"Oh, shit," comes Ginny's voice from somewhere behind Hermione. The panic in the redhead's voice is audible on the crowded deck, even over the sharp sea breeze. "I mean, er, oh gracious, I'm so sorry. Here, let me clean that up –"
Hermione closes her eyes for a second, not daring to turn around just yet. Ginny's fingers must be made from melting butter; otherwise, there's no physical way she could drop, spill, destroy, and generally muck up as many things as she has already on this voyage's short duration. God, who's the victim of the minor disaster this time? It'd better not be one of the passengers from first class, Hermione prays, though luckily, it's unlikely that they'd be back here in the first place –
Hermione turns. Mentally, she releases a string of curses. Ginny's victim is definitely first class, judging from the way he's dressed: brief-lapeled coat over a dark waistcoat, with long creased trousers – trousers that now wear an aggressively unappealing stain in the general crotch region.
Shaking her head, Hermione strides over to the scene of the disaster. "I'm so sorry," she chokes out, trying not to stare at the stained area, "my friend hasn't quite got her sea legs under her yet."
"No problem at all," says the young man smoothly. He looks every inch the gentleman, with impeccable posture and alarmingly perfect hair – a brown so dark and smooth it reminds her of polished wood. Hermione fumbles her extra handkerchief from her pocket and hands it to the man, who takes it with the tiniest nod.
Always prepared, Hermione, says Ron's voice in the back of Hermione's head. Ron has been in America for a year now with their best friend Harry, waiting for her to join them. Ron would probably laugh at this entire situation. Hermione can practically see him sniggering behind his freckled hands, Harry stoically restraining laughter at his side.
She still hasn't told Ron how she feels about him, how her heart beats just a bit faster and her cheeks tingle when she thinks of his smile, how the lack of him this past year has ached dully like a half-healed cut. A bit of a romantic at heart, Hermione has been picturing rushing off the ship when it docks, running into Ron's arms and kissing him. That should tell him all he needs to know, really …
In a rush, Hermione realizes how awkward the silence is. She gives the young man a pained smile as a farewell, but just as she's about to steer Ginny away, a lanky man with black hair approaches them. His face holds none of the aloof blankness of the other's – this man is livid. "Tom," he says, not so much a greeting as an accusation. "I've been looking for you for – why are you here? What on earth have you done to your trousers?"
"Bit of a spill, Cygnus, nothing to worry about," Tom says mildly.
Cygnus glares down at Hermione and Ginny as if they've sabotaged the ship. "Well, I rather think you owe Tom an apology, don't you?"
The condescension in his voice is enough to make Hermione's toes curl with rage, but she collects her simmering temper and forces a demure smile to her lips. "Yes, sir. We did apologize. Sorry again, though. I'm sure those trousers cost a fortune."
The man gives a snort so colossal that Hermione's frankly surprised his nose doesn't pop off. He turns on a heel and beckons to Tom with one blasé gesture. "Our spot in the dining room won't wait forever."
Tom dips his head to Hermione and Ginny and heads after Cygnus. After they're safely out of earshot, Ginny says, "I'm so bloody stupid. Sorry, Hermione, I just slipped."
Hermione purses her lips. "Well, at least you're not seasick anymore. We've done enough hard work to be able to afford tickets onto this bloody rowboat."
A nearby woman in a wide-brimmed hat gives Hermione a scandalized look. Hermione ignores her.
"Don't insult the ship," Ginny says, like the thing has feelings. "You know how lucky we are? This trip is going to go down in history." She rubs her small freckled nose and looks up at the plumes of steam rising high into a blue sky, brazen joy on her face.
"Yes, I'm sure; it'll go down in history when you accidentally break a hole in the hull," Hermione says. "Come on, let's go belowdecks."
As they trot down the steps, Ginny shoots a grin Hermione's way. "At least it was just water."
"Honestly, though," Ginny mutters mutinously, her expression swinging a swift 180, "it was his fault for being there in the first place."
"I'm just saying. First class has a bloody swimming pool and a gymnasium and whatever else, and our old chum Tom wants to take a stroll down the poop deck? Why would –"
"It's none of our business why he was there," Hermione says, her voice tightly controlled, as they turn a corner. Ginny stews in silence until they reach the third class common room, which is altogether too long a trek, given the size of the appropriately-named RMS Titanic. The labyrinth of halls below the deck wear warm electric lights that cast honey-colored shadows on the walls, but the common room is dimmer, the light dispersed across a large, cheerfully loud crowd. The walls are paneled, the light pine wood and white accents playing contrast to the dark teak wood of the furniture. Third-class accommodations aboard the Titanic are comparable to the experience of second-class passengers elsewhere, it's said, and Hermione can't help but feel pampered, soaking in the lively but contented atmosphere.
A few children playing cards sit cross-legged on the floor. Others playing chess face each other down across tables. Ginny and Hermione settle down on a pair of stools in a corner, their patched skirts pooling around their seats' wooden legs. Hermione withdraws pen and several sheets of folded paper from her bag, smooths the paper over her knee, and begins to write.
"I'm sure I shall die of boredom before we land in America," Ginny sniffs in her snootiest voice, rocking back on her stool.
"Well, make sure you don't stain anyone else's trousers doing it," Hermione replies absentmindedly.
Ginny blows her hair off her forehead. Her sharp eyes move to the beer flowing from tankards in nearby hands.
"No," Hermione says without even looking up.
Ginny lets out a weary sigh. "I'm starting to think you've no idea what 'fun' is."
"Something we can't really afford."
Ginny folds her arms and leans back against the wall.
"Quite a shame that Morgan couldn't make it," Cygnus says. "I meant to compliment him on the ship."
"He's a financier, dear; he hardly built it himself," replies his fiancée, Druella Rosier, with a look of light amusement that – given her dramatic features – doesn't look as light as it should. Her cheekbones dip low, carved and rouged, and her eyebrows soar, painted over black-stained lashes. "The design is quite something, though, isn't it, Mr. Riddle?"
Tom nods once. "Exquisite."
"High praise from the prodigy architect," Cygnus says, with a tight-lipped smile. "I'm sure Andrews would love to discuss it with you."
"Naval architecture isn't particularly of interest to me," Tom says. "Not that I would decline, of course."
Cygnus shrugs. "You have plenty of people to meet regardless. Morgan may have been detained in England, but at least the Thayers are aboard. I've arranged for us to dine with them this evening." Cygnus sips from his crystal glass and glances Druella's way. "Wear the green dress; won't you, dear?"
Druella releases a much-put-upon sigh. "Just for you, love."
Tom restrains a sigh of his own. High society mingling has never intrigued him as it seems to intrigue others of his social status. He's not exactly interested in standard ways of networking, after all – there are more efficient, more absolute ways to acquire and retain respect. He'll suffer it, of course, as he suffers through many of the more irritating platitudes required of him … but that doesn't mean he has to like it. Admittedly, though, he has a soft spot for the drama of it all, the costume-like designer clothing that the wealthy coterie fawns over, the fact that a mere word or look in the direction of an available young woman could have rumors of courting spread within the hour. It's all an incubator for self-importance, and no demographic is more easily manipulated than those who are self-important.
Tom has to restrain himself from checking the time yet again. These lunches always seem to drag during the sleepiest hours of the early afternoon, and his attention tends to sway listlessly, a wobbling pendulum.
He tunes back in to the conversation just in time to hear his name. "And of course," says Cygnus, a measured look of exasperation on his pale face, "there Tom is, standing there dripping, quite appalled but obviously too well-mannered to say anything about it. You should have seen them staring. As if they'd never seen anyone well-off in their lives."
Though he has no interest in recounting this anecdote, Tom half-smiles. The resultant expression is exquisitely menacing.
"Really. You'd think the liner would keep the rabble out, with the amount we're paying," says their corpulent blond companion across the table, dabbing a bead of rosé wine from the corner of his mouth with a crisp napkin. He clears his throat in a rumble. Tom finds himself almost impressed that Abraxas has managed, at the young age of nineteen, to adopt mannerisms more befitting of a mustachioed middle-aged man with a monocle. Half the time Abraxas opens his mouth, Tom half-expects a good hearty harrumph to come out.
"Well, keeping the rabble out would have been fairly … well, we weren't exactly …" Cygnus clears his throat. "That is to say, Tom had … he, er …"
Oh, speak English, would you. Cutting short Cygnus' verbal vomit, Tom says briskly, "I was on the stern deck."
Abraxas stares, the napkin wilting in his pale stubby fingers. "Whatever for?"
Tom hates being questioned. He gives no response, choosing instead to fold his napkin in a perfect square atop his porcelain plate.
"… idle fascination?" Cygnus supplies, breaking the silence.
"Idle is not in my vocabulary," Tom says. He surveys Cygnus, then Abraxas, challenging them to reply with anything other than compliant silence. He doesn't bother surveying Druella; well-cultured women are used to knowing when their silence is implicitly demanded.
Abraxas steers the conversation to the quality of the quarters, but the damage is done. Tom has sunk into a vivid memory of the Great Spilling Event of noon. The only thing worse than an urchin is a clumsy, loud, obnoxious urchin.
Of course, it's not so much that Tom hates specific poor people; it's that poverty itself disgusts him on a deep, personal level, as he had to suffer through years of it before his brilliance elevated him to a different social circuit. The existence of poverty is abrasive to him, wears away at his sensibilities. Unfortunately, as its eradication is something beyond the goals of one man, removal of the poor to an appropriately invisible sector of society is the only thing Tom can really hope for.
While he's been in transit to America, the presence of the poor has been obvious to an upsetting degree. It's not that he doesn't understand why they're here; this voyage has to make money, and of course he understands the desire for profit. But the third-class denizens that creep across the stern deck like mold during the day are off-putting, to say the least. Even seen from afar.
Tom's venture to the realms of that deck – well outside the boundary of the glimmering first-class areas, past even the pleasant enough second-class promenade – was something of an attempt to establish mental supremacy over the aft section of the ship, too. But apparently its citizens are well-armed with liquid weaponry. During the altercation, it briefly occurred to Tom to get that redhead arrested for destruction of property, but he supposes his case would be diminished given the fact that he was technically in their area. Which is a preposterous notion, as the entire ship should be his to roam, but … well, there you are. The world is a flawed place.
Tom sighs. Thinking about the ship's lesser occupants, he's lost his patience. "Pardon," he says quietly. "I'll see you later, Ms. Rosier, gentlemen." He gets to his feet, leaving Cygnus and Abraxas to the remainder of their meal.
Servicemen bow out of his way as he sweeps through the dining room, the civilized atmosphere stirring around him pleasantly like a breeze. He strolls through the smoking room, the acrid scent of which agitates the back of his throat. He heads down endless hallways. Eventually, he finds himself back in his private quarters.
He instinctively straightens the carved wooden chair at the corner of his drawing room and retires to the polished table of his bedroom, where a small stack of books awaits his attention. There, he cracks the spine of his sketchbook open and starts to draw: angular balconies; dramatic gables; soaring glass monoliths. He builds worlds from nothing, and around him, the afternoon wears down like a burning stick of incense.
Hermione peeks around the door to their room. They're lucky enough to have snagged a two-berth cabin, its two stacked bunks cozy if snug – private, as opposed to having to share a room with other women. They even have their own sink, protruding from the wall in a sweep of porcelain. Hermione cranes her neck, but it doesn't look like Ginny's up there.
"Ginny?" she says anyway, fruitlessly, as if the word might summon her from nothingness. "Dinnertime …"
Hermione shuts the door and hurries back down the hall, folding her arms, trying not to look too thunderous. Honestly – it's enough of a luxury that they're having their meals prepared by an actual kitchen staff. What does Ginny want, service on silver platters? Why can't she just be where she's supposed to be?
Really, at its heart, it's just inconsiderate. Ginny knows Hermione can't help fretting; she knows she's on the brink of giving Hermione a bloody stress disorder as it is. After all, Ron is trusting Hermione with his little sister's safety. And yes, granted, Ginny's practically a grown woman at seventeen and knows perfectly well how to take care of herself, but still.
Hermione grabs the handrail and heads up the stairs for what feels like the millionth time. The size of the ocean liner has offered so much exercise that Hermione thinks wryly that she might well take up track and field once she's off the ship. She can run the mile in her skirts, sweat through her blouse. Lovely.
Really, though, the Titanic is unlike anywhere she's ever been. She's fascinated with the mechanics of the place – the massive engines sequestered and maintained far below; the sixteen watertight compartments that make the ship all but sink-proof; the sheer colossal size of it. Nearly a kilometer long. Sixteen and a half thousand tonnes. Truly a masterwork of engineering. Hermione has a burning need to know the scientific details, but it's hardly as if the third class has anyone to ask about these things. And it's hardly as if her dream of becoming an engineer is anywhere in the realm of feasible.
The ship swoops a bit, and Hermione's stomach soars in response. She clasps a hand to the railing and glances around the poop deck, scanning for a glimpse of fire-red hair or a freckled complexion shielded by that newsboy cap Ginny's grown so fond of.
Well, then, where is she? Hermione just came from the common room, for goodness' sake. If she's not there, in their room, or up here …
Hermione's stomach twists again, this time not for any reason having to do with the ship's motion. Either Ginny's gone down to the bowels of the ship – the engine room or the boiler room or the cargo holds, none of which are exactly appealing prospects – or she's somewhere she's definitely not supposed to be.
Knowing Ginny, it's almost certainly the latter.
Hermione sinks back against the rail, her mind working furiously. Ron will never forgive me if she gets arrested.
Still entertaining a feeble hope, she runs back down the steps for the millionth time, but this time she keeps going past the entrance to the halls, heading instead for the fireman's passage to the engine rooms.
The Widener family has joined the Thayers in their dinner party, to Tom's pleasure. The elder Widener son, quite apart from being the inheritor to his father's streetcar business, is quiet and bookish, attributes which Tom appreciates in a person. The younger son is less reserved, with amused eyes and a pleasant degree of bite to his conversation. The daughter, though, is more interesting than the pair combined, with darting eyes and a cool, non-participatory regard for the conversation. She is twenty-one and engaged. Tom makes one subtle pass at the girl, and she gives him not a shocked look of reprimand, but a dark and laughing glance. Not enough daring for outright flirtation, let alone active engagement in conversation, but it's something, by the standards of proper young ladies these days.
The Wideners are much more interesting, indeed, than the Thayers, who, unfortunately, are important and wealthy and therefore worth a time investment despite their utter lack of anything approaching personality. Tom, of course, makes a wonderful impression on everyone at the table, Thayers included. He shows off his impeccable manners with the same flair that others might have when showing off a rare jewel, he is ever-gracious and even deferent when appropriate, and he never gives anything less than rapier-sharp commentary when asked to speak on the effectiveness of the Taft presidency or the state of the New York economy. He doesn't bring up British affairs. Americans, he's found, rarely take it upon themselves to know anything of foreign politics.
It's predictable. Not stimulating, but Tom chalks it up to good practice for the dinner he actually cares about, the day after tomorrow, when he'll be meeting – and hopefully making a good impression on – the steel magnate Albus Dumbledore.
As time passes, Tom eyes the younger Widener as a possible recruitment prospect. When the men have retired to the smoking room and tossed around important names for long enough, the three Widener gentlemen depart, and the party disperses.
"The food was lovely," Druella says, when Tom, Cygnus, and Abraxas rejoin her in the lounge. "Don't you think, Cygnus?"
"Passable, I suppose," Cygnus grunts with seeming reluctance, though Tom notes that his stomach has a telling bulge beneath his waistcoat. "Shall we take a turn about the promenade?" Cygnus says, standing and smoothing down his jacket. "Lovely evening."
"Regrettably, I'll have to decline," Tom says.
"Oh, come now, Tom," Abraxas says, his cheeks stained red by too much Cabernet. "The air outside is delightful. Brisk. Alive. Clean."
"I've planning to do," Tom says curtly, standing. "You may find me in the library if you need to speak with me. This entire voyage will provide me with plenty of air. Work does not wait."
"Have a good night, Mr. Riddle," Druella says with shielded respect, and Tom gives her a single nod, wishing – as he does not infrequently – that women held more power in society. Feminine conniving is, frankly, so much more his style than the insensitive jackhammer approach that so many magnates these days favor. There's intelligence in knowing how to coerce, how to conspire quietly, how to trick someone into making a complete arse of him or herself, and Tom has no end of appreciation for it.
Of course, the fact that women have been cursed to complete inaction places them on a subordinate plane. Tom's never actually bothered with women, and he doesn't plan to start anytime soon.
He turns, the tails of his coat flipping out behind him with satisfactory flair, and makes for the library.
Hermione splashes her face with water from the sink. Don't panic. Don't panic. Damn it all, you're panicking. Stop that.
She takes a slow breath, wiping her handkerchief across her forehead. She bundles her hair back.
Metal grilles, waist-high, separate the third-class areas from the second- and first-class areas, but Hermione wouldn't put it past Ginny to have distracted a steward long enough to be able to hop one of those gates … or to have found another way altogether. This is, after all, the sister of Fred and George Weasley. Ginny has a nefarious streak half as wide as one of the twins', and ingenuity to spare. Ginny would want adventure. Ginny would want to see the exciting parts of the ship regardless of the consequences … damn and blast. Of course she'd find a way to the boat deck.
Wherever Hermione searches for Ginny, she'll have to do it quietly. Luckily, there likely won't be as many sharp-eyed crew about, since the evening has turned into night already. She spent far too much time mucking about the engine rooms. She's sure she smells horrendous, though if Ginny dares complain when she finds her, there will be a reckoning.
Hermione shuts the door to their cabin and strides down the hall. Navigating through this ship is just another puzzle, just another test to beat. Nothing she can't handle.
Of course, the moment she sees the first steward standing before a waist-high gate, a shock of adrenaline sets her whole body buzzing, and it becomes hard to see this as any sort of test rather than outright insubordination. This sort of off-the-cuff rule-breaking is Harry's jurisdiction and always has been, regardless of how acclimatized she's grown to it over the course of their friendship.
Hermione's steps falter, but in the end, she bites her lip, keeps her eyes fixed on her shoes, and continues on. There must be another way around this, rather than making some underpaid crewmember liable to be fired for not doing his job. This ship is a bloody maze – logically, the planners could have gotten away with making class mingling incredibly inconvenient rather than impossible.
Hermione turns a corner and nearly walks headlong into a pair of children who burst from a doorway in a flurry of raggedy clothes and long hair.
"Honestly," she mutters, as they dash down the hall, yelling at one another. The door they came from rotates slowly on its hinge, but Hermione catches it, glancing at the dark passageway beyond. Maybe … She ducks through and shuts the door behind herself, her pulse quickening. The crew is supposed to stay out of sight of the passengers. Surely they have their own way of getting around. Maybe this is it.
Hermione turns a few corners. This passage is mostly metal – definitely not for the average passenger – and splits up ahead. One side of the fork leads down a hall to a room filled with echoing voices and clangs. Perhaps that's one of the kitchens? The fork's other end is a few feet ahead, another door.
Hermione avoids the kitchen passageway, cracks the other door, and peeks out. Her heart hiccups in her chest – the room beyond is the beautiful a la carte restaurant, its furnishings plush, its lights extinguished. It's deserted, any debris from dinner long since cleared from the crowd of immaculate tablecloths.
She creeps out and through the room, but surrounded by the swirl of silks and linens, by the carvings and mirrored accents of the décor, her mind indulges in a fanciful whim. For a moment, she imagines herself, Harry, and Ron, surrounded by the people they love, all tucked into suits and gowns, laughing across these tables. Her heart aches a bit to picture it. Hermione is grateful for all the small comforts she's earned over the years, but to brush this closely with true opulence still feels a bit cruel.
Shaking the thoughts, she slips out of the restaurant and into a hallway. As she scurries down the hall, she glimpses an adjacent room where groups of gentlemen are hovering around, smoking. Hermione hopes they don't see her. She'll stick out like a sore thumb, even to the second-class passengers.
Hermione takes another flight of stairs downward. She's thoroughly lost now. She has no idea where Ginny could be, or where any of this is in relation to the third-class landmarks, but as long as she remembers her way back to the restaurant, she supposes she'll be all right. She mentally prepares excuses for if she gets caught. I was trying to follow some children, trying to tell them to go back to the common room … they took a turn and I followed …
Then, as she walks down yet another hallway, her mind stops completely.
Through a crack in a great door, she sees stately wooden columns. Sleek paneled walls, the same fine wood. A dangling beacon of light and crystal. And books.
Hermione bites her lip, realizing she's come to an involuntary halt. She tastes temptation, dark and heady like rich chocolate. Books, probably rarer ones than she's likely to encounter in her whole life. … And she's here already, isn't she? Nobody will be in the library at this hour of the night. It's not as if Ginny's waiting for her somewhere, either; she obviously wanted to lose Hermione altogether.
Stick to the goal! screams a small voice in the back of Hermione's head. She shouldn't indulge. She shouldn't.
But to be honest, sometimes she tires of being selfless. She slips through the crack in the door, gives the room a quick once-over, and – just to be safe – shuts the door behind herself. The shelves ahead seem to whisper to her, reaching out dusty fingers to beckon her.
Hermione hurries across the room, her throat tightening. She runs her index finger down the spine of a large, elegant-looking tome. Gold filigree laces its beaten black leather binding.
But her eyes eventually settle on a slim, underwhelming-looking book at the end of the shelf. Despite its plain appearance, she feels drawn to it. She tilts her head to read the title and finds that it's a history of the Revolutionary War. Hermione's read up on American history in preparation for her arrival, of course, but her reading time tends to be awfully limited. It's been doubly so for the last three months, the majority of which she spent at the factory, going hungry some days in order to complete the payment on her ticket aboard this ship.
She wipes her sweating hands on her dress and slides the book out of its place breathlessly, inch by inch.
"Good choice," says a voice right in her ear.
She shrieks and jerks. The book flies right out of her fingers. A hand snatches it out of the air.
Hermione whirls around as her company places the book carefully on an end table. Her heart bangs as if seeking an exit from her chest. She considers running for it, but then her companion turns from the end table to face her, and she freezes. It's that man, the one Ginny spilled water on this afternoon. His expression doesn't betray a hint of recognition, though, which makes Hermione wonder if he even realizes he's met her before. Maybe all third-class passengers look the same to him.
"Evening," he says, dipping his head in a slight nod. "Lovely night for a theft."
Her body goes cold. "What? How dare – I wasn't stealing."
"Really," he says, his voice liberally coated with something approaching disinterest.
"In that case, may I enquire as to what you were doing with Eaton's War and Independence?"
"Well, as you might expect with a book, I intended to open the front cover and read the words inside." The sharp remark is out before her brain can tell her mouth to stop moving. Impertinence isn't a good idea with the wealthy. She knows that. What in God's name am I doing?
Tom replies calmly, to her surprise. "Reading it would be an improvement on dropping it. That particular book is markedly not the book you'd like to drop, if you had to pick one. It's possibly the most valuable book on board."
She finally musters up the courage to look at him, but his attention is firmly fixed on the book's tan cover. Hermione frowns. "Besides The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."
"Yes," he says, "though that won't be in the library."
"No, I'd suppose not," Hermione says. She's heard the book is encrusted with over a thousand jewels, all set in gold. "Hardly light reading."
"Neither is War and Independence. That book is as much war theory as it is history book."
