robe far more strongly on the way back down, shivering as the first thick flakes began to fall.

When slipped back into the warm bed, grateful for the heat of his body, he stirred.

"Where did you go?" he murmured. "You're freezing."

She pressed her feet against his legs, giggling a little.

"Merry Christmas," she whispered impishly as he swore.

"A fine gift," he said sarcastically, rolling on top of her. This Tom, almost playful in the dark of her room, was another Tom all over again: violent and tender by turn as the sky lightened.

When the rest of the castle woke – the children first and then gradually the adults, they were greeted by a magical snowfall that spread as far as the eye could see.

The biggest child of all, of course, was Caradoc, who had arrived after they'd all gone to sleep the night before, no doubt out late drinking with his fellow Aurors. He barged into Hermione's room – thankfully after she'd thought to put her pyjamas back on - and yanked open her curtains singing White Christmas at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs.

He stopped suddenly and jumped a very theatrical foot in the air.

"Hermione, I don't want to concern you," he said, hand pressed to his chest, "but there seems to be a man in your bed."

Hermione pulled a pillow over her face, laughing and pink-cheeked.

"How scandalous," he continued cheerfully, unloading a pile of presents onto the end of the bed, before chucking her and Tom's piles onto the duvet, and then throwing himself down to sprawl across the end. "Great-Aunt Gwyllion would be shocked."

"Good morning, you horrible beast," she said lobbing a cushion at him, which he caught easily and put under his feet. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, little cuz, Tom. And what a Christmas! Just look at that," he pointed joyfully out of the window to the wonderland outside, snow and ice sparkling in the gentle morning sun.

Tom gave her a Significant Look. She smirked back.

"Best snow I've seen since I left Hogwarts," Caradoc mused. "I say Hermione, what does a poor, tired, and ever so slightly hungover wizard have to do to get a cup of tea around here? And maybe," he added hopefully, "a wee crumpet or three to tide me over till brekkers?"

Hermione sighed and called for Buttons.

Tom was quiet but not especially grumpy as she and Caradoc caught up, and began opening some of the little presents sent from friends that the long-suffering elf had put at the end of the beds overnight.

It was a strange disconnect to have them both in her room; an Auror and a murderer and yet as far as she could tell they seemed to like each other well enough. Certainly, Tom didn't put on his perfect Head Boy act as much around her cousin as he did the rest of her family.

His pile was bigger than she'd expected, with a lot of neatly wrapped gifts in expensive-looking paper. Expensive, especially in the Wizarding world, didn't always mean sophisticated however and she longed to know who had dared send Tom Riddle a gift wrapped in moving orange-and-gold stripes with a great purple bow that tied and untied itself apparently on whim. He glared at it until the ribbon drooped, and stayed still.

"This one's from Ivy, she asked me to bring it." Caradoc said, passing a large box to her. "Such shame she couldn't come."

It was heavier than she'd expected and when Hermione pulled off the paper and then slid off the top of the wooden box the reason became clear. She lifted out a little marble sculpture, all curved stone edges. A thing of no little beauty with its voluptuous arc. The card inside told her it was a Barbara Hepworth maquette. Ivy's Muggle-born boyfriend (whose family estate was in Cornwall), she wrote in her looping and excited hand, had taken her to see them in St Ives and oh – wasn't it glorious.

It was, but Tom, Hermione saw when she glanced up at him, was frowning at it. Perhaps he couldn't see the beauty in it but she could. It seemed to hold the potential of a whole landscape in its curves.

She was touched and a little awed by the gift in a way she hadn't been in some time. The eyes of the future told her of its worth, but it was more than that: there was something so solid in the smooth camber under her hand that spoke of something more. Not just a treasure to be kept for the future but a treasure for now, a precious thing that was more than the sum of its parts in a way she couldn't imagine being able to explain to Tom.

It made her suddenly resentful of him, of his indifference to beauty.

 

 

Later, after they were all spent with merriment, T