"I love war theory," Hermione says, unable to stop herself. "I've read Giles' annotated translation of The Art of War three times now."
For the first time, an actual emotion dares to touch the young man's stubbornly immobile features: mild surprise. For an instant, Hermione feels a strange sense of success, but then he finally looks up and meets her gaze. A shock runs down through her body into her toes, and all she can think is that looking into his eyes is like drowning in ink.
"As have I," Tom says slowly, not even bothering to shield the interest in his gaze. "'Maneuvering' is by far my favorite section."
It sounds like a test, as if he doesn't believe her. Restraining a scoff, she turns her attention back to the shelves. "Mine's 'The Attack by Fire,' though I also really enjoy 'Tactical Dispositions,'" she says, and then she realizes what she's doing. No conversing, Hermione! She has to stop this now. He seems to be acting reasonable enough. Maybe he'll just let her go quietly …
They both start speaking at the same time.
"I'll just be going, th –"
"If you weren't stealing, may I –"
They fall into abrupt silence. After a second of Hermione clears her throat. "Sorry, what was that, sir?"
"Please, call me Tom," he says, stunning her.
"Oh, come now, don't look so surprised. No need to stand on formality – we've known each other for nearly twelve hours," he says smoothly, arching one eyebrow in an oddly impressive demonstration of facial control.
So, he does remember her.
Hermione swallows. "Well, I – I'm Hermione Granger," she says.
"Tom Riddle." He extends a hand.
Hermione takes it with the intent to shake, but he lifts her hand and presses his lips to her knuckles, his eyes still fixed on hers. The kiss burns. She goes embarrassingly weak at the knees and scolds herself instantly.
He lets go her hand and clasps his own behind his back, the smooth dark fabric of his tailcoat creasing across his narrow shoulders. "Well, Ms. Granger, I meant to ask: if you aren't stealing War and Independence, how exactly do you plan to read it? Under the cover of night? I'm sure you don't need reminding, but this area of the ship isn't actually your jurisdiction."
"I know, yes. Finding that book wasn't planned," Hermione says, her eyes darting around the room. "I was initially trying to find my friend."
"The one with questionable coordination."
"Yes. Ginny." She sighs. "It's a slim chance, but you don't happen to have, erm, seen her wandering about? Red hair, about this tall?"
"Regrettably not. I've been in the library since before sunset."
"Doing what?" Hermione asks, and instantly worries she's gone too far. Nothing within spitting distance of this room is remotely her business, not the least of which is Tom himself. He is none of her concern.
A tiny smile touches the corners of his lips. "I was working," he says. "Much to the chagrin of my companions, I have responsibilities to attend to, many of which include actual thought."
Hermione snorts ungracefully and covers her mouth. "Er. Sorry."
"Sorry for what? Laughing at a joke?" He tilts his head. "Don't be apologetic, Ms. Granger. It doesn't become you."
She stares at him. What exactly could be becoming about her in the first place? Does he want something from her?
He starts pacing past the shelves, his hands brushing over leather spines with an audible hush. "Your friend led you across the barrier to these forbidden fruits, then?"
"Yes. I've no idea where she is, actually, and it's –"
"Not personal volition?"
"I – excuse me?"
"You only came here because the situation required it."
"Yes, of course."
"Although clearly a library is where you'd rather be, if given the choice."
"Then why not seek it out? Can't muster up the courage?"
She tries to keep bafflement and indignation alike from her expression. Tom's stopped pacing, and now leans over the back of an uncomfortable-looking sofa. His fingers are splayed on the maroon cloth, white bones on wine.
"I'm sorry," she says, uncomfortable with the turn in conversation. "But I'm not fond of the idea of getting arrested, which – may I remind you – you could arrange in a heartbeat if you were so inclined."
He sighs, straightening up. A strand of his hair falls across his forehead, which proves irritatingly distracting. Hermione's eyes keep darting back to it.
"I suppose you're lucky that I'm not so inclined, then," he says.
"Yes. Very," she says shortly, not liking the haughty edge to his voice. She supposes she's been lucky to avoid the superiority thus far. "Thank you for not turning me in," she says. "And it's … er, it's been … interesting, but I have to go find Ginny before she gets into trouble."
She heads for the door, but before she reaches it, his voice says, "I can show you The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, if you would like."
She stops and turns slowly. He stands by one of the carved wooden columns, arms folded, a cut-out picture of high-class life. Is this some sort of trick? What would someone like that possibly have to gain from showing an invaluable book to her?
"It's kept under security in the cargo hold," he says, "but I could make a few inquiries. Have it extracted for private perusal."
"No," she says, feeling as if she's entered some sort of dream state. "I don't … why would you do that?"
"Because I can," he says, almost petulantly.
"Well, I've already read it, and it's the words that are important to me, not some fancy covering. Gold and jewels, it's just … it's just metal and rocks, isn't it?"
One corner of his mouth lifts. It doesn't suit his sharp features. It makes his eyes look cruel.
"So … thank you very much for the offer, but I'll have to decline," she says.
Tom inclines his head slightly. "Best of luck with finding your friend."
She half-turns away and lifts a hand to the door.
From behind her, his voice says slowly, "My parlor suite is A14, if you find you can muster up the courage after all."
Her palms heat up, and her face flushes bright red. She doesn't turn back to look at him. She flees, her heart suddenly beating in a stampede of adrenalin.
She wanders aimlessly for an hour before giving up on the hunt. Exhausted, she sneaks back through her passage, and when she finds Ginny back in their cabin, sound asleep, she can't even muster up the energy to be properly enraged.
Notes: the jewel-encrusted Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyan was indeed cargo on the Titanic, and J.P. Morgan did indeed book a ticket but not get on board. Both the Thayers and the Wideners are real (wealthy) families that traveled on The Boat.
Thanks very much for reading! Comments and kudos make my day. :)
At 2:33 PM on April 13th, Tom hangs up the telephone in his parlor, satisfaction filling him to the crown of his head. His distant relative and immediate superior, Salazar Slytherin, a New York architect who's lived far too long for it to be convenient to anyone, has at last gotten around to securing the details of his inheritance. Tom finds the terms favorable. Maybe now the man can get around to dying.
Really, all Tom needs to do at this point is coerce his way into Albus Dumbledore's good books. Slytherin's empire encompasses not only building design, but also engineering and construction, and having the steel industry on their side will be a godsend.
Tom opens his sketchbook. Windows stare out at him, doors yawn, and arches stretch. He flips to the last page and examines his last drawing.
Tom draws to get ideas out of his head and into the world. He supposes he would be an artist if such pretentions appealed to him in the slightest, or if more of the things in his head were appreciable as high art by the critics of the day. But architecture is what drowns his mind, comprises so much of the structure in his brain. Tom thinks of countries as skyscrapers and cities as monuments. He thinks of a life propped up over beams, with defined peaks, hardy external coverings, and breaking points. He thinks of people as buildings: Abraxas is a dusty, high-ceilinged mansion; Cygnus is a sprawling villa; he himself is a Gothic cathedral. Rarely do images enter his mind that aren't structural, that aren't functional.
This drawing is that rare exception.
It's little more than a doodle, and it hardly took him ten minutes, but it's like nothing he's drawn since he was fifteen. It's dark and atmospheric: tall bookcases frame a small figure looking over her shoulder, her plain features honed by dim light. Her hair frizzes out behind her like a sunburst. And there's a gentle moon through the window; moon-touched waves; a moon-touched deck.
He couldn't help it. He got back to his quarters plagued by the picture. He had to evict it from his headspace. He had to get her out.
But even after vomiting this self-indulgent bit of art out into his sketchbook, he hasn't stopped thinking about her, and that frustrates him almost as much as she frustrates him in concept. What sort of lady … well, it's a bit much to call her a lady. What sort of girl reads The Art of War? Let alone three times? Since when do women even have time for that type of thing, especially working-class women?
Even stranger is the girl's apparent lack of interest in wealth, glimpsed when he mentioned The Rubaiyat. Isn't that what all impoverished people think about—making a fortune? He would think it especially true of those emigrating to America in a last-ditch effort to improve the shambles of their lives.
Certainly, money was all Tom thought about when he was a dirt-poor orphan. To be honest, it still comprises the majority of what he thinks about.
It's half-past two; he expected her to have come by at this point. He wouldn't say he's disappointed, but it is an irritation to learn that someone ostensibly interesting is in fact mastered by social expectations, just like the rest of the people on this ship.
Tom flips his sketchbook shut and stands. He may as well pay a visit to the Turkish baths. A good steam has a way of undoing knots in his mind.
"I was looking for you, is what I was 'doing all night'," Hermione says, raising one eyebrow at Ginny.
Ginny gives her a cheeky grin. "Well, you mustn't have been looking too hard, then."
"I was." Probably too hard, for that matter.
"Hermione, daaahling, I was three feet above your bunk." Ginny rolls over on her bunk and dangles her long hair over the edge. "You must be going blind."
"Honestly, Ginny, you're getting to be too much like your brothers."
Ginny makes a face. "Which ones?"
"Fred and George."
"Oh, well, that's fine. I was afraid you were going to say Percy."
Hermione swats at Ginny's hair. "Got your sea legs, then? Otherwise I daresay you'd be having a bit of a problem turning upside down."
"I feel wonderful." Ginny hops off her bunk and lands lightly on the ground in a crouch. "Hungry, too."
"On second thought, maybe it's Ron you're turning into …"
Ginny ignores her, straightening up, turning her newsboy cap to a jaunty angle. "What are you thinking of doing today, then?"
"I was going to go down and take a closer look at the boiler rooms. That engineering is something close to a miracle."
"You're baffling, is what you are," Ginny says, shaking her head. "It's a beautiful day out, and here you are writing letters and looking at engines."
"There are beautiful days off ships, too. Whereas I'm not going to get the chance to—"
"Yes, yes, right. I'm heading up. I'll be back at sunset, all right?"
Hermione's eyes narrow. "Will you actually?"
"Give me some credit, Hermione." Ginny grins. Hermione can't resist grinning back, and with that, her friend disappears into the hall. Hermione puts down her pen. Words aren't coming, anyway—not to her journal, not to Harry, not to Ron.
Truthfully, she's not sure what to say. She always tries to stay positive, especially in writing, but she's frightened about what she'll find in America. It wasn't much of a life back in England, but it was something. She had time to read, even if she had to sacrifice sleep to do it. She had scraps and shreds of a living, stitched together with her own sweat. In America, she has nothing. Not a cent. It's all sunk into the tickets onto this ship. Across the ocean, she and Ginny are in the hands of fate.
Hermione stands, stretching. She washed in cold water this morning, but she still doesn't feel quite awake. Something in the air on this ship clings to her skin, sticky disbelief, cloying awe. And if she's being honest with herself, she can't yank her mind away from what happened in the library last night.
Hermione has a weakness for the handsome. It's never been much of a problem in the past, since the handsome has never seemed to have a weakness for her. But she can't stop thinking of Tom Riddle's eyes, which fixed on her so unyieldingly.
And the offer of his cabin number: what did that mean? What does he want, sex? Hermione purses her lips at the thought. She's not some rich man's call girl, for goodness' sake.
No, she thinks. Just on a logical level, if all he wants is sex, it doesn't make sense for him to go after someone who looks like her, so markedly plain. When Hermione was twelve, her aunt Gertrude—a blunt woman even by family standards—described her as "determinedly" plain, as if she were making a concerted effort not to look pretty. The term pierced into her self-regard, and even now Hermione can't shake the idea of it.
She feels a little foolish even considering any of that. When she thinks back on the strange interaction with Tom Riddle, what lasts is not the idea of him wanting her in a physical sense. He only started paying attention to her after she mentioned The Art of War, after all.
She must admit, it's hard to resist the idea of conversation with him. Firstly because of the enjoyable concept of looking at his face for an extended period of time—but also because their conversation left a shot of energy in her stomach that's still, even now, making her feel tipsy.
Hermione realizes exactly how long she's just been standing there. She lets out a huffy sigh, slips out of the berth, and heads down the hall. It's not long before she realizes where her feet are taking her.
Her knuckles tap the door. She shifts in place, glancing down the hall. It's deserted, but God knows for how long. She's had to duck out of sight more than once on her way here.
After a minute with no response, she tries the door. It's unlocked.
After a second's internal debate, she slips inside.
Her mouth waters, actually waters, as she looks around. The place is quiet, calm, and above all, beautiful. The wallpaper wears a lush floral design; the carpet is washed with electric light. A desk, a sofa, a small oak table and cushioned chairs—it's like a miniature stateroom.
Another door stands ajar opposite Hermione. She can't believe he has two huge rooms all to himself. Who is he, anyway? An heir of some sort? Surely he's too young to be a businessman already, unless he's been born into connections.
"Hello?" she says feebly, not expecting a response. Then Hermione's eyes fall on the book on his desk, bound in black leather. Did he borrow that from the library last night?
She hesitates for a moment, then reaches out for the book, curious about his reading tastes. Before she can touch it, though, a lazy knock comes on the door.
"Tom, it's Cygnus. May I come in?"
Hermione freezes, ice rushing through her body. After a horrified second, she dashes for the other door and slips through. It's a bedroom, whose bed is drowning under a veil of heavy embroidered curtains.
Outside, she hears the main door open.
"Tom, are you—Tom?" says Cygnus' voice.
There's a wardrobe in the corner. She dives for it, pulls it open, and folds herself inside.
The wardrobe door lets out a loud, horrible creak.
"Tom?" says Cygnus again, after a second. Hermione presses back into a set of clothes that she just knows are worth more than everything she's ever owned combined.
Through a tiny crack in the wardrobe door, she sees Cygnus poke his head through the second door. She recognizes him from yesterday—he has broad, dark features that might be handsome if he didn't look so grumpy.
He glances around, looking part mystified, part suspicious. For a moment, she thinks he'll just leave, but then he enters the bedroom, making her heart skip a beat or two.
As he prowls closer, Hermione's throat closes in dread. Why isn't he leaving?
Then the sound of the main door opening once more. Hermione's heart collapses back into its normal rhythm as Cygnus turns, saying, "Tom, is that you?"
"Yes, of course," Tom's voice says. He walks into the room, wearing a dark bathrobe. His hair is limp, clinging to the side of his forehead. It strikes Hermione again how insufferably handsome he is. It is, she thinks, an acutely irritating sort of handsomeness, the sort that makes her self-conscious.
"You left your door unlocked," Cygnus says in an accusatory sort of way.
Tom appears unimpressed. "Well, I hope you didn't steal anything."
"Of course not, but I wouldn't put it past—"
"Nothing's missing, Cygnus. What do you need?"
"Wanted to discuss the details of the dinner with Mr. Dumbledore tomorrow evening."
Interest flits across Tom's face. "Yes? Has something changed?"
An excited shiver runs over Hermione's skin. Albus Dumbledore, known philanthropist and steel magnate—somewhat of a bizarre combination. His is a name so important, Hermione can hardly fathom he's standing on the same ship as she is.
"No, no, nothing's changed," Cygnus says. "But Dumbledore is something of a peculiar character. My father's had me acquainted with the man for a while now, and he may not be exactly what you expect."
"Don't worry," Tom says smoothly. "I'm sure we can strike some sort of agreement that will be favorable to both our interests, regardless of his … personal idiosyncrasies."
"Oh, yes, doubtless," Cygnus says hurriedly. "But the path to get there might be more complex than you might hope. I simply wished to give you fair warning."
"Charitable of you. But you are the consultant, Cygnus, not me. I expect you to give him only the sagest counsel."
"Close the door on the way out, won't you," Tom says.
Left alone in the room, Tom reaches for the knot of his bathrobe. Hermione feels herself flushing crimson, and she clears her throat.
Tom flinches toward the sound. After a moment, comprehension spreads across his face. He approaches the wardrobe and opens its door.
"Ms. Granger," he greets.
She climbs out. "Sorry. About being in—sorry."
"By all means. I assume Cygnus interrupted you." He reaches past her, pushing the door shut, and she catches a whiff of some heady aroma clinging to his bathrobe.
There's a silence. She gets an expectant air from him, somehow, although his expression is as unmoving as it was last night.
"I'll, erm." Her voice has gone high and nervous. "I'll wait out there."
Hermione darts back out into his front room, trying not to panic. Why did she think this was a good idea? She should have stayed belowdecks. She should have gone and investigated the engines, like she'd planned. She could still run now …
The wardrobe creaks from inside his bedroom, and Hermione shuts the door, moving back toward his desk. The book catches her eye again.
She flips it open, looking for a title page, but the second her eyes fall upon the contents, she realizes it's not a library book. A drawing of mechanical precision fills this page, a street perspective of a towering skyscraper. The exactitude of the angles gives the image impossible depth, a dark metal needle threading its way up to a cloud-scattered sky.
Hermione pages through with a gentle touch, past mansions and floor plans, houses and cathedrals. It's drawn with such a deft hand, she can hardly believe it's his work. If he's older than her at all, it's a matter of a year or two, and these look like they were crafted by someone with decades of experience. Suddenly, she feels vastly unaccomplished.
Hermione turns the page and stops.
The second she sees herself on that page, she slams the book shut. She backs away. With a tingle in her fingertips, she paces to the sofa, then to an end table in the corner that holds a fresh lily in a glass vase. Again, she considers leaving.
Her eyes fall on the book and stay there. He drew her. What does that mean? Why is she the only non-building in that sketchbook?
The door creaks open, and she turns. Tom Riddle slips out, clad in a navy blue blazer with brass buttons. Between the cuffed tips of his trousers and his shoes, he wears spats with tiny brass buttons to match. Hermione feels instantly self-conscious about the cheap cloth of her dress and cap. Her back straightens to compensate.
"So. Hermione Granger," he says in a businesslike tone, as if starting an interview. "Hermione. The Winter's Tale?"
"My mother loved it."
"No accounting for taste, I suppose."
"What's your taste?" Hermione asks, tossing an interview tone right back his way.
"If you're asking me to draw from Shakespeare, Caesar. Otherwise, Molière's Misanthrope."
She tries, without much success, to keep disbelief from her voice: "You like comedy?"
"Comedy is the most cleverly crafted engine in theater," he says. "Do you watch many plays, Hermione?"
That must be some sort of joke. Hermione doesn't appreciate jokes at her expense. "Do you think I do?" Hermione says, her voice growing frosty.
"Then why ask?"
Riddle shrugs. "Sometimes I'm not so much curious about the facts as how people treat them. If you were to skirt around the issue and say you haven't been to the theater in a while, that would be an entirely different response than, 'No, I don't watch many plays.' Even though they essentially impart the same information."
"And let me guess," Hermione says. "If I were to skirt around the issue, you would think of me as self-conscious? Afraid of seeming uncultured, I suppose?"
"Something like that. And if you had given the latter response, I would think of you as blunt or disinterested."
"Right," Hermione says. "Not very forgiving, are you?"
"Well," she says, "I'm not afraid of seeming uncultured."
"What did my answer say about me, then?"
Riddle smiles. It shocks her as it did the night before. His face was not built for a smile. "Your answer was a question," he says, "which tells me that you want to analyze me."
"I'm not sure what that—"
He sits down in his desk chair. "No need."
"No need to what?"
"No need to scramble to deflect. Analysis is a valid part of conversation, especially when neither party knows each other well."
"I suppose," Hermione says. "But it seems a bit impersonal, don't you think? Going in with the intent of picking somebody apart?"
"Our minds are always doing that on our behalves. We might as well do it consciously."
It isn't until Hermione finds herself smiling that she realizes she's enjoying the conversation. And why shouldn't she? Their repartee is as deft and quick as a tennis match played by experts. She sits down on his sofa. The cushions are stiff and uncomfortable. As she sits, the ache in her back lights up, the product of too many hours worked too late.
"It's a terrible sofa," he says.
"I wasn't going to say anything."
"You weren't." He dips his head. "So, you are neither blunt nor disinterested, after all."
Hermione shifts, rubbing her back. The twisting motion makes a second stab of pain light up by her spine, and she grimaces.
"Something wrong with your back?" he asks.
"No, nothing. My old job required a lot of, er, twisting."
"Ballet instructor?" he says dryly.
She half-smiles and doesn't answer. A coda drops into their conversation, and Hermione allows herself a second to breathe. She looks down at the worn laces of her shoes. "Why did you ask me here?"
"Look at me."
Hermione raises her head, if only so he can see her indignation. "Excuse me?"
"In polite company, we look at each other," he says. It sounds like a challenge, and she sees one in his narrow eyes, too. He is daring her to do something, God knows what. Feign propriety, maybe? What for? This isn't at all an appropriate situation for either of them, so why pretend?
"Why," she repeats, "did you ask me here?" Looking into his eyes as she asks, she feels as if she's pouring the words into an echoing chamber, and she can see them ricocheting off the walls. She can see him formulating his answer, plucked syllable by plucked syllable.
"People rarely surprise me," he replies. "When they do, I feel it deserves some sort of … mm." He licks his lips, hunting for words. The sight is lewd. "Reward," he finishes.
"I surprised you by breaking into first-class areas. That's hardly praiseworthy."
"That wasn't the surprise."
Hermione opens her mouth to prod further, but decides better of it. Her knowledge of The Art of War was the surprise, she supposes, but if she surprised him another way, she isn't sure she wants to know how. "I looked in your sketchbook," is what falls out of her mouth instead. "I—I'm sorry, I thought it was an actual book, and then—well. Your designs are striking."
He inclines his head, an impassive acceptance of the praise. "How far did you look?" he says, hefting the book.
His lips quirk in amusement. Hermione's hands tighten atop her lap. She hopes she isn't blushing. "Your friend mentioned you're meeting Albus Dumbledore," she says quickly. "Are you looking for a job with him?"
"These are big questions," Riddle replies.
"It's fortunate that I'm nobody important, then."
"Good tactic, well-deployed." He stands, pushing his chair back beneath his desk. Pride creeps into his voice. "But no; I'm already in the employ of the family business. You've heard of Slytherin Industries, I presume?"
"Yes," Hermione says, masking disapproval. It's an old company, Slytherin, in the papers far too often for its own good. Every white-collar crime in the last century has been entangled in its ventures somehow. There's not a businessman who went corrupt who wasn't in Slytherin.
"One of my relatives found me a spot among the ranks," Riddle says. "I owe him a great deal. I'm representing his interests in a business meeting with Mr. Dumbledore."
Hermione's flabbergasted. "Sorry, but how old are you?"
He's not older than her at all. And he's representing the interests of a huge international corporation to one of the most famous businessmen in the world?
"Why do you ask?" he says smoothly, folding his arms across his sketchbook.
"It's nothing." She sighs, leaning back on the sofa. Its back is just as uncomfortable as its cushions. "But you live in an entirely different world than the rest of us, you must know that."
Riddle doesn't reply. He strolls toward the sofa, stopping a few feet before her. She forces herself to glance up at him, her mouth slowly going dry.
"It was strange, drawing you," he says. "I generally focus on structure."
"I could tell. You have an eye for the grandiose." She wishes he would sit down. She can't focus. "Almost too grandiose," she mumbles before she can stop herself.
"Too grandiose? No such thing."
"I—I mean, mathematically, yes."
Hermione holds out her hand. "May I?"
He hands her the sketchbook. She flips it open and pages through, stopping on a lean skyscraper. "This is the one I was thinking of. There's simply no way for it to be feasible from an engineering standpoint. The lateral wind loading at the top would be overbearing; imagine this trying to withstand a storm, you see? Besides, you've drawn in … seventy stories here. Seventy-five. That's past the point that a steel frame would be reliable. You are looking for a steel frame here, right?"
She glances up at him and realizes how much she's said. For a moment, she's worried he'll be angry at her critique, but no. The interest in his eye has gone from dormant to keen.
Hermione wants to apologize, but he must sense it, because he lifts a hand to stay her words. He takes the book back. "I leave minor engineering technicalities to people who have to deal with reality," he says, giving her that charming smile, the one that makes his eyes look hard. "Does the name Thomas Andrews mean anything to you?"
"Yes, the ship's overseer."
"More. The shipbuilder and naval architect." Riddle stands. "Follow me."
"Whose quarters are these?" Hermione hisses, glancing around. They've gone down to the B deck and around a corner.
Tom leans close to the door he's just knocked on. "Druella, it's Tom." He glances back at Hermione and lowers his voice. "Just don't speak unless necessary."
The door swings open, revealing a young, heavy-lidded woman. Her honey-brown hair falls in ringlets over her shoulders. "Tom," she says. "And …" When her eyes alight on Hermione—more specifically, Hermione's clothes—she can't seem to conceal a flicker of distaste.
"This is Druella Rosier, Cygnus' fiancée," Tom says to Hermione. "And Druella, this is Hermione Greengrass."
Hermione gives the tiniest nod. The Greengrasses are a prominent London family filled with print moguls. Where is this going?
"Ms. Greengrass writes for the Times," Tom says. "She's on a story now, in fact, about the ship. Her managing editor's asked her to stay in a third-class berth, and wear … appropriate garb, in order to investigate the living conditions without drawing attention to herself."
Druella's expression clears. "That sounds ghastly."
With Druella's piercing eyes on her, Hermione bobs her head. She gives her best affectation of Tom's accent. "It, er, it is. Rather appalling."
"Well, come in." Druella stands back, holding the door open. Tom and Hermione step into a sitting room with a round table. Bottles of liquor, several shades of amber, stand on a nearby table. "My father isn't here at the moment," Druella says, closing the door. "Or were you expecting Cygnus? I expect he's wandering the deck with Abraxas."
"Actually," Tom says, "I realize this is somewhat unorthodox, but I was hoping Ms. Greengrass could borrow a dress of yours. I'd like for her to join us for dinner with Mr. Andrews this evening, but all her formalwear has been sent ahead of the ship. There is a free seat at the table, I presume?"
Druella flourishes a long-nailed hand. "We'd love to have her. Most of my dresses are in holding, unfortunately, but … well, let me see what I can do." She looks Hermione up and down. "Any objection to tango shoes?"
Not particularly, since I have no idea what those are. Hermione shakes her head, and Druella says, "Come back this evening, then. My quarters are next door. I'll have something ready for you by six."
"Thank you," Tom says. "We'll be back. My regards to your father."
He opens the door, and Hermione stalks out into the hall. Tom follows her out, and the second the door shuts, she turns her fiercest glare on him. "What do you think you're doing here?"
He gives a toothy smile. "A bit of networking. Your fake accent isn't bad, by the way."
Tom starts down the hall, walking quickly. Hermione hurries to keep up. "If anybody asks," Tom says, "your father is Benjamin Greengrass and your mother is María Carmen Greengrass, originally from the Robles family in Barcelona. You lived in Kensington and Chelsea until recently, when you moved to the countryside for—"
"Are you just coming up with all this? Or do you have fake identities on hand for this sort of occasion?"
"Will anybody believe this? Even with some fancy dress, I doubt I'll look like—"
"Repeat it back."
Hermione looses an exasperated sigh. "Benjamin and Carmen Greengrass. Originally Carmen Robles. Family moved from Kensington and Chelsea to the country."
"Excellent," he says, as the thickly carpeted stairs come back into view. "And yes, I think they'll believe it. My friends and their families are extraordinarily good at believing what I tell them to believe."
Hermione frowns. What I tell them to believe … he's an 18-year-old architect; why should they have any stock in following his lead? Shouldn't he be the one catering to their whims and interests?
Tom stops abruptly at the bottom of the stairs. Hermione stops too, and as he turns his eyes on her, the world goes quiet and still. "As for Andrews," Tom says, "get him talking about the ship, and you won't need to worry about proving anything to him."
"Excuse me," she says, "but who am I trying to prove myself to here?"
He smiles. "Good," is all he says.
When Hermione emerges onto the stern deck, she has to duck a stiff rubber football. It glances off the wall and back the way it came. She glares around for the suspect and finds Ginny, sweaty and sunburned, kicking the ball about with a girl their age. The girl has a pointy nose, brown hair tied back in a bun, and a sharp chin.
"Sorry about that," the girl calls.
Hermione waves a hand. "It's all right," she calls back.
Ginny places her bare foot on the ball and beckons. "Hermione, this is Minerva," Ginny says, as Hermione approaches. "Minerva, my friend and bunkmate, Hermione."
Minerva sticks out a hand, and Hermione shakes it. The girl has a merciless grip.
"Good to meet you," Minerva says. She has a prim Scottish accent. "Lovely out, isn't it?"
"Yes," Hermione says mildly. "Although it seems to be raining footballs."
Ginny laughs. "Minerva plays too. We've come up with a game."
Ginny points at the ship's wall. "Ten points if you get the ball to hit inside one of those three rings. And if you hit that bit of gold paint—" She points higher, to a tiny splotch barely the size of a watch face— "it's a hundred fifty."
"How much for each broken skull?" Hermione asks.
Ginny grins. "If it's yours, two hundred."
"Then too bad for you, I suppose," Hermione says, with a smile back. "So, Minerva, where are you from?"
"Caithness," Minerva says, taking a cap from where it's tucked beneath a nearby lifeboat. "My parents sent me to Cork for the last boarding. It's a pity for Mum; she always wanted to visit America."
Hermione can't help thinking of her own parents, working tirelessly at a factory that manufactures dental creams. Someday, she'll make enough money to send for them, so they can join her on the other side of the Atlantic. "Well, glad you made it," Hermione says. "By the way, you didn't happen to be with Ginny last night, did you?"
Ginny's mouth drops open in fake outrage. "All these years, Granger, and you don't trust me."
Minerva's eyes glitter with humor. "We may have bumped into each other belowdecks. Somebody told me there was a telegraph machine down in the hold, and I was curious."
"Well, one of the only things I've brought is a little telegraph machine I built back home."
Hermione raises her eyebrows. "That's impressive! A burgeoning inventor?"
"In some other life," Minerva says. "In any case, I'd picked up a few of the ship's telegrams yesterday afternoon and thought I might compare it to the one in storage. So I went to the cargo holds, and Ginny—"
"—was definitely not investigating the cargo holds," Hermione finishes. "Right."
Ginny shrugs. "Where else am I going to see stuff like that? And hide ridiculous drawings inside rich people's picture frames?"
"Ginny. You really shouldn't endanger—" Hermione cuts herself off, not wanting to be hypocritical. She's done far worse than Ginny over the last 24 hours, after all. Hiding in Tom Riddle's wardrobe. Impersonating a member of the Greengrass family. And in a few hours, she'll be dressing up as one.
It hits her over again what she's doing. If only Harry and Ron were here to go along with her, sneak through forbidden places at her side … but they're thousands of miles away, and she's alone, soon to commit a serious crime alongside a boy she hardly knows.
She wants to meet Thomas Andrews, of course. Even having the option is a privilege like she's never had in her life. But if she's found out, it won't just be her taking the fall. They could put Ginny in trouble, too. Can she really risk all that for selfish ambition?
"Endanger what?" Ginny says.
"Never mind," Hermione chokes out.
Ginny's smile fades, and she says, "Everything all right?" but Hermione is already hurrying off.
At five past six, Tom Riddle is descending far more staircases than he would ever have considered before tonight. With every person he passes, whispers hiss to his sides. In his eveningwear, he strikes something of an intimidating figure.
He enters the third-class common room, his lip curling. He scans the crowds, but he can't spot the Granger girl's puffy hair anywhere among these low-lives. They are so loud, so tawdry. Unable to stand the sight for long, he heads for the door when a familiar redhead backs right into him.
"Oi, look where you're—" The redhead turns, catches sight of him, and goes quiet. What did Granger call her? Gina? Jackie? "Oh," she says. "You."
"Me," he agrees, straightening his jacket. "Have you seen your friend recently?"
"In our room, last I saw. Why?"
"I've washed her handkerchief from yesterday and I thought I'd return it."
"Oh." The redhead's expression clears. "Well, we're in E104, but it's not like that hankie's a family heirloom or something."
He dips his head. "Thank you regardless."
As he sweeps away, his hands tighten at his sides. The lingering scent of stale beer and the sight of cheap fabric have rustled up unwelcome memories. He remembers thin shoes worn through, patting down his bleeding feet with newspaper, and using the rest of the paper to line the soles. He remembers the hard backs of chairs in St. John's primary school, the copper plates inscribed with moral platitudes, and most of all, the years of silence as he bided his time.
He stops in front of a narrow door and knocks.
"It's open, Ginny," Granger's voice calls. Tom slips into a matchbox of a room. A pair of bunk beds stand to the right.
Granger looks up from the bottom bunk and sits up so fast, her head narrowly misses the top bunk's underside. Her face contorts, and her hand flies to her back, rubbing the spot that gave her trouble earlier. "What are you doing here?"
"I don't know," Tom says. "What am I doing here? Did you, perhaps, forget how to tell time?" He pointedly checks his wristwatch. "Because unless I, not you, forgot how to tell time, we're ten minutes late to meet with Druella."
"Ginny could be back any second," Granger says, flying off the bed. She rushes to the door to lock it, and he stands back, folding his arms.
"I already saw her," he says.
"How do you think I found this—" He gestures around at the cramped quarters. "—lovely place?"
"Is that a speck of derision I hear?"
"Specks of derision will get you nowhere. You need volumes to make an impression."
She leans against the door. "I can't do it."
"Do what, make an impression?"
"Can't go to your dinner."
"Perhaps not. If you keep on like this, it'll end before you even get dressed. Now, come on."
Granger narrows her eyes and fires back. "I'm not going up there and impersonating an aristocrat. It won't achieve anything; at the end of the day, no matter how many doors I open as Hermione Greengrass, they'll be closed to me as Hermione Granger."
"I disagree," he says. "It's my hand that's opening the door, and I don't think you understand how firm my grip is."
"Let's talk about that, then. That's the second thing you've said that makes me think you're not quite what you seem." She takes a step toward him, her voice lowering dangerously. "How could somebody my age, talented or not, have made so much of an impression as to be delivered to the company of Albus Dumbledore to make negotiations? Another thing: I may not be a Greengrass, but like the rest of the country, I've heard of them. I've heard of the Malfoys and the Blacks. I certainly haven't heard of the Riddles."
Something like excitement stirs in his chest. There it is—her initiative, raising its head again. Strangely thrilling to see. He leans against the sink, watching her rant on.
"Not to mention that it would be immensely selfish to risk not only my wellbeing but Ginny's. They'll think she had something to do with it, I'm sure, and that's not something I'm willing to tolerate for the sake of a single conversation."
"A single conversation?" Tom says. "Miss Granger, I'm offering a life to you."
"Are you really."
"Why do you care?"
He conjures up an injured expression. "Why would I not—"
"It's not goodwill, so don't pretend it is," she says. "You have an interest. A self-interest. I can tell, and I'd like it explained."
Tom folds his hands, considering the degree of truth he'll let slip. "I see," he says. "I'll be transparent. You didn't ask in my room, but what surprised me about you last night was not only your intellect, but the way it presents itself. With, presumably, zero resources and nothing more than the desire to learn, you manage to come off as a conversational partner on par with my Oxford-educated acquaintances, accent aside. This afternoon, the interest in engineering transformed you from a mere curiosity into someone with great potential usefulness."
He sighs. "However, clearly, you lack the sort of ambition to grapple your way up this social ladder by yourself, or we would both be seated at a dinner table with the most influential people on this ship right now." He spreads his hands. "So, I have taken it upon myself to try and climb the ladder on your behalf. A young talent discovering a young talent? Excellent publicity."
Pretty words, to be sure, but Tom hasn't stated things to their fullest. He doesn't think she's merely clever. He suspects Granger is a bona fide genius, with bottomless potential. To be a self-taught engineer and a factory worker, as her twisted back suggests, takes the talent of a prodigy.
In Albus Dumbledore's prime—a prime that, in Tom's opinion, passed long ago—the man was a prodigy himself, an unparalleled engineer and inventor. Tom is even grateful, to a degree, for the groundwork Dumbledore has laid. But his advanced age and his staunch disinterest in monopolies makes him unlikely to ally with Slytherin Industries in any major way.
Not that he needs Dumbledore's allyship. Tom has allies aplenty. In the preceding years, he's curated his own intimate group of the wealthy, powerful, and most of all, ambitious. Nothing comes more naturally to him than appeasing others' ambition. Accumulating the talented has never been of particular interest—he's talented enough for the rest of them put together—but his world has space for a few notable individuals.
If all goes according to plan, Dumbledore's status at the top of his industry will soon change. It could be beneficial to see a prodigy in their ranks, one who could enjoy a meteoric rise to the top of Dumbledore's business. That is, if that prodigy were on his side.
"I still don't see how to overcome the problem of my identity," Granger says.
"The Greengrass lineage is by far the muddiest of its contemporaries," Tom replies. "Not hard to tie an extra branch onto that tree."
"So you're suggesting I give up my identity altogether?"
Tom doesn't understand. The second he was offered an identity better than the contents of his childhood, he leapt on it. He knew he was special; all he needed was for the rest of the world to see it. How does Granger not see herself the same way? And if all this girl has ever known is poverty, what could her rationale be here? What is making her cling to her past like this?
That mention of her friend. Could it really be simple empathy?
"What if I guarantee the safety of you and your friend?" he says slowly.
Finally, her expression lets a sliver of doubt show. "How can you guarantee that?"
He sighs. So that's it. She's clinging to the people she knows, friends and family. Tom forcibly removed that option from his own life, and he's somewhat disappointed to see she wouldn't do the same. "Well," Tom says, "would you like me to sign a contract?"
"You could easily say I forged your signature."
"Collateral, then," he says, twisting his expensive wristwatch meaningfully.
Granger shakes her head. "Simple as saying I stole it."
The temptation to threaten her is powerful, but he resists. Somehow, he feels that threats might not get him any closer to the goal. Instead, he says, "Then trust me?"
She swallows. Her brown eyes are warm in the light, but discerning. "I clearly don't, or I wouldn't be asking for a guarantee, would I?"
The smile that pulls at his lips is genuine, his irritation overridden by a strange measure of respect. If she were so easily swayed, she might be a flimsy businesswoman. "Then," he says, "trust that my reasons work in tandem with yours, Hermione."
Her name burns on his tongue. He holds her eyes.
Thanks very much for reading! Comments and kudos make my day. :)
Hermione feels ridiculous. The dress is cinched tight at the top of her ribcage, the gauzy material falling in a diaphanous sheet all the way to her feet. The bust is tight green velvet, but the arms are the same sheer mint-white as the skirt. This, she thinks, is like if somebody dressed a goat in a top hat and tails.
She can't look at the mirror. It would be cruel to do that to herself. It's cruel enough meeting Druella's eyes as the young woman snatches Hermione's wrist and spritzes it with some bitter-smelling perfume. "Fragrance is Tabac Blond," she says. "The dress is Jacques Doucet."
"Of course," Hermione says. Thank God. A designer even she's heard of.
"I left two different pairs of shoes by the bed," Druella says. "The tango shoes are mine, but since my feet are small, I asked Alyona Mulciber if I could borrow an extra pair."
Hermione lifts her skirts and shuffles toward the pairs of shoes. She feels like a penguin waddling toward its nest. For some absurd reason, the silk layer under the skirt's translucent sheath narrows toward the bottom, restricting her steps. Who thought that was practical?
"How long have you known Mr. Riddle?" Druella asks, arranging a tulle hat over her high forehead.
Hermione perches on Druella's bed and tries on the smaller pair of shoes, low-heeled and strappy. They fit, although whether she'll be able to walk in them is another question. "Actually," Hermione says, "I met him yesterday. I was surprised not to know who he was, since obviously I've heard of you and Mr. Black. And the rest of his, er, companions."
Druella's painted lips perk up. She pats the tulle one more time before turning away from her armoire. "Mr. Riddle keeps good company. Have you been writing for the Times long, Ms. Greengrass?"
"No; just a few months. I have a feeling they're putting me on this story to break me in, so to speak." Hermione stands, trying to affix a look of mild distaste to her face.
"Mm," Druella says. She waves at Hermione's feet. "Glad to see those fit."
"Yes. Quite new." Druella meets Hermione's eyes, and Hermione holds her gaze. The other woman's eyes are unreadable and hard. Polished shields. If she doubts any of Hermione's story, it's impossible to tell.
"Shall we?" Druella turns toward the door. "I presume Tom has already reached the restaurant. He walks so quickly; God knows why."
Hermione lets out a shaky breath before following.
By the time they reach the restaurant, sharply dressed waiters are pouring wine into glasses all around the long table. Riddle sits to the right hand of a straight-backed man with deeply parted dark hair. Before even catching his Irish accent, Hermione knows that's Andrews.
"Ms. Greengrass," Riddle says, gesturing at the empty chair to his side. Hermione nearly topples over pulling out her chair. The relief of taking the weight off her feet, strapped into the tango shoes as they are, is instant.
"You look brand-new," Riddle says quietly, the words shielded by the fuss being made over Druella's silver gown.
Hermione looks back at him sternly. "Don't joke," she says under her breath. "I'm trying."
"And I wasn't joking." His gaze lingers on the bodice of her dress. "You look striking."
Hermione clears her throat, her cheeks growing hot. "In contrast to before, maybe," she deflects, her voice going high against her will.
The commotion on the other end of the table quietens. Druella has settled between Cygnus Black, who looks as annoyed with the world as ever, and a portly boy-man with the white-blond hair of one of the Malfoy family. To Hermione's right, an elderly woman with voluminous skirts sits beside a man with long hair who is clearly her son; he has her long, sharp nose. At the end of the table, there's a man in his mid-40s whom Hermione recognizes from the papers: Radburn Lestrange.
"Everyone," Tom says, raising his voice, "this is Hermione Greengrass, a writer for the Times. Hermione, you know Druella and her fiancé, Cygnus Black. And …"
"Abraxas Malfoy," introduces Malfoy with a nod. "Always lovely to meet a Greengrass."
Down at the end, Lestrange lifts two fingers. "Radburn, hello."
Tom extends a palm toward the mother and son to Hermione's right. "And these are the ever-gracious Ms. Alyona Mulciber and her son, Iman. Alyona doesn't speak much English, unfortunately."
Alyona looks Hermione up and down, not seeming impressed. Her eyes stick on Hermione's hair, which has frizzed out in the cool air, and she makes a 'tch' sound between her large, square teeth.
"Now, now, Mum," says Iman Mulciber, in a stuffy accent that doesn't for a second indicate non-English heritage. "Be kind." He nods to Hermione. "Nothing but a pleasure, Ms. Greengrass." Hermione dips her head in return.
"Finally—" Tom turns to Andrews. "Our guest of honor, Mr. Thomas Andrews. Ms. Greengrass has quite the interest in engineering. She's delighted to meet you."
"You are, are you?" says Andrews, meeting Hermione's eyes. "I'm happy to talk engineering, although I'm sure most of the table would want to throw us out."
Polite chuckling from the others. Andrews has a loud, cheerful voice, and the thick strokes of his Irish accent crack the atmosphere created by the posh, soft-spoken wealth around the table. As long as she doesn't look away from Andrews—or, strangely, Riddle—Hermione finds she can breathe.
"Hang on," says Cygnus, frowning lightly in Hermione's direction. "You look familiar. Have we met?"
"Briefly." Hermione gives him her best impression of Druella's thin-lipped smile. "On the stern deck yesterday."
"The water accident is how we first collided," Riddle says, swirling his wine glass. "When I returned her handkerchief, she explained that she's been posted to a third-class room in order to observe the third-class accommodations from a more … objective standpoint."
Hermione nods. Cygnus' expression clears, but now Abraxas Malfoy looks almost indignant. "I'm surprised we haven't met before," Malfoy says. "You're from London, yes? I'm quite close with Anaas, Victoria, and Leonis."
"My family hasn't been to London for a decade now," Hermione says, thinking quickly. She tries not to blurt, even though the ideas fly pell-mell across her mind. "We moved from Kensington and Chelsea out to the countryside when I was eight. My mother missed the air, and—er, my father … well, that is to say …"
Riddle says smoothly, "Ms. Greengrass has been telling me about his horrendous schedule. Over the last few years, especially."
The momentary interruption gives Hermione the opportunity to weave her thoughts into something like coherence. "He's a Times correspondent for India," she says, "but he does hate coming back to London from the territories. He gets quite enough of crowds out there."
"Ah," Malfoy says. The vestiges of his frown finally clear.
"India," Druella says. "That must be difficult on the family."
"Travel, difficult on the family?" Malfoy chortles. "I plan to travel as often as possible when I have a family."
"Suddenly," Radburn Lestrange says, "your lack of engagement seems more understandable." He has a quiet, sibilant voice filled with contempt. Cygnus Black snickers.
As the conversation spins away, the pressure behind Hermione's ribs eases. She measures out a slow breath through her nose. That loss of composure cannot happen again.
She trades a glance with Riddle. He says nothing, but lifts one eyebrow fractionally. It just makes this all feel even more like a challenge.
As the dinner wears on, Hermione finds wine-sipping to be the best tactic. Tom does her the favor of asking Andrews about the ship's design and conception, so she can keep her mouth firmly shut, absorbing every word from the Irishman's mouth. She also feels her judgmental glances are strongest when shot over the crystal rim of her glass; she deploys them like weaponry. Besides, she'll never have wine this delicious again, probably, so she might as well have as much of it as possible.
"I'm flattered you like the design," Andrews says, with a broad grin at Riddle. "I've heard about you. Apparently I should be worried about you taking my job soon enough?"
"No need to worry about that," Riddle says, his voice filled with modesty. "I prefer structures that are fixed to the ground, not that I don't admire your work here."
"The luxury is remarkable, Thomas," Lestrange says. "Vast leaps over anything White Star has done to date. So spacious. Feels so …" He rubs his bony fingers together. "Light, strangely."
Andrews gives a chuckle. "Well, I'm glad to hear it. We ended up forgoing the double hull and the watertight bulkheads I suggested. That might be it."
Abraxas Malfoy waves a hand. "As if we'll need them. They've spared no expense on this crew; they remind me of my own servants at home. Top-notch quality, I feel very safe."
Hermione barely manages to keep her mouth shut. First of all, the way Malfoy is talking about the crew reminds her of the way somebody else might talk about amenities, or spaciousness. As if a hardworking crew were comprised of machine parts rather than living, thinking human beings.
Secondly, she wants to turn the conversation back to the double hull and the bulkheads. What made the design crew abandon Andrews' suggestion? A desire for speed, maybe? Or just the look of it? The balance between safety measures and livability on a luxury craft fascinates her. It draws direct lines in her mind to the balance between craft and function in building design. In Hermione's favorite inventions, form and function are married; the piece becomes beautiful in its utility, and usable in its beauty. Like a clear glass bulb framing the filament of an electric light.
The first course turns into the second, and the dinner becomes an exercise in biting her tongue. It doesn't take long for Hermione to realize how overbearing the talk is, how shallow. Everything that comes out is a gentle reminder of status, and it's no accident. The exception is Andrews, who seems used to the sweet poison of the conversation—resigned to it, perhaps—but never engages in it himself. Which is funny, because to Hermione, it seems like he has a hell of a lot more accomplishment to his name than anybody else around the table, even Radburn Lestrange. Lestrange made his millions moving money from account to account, but that hardly seems impressive, compared to the behemoth Titanic. She is a beautiful sculpture.
Riddle, too, is mostly silent, which surprises Hermione. She doesn't know why, but she'd expected him to be the director of the proceedings. Now she's not sure why she thought that. He's younger, alone, and around this large group, he's even soft-spoken. There's something oddly magnetic in his quiet poise. The power of his silence only seems to grow as the night wears on, which may or may not be correlated with the amount of wine Hermione is drinking.
"Delightful, the wine," Druella says, when Hermione finishes her third glass. "Isn't it?"
Hermione hears the pointed tone and forces herself not to bristle. Instead, she responds with a glassy smile—she glimpsed the label when the waiter poured her last. "I haven't had a Cabernet I enjoyed this much since my parents and I summered in Barcelona. They have lovely Italian imports there."
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she hears an imaginary Harry and Ron snorting so loudly, their sinuses collapse. She hardly keeps from laughing, too. The pleasant buzz in her head doesn't help with the ridiculousness of this situation, that's for damn sure, and neither does the bemused look Tom Riddle shoots her.
By the time a roasted crème brulee is placed before her, Hermione has eaten and drunk so much, she feels like her insides are transcending her outsides. She is slowly metamorphosing into a giant, she's sure of it. Her stomach has never been this full.
Also, the world is spinning a bit.
That's just seasickness, though. She's not drunk. That would be a stupid thing, to be drunk.
It's just that the lights are brighter than normal. And everything people are saying seems funnier than it should be, strictly speaking. Also, she can't stop touching the dress' fabric on her lap. It's so clean and pretty, like everybody around the table—she's never been around this quantity of shiny, good-smelling people.
But she's not drunk. Just appreciative.
"So, Ms. Greengrass," Andrews says. "An interest in engineering, but you've ended up on writing? How'd that come about?"
"Family business," Hermione says. "My mother said I should at least try it. She doesn't like the idea of my entering the hard sciences."
"Who's your mother again?" asks Abraxas Malfoy. How old is Abraxas, anyway? Hermione thought the Malfoys married off all their spawn after age sixteen, but Abraxas acts ancient. What is his obsession with lineage? Maybe he's just uninteresting by nature. Or maybe he's drunk. His cheeks are flushed as red as the wine in his glass. He must be drunk. Hermione's glad she isn't drunk.
"… Ms. Greengrass?" Riddle says quietly.
Hermione startles. "Oh, sorry, I was … er, distracted. My mother's María Carmen Greengrass. My father met her in Spain in the late 80s."
Malfoy chortles, sniffing his glass before taking a healthy swig. "Hah! You'd never guess you had Spanish in you. Surprising to see a young lady your age traveling alone—especially single! Very surprising."
"Almost as surprising," Riddle says, "as your parents letting you travel alone, Abraxas."
Across the table, Cygnus lets out his thousandth ungentlemanly snigger of the night. Apparently fed up with subtlety, Druella glares at him. It occurs to Hermione how glad she is not to be engaged. Did those two even want to marry each other? Druella seems too sharp for Cygnus.
The Mulcibers strike up a line of conversation in Greek, and Radburn Lestrange either understands or is making a good show of understanding. With the opposite side of the table now bickering over Cygnus' table manners, Hermione turns to Riddle and Andrews.
Something in her mind—definitely not drunkenness—inspires her to break into the conversation, and before she knows it, she, Riddle, and Andrews are talking craft. It's enough to make her heart pound hard, being this close to a famous engineer, knowing that he conceived the design for this ship. It's enough to loosen her lips.
And over her loose lips spill a thousand facts and figures, mathematically perfect. She can recite the ship's dimensions and statistics, unrounded, as well as the mechanics involved in hundreds of other buildings. Andrews seems delighted.
After what could be five minutes or a full hour, Andrews turns his attention to Abraxas, who's asked about the ship's speed. Riddle leans close to Hermione and says, "Perhaps it's time to let the wine rest."
Hermione looks him in the eye. It's amazing how fast the room seems to shrink around them. They're sitting so close she catches his scent, sharp and rich like blackberry wine.
"I happen to like this wine a lot," she says. Her voice sounds distant. It's as if somebody far away is speaking, rather than her. Somebody far away who trips over the words 'happen' and 'this.'
"I've noticed," Riddle says.
"Right. Good to know your keen powers of observation haven't failed you." Hermione lifts her glass to her lips and takes a deliberate sip. His eyes fix on her mouth, and on the quick flick of her tongue as she takes a bead of wine off the corner of her lips. The room is shrinking again. It's become a bright three-foot box in which there's nothing besides his dark, calculating eyes and the careful placement of his attention.
He looks like one of his own drawings. Perfectly balanced and sculpted. She wonders if there's rottenness at his foundation, too.
Time seems to be skipping. One moment, she's far too close to Tom Riddle's eyes. The next, the men are gone from the table, having disappeared to the smoking room. The next, Druella is asking nonintrusive, if condescending, questions about the third-class cabins. The next, Hermione is following Druella to her room to change back into her clothes.
Druella is so nice for letting her borrow this expensive dress. Hermione doubts she would ever lend out a dress like this, if she owned a dress like this. It takes a lot of effort not to let that sentiment slip out. "I appreciate the loan," she says instead, looking down at her normal clothes. She feels self-conscious, a strange feeling. Hermione has tamped down self-consciousness her whole life—about her hair, her protuberant front teeth, her bad skin clogged with soot particles—because life's never been about all that, has it. She's not going to miss this fancy environment, not at all. She's not going to miss anything that forces her to care about what her feet look like in tango shoes.
She closes Druella's door behind her and looks around the hallway. Some fresh air, she decides. Fresh air to clear her head. Her vision isn't spinning so much as swaying slightly, pushing the world over her in waves. She lifts her wrist to her hand and smells the lingering hint of rich perfume. Smiling faintly to herself, she walks. She's on the next deck up when a voice catches her.
"Excuse me. Miss?"
She turns. It's a crewman, hurrying her way. "Sorry, miss, but you're not supposed to be in this area."
"Oh," she says. "'m sorry, I … I'd come from dinner at the rest'rant, and I—"
"Protocol," he says apologetically. "These are private halls. I'm going to have to show you back to—"
Hermione jabs her finger up the steps at the starry sky. "B-but … s'nice out, all I wanted was—"
"And you'll be able to walk the deck. Just not this one. All right?"
Hermione feels like she might cry. Why won't he let her walk the deck? She's been in this part of the ship all night. It's not fair. Everything is overwhelming. Her head is spinning. No, it's not spinning, because that would mean she's drunk. The ship is just moving more in the water, because—because it's suddenly decided to displace more water than normal. That makes sense. And is scientifically impossible.
"All right," the crewman sighs. He extends an arm. "Just … follow me, miss."
"Pardon," says a voice. They both turn. Tom Riddle is perched halfway down the steps, his hand resting on the banister.
"Where are you taking my cousin?" Riddle says.
The crewman's mouth opens, but it takes the sound a moment to emerge. "Your … your cousin."
"Yes; I promised my aunt I'd let her see my cabin." Riddle strides toward them. "Is there a problem?"
"No," the crewman says. "No, not at all. As long as she's … with you."
"She's clearly with me."
Riddle's voice has turned into a sneer, and the crewman flinches. Hermione frowns at Riddle. "'Scuse me, coz, be polite," she says indignantly.
Riddle looks mortified. He takes her arm and steers her toward a nearby door, which Hermione remembers vaguely as his. The crewman, now bright red, scuttles away, leaving them as they move through the door.
It shuts behind them, Riddle lets go of her arm, and Hermione dissolves in a helpless fit of giggles. "Cousin," she wheezes. "Of all the ridiculous bloody things. As if I look anything like you."
"Cousins don't have to look like each other."
"Christ, we should have used that for dinner. Oh, that's excellent. Cousin."
"You're still drunk."
Hermione scoffs and straightens up. "Perfec'ly sober."
"Right. Recite every known element."
Hermione takes a deep breath. "Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron …"
She doesn't stop listing them, but after a while, she gets lightheaded. She has to sit down on his horrible sofa.
He nods. "As I said. Drunk."
"Rubidium, strontium, yttrium …"
"You can stop; I only said that to prove a point."
"… ruthenium, rhodium, palladium—"
"Hermione." Riddle's crouching in front of her. So close. How did he get that close again? Did he start walking toward her? If he did, she didn't notice. And now he's here.
She's not talking anymore and she can't remember stopping. She also can't remember which element she was on, so she can't start again. That's annoying. She could have done them all, too, in order of Mendeleev's Periodic Law.
But then again, his eyes are dark and close and distracting, and it would be harder with him right there, doing that unfair thing he does where he sucks up her attention like a vacuum. "Who are you?" she blurts out. "Riddle. Is that even a real name? Are you just throwing yourself out into the world as some, I dunno, announced conundrum? 'Yes, hello, Riddle here.' Riddle. Not very subtle, is it?"
He tilts his head, looking amused. Shit, Hermione thinks. When she's drunk, she doesn't lose much coherence; she just speaks twice as quickly as normal. She's starting to think she may be a slight bit tipsy. Possibly.
"No, it's my real name," he says. He straightens up, apparently satisfied that she's stopped listing elements. "You did well tonight, by the way, despite your apparent burgeoning alcoholism."
"Did well?" She stands too, folding her arms. "I forgot it was a test. So, what's my mark? When do I get an evaluation sheet?"
He undoes the button on his jacket, slips it off, and hangs it on the back of his chair. "Patience is a virtue," he says, untying his bowtie with his head cocked to the left. Hermione's hands are getting sweaty. Why is that happening? It obviously has nothing to do with the dark strands of hair slipping across his forehead. Or his jaw tilting at an angle that seems strangely obscene.
The white silk of his bowtie comes loose, and he discards it on the table. He looks back at her, and Hermione's walking forward, then, in the warm electric light, stopping inches in front of him. She tilts her head up. The arches and points of his lips are close and rose and soft-looking. There's a decision in his eyes, the answer to the question of her proximity.
His eyes drink her in. He places two fingers on her shoulder and draws them slowly down until he fastens a tight grip around her forearm. Those fingertips are rough. His hold is rough. He leans down and kisses her, and that, too, is rough, a devouring press that makes her draw in a deep breath through her nose because she must surely be drowning alive in him.
Her hands are in his hair. She's pulling him down and back, and they crash into the terrible sofa and let out twin noises of irritation, and then Hermione's laughing into the kiss and he pulls back, shrugging his black waistcoat and tossing it somewhere. She doesn't know where, or care. The full extent of her attention is one foot away, where Tom Riddle's eyes are turning back toward her, dark and fascinated. And she is fascinated, and knows far less than she thinks she should, really, to be doing this.
After all, Hermione Granger always thinks before she engages. Hermione Granger always plans ahead; Hermione Granger knows every step before it's executed. Hermione Granger does not jump without looking—she is not the type to take this sort of closed-eyed leap off a precipice, because she doesn't know whether there is unforgiving ice at the bottom or dark clear water, but God, the plummeting feeling in her stomach—that's it, that's it, that's what she didn't know she was hunting down.
His lips move down to her throat and she sends a glance down the narrow slope of his back, the juncture where his crisp white shirt is tucked into the belted waist of his trousers. The slippery silk fabric of the couch is pulling her downward. He moves with her, his hands resting on her hips. He untucks her rough cotton blouse from her felt skirt and the warm callus of his thumb scrapes across her skin.
She runs her hand through his hair. It feels like she imagined, and before that second, she didn't realize she'd imagined it, but here it is, thick and soft down to the roots. Fulfilling all expectations of how satisfying it would be to force his head back. She leans up, kissing him again. His teeth tease her bottom lip. She nips back and feels him smirk.
He pulls back. "Do this again tomorrow."
"Do what, exactly?" she breathes.
He sits up. "Come to dinner. Meet Dumbledore. I want you there."
Hermione lets out an unintelligible stream of syllables, sitting up too. "But," she says.
"But? You're saying 'but' to meeting the world's most famous engineer, who would murder to hire someone of your caliber?"
"H-hire?" Hermione squeaks. Suddenly she thinks she must be dreaming. She is being offered a spot at the table with Albus Dumbledore, and it's being suggested that he might hire her, and also, she's just finished kissing the handsomest person she's ever seen, and she doesn't even know if 'handsomest' is a word. And yes, all right, she's drunk, dammit. Very drunk, actually. "But," she says, "don't I need some sort of connection, or—or a name, or—"
"I'm your connection. Now that the others know you, they won't question it, so—"
"Hold on a minute, was that the test?" Hermione says. "Whether I could fool your friends?"
"'Friends' is a stretch."
Hermione laughs. One of her shoes slips on the sofa cushion. It probably shouldn't be there. She pulls it off, chucks it to the floor, and says, "You know what? All right."
"All right?" Then there's a thirsty, excited light in his eyes. It's unnerving, but as he moves closer, she stares back unafraid.
"All right," she repeats. At the moment, she doesn't care what his motives are. He's handing her a life's dream on a silver platter. She can worry about his hazy background later, about the way he's treated their every interaction like an intricate business deal. Maybe it's the adrenaline, the wine, or the way her lips are tingling in the aftermath of kissing him, but she doesn't feel a shred of apprehension in saying yes.
"You mustn't back out again," he says, putting one hand on the back of the sofa, leaning forward. "No delays. No wavering. This is Dumbledore. Everything has to be perfect."
"I know what I said."
"Well, you're drunk."
"I know; would you stop reiterating—"
"But I am also drunk," he says, "so I suppose fair's fair."
Hermione mouths wordlessly, the picture of indignance. "You hardly had two glasses!"
"I don't have tolerance for the stuff. Never drink it if I can help it, but I didn't want you to be the only embarrassing one at the table."
Her mouth drops open. "I was not—"
Tom leans in and kisses her. She kisses back, pushes forward until somehow, wonderfully, she's straddling his lap. His fingers undo her blouse and he pushes it off her shoulders. She starts removing his shirt, her nose knocking clumsily into his cheek, and when she sneaks a breath in-between kisses, the scent of him pours over her tongue, filling her up. His shirt is open. She slides her palm up his chest and draws a nail back down to the mark of his navel, and his long fingers unclip her brassiere, letting her breasts hang full and naked.
He shifts, moving her back to the sofa, and wrestles her volumes of hair out of the way. She slings her hands around the back of his neck and tugs him down on top of her. His knee lands between her thighs, pushing her skirt up, and he leans forward to tease his teeth gently over her earlobe.
"Maybe I'll ask you to draw me again," Hermione whispers into his ear. The ceiling spirals overhead.
"I might have to ask you to wait," he murmurs. The texture of his voice scratches across her body, sending heated darts up her back.
That's when a small clock on his desk lets out a cheery 'ding!' She freezes.
"Wait," she says, sitting up. She casts a wild glance around, and her eyes land on the clock.
It's midnight. Bloody midnight. How did time slip away that quickly?
"No. No. No, no, no—" Hermione whirls off the sofa, snatching up her bra and blouse. "Ginny will be so worried."
"Frankly, fuck Ginny," Tom says.
"No! I always badger her about being on time because she never is and I always am, and God she is never going to let me live this down—"
"You put your bra on inside out."
"—be quiet!—and where is my shoe?"
He points under the table, sighing. "You'll have to pay for this, you know," he says.
Hermione shoves her shoe on, looks back at him sitting on the sofa shirtless and messy-haired, and grins. "Not a problem. 'Til tomorrow, then."
When she wakes up, she's surprised that it doesn't feel like a sledgehammer is repeatedly slamming into the back of her skull. She has a dim memory of falling back into their cabin past midnight and sticking her head in the sink, drinking so much water she got sick, and repeating the process until her body felt like a huge bloated water-sac. Which was horrible at the time, but now seems quite prudent, and she's rather proud of herself for such appropriate thinking.
Then again, now there's the issue of Ginny Weasley standing beside her bunk, tapping her foot. Literally tapping her foot, as if she's trying to be a parody of her mother.
"Erm," Hermione says, sitting up.
"And where were you?" Ginny-Molly says.
"I'm sorry, Ginny, I really am. I—I lost track of time, and—"
"You are lucky I was asleep when you crawled in, or I would've given you an earful." Ginny-Molly folds her arms. "So? Out with it."
"I …" Hermione hangs her head. "I snuck into the library."
"Don't look at me like that! The first-class passengers have a library, and there are people in there all day, so—so I visited it." These last twenty-four hours, Hermione thinks, she has done more lying than in the last twenty-four months.
"God, you are so tragically boring," Ginny says, back to normal. She lets out a disbelieving laugh. "I was waiting to hear you'd broken into someone's cabin and stolen a diamond necklace, or something. Or at least gone down to see the cargo."
"Maybe I'll do all that this afternoon. There's time."
Ginny sighs. "All right, well. I'm going to lord this over you until we both die, I hope you know."
Hermione gives her a pained smile. "That is what I expected, yes."
By noon, any vestiges of hangover have cleared. Hermione sits on the side of one of the public walkways, the sea breeze filling her hair, and starts writing a letter to Ron.
She's not sure whether she should tell Ron about Tom. Unless something truly miraculous happens at this dinner with Dumbledore, her life will still be the same when she leaves this ship. And that life is not one that involves people like Tom Riddle. He'll fall out of her life quickly and easily, and everything will be simpler, and she'll look back on these strange memories aboard the Titanic in thirty years with fondness.
But there's that tiny chance that Dumbledore could take a shine to her. Or that Andrews might remember the writer with the knack for numbers and figures. Will she stay in touch with Riddle then?
She can't picture this in the future. The pair of them together seems like an event that should be confined to narrow halls and berths, a secret held in the sea's blue palm.
"Ms. Greengrass?" says a voice. Hermione looks up.
"Mr. Black," she says, standing. "Druella. Lovely to see you."
"I see you're back in disguise," Cygnus says with a shudder.
"Care to walk with us?" Druella says. "We're going back down to my quarters. I've heard you're joining us tonight, and I thought you might like to try another dress."
"That'd be wonderful," Hermione says, surprised. Druella doesn't seem … warm, exactly, but Hermione didn't expect the woman to show her anything but disdain, so this is an improvement.
Ushered past crewmen to the first-class decks with a nod from Cygnus, Hermione ends up in Druella's room again. The scent of perfume clinging to the air recalls the reeling sensation of drunkenness; Hermione straightens up, trying to shake it.
Druella offers Hermione a gray gown with a light corset. Before the mirror, Hermione sheds her dress, holding the corset to her torso, and Druella starts tightening the strings.
"I know you're a fake, by the way," Druella says, tugging the strings.
"Wh-what?" Hermione says, staring at Druella's face behind her in the mirror. "A fake what?"
"You can drop the accent." Druella looks amused. "I know why Riddle's brought you in."
You do? Because I don't, and it would be lovely to know. "Right," Hermione says. "Well, then."
"The only thing my mother cared about teaching me was breeding," Druella says, sounding bored. "I know how to spot old money; I know how to spot—ugh—new money … and I know how to spot a fake when I see one. I'm good at it, too. Spotted it in Riddle when nobody else did."
Druella says it like she assumes Hermione knows something about his past. "But he's … so good at covering it," Hermione says carefully.
"Oh, he has the blood; no mistake. Some old family that's died out by name. And he's very good at his affectations and his manners. Quick learner." She tugs the strings tight. "But I'll tell you, when Cygnus and I met him first, he had these horrid staring habits. Hardly ever spoke, and when he did, he had the accent that place gave him."
What place? Hermione wants to ask. For whatever reason, though, Druella thinks she already knows far more than she does, so that question is not available. "Where did you two meet him?" Hermione asks instead.
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" Druella gives a dismissive flick of her long-nailed hand. "It's never particularly interesting where Riddle gets his recruits; it's more the 'why' of the thing. And you, you're clearly the talent. It's funny; he never really gives a care for talent, usually. He goes after moneybags and politics." She goes back to the corset. "I suppose he's found an exception."
"His … recruits," Hermione repeats.
"Whatever you want to call yourselves. Business partners. Friends. Minions. I don't know." She draws the strings tight. Hermione sucks in a breath, and Druella lowers her voice. "All I know is, I would not question that man if you held me at the point of a pistol. And if I were you, the second we land, I would get out of this while you can."
Thanks very much for reading! Comments and kudos make my day. :)
Tom's life is spread across his desk. He's kept every scrap of paper from his eighteen years on this earth, from his admission slip to Hogwarts Boarding School to his graduation papers. Every telegram, every letter, is painstakingly categorized. He has the first letter he ever received from Salazar Slytherin, informing him of why, exactly, Tom wound up at Hogwarts Boarding School, when he certainly didn't apply. Most treasured is the letter from Slytherin informing him that Riddle is his most direct descendant, and—as such—his heir.
Tom has years' worth of communication between himself and Slytherin—letters that continued until fifth year, and, in the wake of that year's events, broke off. They didn't pick up communication again until less than a year ago, when Slytherin's secretary informed him that Mr. Slytherin had taken sick. Too sick to write—he can only wheeze through a telephone these days.
With other people, Riddle is brutally unsentimental. However, when it comes to himself—his own past, his own history—he finds himself making a careful collection of everything that matters. He is the curator of the museum of his life; it will, after all, be a legendary one.
Usually, he keeps it all tucked into a black briefcase. That call, though, yesterday—if Slytherin has finally settled on the terms of his will, it must mean there's been a turn for the worse in his health. Soon enough, Tom will inherit the Slytherin empire, and that means he must be prepared for a tsunami of public scrutiny like nothing he's ever encountered.
As much as he has become attached to these fragments of paper, they have to go.
He shuffles the stack into a neat rectangle, picturing what these papers will look like scattered over the edge of the ship. Like seagulls losing their flight, maybe, white darts flapping down into the dark water.
Three sharp knocks on his door pull his attention from the stack. He freezes an instant before replacing it in his briefcase, snapping it shut, and sliding it beneath his desk. He crouches, leans forward, and wedges it behind the desk itself, leaving it all but invisible.
When he answers the door, he's surprised to find Hermione Granger standing before him, looking slightly out of breath.
"I've changed my mind," she says.
His stomach swoops. He's already adjusted his plan for this dinner to include her, and the prognosis looks far more favorable than it did before.
"Changed your mind about?" he says smoothly, accumulating arguments in his head. He will persuade her through any means necessary to come tonight.
"I want to see the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," she says.
Relief rushes through him. He does not let it show. "Well," he says, "I think that can be arranged."
The stairs are starting to wear on him, as is the increasing presence of crewmembers, third-class passengers, and other such unsavories. This ship plumbs so deep into the ocean, burying millions of pounds' worth of valuables in millions of gallons of seawater, separated only by that thick hull.
Finally, they reach the lowest floor, where crewmembers give them confused glances before Tom casts them off with a look. They pass doors that emit refrigerated blasts, doors through which he spies huge volumes of food, doors of the crews' private cabins.
"We don't need to ask anybody if we can look at it?" Hermione asks.
Tom holds up a key in answer. The Rubaiyat has been placed under watch in the same safe as a particular ring, carrying a stone that has been in his family for a long while. Thin grates separate his item from the others, but that's a simple fix.
They enter a room whose entire back wall is taken up by the switchboard, the power center of the ship. The operator's quarters were a way back on their route; here, a long row of identical white handles stretch down the board. Above the handles, dark fuseboxes and ammeters adorn the board, one for each circuit. Hermione lets out an embarrassing squeak and dashes over to examine the switchboard, peering at it from every angle, having apparently forgotten about the Rubaiyat entirely.
"Ooh, I wonder how much it would take to disrupt this," she says, pulling open one of the black panels beneath a circuit. A pair of cables snake behind it, off into a tunnel, delivering electricity to be subdivided further on.
As for Riddle, he wonders what it must be like to have so many questions about such menial things cluttering up one's head. Perhaps it's what makes her brilliant. He likes to think he was born with his desire for information never superseding his composure, however, and Granger certainly doesn't give a care for composure. Her face is illuminated by the switchboard lights, eager, thirsty. Her bushy hair spills down her back. She keeps moving, always moving, always pushing and investigating.
Kissing her was like kissing a live wire. He wonders if she regrets it.
It's strange. A few days, and already he feels as if he has known her for years.
He pushes the door to the cargo hold open. She looks back at him, an uncertain smile touches her mouth, and she follows.
"Hmm," she says, holding the delicate glass case. "It's pretty."
"It's more than pretty. Think of what it's worth."
They sit on the ground in front of the safe. The Rubaiyat sits in Hermione's lap. Jewels set deep into its leather cover glisten up at them, dim and dull in the shadowy air of the cargo hold. "I expected it to be … bigger?" Hermione says, handing the book back to him.
"Still unsatisfied," he says, sliding the book into the safe again. "What a shame."
Hermione stands, looking around the cargo room. She shivers visibly in the refrigerated air. He feels the strange, sudden instinct to warm her. To cage her with his arms until the cold is the last thing on her mind.
Crates and boxes rise and fall against the walls and in tight-strung bundles, forming small wooden cities across the dark metal plain. Hermione approaches one, a blocky cluster, and climbs atop the crates, moving nimbly despite her cumbersome skirts. Hooking his hands into his pockets, Tom follows her to the crates, but doesn't climb.
"I can't believe how much there is in here," she says. "It's strange, isn't it? Everyone's lives all packed in like this."
Riddle doesn't know or care what she's talking about, but he's curious why she's asking. There's always a means to an end, he's found, when people have talks like this. With his acquaintances, it's often easy to discern that end. With Hermione, he's less sure.
Of course, she might just be talking to fill the space. That would be uninteresting of her.
"Is your life down here?" he asks, stopping in front of the tower of crates she's perched on.
She sits, folds her legs, and peers down at him. "Of course not. My life fits in the suitcase under my bed. But look at this." Her sharp eyes dart from place to place. "Cars and pianos and – what is that? Telegraph machines?"
He glances over his shoulder. Yes—near the door, an honest-to-God telegraph machine sits on a rolling wooden square. "Did you expect the rich and famous to abandon their lives at the doorstep?" he asks.
"Of course not. I simply didn't expect myself to see it all like this."
Riddle sighs, climbing up onto the cluster of crates. The dry, cold wood creaks beneath his shoes. And as he climbs, block by block, he almost understands what she means. Looking out over the bundled crates like this, he can see each particular space designated to somebody's life's work. That corner, over there: where the Malfoy fortune sits snugly against the wall. Over there: Cygnus' inheritance. Everything looks paltry here, even containers worth millions.
"It does look rather … diminished like this. No presentation." After one last summary scan, he climbs back down, settling in a blank space in a ring of crates. The metal floor eats away his body heat through his trousers.
Fabric swishes as Hermione follows him down, sitting against the crate beside him. "What is it like?" she asks abruptly. Curiosity burns in her eyes. "Being … how you are?"
He looks down at his hands, splayed on his expensive trousers. This is an inconvenient topic. She thinks he grew up this way, obviously—it won't do to discourage that notion.
Maybe … after all, there's a certain flair to abandonment as he wielded it during his school years. Most people clearly felt a tug of empathy, learning about it—knowing him as an orphan, somebody brilliant but discarded. The worthiest possible creature to rise back to the top. It was a convenient angle in his younger days.
But looking back into this girl's eyes, her burning eyes, he realizes he doesn't want to lose the way she looks at him. Right now, it is the perfect mixture of frustrated incomprehension, curiosity, and desire. He doesn't want to illuminate the dark spots in her mental image of him. She already knows so much—he rather enjoys it, he realizes, that she knows so little about him. He enjoys being her only enigma.
A smile curls his lips. "You'll find out in my inevitable bestselling memoir, won't you."
She grins back, showing a sliver of crooked teeth between those usually-busy lips. "I suppose." She looks down at her nails, picking at the nailbeds. "You know, I've no idea if anything will come of all this, but I'm glad we met. It's so … educational."
Tom lets out a sharp laugh. That was how he used to see his time at Hogwarts before he knew the truth about himself. Every second, he'd used to study the wealthy children, examining the way they spoke and held themselves. I may never be like them, he thought at age twelve, but I can build a persona that comes close. He didn't know he was destined to rise above them all.
How dismal it must be, not to have long-buried family secrets like his own. Looking over at Hermione, he experiences something rare: the feeling of pity. He pities this girl, bursting with knowledge and skill, trapped by her disgusting circumstances. It's a miracle she's managed to convince herself her life means anything, and yet it's clear in the way she barrels through the world, demanding, headstrong. The stubborn belief that she matters.
She might matter, this one. Just for believing it so fervently. Everyone is so disposable, so thoroughly dispensable, but this one … maybe she matters.
"What?" she says. "You're looking at me like."
"I don't know. A crazy person?"
Tom shakes his head. "Strange, sitting here. On the floor."
She raps her knuckles on the metal between their legs. It doesn't echo.
He takes her hand.
He feels her go still, and it delights him, the easy, immediate attention. Her hand is small and work-worn, her nails ragged from biting; her wrist and forearm are smattered with freckles.
Tom lifts her hand to his lips and kisses her knuckles. He turns it over and examines her callused palm. He kisses its center. Kisses her wrist. He glances over at her, and she's staring as if she's never seen him before in her life.
Lowering her hand, he leans forward slowly. His eyes are fixed to hers. He can see her mind racing and it wrings pleasure out deep in his abdomen. Her frantic, buzzing thoughts. The closer he leans in, the tighter her hand closes on his—as if she is begging him to be her lifeline against his own stormy waters.
He stops his kiss a centimeter away. She parts her lips slightly. A fragile breath wisps across his mouth from hers.
"What are we, er, doing?" she whispers.
Riddle chooses a kiss in place of an answer. He does not like explanations. For all that she accused him last night of naming himself a riddle and embodying it just the same, he likes to think he is simple at heart. The world is a kinder place with a black-and-white view: money is might. Anything that moves toward that goal is acceptable. Anything that distracts from the goal is useless.
She is not a distraction, he tells himself, until he believes it.
Her lips press insistently. He tilts his head, letting her tongue slip through his lips to touch his. She kisses in bursts, capricious and unconfident, and he finally lifts his hand to her face, his thumb pressing against her jawline, his fingers gripping the back of her head. Holding her there. He bites her lip, and the tiny noise she emits makes something grow hot beneath his stomach.
Riddle slides his arm behind her back, turning her to face him. He clasps the woolen waist of her skirt and half-lifts, half-maneuvers her onto his lap. She takes his face in her hands, palm-to-cheek, and for a split instant between kisses, they meet eyes. He has to close his. This is far too close.
It's not his first go around with any of this. He had his share of fumbling around with Hogwarts girls in corners of the towers, after hours. The boarding school had four separate houses, two boys' and two girls', supposed to keep their populations apart. As if that would have worked in any conceivable universe. During one particularly memorable night, a girl had snuck into his house common room long past midnight, when he was the only one still awake studying. The studying had not lasted long after that.
He had never even stooped to consider what was happening in those girls' heads. They hadn't cared about his personality either, so he extended the exact same lack of courtesy. Now, he realizes, it is different to know who exactly you are kissing. It is too much to know Hermione's brilliance and be kissing her. It is too much, and it is objectively imprudent, and something is lighting up in his body besides arousal, and even with all this, he cannot stop. Her mouth is sweet and warm and soft. Her knees are on either side of his thighs and pressing inward. Her hand is deep in his hair, moving back and forth, sending prickling ice from his scalp directly southward.
The kiss breaks with a gentle inhalation, and her eyes open as she draws back. "It's funny," she says, sounding hoarse. "Druella told me to stay away from you."
He's amused. Druella's never been fond of him—they tolerate each other, nothing more—but to tell Hermione to stay away? "Did you tell her about what happened last night?"
Her cheeks go brilliant red. "No, of course not. Though she … is very perceptive, so she may have guessed."
"Hmm." Riddle taps the corner of his mouth with his index finger, pretending to think. Hermione's eyes dart to his mouth, and he could swear he sees her pupils dilate. It's all he can do focus on the question, rather than pushing her back on the floor to resume business. "Well," he says, "perhaps you should tell Druella to go back to her horrible fiancé and leave the private affairs of others to privacy's capable hands."
Hermione laughs. "Cygnus isn't horrible."
"You're right. I can't even muster the energy to hate him. He is like a growth on the surface of the world. One can hardly blame him for metastasizing."
She laughs again. Her amusement satisfies him. He wants more of that laughter. He wants to tear it out of her. Instinctive, knee-jerk laughter, and other instinctive noises.
"Enough about Cygnus and Druella," Tom says. He lets his hands rest on her knees. She shifts, releasing the fabric, and his hands slip beneath her skirts. Her thighs are soft, so soft, and as he presses his fingernails lightly into them, she swallows. His grip tightens just above her knees, and he leans up to kiss her again.
With her weight on his legs, it doesn't take long for his feet to go numb. He pushes forward, hands fastening on her hips, helping move her back. She grips his shoulders as she sits, and soon she's on her back, and gives a delightful little shiver at the coldness of the metal.
He kisses her neck, trying his damnedest not to leave marks. One of his hands splayed on the floor beside her, the other unbuttoning her blouse, he nips at the skin above her collarbone. Her hand is wound in his hair. She pulls. She's demanding. This makes sense.
"You're the strangest person I've ever met," she says, the words a ragged whisper.
"Mm," he murmurs, flicking his tongue across the hollow between her collarbones. "Explain." He finally pulls her blouse open.
"I get the sense you need something," she whispers. "But you won't just bloody ask. Instead, there's all … this."
Her brassiere is thin cotton. The series of hooks down the middle look specifically designed to drive the user insane. Resisting the urge to tear it open, he brushes his thumb over the peak of her breast until her nipple strains at the fabric. She shivers again and lets out a frustrated noise.
"Sorry for the lack of explanation." He kisses her again, and when she kisses back, he tastes her frustration.
They break. "You're simply distracting me," he says. It is a bit too true.
Some remaining sense of propriety—and the extreme discomfort of the flat metal—stops them from having lurid sex on the floor of the cargo hold. They collect themselves before exiting. They walk briskly back into the heat.
On the way back to the regular decks, Hermione takes a twisting route through the engine rooms. Tom nearly protests—think of the clothes, after all—but she's determined to see the champing pistons, and he ends up following, because if he doesn't, she'll probably get arrested.
They spend so long in the sweltering engine room that by the time they climb back up the steps, they're both drenched in sweat.
"That was amazing," Hermione blathers, going on about the beauty of large machinery. Her hair has puffed up in the heat. She has a huge, idiotic smile on her face. Riddle, trying to arrange his hair and smooth down his suit, fundamentally does not understand how her mind works. She doesn't just have no shame; she appears to have no self-concept whatsoever. No idea how she comes across to the rest of the world. Or if she does, she has made a damn good show of concealing it.
They wind up back at his room by four o'clock. "Some preparations for tonight," Riddle says, shrugging off his jacket and waistcoat at long last. "You and I will be meeting Dumbledore and a few of his colleagues. It is imperative that we give a good impression; as such, I've told Cygnus and Abraxas to keep their mouths closed as much as possible."
Hermione nods. "I'll do the same."
"No," Tom says. "No, that won't be necessary."
Tom strides into his bedroom to change into his bathrobe. "Cygnus and Abraxas," he calls back into the stateroom, "are businessmen. Businessmen hate nothing more than other businessmen; they are an implied threat. You, on the other hand, are no such thing. You are an asset."
He emerges, bathrobe on. She's leaning against his wall, her arms folded, her eyes critical. "Am I there to make you look good?" she asks.
Riddle gives her a thin smile. "Among many other, more important things, yes."
He heads for the door, and she follows. As he shuts the door behind him, Hermione checks quickly down the hall, leans up, and kisses him hard.
Riddle blinks quickly, bemused. "What was that for?"
"A thank you," she says. "Now, I'm off to wash."
"I'll see you at six o'clock," he says, before striding down the hall.
Hermione peers back around the corner just as Riddle disappears into another hallway.
She darts back to his unlocked door, slips into his quarters, and lets herself release a victory sigh. Leading him through the engine room like that, she's gotten him filthy enough for him to be washing up for a while. She has time.
Her heart drums rapidly as she looks around. Where to start? Where might there be some clue as to what Druella hinted—some buried past, something out of place …
Hermione slips into his bedroom and turns on the light. She hunts through the drawers and back of the armoire; she checks every space in the chest. Nothing of interest.
She exits back into the stateroom. Where does he keep his journal? Maybe there's something else in there, something she missed.
She hurries to his desk and pulls out each drawer. As she crouches to pull out the bottom drawer, her eyes catch something at the back of the desk: hiding behind a sleek wood panel is a defined shadowy corner.
Hermione pushes the desk chair away and crawls beneath. She reaches behind the wood and pulls out a black leather briefcase.
She opens it.
Hermione sits hard in the desk chair, sets the stack of documents down, and starts to do what she does best: read. She keeps one eye on the clock, but it's hard. It's all here, chronologically ordered as if to make her perusal as easy as possible. It's enough to make her paranoid.
She finds her first surprise in the address on the first letter. To: Tom Riddle ... under the care of an orphanage.
So that's what Druella meant. He wasn't just some outsider to their clique of hyper-wealthy oligarchs. He'd been raised with nothing.
She opens the letter and pulls out the thin sheet. Tom was accepted, thanks to a wealthy patron, to Hogwarts Boarding School at age eleven. Probably where he met Malfoy and Black, she thinks, moving on.
Then her eyes meet the second shock.
Salazar Slytherin. A letter directly from Salazar Slytherin to Tom. What business does he have writing to a twelve-year-old?
Reading the letter, her mouth falls open. Something seizes her throat, stilling her breath.
He's the heir to Slytherin's empire.
He's not some architect genius signed on by his more important friends—he is the most important person on this ship, besides maybe Albus Dumbledore himself.
She moves on, her fingers trembling. Letter after letter after letter—the correspondence from Slytherin continues until 1909. Tom must have been … fifteen, then? The final letter from Slytherin reads:
Do not panic. It is unbecoming. They will not find out; there is no evidence to make you suspect in the eyes of the authorities. If you remain calm and self-assured, there is no reason blame should find you.
If you experience feelings of guilt, be reassured: she should never have found out. She could not have been allowed to know; or, at least, to know and live. You acted with prudence.
For the time being, it is best that you not reply to this message. Frequent communication may endanger you. In the interim, I would advise the careful selection of a likely scapegoat, or the planting of some other evidence (an infestation of poisonous spiders; a toxic substance, &c.) in a location secret enough to maintain subtlety, but obvious enough for the cretins of our law enforcement services to uncover. Until this shadow passes, I remain -
Hermione's hands have gone from trembling to a violent shake. She turns the page. The next document is a carefully inked diploma of graduation from Hogwarts Boarding School. After that is a telegram, marked less than a year old, tucked into a small brown envelope. She draws it out.
SAL TAKEN SICK STOP MONTHS NOT YEARS LEFT STOP CALL SOON 62442
That telephone number must be Salazar Slytherin's own line. Hermione slides the telegram back into its envelope.
There is one more item in the briefcase. A clipping from a newspaper: an obituary.
Tom Riddle (42), Jacob Riddle (71), and Elizabeth Riddle (68) died the evening of July 7 th , 1911 in the elder Riddles' home. Although not survived by any relatives, the Little Hangleton Church mourns the loss of three faithful community members. Open service to be held Friday. Policemen wish to note investigation ongoing.
Spots burst in Hermione's eyes. She puts the papers together, replaces them back in the briefcase, slams it shut, and gasps for breath. It comes down her throat cold.
She wedges the briefcase back behind the desk and slips out the door. She's sprinting before she turns the corner.
Thanks very much for reading! Comments and kudos make my day. :)
The dining room is private, set off from the main area of the restaurant by a filmy divider. It does a surprisingly good job at keeping the voices in.
Dumbledore has two advisors. Tom, including Hermione, has three. But Dumbledore's keen blue eyes, set like jewels beneath his receding auburn hairline, make Hermione feel as if her party is outnumbered by at least a dozen. Dumbledore wears a perfect black suit which makes him look as thin as a poker. He is surprisingly small in real life—she expected him to be . . . well, not taller, but just larger somehow, expanded to be larger than life.
They sit in staggered order, according to Dumbledore's wishes, so as not to stare across the table at each other like adversaries. Dumbledore heads the table, of course, but rather than having his companions flank him, he seats Abraxas to his left and Cygnus to his right.
Beside Cygnus is a young, sallow man with greasy-looking hair bound back in a black clasp. This man Dumbledore introduces as Severus Snape. Opposite him, beside Abraxas, is a thirty-something man who is Severus Snape's opposite in every way: where Snape is gaunt, the other neatly straddles the barrier between fat and obese; rolls of his generous stomach spill out of his stylish coat. Where Snape's mouth is chiseled downward, this man's lips are stretched in a permanent smile. Dumbledore introduces this man as Horace Slughorn, and Hermione perches to his right-hand side.
Finally, across from Hermione sits Tom Riddle, who looks like a different person altogether than the one she said goodbye to not three hours earlier. She looks at him and sees some serpentine creature wearing dead layers of skin, refusing to shed his layers of secrets.
She can't stop wondering who he disposed of in his fifth year to keep a secret. All three of his remaining relatives murdered at once—was that his handiwork, too? It seems to follow, if he has a history of violence.
"I hope the voyage has treated you well so far," Dumbledore says. He has a surprisingly soft, gentle voice, speaking every word like a careful letdown.
"It's been excellent!" Abraxas booms. "Beautiful ship, just gorgeous. And we couldn't be more excited to put in at New York, of course."
"Yes," Cygnus drawls, his head bobbing. "It's been far too long since I've been stateside."
You're nineteen, Hermione thinks. How long could it have been? And Hermione thinks she sees Severus Snape's lip curl, as if in silent agreement with the thought.
"I'm sure White Star has extended you every courtesy," Riddle says, dipping his head. His voice is placid—a balance between meek courtesy and professional confidence.
"They have, they have," Dumbledore says. He offers the table a kind smile, his half-moon glasses winking in the light. "I have the pleasure of having the berth closest to the fore. A pleasant view of progress. And the staff—so accommodating! They have given me everything from a private tour of the kitchens to a new pair of foxy slippers. They are like bunny slippers. Except they are foxes."
Hermione chokes on her wine. She sets it down as Horace Slughorn thumps her on the back.
It doesn't feel real, sitting mere feet from Albus Dumbledore. He is the type of man who is so famous that millions of people, people he will never meet, have deeply-rooted opinions about his personality. Publicly, his demeanor has been described in the papers as "understated," "underwhelming," and "insane," depending on the journalist. Already, Hermione can see why he left each of those impressions.
"I must ask," Dumbledore says, "for the courtesy of postponing business talk until after we have enjoyed our meal. I often find that roast birds complain going down, if surrounded by boring words."
He then releases an alarmingly accurate imitation of a duck honking. Hermione chokes on her wine again. Cygnus joins her this time.
It isn't hard for Hermione to keep her head down during the bulk of the dinner. She doesn't know any of the people they're discussing—higher-ups in Slytherin Industries' ranks, no doubt. She's never visited any of the places they discuss, either: Paris, mostly, for which Dumbledore seems to have a particular fondness. And it's always been easy for Hermione to stay quiet when her mind has a puzzle to chew over.
Since she shut that briefcase and fled, she's been trying to concoct a plan. Albus Dumbledore mustn't be suckered into forming an agreement, let alone a partnership, with a murderer. Most importantly, Dumbledore has to know that he's dealing with Slytherin's heir.
Hermione knows her mission. She has to find some way of communicating with Dumbledore before he signs anything, before he makes any contractual promises. The problem is how.
Morse code? She knows Morse; she could tap it on her plate with her fork. Except that would be incredibly unsubtle.
She could excuse herself, write a note, and slip it to Dumbledore on the way back …
Except that if Riddle saw her, he might kill her.
This is insane, screams a voice in her head. Death threats? Buried murders, concealed identities? Before this godforsaken boat, the most intrigue she'd ever had to deal with was Harry's secret love for Ginny, which, while rather exciting, actually, did not induce nearly this much anxiety.
Hermione realizes Riddle is looking right at her. Her stomach twists. He tilts his head, a hint of a smile lifting his lips, and she gives him a nervous smile back, thanking the heavens it's natural for her to be nervous in this environment.
Druella was right. She needs to get out of this while she can. She needs to relay what she knows to Dumbledore, and then escape the clutches of this whole situation.
When she looks at Tom Riddle, and when she imagines herself having kissed him, a cold vine twists around her heart. She can't suppress the memory of his hand splayed warm at the small of her back, or the taste of him, or the sharpness of the air as they collided. He is seared all over her body. She is burning with him.
The evening wears on. Her cushion of time withers, shrinks, and vanishes altogether. Finally, as the waiters clear away their plates, panic threatens to take her over completely.
Slughorn unleashes a hearty belch and pats his stomach. "Ooh! 'Scuse me, dear," he says, glancing over at her with a winning smile. "Forgot we had a lady in our presence."
"Quite all right," Hermione manages.
"I hope the following discussion will be kept off the record, Ms. Greengrass," Albus Dumbledore says, regarding her. It's clearly a gentle joke, but she can't quite manage a laugh. It would turn to hysterics.
Instead, she says, "Strictly confidential, of course." She pleads with her eyes. I'm not a Greengrass, she wants to blurt. And Tom Riddle is a murdering psychopath who's set to be your opposition within months.
Dumbledore doesn't seem to notice. "Excellent," he says, rubbing his beard, which is peppered with silver hairs. He leans forward over the table. "Time to talk."
Hermione can feel Riddle's hunger radiating out from him. It's the smallest change in his posture. The darkening of his eyes. And when he speaks, his voice is just a tad too throaty. She wouldn't be able to tell the difference if she didn't know what his desire looks like.
"Well, Mr. Dumbledore," Riddle says, "I'm here on behalf of Salazar Slytherin's interests."
"Yes," Dumbledore agrees. "And why is that, if I may be so bold as to ask? I would be interested to know who you are to him, Mr. Riddle."
"Naturally," Riddle says, folding his hands on the white tablecloth. "I am Mr. Slytherin's new chief architectural advisor."
"Hmm. You're quite young, aren't you?"
"But, might I add," Cygnus chimes in, "Tom gives himself far too little credit. The world at large agrees on his brilliance. In fact, his youth is a large part of what makes his ideas so exciting, so appealing. His designs are quintessential twentieth-century post-nouveau modernism."
Dumbledore gives Cygnus a gentle, almost patronizing smile; it seems to deflate the younger man entirely. "I don't question Mr. Riddle's talents," Dumbledore says. "I'm merely curious that he should rise so high within the ranks so quickly. Is there not a Mr. Black, one of your relations, who currently holds the chief advisor post?"
Cygnus nods. "My great-uncle. Unfortunately, he's been taking sick with greater and greater frequency. Mr. Slytherin has been hunting down a replacement for some time."
"I see." Dumbledore and his advisors look back to Riddle. He, Slughorn, and Snape move with eerie coordination, like Cerberus' three heads.
"You're a Hogwarts man, is that right?" Dumbledore asks.
"Yes, sir," Riddle says.
Dumbledore's brows furrow. "I heard about some unpleasant business there a few years ago."
Riddle nods, his eyes downcast. "Dreadful, actually. A girl in my year passed away when we were fifteen—a fast-acting spider bite. Nobody around to get help."
Push it! Hermione begs silently, but the topic soon passes. With every question Dumbledore asks about Riddle's qualifications, she prays he'll stumble upon something unsavory, something revealing. But no such luck. Riddle has every loophole tied up tightly.
"You do seem disproportionately well-qualified for your age," Dumbledore finally says, his voice neutral. "The question remains, it would seem: what is the idea you promised to bring to our table?"
"Yes," Riddle says. He glances around. "Abraxas, Cygnus . . . I'd like to ask you to leave."
Hermione's heart quickens. Abraxas and Cygnus trade mystified looks before standing. "Of – of course," Cygnus says. "Will you—"
"I appreciate all your assistance thus far," Riddle says, "but I would like to speak with Mr. Dumbledore in the quietest of settings."
Hermione starts to rise, but Riddle glances her way and gives the tiniest shake of his head. She sits back down, heart pounding now. He's dismissing his lieutenants but letting her stay? What possible reason could he have?
"Please, accompany these gentlemen out, Horace," says Dumbledore. "And then if you'll return to my room and enjoy a few lemon drops? Severus and I are quite able to handle this alone."
Slughorn nods eagerly, rising, and ushers Abraxas and Cygnus around the divider.
As they disappear, Dumbledore's eyes glimmer. The man has a palpable genius; it echoes down the table toward her. He is thirsty, as she is, for information.
"I am afraid," Riddle says, "that I haven't been entirely forthright with you gentlemen."
Snape's black eyes glitter. He folds his arms.
"Go on," Dumbledore says.
"Firstly, I am not set to be Mr. Slytherin's new chief architectural advisor. That is the story I've been asked to circulate." Riddle sighs. He looks hard at his hands, folded in front of him. "But I wished to tell you the truth: I am to inherit Slytherin Industries. Mr. Slytherin is unwell, and has been for years. His health has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and I am first in line to replace him by birthright."
Silence takes the table. Hermione can't breathe. Why is Riddle telling Dumbledore this? Wasn't it his greatest advantage, to hold this card under the table, pretend this meeting wasn't in his most selfish interest? With a horrible, hopeful pang, she wonders if she might have misinterpreted all she read in that briefcase. Could the obituary have been incomplete? The telegram was certainly vague enough . . .
"Secondly . . ." Riddle turns his eyes, to Hermione's horror, onto her. "This is not Hermione Greengrass. Her name is Hermione Granger, and I wish to bring her on as an engineer for Slytherin."
Hermione tries not to gape.
He wants to hire her for Slytherin? What happened to Dumbledore looking for recruits like her?
A sick feeling washes up at the back of her throat. Escape, says Druella's voice in the back of her head.
And yet—Hermione can't help imagining a position as an engineer high in the ranks of an industrial giant. With a personal knowledge of the CEO, no less . . .
No! she scolds herself. She can't let something as petty as personal ambition override what she knows about Riddle. How could she support him? She would never.
She swallows, trying not to look flustered. The more important question is this: what is Riddle getting out of ruining her cover?
Riddle sighs. He looks belabored. "I must confess, in my short time in the company's ranks, I've grown to realize a central failing of Slytherin Industries: its elitism. My superiors laud my modern sensibilities, but fail to embrace the modernity of hiring outside the same twenty-eight names. Prewett. Nott. Bulstrode. Weasley . . . in order to introduce Ms. Granger to my colleagues, I've had to pretend she is somebody else entirely. This is a ridiculous business practice, and one that should be cast aside as a remnant of the nineteenth century."
Dumbledore's face stays perfectly neutral, but Hermione can tell his mind is tearing apart this new information.
"My concept for the future of this company," Riddle continues, "entails combining as well as fracturing. I wish to pair Dumbledore Steel with Slytherin Industries—to forge us together, if you'll pardon the play on words. In order to create stronger bonds of trust, I endeavor to change Slytherin's power structure entirely. Instead of a hierarchy composed of simpering networks of old money, I wish to introduce a wealth of new blood. Why not entrust a project to a talent like, say, Ms. Granger's? Nobody would dither over her capability if her name were Greengrass."
He speaks fervently. Passionately. Hermione doesn't believe a word of it.
Snape's eyes, to Hermione's reassurance, are narrowed in the utmost distrust. He stares at Riddle as if trying to look directly into his brain.
When Dumbledore speaks, he picks through his sentences carefully. "Firstly," he says, "I must ask something. It sounds as if you're suggesting a trust between our two businesses, which, as I'm sure you know, violates the United States' Sherman Act of 1890."
"A trust? No, no," Riddle says. "Monopolistic victory is no victory at all. I'm merely suggesting a newfound era of cooperation. Granted, of course, that we offer a competitive price for your supplies and services, you would turn first to us when it comes to sales. And in turn, granted that you offer the same high-quality product I expect from your company, we would turn first to you when looking for a purchase."
Dumbledore is silent. He gazes at Riddle for so long that Hermione starts to feel uncomfortable.
Riddle sighs. "This is, in other words, an effort to break the silent but undeniable rift that has grown between our corporations. It's at the point of a virtual embargo, and it's tiresome and inconvenient for everyone."
It's the right answer. Dumbledore inclines his head. "Yet you clearly realize," he says, "that Mr. Slytherin's business practices have for a long time been the reason for this rift."
"I do," Riddle says. "Which is why I asked Ms. Granger to join us tonight."
I'm a bloody peace offering, Hermione realizes with a jolt. She's a chip in a billionaire's game, being offered gently as an 'improved business practice.' Riddle is holding her up as an example of what Slytherin is missing, given its current favor for family name above ability.
Should she feel insulted? Used? Part of her feels a bit flattered, which she hates.
This promise Riddle is making can't be real. That sort of populist idealism can't be offered up by the murderer she glimpsed within the pages of his briefcase.
"Ms. Granger," Dumbledore says, "do you have an opinion on any of this?"
Hermione doesn't meet Riddle's eyes, but she can feel them burning into her.
"I've never needed to have a head for business," she says in her regular voice. It's a relief to let the accent disappear. "So, from that end of things? No opinion. But—" She does look at Riddle, then, and the tension in his face nearly steals her breath.
She loses the sentence for a moment. What was she going to say? Was she going to blurt out something dangerous? He could kill you, she reminds herself. He's done it before.
"But," she repeats, "a change of direction within Slytherin's practices does sound . . . ideal."
"Diplomatically stated," Dumbledore says. He looks back to Riddle, a faint frown on his features. "My only question is one of motive. You, young man, have been served wonderfully by the nepotistic practices of present-day Slytherin. Why change things?"
Riddle opens his mouth, then closes it again. A flash of a torn expression darts across his face. Even that, Hermione thinks, is controlled. "I was raised with no knowledge about my heritage," Riddle says. "I grew up in an orphanage, an impoverished and underfunded institution. I know the feeling of mobility." His tongue wets his lips, and his voice quietens. "Truly the sensation of ascending into heaven." When he looks back at Dumbledore, he looks young, but serious. An earnest child. "I don't think it's my place to deny that to anybody else."
Dumbledore looks as though he has been handed a long and difficult equation, to be solved instantly. His frown is full-fledged, now.
"I must admit," Dumbledore says, "I have hoped for many years that Slytherin might see this sort of change from within. Such a powerful group of people, so set on exclusivity for so long—that is societal poison, Mr. Riddle."
Riddle inclines his head in slight agreement.
Hermione hears the unasked question in Dumbledore's voice. Isn't this all a bit too convenient?
He doesn't trust Riddle either, she realizes, with a triumphant taste in her mouth. He can tell there's something off about the whole gambit—he and Snape, who still looks sour. Hope pulses in her chest—surely they will realize Riddle is just saying everything Dumbledore wants to hear. They'll realize there's some sort of catch; there has to be.
"Severus," Dumbledore says, looking to his advisor. "Shall we discuss this privately?"
Snape nods. Riddle stands, glances to Hermione, and she follows him out behind the divider. They lean against the wall in the corner of the restaurant. Most of the other patrons have left, now. The staff whisks white cloths from tables and dusts off the arms of chairs.
The look of concentration on Riddle's face is so tightly wound that it hurts to see. Hermione realizes she is terrified of what might happen if Dumbledore says no to his proposal. She imagines Riddle angry, and it is like imagining a sun collapsing in on itself. The density of the power. The inevitable explosion.
Riddle glances down at her. "What do you think?" he says quietly.
Hermione speaks past the knot in her throat. "I mean … it's an appealing idea. Making peace with Dumbledore."
"I meant about working with us," he says, turning toward her. "Working with me."
Hermione looks up into his shadowed eyes. "You could have given me some warning about that," she says.
He gives her a flash of white teeth. "Where's the fun in that?"
She forces herself to hold his eyes.
"It's a serious offer, of course." He folds his arms. "One I'd be very happy for you to accept, Hermione."
Her name rolls from his tongue like hot water. She is scalded by it.
"I . . ." Concealing every trace of discomfort, Hermione smiles faintly. "How could I say no?"
He places a kiss to her forehead. The stranglehold of his attention gone, she lets out a slow breath of relief.
When Riddle draws back, he says nothing more, just clasps his hands, leans his head back against the wall, and waits. The seconds turn into minutes. After what feels like a quarter of an hour, Snape appears at the divider's edge and crooks one finger in their direction, beckoning them back in. Dumbledore stands at the end of the table now.
Snape looks impassive. Hermione holds her breath. They both looked opposed to it before. There's no way they'll agree.
"Yes, I think, is my answer," Dumbledore says.
Hermione's heart sinks down, down, down.
Riddle is manic with satisfaction. He has the contract in his hand, swearing his Goodness and Virtue. It's a throwaway piece of paper, of course, this ridiculous contract—but Dumbledore's signature is there. It will be so exquisitely easy to forge on the proper contract, signing all ownings, holdings, and subsidiaries of Dumbledore's company over to Slytherin.
He has Snape's signature here, too. With Snape in his back pocket, of course, he can get the hook-nosed double-crosser to sign anything he wishes … but it is nice to have his signature on record just in case some blackmail needs to be done.
Snape promised the deal would pass. Riddle almost didn't believe him. Foolish—Snape is an excellent worker. Sly, and secretive, and no attachments. Not anymore.
There's only one more variable that needs to fall into place this evening.
He walks with Hermione back toward his quarters. She's been so quiet, so nervous, this whole evening. He supposes it's natural—after all, she's leaving her old life behind. Still, her stillness irritates him. He wants the world to burst with elation on his behalf. Everything is going exactly according to plan, and there is nothing more beautiful than a perfectly executed plan.
"Thank you," he says, as they walk up a set of stairs onto the promenade. "Your presence may have been the deciding factor. It is one thing to make so many promises, and . . ."
"Another thing entirely to keep any of them," she says.
"How exactly do you plan to break the news to the others? Cygnus and Abraxas?" She slows. They stop, eventually, by the white railing. The sea breeze floods his nose with salt, flicking a frothy spray across his brow. This late, the promenade is deserted.
"Once I've taken over the company, I think they'll find it quite hard to disagree with me." He lets humor touch his voice. The corner of her mouth barely lifts.
He touches her chin, angling her face upward. Her eyes are stormy in the darkness. A pair of unreadable tumults. "Don't trust me?" he muses.
"You're a businessman," she says. "I don't think anybody has ever really trusted a businessman, do you?"
He kisses her hard. Turns her against the rails. She pushes back against him, as if afraid he'll take her over the edge. It's amazing how quick it would be, he thinks, if he wanted it to happen. So quick and simple; a question of balance.
"Hermione?" says a voice.
They break apart. Tom turns.
It's the redheaded girl, staring askance at them. Hermione's eyes are wide. She makes an unintelligible, flustered sound.
"You shouldn't be here," Riddle says.
Ginny doesn't even look at him. Still staring at Hermione, she backs up, and finally turns tail and flees.
"No, no, no," Hermione says under her breath. "I have to go."
She breaks into a run. Riddle doesn't try to stop her.
Hermione flies after Ginny and around the corner. Then she runs down the stairs, abandoning the chase after Ginny.
Thank God—finally, an excuse. And she offers double thanks for Dumbledore virtually serving her his room number on a platter. The foremost berth in first class, he said. She has to get there as quickly as possible. Can he rescind his signature somehow? He read over the document so carefully—still, there must be a loophole in there. Something he missed.
Her feet ache, still wrapped up in Druella's tight shoes. She races down corridor after corridor and finally ends up at the front of the first-class area.
Left or right? She glances over her shoulder and knocks quickly on the door to her left. To her relief, Dumbledore answers, wearing a robe and his slippers, fluffy imitations of foxes.
"Ms. Granger," he says. "This is a surprise."
"May I come in?" she says, breathless. "Sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I have to—"
"By all means." He pulls the door wide and steps back, admitting her. The room is a perfect double of Tom's, from horrible sofa to gleaming desk. Dumbledore sits at his table, where a few golden baubles are arranged. He taps one with his fingernail. It emits a strange, shimmering sound, like shivering bells, and he pets it until it calms down.
"What brings you here?" he asks.
She takes a deep breath and lets it pour out. She can't quite look at him as she recounts every detail she read.
"—and I don't know what happened to his family, not really, but I think given the rest of the things I saw, it's quite safe to assume something horrible happened there at his hand, too!"
Finished, Hermione takes a deep breath. Dumbledore's face is unreadable. He doesn't look horrified, as she expected. He doesn't even look surprised.
"Sir?" she says.
"Yes," he says, and holds up a box of lemon drops. "Lemon drop?"
He shrugs and puts one between his lips. "Thank you," he says, "for delivering this information. Now, I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."
"Wh-what?" Hermione's hands go cold. "But what are you going to do? What if he tries to hurt you?"
"I assure you, Ms. Granger, everything will be all right. But you really must leave. I am expecting company quite soon, and it will not do to be wearing foxy slippers."
Hermione mouths hopelessly, but stands. She leaves the room in a state of shock. Did Dumbledore know already? Nobody could react to news of a murder like that unless they already knew . . . right?
Hermione returns to Druella's room and changes back into her regular clothes, a relief for her pinched toes. She wanders back down toward the third class areas, ready to explain to Ginny what she saw.
She opens the door to their room and freezes.
Tom leans against the wall across from the door, his expression blank.
"Hermione," he says. "It's strange."
"Wh-what's strange?" she replies, but she looks at him and she knows.
"Did you think I would, for some reason, neglect to have somebody posted near Dumbledore's rooms?" He leans forward, taking his hands from his pockets. He inspects his nails. "That would be an egregious oversight."
A whirl of ideas flies in a hurricane through her mind, tossing out sentences she could use to deflect. What are you talking about? I don't know what you mean. Why would it be an oversight?
But in the end, the only thought that sticks is, He knows.
And she runs.
She flings herself down corridors. Maybe her legs are shorter, and maybe her skirts are getting in the way, but she can't imagine Riddle is in any sort of shape to be giving chase. Still, she hears his footsteps behind her, hitting the hall floors in sharp rhythm.
She sprints down a staircase three at a go and realizes where her legs are taking her. Perfect.
She climbs down a ladder, darts through a corrugated steel arch, and runs through the engine rooms. The champing and steaming rise around her with the protests of workers. She can't even gather the breath to squeak out apologies—she's gone practically before their words reach her.
And still, when she emerges into a hallway, she hears him following.
Hermione starts to realize, then, that she might die down here. She starts to realize she should have gone to the most heavily populated area—a common room, maybe, or even to the navigation rooms. Somewhere the staff would rescue her.
But no—that wouldn't have worked either. She looks like a ragamuffin again. Riddle could so easily say she stole something of his, drag her away, and dispose of her.
Hermione gasps for breath as she bursts into the cargo hold. The cold washes over her, turning her sweat to chill. She turns, slams the door shut, and shoves the nearby telegraph machine in front of the door.
She backs away, and a voice makes her jump a foot high. "Hermione?"
Hermione turns around. Ginny stands halfway across the cargo hold, her eyes peeping above a tarp-covered car. "Oh, thank God," Hermione gasps, hunching over. "I thought he'd gotten to you."
"What? What do you mean? Are you all right?" Ginny says, starting to move around the car.
"No, stay there!" Hermione rushes across the room, grabs Ginny, and pulls them both back to the ground behind the car. "That man you saw me with is dangerous."
"He's the one I spilled water on," Ginny says.
"Yes. He's also a murderer, and the heir to Slytherin."
Ginny goggles at her. "All right. Explain this one."
Hermione babbles, letting details run out in an unintelligible stream. The library meeting. The briefcase. The dinner with Dumbledore . . .
"All right, hang on, hang on," Ginny says. "So he's after you? He knows you're in here?"
"Then we've got to get out. We have to find someone who'll help. Will Dumbledore know what to do, you think?"
Hermione bites her lip. "I don't know. Maybe. I can't think of a better chance …"
Then a merciless bang comes from the door. A fist on the metal.
"All right," Ginny says. "We'll split up, yeah?"
Hermione nods. "I'm sorry. I should've told you, I should have—"
Ginny hushes her. "Yes, obviously you should have, but you didn't, so now we're going to deal with it like this. Got it?"
Hermione's heart stills. Ginny's eyes are serious and trusting. She wants to throw her arms around Ginny, then, but she just nods.
Another bang from the door. The unmistakable timbre of Riddle's voice comes through afterward, but it's a meaningless jumble of sounds, the words undistinguishable.
They curl up smaller behind the car and brace for another hit, one that might dislodge the telegraph machine.
And then a new, terrifying sound rings through the room. The low, dark groan of something massive disturbed. Then a bone-deep, screeching, tearing noise. Everything lurches. The cargo all around them shudders against its rope constraints, and Hermione and Ginny are thrown to the floor with a jolt. Hermione scrambles back behind the car and claps her hands to her ears—everything is scraping and shifting, painfully loud—but she still feels the sound in her chest, and her heart breaks into a sprint.
Then it's quiet again.
"Hermione," Ginny says. Her voice is faint. "Was that—"
But the telegraph machine has slid away from the door, and it bursts open, framing a tall, lean figure in the rectangle of yellow light.
"What do we do?" Hermione breathes.
Ginny hushes her. "Wait for him to get properly into the room," she whispers. "Then we split up and get to the exit."
Hermione nods, her throat tight. If only she were better in a pinch—her head is crowded with worries and fears. "If that sound was what I think it was," she whispers, "y-you have to get to a lifeboat. I need to get to Dumbledore's room—I think he's in danger—I'll meet up with you as soon as I can, all right?"
Ginny nods. They wait a long minute. With every second, it becomes more apparent something has gone horribly wrong with the ship. There is a wrongness in her inner ear, an imbalanced tug of gravity, an inexorable tilt. Crates start to strain against their ropes again.
Riddle has picked his way halfway through the room, looking around for his prey. He comes to a halt.
"Go!" Ginny hisses.
They break into a sprint, darting out from opposite sides of the car. Riddle charges forward. He moves terrifyingly fast, like a panther, ugly rage disfiguring his handsome features.
Red hair snapping out, Ginny bolts over a pile of crates and toward the exit. Hermione darts the other way, and Riddle's hesitation gives her enough time to skirt around a pair of grandfather clocks.
Ginny is in the threshold—darting away—gone. Hermione is almost there—
She's out of the cargo hold, sprinting past the switchboard—
Riddle crashes into her, knocking her to the ground. He pins her there. She starts to scream—and then Riddle's hand is wrapped over her mouth, smothering, horribly strong.
"Do you know what that sound was?" he says quietly. The hair on the back of her neck stands up. He's leaning down, speaking into her ear. "We've hit an iceberg, Hermione. The ship is going to sink."
She struggles. He reaches over for the switchboard, and then something thick and rubbery is being bound around her wrists. Cords from beneath the switchboard.
Riddle turns her over, looping the cords around her torso a couple of times for measure. He clamps his hands around her shoulders and lifts her to sit against the wall. Then he sits, cross-legged, opposite her, admiring his handiwork.
"Beautiful," he sighs. "This is all so terribly convenient, you know. Hardly even qualifies as a murder. I doubt you'd make it out anyway. You remember what Andrews said about the lifeboats? I doubt half the people aboard will get out alive."
"You're sick," Hermione spits. "You're disgusting."
"Maybe." He tilts his head. Then he leans forward. She turns away, and the kiss lands on her cheek. It burns.
"Don't let that be your last kiss," he says, voice filled with amusement.
They look at each other. Point-blank range. He glances down at her lips, then back up to her eyes. "It's a shame," he says. "I thought—"
She grits her teeth and slams her forehead into his temple. He jerks back, his hand flying to the spot. Then he stands, unfolding, looming over her.
"It'll be slow," he says, "and painful. Drowning is not like falling asleep. It is like rupturing, all at once. That soft, delicate, tissue of your lungs being compacted by ice." He turns. "Enjoy it."
Then he's gone. The door slams shut behind him, and she hears the clank of the deadbolt on the other side, locking her in.
Hermione realizes exactly how much the ship is leaning. It feels wrong deep in her head, like being suspended over the ledge of something. Think, think, think!
A groaning sound comes from the ship's steel bones. Panic washes white through her mind. What would Harry do? What would Ron do? Ginny?
She opens her mouth and screams. She screams until her vision goes black.
Then a sound stops her. She looks over at the door to the cargo hold and realizes the telegraph machine has bumped its way into view, sticking through the threshold.
A desperate, last hope lights up her blood. She throws herself against the makeshift restraints, thrashing against the cords that hold her in place. Eventually, they loosen enough for her to work one hand free, and soon she's on her feet, her mind clear as glass. No doubt in her head what she needs to do.
She wheels the telegraph machine out, slams the cargo door, and crouches back by the open switchboard. The cords are completely incompatible with the telegraph machine's plug—but if she can short-circuit the switchboard currents, route some electricity through the telegraph machine instead, maybe she has a chance.
She pulls the switch above the cords, finds the nearest sharp-looking piece of metal, and starts to rub the cords.
Hermione's breathing slows. She sinks into a stupor of sorts, her mind icing over. The only thing left is the goal. Soon enough, she has a few frayed wires sitting dangerously on the floor, coaxed out from their rubber coats, and the telegraph machine's wires are bared, too. Her hands are red from yanking the cords back and forth until they gave.
Hands shaking, she twists the wires together, stands, and flips the switch.
The machine comes to life. A deep breath rushes out from Hermione's lungs, and she starts tapping out a message.
SOS LOCKED IN CARGO HOLD SOS LOCKED IN CARGO HOLD SOS LOCKED IN CARGO HOLD
Hermione hears something, and it chills her so thoroughly, she stops tapping. The distant sound of water.
She forces her hand not to shake. She starts tapping again.
Will anybody in command even be able to receive her signal? They must be sending distress signals of their own; they must be receiving signals from nearby ships. What's the range on this machine, anyway? It's not large, hardly broader than her and not even as tall …
Minutes dart by with terrifying speed. Hermione begins to cry. She sniffs a bit. Her tears bubble up and over erratically, tears of panic more than anything else.
That's when the water begins to creep under the door.
Hermione bites her lip until she tastes blood. She snatches up the electrical cords, rips the ties apart, and shoves the cords back behind their metal door. She slams it and begins to cry in earnest.
The water comes faster now, sloshing toward the far wall. As it runs past her shoes, a rush of cold penetrates the thin leather. She stands motionless, watching the water creep higher and higher.
I'm never going to see Harry or Ron again. All the Weasleys, waiting for her: they will read her name on a list of buried dead, lost to the freezing water of the Atlantic. She will never see her parents again. She will never find a new job or a new life. She will lose it all here; she will—
A clank comes from the door. She starts back to life.
The water is around her ankles, now, and she can hardly feel her toes. "Help!" she screams, running for the door. Water splashes up around her as she hammers desperately on the door. "Please, let me out!"
And when the door opens, Minerva McGonagall stands in the threshold, sharp-nosed, gimlet-eyed, the most welcome sight Hermione has ever seen.
"Minerva?" Hermione squeaks. "How—"
"I was packing up my machine and it picked up—no time. No time—run!"
And they do, white foam frothing up behind them. The hallway is a river streaming mercilessly toward them. They sprint upcurrent, and all around them is the cool, rushing sound of disaster on its way.
Thanks very much for reading! Comments and kudos make my day. :)
The bowels of the ship are mayhem. Icy greenish water hisses against the base of warm equipment while machines champ and steam high overhead. Panicked male voices echo in the dim air, overlapping so Hermione can't make out a single word.
"One boiler room is already sealed," Minerva yells over the thrumming turbines as they fly through the engine room. "The front three cargo holds, too. All flooded."
"And the rest?" Hermione yells back.
But Minerva doesn't answer, for at that moment they burst from the engine room into the rearmost boiler room. Crewmembers are pumping water out of the compartment. Others, astonishingly, are still working under directions boomed out by a foreman, even as seawater sloshes up to their knees: "Reduce the fires! Vent! Vent out the steam!"
Hermione knows that the lower decks are divided into sixteen compartments. The Titanic could stay afloat with three, possibly even four compartments flooded. With one boiler room and three holds flooded, maybe the crew will be able to pump out enough water to contain the breach.
They have to, she thinks.
"There," Minerva yells. She points ahead to a notch of pale light atop a set of iron steps.
They hurtle pell-mell toward the exit, running through water so cold that Hermione can no longer feel her toes. Soon enough they're climbing. Hermione's soaked shoes squeak and slip on the stairs. With every step, she thinks a new prayer. She's never been religious, but if there's any chance that any god might hear her thoughts and show some mercy—let them pump out the water, she thinks. Or, if that's too much to ask—let us all escape with our lives. And if even that's too much—let Minerva live. Let Ginny live.
The thought of Ginny makes Hermione push herself even harder. Surely the ship's crew will load women and children aboard the lifeboats first, but Hermione's mind automatically retrieves the facts: there are only twenty lifeboats. Even packed to capacity, they'll hardly hold half the people aboard, and Ginny is a third-class passenger.
They're nearly to the door now. Hermione imagines the raw destructive power of the ocean, probing eagerly at their weaknesses, barely kept at bay. Deep groans resound around the ship's interior. When she reaches the landing at the top of the ladder, she can't resist a glance back.
The world is askew, tilted into bizarre angles like a surrealist's nightmare. At the very pit of it all, down in the hell Minerva saved her from, streaks of light play upon the shifting surface of black water.
Dread fills Hermione, making it hard to breathe. Looking into the rising water, she knows there's no hope. It can't have been longer than half an hour since impact, but soon enough, the ocean will surge to the top of every sealed compartment and spill into the others. If the crew can't vent the steam from the boilers quickly enough, the icy seawater will rupture them with the firepower of explosions. Eventually the ship will take on such weight that it will be unable to bear the load, and then … then …
"Hermione, move!" Minerva seizes her forearm and yanks her through the exit. They enter a small metal antechamber, and from it, emerge into the upper decks.
The transition is so disorienting that they both stop in their tracks. Hermione blinks rapidly, feeling like she's toppled into a dream, or like she's just awoken from one. Their feet squelch on clean, dry carpet. The lights are steady, the halls empty and peaceful, everything disturbingly normal. If she weren't already aware of it, the tilt of several degrees in the ship's angle might not even be noticeable to her. The brutal sounds of below are sealed away entirely.
She exchanges an unnerved look with Minerva. "This way," Minerva says, and they break back into a run.
In the second-class area, Hermione hears ship's stewards calling for passengers to put on their lifebelts and evacuate to the boat deck. To her shock, though, the people wandering out of their rooms don't look disturbed at all. They seem faintly irritated, as if they think this is a joke, or some kind of unnecessary drill.
"What do they think is happening, exactly?" Hermione hisses as they bolt toward the third-class cabins.
"I don't know," Minerva pants. "We heard it happen up at the fore—like the ship tearing in two. They must not have heard it back here."
"Did you see Ginny?"
"No, I was in my room until I heard you. I was trying to listen to the transmissions."
While they run the maze of halls, the listing of the ship becomes more and more noticeable, pulling down at Hermione's inner ear. Voices start to echo from all sides, and she becomes unavoidably aware of the fact that she and Minerva are running downhill.
Stewards redirect them multiple times. She's starting to panic about how long it's been since impact. Can the ship last two hours, three? How long do they have to reach the lifeboats?
She can't shake the image of the gradually rising water in the boiler room. The realization penetrates into her core: she dodged death that narrowly. If Minerva hadn't happened to use her equipment at that precise moment, Hermione would be treading water already, close to drowning soon, exactly the way Tom Riddle planned.
The thought of him hits her like a jab to the solar plexus. Tom Riddle. Riddle, laughing and teasing as he left her to die. Riddle, looking at her with a kind of fond regret, as if toying with the idea of remorse, his face as cruel and elegant as a hawk's.
He, and all his fellow first-class passengers, will surely get through this alive, and when they do, he'll have won the game, the murderous, treacherous snake.
Hermione's teeth are gritted, her heart thumping hard, as they burst into the third-class common room. Frantic passengers scramble past her and Minerva. Some are clutching bits and pieces of their luggage. Others have abandoned everything they brought to this place. A few families, to Hermione's disbelief, are seated on top of their trunks or clustered in chairs, looking around meekly, hopelessly, as if waiting for someone to descend from on high to show them the exit.
Then, in a distant corner, Hermione sees a freckled face.
The sight of her punctures through Hermione's numbness. "Ginny!" she cries.
Ginny's face turns toward her. Behind her freckles, her skin is white with fear, but at the sight of Hermione and Minerva, relief breaks over her expression. She sprints for them and flings her arms around Hermione. "I didn't know where you were," she gasps. "I didn't realize—I thought—"
"Never mind that now." Hermione pulls back from her. Her mind has gone strangely clear. "There's a door with a metal handle down that corridor," she says, pointing. "It leads through the crew's passageways, and then a fork leads to the restaurant. Go through the restaurant out to the boat deck. You'll have an easier time if you're not fighting all these people to get outside. Then you go to the lifeboats."
"What do you mean, you go?" Ginny demands.
"Where exactly do you intend to go?" Minerva says, her grey eyes flashing.
"I'm sorry," Hermione says breathlessly. "No time to explain. I'll see you soon. Go. Go!"
As a fresh tide of people crushes in on them, splitting them apart, Hermione flies down the corridors toward the first-class berths. She lets her fear fuel her mad sprint, and then, out of the fear, surprising her with its force, comes an anger more powerful than any she's felt in her life.
Riddle meant to destroy her. He meant her to lie at the bottom of the ocean, to be forgotten forever. He would have torn her from Harry and Ron and Ginny, from her future, as carelessly as someone pinching the life out of an insect. Now her survival is a weapon that can ruin his carefully laid plots. He will not win.
The ship's size has never been more evident. Parties of fleeing people, clots and throngs of steerage passengers—they pour through the corridors and double back on themselves, searching more and more hysterically for the exits. She hears snatches of their conversation, some in English, many others speaking Spanish, Polish, German. Hermione sees a mass buildup of people at one main stairway and stops, horrified, in her tracks: someone has locked the grille. People are howling, banging on the grate. Even as Hermione watches a woman thrusting her arm through the gate, the figure of a crewmember on the other side strides away.
"This way," Hermione yells. "There's another exit this way!"
No one can hear her. No one is taking notice. Some people are splitting away from the throng and pelting back down the corridor. A man with a louder voice is encouraging people down a side passage, insisting there's an emergency ladder.
But Hermione recognizes this passage. She's not far from Riddle's quarters now. Two turns, then a few short hallways, and she breaks out into a first-class area.
Hermione's wet shoes slip and slide on the angled floors. First-class passengers in their nightclothes glide past her, rippling like ghosts. Every single party seems to have a steward to guide them, catering to each individual, while not five minutes from here hundreds are lost and terrified with not a single helping hand. Her anger mounts higher.
Moments away from Riddle's room, she glances into a berth whose door is open and spots a decorative wooden statue rolling across the floor. She darts in, snatches it up, brandishes it like a club, and careens down the hallway, finally crashing through the door of his suite.
"Tom!" she yells, the statue held over her head.
But he isn't there. The suite is empty. As the furniture slips an inch on the carpeted floor, she flings herself toward the desk on her hands and knees and shoves one arm behind the desk, hunting for the briefcase.
"No," she hisses, sliding her hands frantically over the smooth wood, over the wallpaper. "No!" She slams her fist hard on the side of the desk. Has he taken it with him? Has he already disposed of it? If not all the details of his sordid history, she'd settle for the contract he signed with Dumbledore, but—no. She's too late.
Think, Hermione. She's considering trying to find him on the deck, to wrest it all out of his murderous hands, when somebody scrabbles at the door handle outside. She barely has time to dive into the space beneath the desk and yank the tall chair in to cover herself when two people burst inside.
She isn't quite prepared for the shock of seeing him, tall and lethal, something glowing in his face as if he were made to exist in this landscape of catastrophe. She certainly isn't prepared for the shock of the person hot on his heels: Severus Snape.
"—ready at any time," Snape says, his voice cool and sibilant. He hardly even sounds agitated. "However, sir, I must advise that we allow the ship to do its own work. Why bother to attack Dumbledore when he will certainly die among hundreds of others?"
Hermione fastens a hand over her mouth to stifle a sharp intake of breath.
Snape has been working for Riddle. He must have been the one to overhear her visit to Dumbledore's quarters. And in that final dinner deliberation between Dumbledore and Snape, he must have changed Dumbledore's mind.
She doesn't know what to do with the information. Even if she found Dumbledore to warn him, why should he believe her, a girl he scarcely met hours ago, above his most trusted adviser?
"No," Riddle says. "Eliminating Dumbledore is paramount. This will be a convenient excuse, but we must still see to it personally. There is no room for error at this stage."
"I've sent a steward with a message," Riddle mutters, checking his pocket watch. "Dumbledore should be here any moment." He turns away from Snape and strides toward the desk, toward Hermione. She cringes back from the light, curling into a ball until she can't see anything, but she hears him pull open a drawer and rifle through it.
When his footsteps cross the suite again, she steals a glance. Cradled in Riddle's hand is a shiny black revolver. He presses it into Snape's palm and says something Hermione can't hear.
It's at that moment that the door opens again, and Albus Dumbledore walks inside.
Light surprise crosses Dumbledore's ancient features as he glances to Snape. Both Snape and Riddle regain their composure almost at once. "Severus," Dumbledore says. "I had a final matter to discuss with Mr. Riddle. But of course, you are welcome to … ah …"
Dumbledore's eyes light on the revolver in Snape's hand.
There is a long silence. Then several things happen at the same time. Riddle shuts the door. Snape lifts the gun, an expression of hatred and disgust on his face. Hermione opens her mouth to scream. Dumbledore says, "Severus … please …"
The shot splits the air.
Hermione clamps her hands over her mouth. Scarcely ten seconds after walking through the door, Dumbledore strikes the ground, dead. It's all impossibly fast.
Hermione's eyes have filled with tears. Her head is whirling, and the tilt of the ship seems more sickening than ever.
Riddle regards Dumbledore's body blankly. "Good," he says quietly to Snape, who lowers the revolver. Hermione can't read the expression on either of their faces.
Riddle extends his hand. Snape doesn't move.
"My revolver, Severus," Riddle says.
Snape hands him the gun. After a long moment, Snape says, his lips hardly moving, "Shall we finish the new contract? Better to do it here, I think, than on the deck."
"Yes, yes," Riddle says distractedly, seemingly unable to look away from Dumbledore's fallen figure. "You've duplicated his signature onto the merger?"
"Of course, sir. And I've already signed as witness." Snape withdraws three thin stacks of paper from the briefcase and shuffles the back pages of each to the front. "Your name on each copy."
With the hand that isn't holding the gun, Riddle scribbles once on each stack of papers, hardly looking at them. Snape replaces them into the briefcase immediately.
"You've done well, Severus," Riddle says. "I hope you're ready for the responsibilities of your new position."
The corner of Snape's mouth lifts infinitesimally. "I daresay I am."
Riddle nods. "You should have replaced that doddering old fool years ago." As Snape lowers the lid of the briefcase, Riddle adds, "And the first contracts?"
"Lost, tragically, at sea, along with the original contents of this briefcase."
"A terrible shame."
The men share a smile. Shouts from outside make Riddle sigh. "To the lifeboats, then. You go first. Best if we're not seen together."
For the first time, Snape hesitates. "Sir …"
"The briefcase." Riddle extends a hand. Hermione thinks she detects a moment of reluctance before Snape places the briefcase into it, but in the next instant, Snape has exited the suite.
As the door shuts, Riddle turns back to Dumbledore, the strange look on his face intensifying. Then he kneels beside the man. After regarding the body for a long moment, he moves a stray strand of long silver hair out of Dumbledore's face and flips his embroidered jacket open to reveal the bloody wound in his chest. Hermione's eyes have filled with tears. He looks so still and frail in death.
"Human after all," Riddle murmurs.
Then he rises back to his feet. He sets the gun on the table so he can pull on his woolen coat.
Hermione didn't realize she was waiting for him to do it, but the second he steps away from the weapon, she bursts from beneath the desk. Riddle whirls around to face her, his eyes moving from her to the revolver, but too late. She sends the wooden statue crashing into his jaw. The shock of impact rings through her hands as he topples backward, spinning into the sofa, his torso slumping over its arm, coat half-on and half-off.
Gasping for breath, Hermione stares at his fallen body for a moment. The weight of the truth settles hard on her shoulders. Only she knows what he and Snape have done. For the rest of the world to know, she needs to make it out alive.
She doubts he'll be unconscious for more than a few minutes. She snatches the revolver from the table. Then she seizes the briefcase, stows the revolver inside, and takes off running.
By the time she reaches the stairs, water is puddling in the corners of the hall.
Riddle's eyes crack open. There's a splitting pain in his head; his ears are ringing, his mouth dry. He doesn't know how much time has passed. For an instant he doesn't even remember where he is or what's happened.
Then he feels the water moving around his ankles.
Fear erupts in him. Fully awake in the space of a second, he pushes himself off the sofa and staggers to his feet, sloshing through the still seawater toward the door. He seizes the handle, but it takes great effort to turn. He realizes too late why.
As the catch clicks open, the door snaps back like paper in a gale. A wave of thigh-deep water slams into his suite, knocking him back against the wall, surging in until he loses his footing. Then he's underneath, his eyes burning, his mouth filled with bitter salt. It's so cold that it doesn't even feel like water. It sears through him like winter wind. He rears out of it, mouth wide open, the abraded skin on his face smarting and stinging. Half-blind with panic, he grabs for the table to stabilize himself.
A cry tears out of him, and he nearly falls again. A pale hand has risen up out of the foam, the fingers stirring weightlessly, pointing—no—not pointing at me, he tells himself wildly; he knows the fingers are dead, that they belong to the body of Albus Dumbledore, nothing more than an empty corpse turning and shifting beneath the surface—but for an instant the old man's face is near the surface, and the current has tugged one of his eyelids open, and the sight of that terrible bright blue eye is almost accusatory.
Gasping, freezing, Riddle twists away from the hand and finally flings himself over the threshold, away from everything he's done.
The water in the corridor is still, but it's heavy, too, a trial to get through. By the time he reaches the stairs, the water is up to his hips, and when he staggers up and out of it, soaking and freezing—then, at last, he remembers Hermione Granger.
There's something physically pleasurable in the rage that floods him. It warms his icy skin. Mixed with the fury, though, are other feelings he can't decipher. After he locked her into that room in the hold, he had to repress thoughts of her screaming for help. They lingered strangely, made him feel an unfamiliar tension, like panic. In one bizarre moment, he even found himself calculating how long it would take him to return to that room and undo the lock.
Then, in the split second that he'd seen her burst out from beneath his desk, determination etched upon her face, he'd felt something other than shock to see her alive—a bizarre relief, a backwards kind of affection. Of course he doesn't begrudge her the will to live. He knows that defiant instinct for survival.
None of that matters, he thinks, shivering violently as he sprints up the stairs. The girl is unimportant. He must recover that briefcase at any cost. That's the only thing of consequence, years of planning come to fruition.
He emerges onto the boat deck, invigorated by the pain ringing through his head and his skin, using the adrenaline like a drug. The icy air cuts daggerlike through him. All around, there is a low, almighty, unrelenting bellow of steam venting from the ship's innards. On the deck, all-out havoc reigns: passengers are battling the stewards, yelling and pointing at the lifeboats, and as Riddle moves toward the ship's aft he could swear he sees a boat being lowered into the darkness scarcely half full.
He scans every wild face, hunting for her, or for Abraxas, Cygnus, Druella, Snape.
Instead, he sees a flash of long red hair.
Hermione forces herself through a knot of people, the briefcase hugged tightly to her chest. She hasn't caught sight of Ginny or Minerva, but they would have been two of the first onto the deck, she's certain. They must have boarded a lifeboat already, and the thought is a moment of relief.
But the evacuation is well underway now. It seems that no sooner can she reach the outskirts of the crowds around a lifeboat than the boat begins to descend.
Sprinting toward a lifeboat at the starboard side, she stops so suddenly that she nearly slips and falls. She's seen a familiar corpulent old man near the front of the shifting queue, picking nervously at his mustache.
"Mr. Slughorn," she yells, trying to force her way toward him. "Mr. Slughorn!"
But she's inaudible in the frenzy, invisible, just another third-class passenger trying to save herself. Slughorn doesn't look back. She sees immense relief on his face as he steps into the lifeboat, dabbing sweat from his brow. Soon they're lowering him out of sight, the boat swinging precariously into the dark.
Hermione swears loudly and turns away, hunting for another lifeboat. Then someone bangs into the briefcase. The catches break open. Hermione contorts herself to the deck to clap it shut before the contents fly out. The papers catch between the briefcase's halves, white corners flapping, and, holding the whole mess to her chest, she retreats to the rail.
Hunching over to protect the briefcase's contents from the wind, she grows still. Protruding from the briefcase is the corner of a familiar telegram.
She crouches and opens the briefcase a crack. There's a false backing inside that's peeled away. Concealed behind it are Riddle's documents—the ones Snape claimed he threw to the ocean.
Hermione's mind is racing now. She seizes a copy of the contracts Riddle signed. Paging through, she spots a name she knows: Kingsley Shacklebolt, a well-known philanthropist, who has no business being anywhere in this document. Her eyes fly back and forth, reading so quickly that she gives herself a headache.
I, Tom Marvolo Riddle, do hereby cede all rights to inheritance of Slytherin Industries and its holdings to Kingsley Amitus Shacklebolt …
Now Hermione understands Snape's reluctance to let the briefcase out of his sight. These contracts aren't proof of his betrayal, but proof of his loyalty.
If Riddle survives this, she has the only key to his downfall.
She leaps to her feet, her heart pounding, but as she looks down toward the fore of the ship she feels the breath fly violently out from her as if a metal weight has slammed into her sternum. Water has ridden up onto the forecastle deck, sealing over the wood like dark glass. The ship is being slowly consumed.
She turns and scrambles toward the ship's aft. The remaining lifeboats are so few now that people are hurling themselves bodily toward them. She sees somebody fling themselves over the rail to screams from the others, landing half-in and half-out of the lifeboat, which spins and bangs against the ship.
Someone slams into her shoulder, sending her flying into the starboard rail. She reels as she stares around, forgetting—for an instant—the briefcase in her hand, watching the world fall apart around her. The confusion is tremendous, masses of bodies thrashing in the dark as families disgorge their children onto the last boats, as couples cling to each other in hysterics, refusing to be separated. Some are sitting in serene, defeated silence. Others are weeping, rocking, praying, huddled in corners. An old gentleman is sweeping down the deck in evening wear and everything in his carriage and expression reads defiant stoicism. Nearby, a new mass of people erupts from a door and stampede down the deck, clouds of wet white breath issuing from their mouths in the freezing black air, and then, from somewhere—unbelievably—Hermione hears the sound of music.
She turns back and sees a mahogany flash, a bow gliding against a violin. The band whose gentle music underscored the dinners in the restaurant have begun to play a tune. It's in a major key, something lively and familiar, like she might have heard in the corner of a public house at night. Like something her mother might have hummed under her breath in their tiny but studiously clean home.
Hermione's breath comes faster, shaking in her throat. She doesn't know whether she feels heartened by the music or whether she wants to dissolve into hopeless tears.
Get off the rail, she hears a voice in her mind say, a voice like Harry's or Ron's. Hermione, move!
With every ounce of strength in her, she leaves the rail and totters toward the sight of a final, swaying lifeboat. She accelerates up the slanted deck. Not far now.
But when she's fifteen feet away, she feels a plummeting sensation that has nothing to do with the tilting of the ship.
Long red hair. A freckled face. Beside her a tall male body, moving sporadically as if in residual pain.
She doesn't comprehend what she's seeing for a moment. Ginny's meant to have gone to safety already. How can she stand there, grappling with Tom Riddle, who's trying to pull her back from the lifeboat?
"Riddle," she screams. "RIDDLE!"
He turns and sees her—sees the briefcase swinging from her wrist. His face is half in shadow, half in light. His mouth contorts into a snarl, but his eyes are triumphant. He releases Ginny and makes for Hermione.
Ginny dives, every inch of her athlete's body taut with purpose, over the ship's rail into the lifeboat as it begins its descent. But as Ginny lands beside Minerva and looks back, panting, surrounded by passengers yelling and berating her, she meets Hermione's eyes.
Ginny's mouth moves, and Hermione recognizes the shape of her own name, but there's too much noise to hear her voice.
Then Ginny's lowered beneath the rail, out of sight, and Hermione is running. She veers wildly left, right. If there are any more lifeboats, she can't see them, yet the deck is so full of people it seems that hardly anyone must have made it out.
She forces her way forward, toward the ship's stern, until she reaches the rail at the very back of the ship and has nowhere else to go. Then, her arms wound into the rail, the briefcase swinging from her wrist, she sees him push out of the crowd.
He breaks out of his run and stands still, looking at her. His hair is wet, clinging to the side of his face, which shines like a polished coin. His shoulders rise and fall, shaking hard with the cold. There's anger in his face, and cold satisfaction, too.
She has no plan anymore, no next step laid methodically before her. It's almost funny, she thinks numbly, watching him watch her, remembering everything she's felt these past few days at the sight of him. She feels as if it's all been compressed into one, the desire and the hatred, the fascination and the revulsion, the forbidden thrill and the welcoming of some final determination.
Come here, she thinks. Come here and let's see the way it ends.
He approaches, and stops hardly a pace away.
"I'll take that," he says with a nod to the briefcase.
"No," she says, and spits at his feet.
His expression darkens. "Then you—"
He breaks off. She thinks for a moment that the pressure on her arms is something she's exerting on herself, but in the next instant, groups of people are slipping and falling backward as if yanked by invisible ropes around their ankles. Tom Riddle teeters, lets out a cry that sounds nothing like his voice, and throws himself forward, sudden terror obliterating his composure. One of his arms twines into the railing beside her. The other wraps hard around her torso, and his body bucks desperately as he seeks a foothold. But Hermione's awareness of herself, of him, is fading. As he clings to her for dear life, she stares over his shoulder, down at the sight below, which seems to consume her.
The ship is angling more and more steeply forward as the boat deck floods. Water pours into the ship's orifices, through grates and windows and down hatches, and as the ship corrects nauseatingly to starboard, a surge of black ocean slams over the deck and flicks a host of people away into the dark as if they were nothing.
Hermione's mind is blank. Fear and injustice and unrest, like the crowds fighting to board lifeboats: she's seen those things before. They're related to the life she's lived before tonight. But this is another world entirely. Her weight hangs upon the rail as 46,000 tons of metal tilt before her, aimed down like a shining torpedo into the churning ocean, as if they were meant to sail into the center of the earth, and she sees human bodies falling, twisting, cracking, splitting apart as they collide with the smokestacks. She sees tiny figures like matchsticks throwing themselves free of the gargantuan wreck, flinging themselves as far as they can, but their efforts are pathetically small; they disappear alongside the ship's sinking hull. Farther from the ship, she sees specks bobbing in the dark water: human heads, their faces angled anonymously up to the Titanic as its stern end lifts steadily, thunderously, out of the ocean. They're a hundred feet in the air, now two. The roar of water pouring off the keel sounds like the roar of a thunderstorm.
All around her, on the rails and wherever people have clung on, mouths are open in dark round ohs, faces shimmering, muscles twisting, bathed in electric light for a final second. Then every face goes dark as the ship's lights die.
The night is moonless, starless. The world is as dark as if it were cut and pasted together from ten thousand pieces of overlapping black paper.
The ship hangs there, suspended at a steep angle, and Hermione imagines all the pockets of air in the structure struggling toward the surface, daring the bulk of metal to defy gravity a moment longer.
Then, slowly, inevitably, the sound changes. Deep octaves supplement the oceanic roar, the basso profundo of submerged steel separating torturously from itself. Everything builds in a terrible crescendo, screams splitting the air, new registers of breakage layering into the noise, as the ship wrenches apart near the waterline. Taut lines spring loose and fly like whipcords. Boards splinter. Glass shatters. A smokestack the size of a house smashes down into the water. Hermione's mouth is open but she can't scream, nor breathe. She is falling backward as the stern section of the ship plummets back down into place. The wind scythes through her clothes and hair, she feels naked. The sight of the ocean flies away, replaced by the starless sky, and Riddle is clinging so tightly to her that her skin has gone numb in sections, and he's unleashing terrified sounds beside her on the cusp of each breath.
The ship begins to tilt again.
Hermione knows what's next. She can solve for it like the blank in an equation, the exact, inexorable plunge, the way they'll be dragged into the depths by the bulk of the ship that hangs, now, deep underwater.
She looks around. Mass exodus. The only people left on the stern are climbing the rails and flinging themselves into the dark, but if she jumps here, she'll collide with the ship's propeller. No time. Already the ship is at fifteen degrees, rising higher and higher into the darkness.
She slips between the rails and pulls herself up as the stern tilts, first to twenty degrees, then thirty.
Once in place, she realizes Riddle hasn't moved. He's still clinging to the inside of the rail, and with the sea spray slicking the metal, once the ship tilts, he'll fall.
For God's sake, she thinks, leave him—let him die—
But though she might despise him, though she knows full well what he is, he is the only human being she might be able to save from this.
"Climb," she yells.
He looks up at her. He clearly hasn't understood, his black eyes dead with fear, his hair disheveled.
"Get on this side!"
Slowly, as if waking from a dream, Riddle begins to move. His hand slips around for the railing, but he can't seem to find the right hold to pull himself over.
Hermione thrusts her arm through. Their fingers fasten around each other's wrists, and she heaves backward. His other hand seizes the rail, and he pulls himself up, up, over, landing against the outside of the rail beside her, his jaw hanging limp. He looks sick.
For a split instant the ship stands perfectly on end, perpendicular in the ocean like a hammered nail. They must be two hundred feet in the air. From this height the ocean seems strangely motionless, laid out unendingly around them.
Then the massive bulk begins to thunder down, foot by foot, into the dark.
"We need to jump," Hermione pants, scanning the approaching water. Debris is flying up from the fathoms of the ocean, propelled to the surface at great speed, bobbing and spinning in the frothing water. "Get up."
But when she gets to her feet, arms pinwheeling for balance, Riddle is still clinging to the rails.
"Stand up," she screams, seizing his forearm, "or die!"
With a massive heave, he's on his feet. Then they're staggering over the ghostly grey-white plane of the ship's aft toward the edge, the massive propeller overshadowing them like the dark arms of a windmill at night. Hermione stops at the ship's starboard edge. Only moments now. They're seventy feet from the water, then sixty. Her eyes fix on a pale patch in the water: a large panel of wood. Forty feet. Thirty.
"Jump for that and hold onto it no matter what," she yells, pointing to the wood. There's panic on his face, but she doesn't wait. She takes a running leap off the plummeting wreck.
The air rips at her in freefall. She topples fifteen feet, arcing in a trajectory that might crack a rib but won't kill, careening toward the rising and falling of the waves.
She crashes into the water. The impact of surface tension sears across her body. Then the cold knifes in, and the ocean might as well be solid ice. It engulfs her, devours her, the downward pull of the Titanic's weight impossibly strong, but she kicks, kicks, resisting, bubbles bursting from her mouth. One shoe comes off, then the other, and her feet are so small and feeble, her body so minuscule, her ragged clothes soaking and pulling.
There's a tremendous weight on her left hand that she doesn't understand for a wild moment. Then she remembers the briefcase. Its handle bites into her wrist as she claws through the dark water.
No, she thinks madly. Don't let it go. But even as she thinks it, she knows the case is filling with water that will destroy everything it might, in another world, have proven. She knows that if she clings to the weight of this newly meaningless victory, it will bear her down into the dark.
She wrenches her hand out of the handle and, freed, reaches upward—upward, or just forward? She forces her eyes open but sees nothing, no light or solid object, only darkness. The salt sears her eyes. She needs oxygen, needed it a minute or more ago, her empty lungs suffused with needlelike stabbing sensations. She can't feel her body in the cold. It is like not having a body at all, only some core that registers immense pain.
Her hand brushes something solid. She twists toward it, seizes it, her fingers slipping, then fastening onto the wood.
Her head shatters the surface. She gasps cold clear air. She writhes up onto the wooden panel, and the wind is excruciating on her bare face, a host of blades entering and exiting her at once.
He's there too, sprawled out and heaving. Though her weight tips the panel, it holds.
Riddle turns his face toward her as she pants for breath. He's scarcely a foot away, his face like marble, tinted gray and blue. His eyes slide from her face to the wrist that held the briefcase.
"It's gone," she says, her throat raw, her teeth clicking together so that the words are hardly comprehensible. "'s … over."
It doesn't even seem to matter. All his delusions of grandeur, the aspirations she dared nurse herself, all the ideas of talent and worth, have fallen away, leveled to the base facts of life or death.
Riddle's head moves in what might be a nod, but doesn't reply. In his silence, she hears what he hears.
The black ocean is awash with the sound of dying people, a guttural, tuneless chorus. Voices howl and mewl, gasp and sob, as the waves lift and settle. As Hermione catches her breath, she feels a pain deep in her chest. If she were to imagine the sounds of hell itself, she couldn't come closer than this.
Hermione curls up into fetal position, but there's no escaping the wind. "The l-lifeboats," she says through violent shudders. "Where are they?"
"No. They'll c-come back soon. They have t-to."
Though Riddle looks half-dead already, his eyes are strangely calm. "Of course not," he says hoarsely, his voice ground down by brine and hard breathing. "They'll never risk it."
"Being boarded. You h-hear it." He pauses again as the moans wash over the ocean. "There are easily enough of us to c-capsize them. They won't come back."
"They will," Hermione insists. "They will."
"Don't be r-ridiculous." He's shivering so hard that his attempt at scorn looks more like pain. "They're ahead, we're b-behind. They have power, we h-have nothing. You've heard this s-story your whole life. You should kn-know the end by now."
Even now, even here, Hermione feels a flare of anger. "No," she says. "N-no. That's not the o-only story there is. Power doesn't have to b-breed cruelty. You act like it's human n-nature, but that's just the ch-choice you made."
"Just me?" He lets out a harsh monosyllabic laugh, which blooms and dies in white mist between them. "N-no, Hermione. I follow the rules. I didn't write them. You watch: they won't t-turn back." He breathes hard into his hands. "And if they do, they're fools."
Her voice is giving out now. It breaks as she says, "Even while you're lying here, d-dying, you think that?"
The words seem to ignite something in his eyes. "I will not die here," he hisses, and for an instant he struggles, his body spasming, as if he means to get to his feet right here, to show her his strength. "You say I'm dying, after you r-risk—after you waste—after you nearly die to get me th-this far?"
Riddle slumps, motionless but for the rhythm of his breath. He's staring into her face with pain, frustration, fear, bewilderment. His dark hair has begun to frost over. His eyes are liquid as he blinks.
"Why did you do it?" he breathes, his lips hardly moving. "All that I did. Why?"
Hermione is no longer shivering. She feels warm, as if a blanket has been laid over her. She knows this is only the herald for further stages of hypothermia, that soon the warmth will become an intolerable, maddening heat. For now, though, it's a relief.
"When I have a lifeboat," she whispers, "I turn back."
She's been still for a long time.
Riddle doesn't know what this feeling is, like something in him has been extinguished. Hermione's face is slack and bluish, and ice is in her brows and lashes, and she looks very small. He is unable to look away.
Ever since he can remember, Riddle has planned to live forever. He's always meant to change the course of architecture, and in that way to encompass humanity, to hold and remold the world in the particular shape of his vision, to conceal or reveal people's lives by his own design. In that way, he would be present for the rest of human history. He's never been interested in the people who might rise or fall at his side.
Now he thinks about the world in buildings, so far away, and about the pair of them shifting, untethered, on the open ocean, far from any structure.
He thinks about the potential he saw in her. He thinks about her indignation as she snapped at him in the library. He thinks about the fierce intelligence that arrested him, that made him act foolishly, that made him think philosophically like a teenager, that earned his fascination and attention, that made him eager for the future. He thinks about touching her, and her face when she laughed. The memories seem impossibly bright and warm, like little candles in his mind. It seems wrong that she can die this way, while he watches.
Riddle remembers the feeling of her hand as she helped him up onto the stern rail, then onto his feet, guiding him to his best chance at life.
This action seems to have broken something in him. He spins the fact around and it whirls unendingly, revealing nothing. He can't actually understand how she brought herself to save him.
Tom Riddle knows he is hard, he knows he is selfish, he knows he is cruel. But that's the world. He grew up in violence and neglect until he'd taken so much of these things into himself that he could only give them out again. At school he began to see kindness, but only from those who sought something of him. The concept of unconditional compassion has always seemed like some pathetic misunderstanding of how the world operates; as for love and care, they've seemed nothing more than Biblical euphemisms for devotion, and why waste time on those feebler forms of power when Old Testament fear and awe were available to him?
But he knows to his core that no one he's met before, no one who ever swore him their loyalty, would have stopped to help him on the rails. They would not have risked their lives. They would have fled and left him to die.
Moreover, it wasn't any power he held over her that drove her actions. It was something within her.
When I have a lifeboat, I turn back.
He wants to demand that she explain. It seems urgent that he understand. He reaches out with trembling fingers, though the motion is agony, and touches her wrist.
Live, he thinks.
For a long second, nothing.
Then her pulse taps once at the surface of her icy skin.
That feeling washes through him again, the same he felt when she burst from her hiding place in his suite, defiantly alive: relief.
Riddle doesn't understand. This isn't relief that she can be of use. Quite the opposite—her survival would mean his destruction. She knows everything he's done, everything he would do, everything he is.
Yet he seems to watch his past, his future, her past and her future, floating away on the colorless waves. He knows that they will die right here, alone on the ocean, that there is no chance anymore for either of them. He stares into the chasm of how inconsequential his life on earth was, nothing but a handful of years of unfulfilled potential at the end of the day. Despite his charm and his brilliance and his fierce talent, he was nothing after all: he will freeze to death among hundreds of others, his body mortal and unexceptional, even forgettable. And in himself he feels a great emptiness that he can only stave off by looking at her, considering her impossible choice to save him, as much as he could be saved upon this precipice.
In this new meaninglessness, he allows himself to feel relieved, even grateful, that under his fingers he can still feel her heartbeat. The feeling is beyond thoughts of permanence, greatness, or value, beyond the fear of aloneness, beyond even the facts of life or death. The feeling is strangely physical, like he's just stopped running a great distance and is allowing himself to breathe, maybe for the first time in his life. The feeling is personal. He's certain that at any other time of his life he would have thought it a catastrophic weakness.
He wishes, actually, that he had more time to understand. He accepts that maybe the feeling is due to the hypothermic fog—a kind of delirium—yet it remains.
He doesn't want her to go.
Hermione awakens. It happens slowly, like the creeping of flame onto damp wood. First, sensation. Pain, of course. Then the scent: salt and wet.
The wind seems to have settled. The voices have gone quiet. She knows what the silence means.
Why has she woken up?
A voice answers. It cuts the night.
She sees, borne up and down by the dark choppy water, a lifeboat. Beams of light reach out from it, cutting the unending night in two.
Her body is so weak and filled with pain that to move feels like it might rupture her skin, but she twitches her hand. She must reach into the air. Inch by inch her hand rises, and as it moves, she realizes there's a weight on her arm. Riddle's hand is resting, cold and pale, on her bicep.
She realizes her back is to him. His body is curled around hers, blocking the wind.
"They came back," she says, her voice little more than a rasp. "They're here. See? Tom? …"
His face is still and unmoving. His hand falls from her arm like an object.
Hermione's breathing quickens. She forces her hand higher, higher. She begins to move it back and forth.
"Here," she rasps, trying to swallow, forcing more breath into the instrument. "I'm here. I'm here … here … HERE!"
Her voice rings like a bell through the darkness.
When the lifeboat reaches her, Ginny is sobbing. She, and the others inside, look so warm and alive that they seem to belong to a different lifetime. Ginny pulls Hermione into her arms. For a moment she grips Hermione so hard that it's agony, and Hermione smells her friend's hair and feels the touch of her hands, and warm tears move strangely down her cold face.
"Is he alive?" Minerva asks, very pale, looking down at Riddle.
Hermione can't answer. She can only look back at the body, still and frozen, of the man who in his last moments closed around her to give her some measure of protection from the elements. She doesn't know what it was, what he might have wanted or what he might have meant by it. Repayment, maybe, or a first and final try at the kind of warmth that saves a life.
The air coming through the window smells sweet. Hermione looks up from the papers on her desk and breathes it in slowly.
Outside, the sky over Manhattan is a cloudless blue. The sun rings off the brick buildings across the street. The trees are blooming in spring, which means flowers in Ginny's hair, allergies for Ron, and pensive walks for Harry.
The apartment in the Lower East Side is minuscule and always breaking in some way, and they share it between the four of them, but to Hermione it's paradise, this little spot high in the sky, looking out over vibrant streets. The first night she spent here after the hospital, they all gathered around to listen to the radio in the evening, and she fell asleep between Ron and Harry, with Ginny's head on her knee.
Hermione turns around. Harry and Ron are standing in the threshold of the bedroom she shares with Ginny, looking uncertain.
"How are you feeling?" Ron asks.
"Oh, you know," Hermione says, smiling. "Well enough to be getting on with."
Harry and Ron settle onto her bed, and Hermione begins to feel a sense of slight foreboding. She's had these moments for the past three weeks, like a premonition near the end of a dream, the suspicion that New York might shatter, the light and the warmth revealing themselves to be illusions, and she'll awaken to find herself on the ocean again, dying.
She hasn't been able to talk with Harry or Ron about it yet, not properly. Ginny's told them bits and pieces of what happened, and every so often Hermione can add a detail, but it seems almost wrong to speak about it, to bring that night into this place.
Ginny has found a job as a laundress, while Harry and Ron work as day laborers, but Hermione has only recently come off the painkilling medicine that would make seeking a job impossible. On the fourth finger of her left hand, she lost the last knuckle to frostbite. She could swear she still feels the fingertip sometimes, though, as cold as the ocean that night, like a nub of ice fastened onto the amputated skin.
"There's a letter for you," Ron says.
"What?" Hermione stops touching the sensitive, bandaged end of her finger.
Harry extends the envelope. It's made of heavy, expensive paper; Hermione's name is written in green ink, in extravagant cursive.
Hermione slits it open and extracts the letter.
Dear Ms. Granger,
I was pleased to see your name among the list of survivors.
I will call at your residence at 2 o'clock p.m. on the 8 th of May.
"But that's today," Hermione murmurs.
"What?" says Ron.
Hermione hands him the letter. He scans it. "Oh," he says, looking nonplussed. "Who's Druella Rosier?"
"I met her aboard."
Harry and Ron look at Hermione for a long second. She knows she's slightly different from the person they left in England. She feels so much older. Ginny has changed, too: she's slower to laugh and to poke fun, these days, and every so often she'll pull Harry suddenly back from the street as a car comes close, or she'll stop them in the street so Ron can tie his shoelaces. It's a sensibility that Hermione knows is related to the sounds she makes in her sleep.
"Hermione," Ron says carefully, "are you ever going to tell us what happened on the ship?"
Hermione turns over the events of those few nights, which even now, not a month from the sinking, have retreated from her into a kind of glassy middle distance. The anticipation of tremendous possibilities, the heat of passion, the fury of betrayal, the terror, it's all sealed in sepia like a photograph. She doesn't know how she could speak about it directly even if she had the inclination. The best she can manage is oblique summary.
"For a little while I had two lives," she says. "Then I lost them both. Now I have to make a new one."
Druella arrives with exact precision at 2 p.m., and while she looks around the minuscule apartment with a distinctly unimpressed expression, her beautiful clothes glimmering in the dusty air, she does not comment. Those clothes, Hermione notices, are black silks and crape.
With no parlor and certainly no receiving room, they sit at the dining table. Ron, Harry, and Ginny have gone to work; they're alone.
There's a kind of relief in sitting with Druella, looking at her, knowing that she understands.
"I'm very sorry to see you in mourning, Miss Rosier," Hermione says quietly.
Druella dips her head, her golden-brown ringlets swinging. "I wouldn't have thought it of Cygnus, but he gave his seat away."
Druella sighs. "We were separated. He went to the port side of the ship, where, as I understand it, only a single man was allowed to evacuate." She pauses. "Actually, we're the only surviving members of our little dinner party."
Hermione pours a cup of tea and is surprised to find her hands are steady. She pushes the saucer to Druella.
"Slytherin Industries is reeling from the blow," says Druella, sipping the tea. "Without Mr. Riddle, the company is undergoing a crisis of identity of sorts."
Hermione drinks from her own cup. "You warned me about him."
"Was I right to?"
"Yes. He tried to kill me, by the end."
Druella nods, looking unsurprised. "I understand if you'd wish to wash your hands of his influence entirely. However, I still have … yes, here. The reason for my visit."
She withdraws a piece of paper from her bag and unfolds it upon the table. "Tom had asked Cygnus to draw up a letter of hire for you. I found it in his case. As I'm managing some of Cygnus's duties temporarily while they hunt for his replacement, I could file it on your behalf."
Hermione looks at the letter in disbelief. It seems as impossible as her own survival, this fragile document, this lifeline to the hours she spent in Tom Riddle's company. What a strange list of last acts he wrote for himself that night: to give her this future upon the table, to try and rip it away, and then, at the last, to give it back one more time.
She considers the letter for a moment before lifting her eyes back to Druella, her mouth dry. "Why would you do this?" she asks. She knows it's an impertinent question, but she cares even less for propriety now than before. Life is too short, she knows, to stand on ceremony.
"Why?" Druella says, her dark, expressive eyes narrowing.
"You must have a reason."
A moment passes before Druella smiles. "My dear Miss Granger, despite what Tom might have suggested, we don't all build our lives on ulterior motives."
Hermione swallows and looks down at the letter. She would rather die than admit it aloud, but the sight of it makes her feel something like fear. If she signs her name on that piece of paper, she will have yet another new life, and in the aftermath of the sinking, it's all she can do to stay composed when she comes home in the evening to see Harry and Ron laughing at the table, or when she wakes in the morning to see Ginny in the twin bed opposite hers, safe and whole, but so nearly lost.
"I understand," Druella says softly.
"I know what you are feeling." Druella pauses. "It was scarcely three days from the wreck when I'd a telegram from my father about the hell that had broken loose at Slytherin. I knew I could help calm the havoc, but I could also hardly leave my house in the mornings without the worry that the sky would fall upon my head, or that I'd bring it down on myself somehow." She pauses. "What if I tried to help, and failed. What if I was the weak link in a chain that led to some new disaster."
Hermione's throat has grown tight. Druella sounds as if she's needed to say this for weeks.
"Yes," Hermione says softly. "That's right."
Druella smooths her skirts over her lap. "We can't tiptoe through the world that way, Miss Granger," she says. "We have our lives. We must live them."
Hermione looks down into her tea and finds it's nearly empty.
When she looks back up, Druella is rising to her feet. "Please do mail that back to me. Our address is included."
Hermione shows her to the door. With one foot over the threshold, Druella hesitates.
"You were found with his body," she says. It isn't a question.
"Yes." Hermione hesitates, her throat tighter than ever. Then the thing she's told no one else comes loose: "I know the world is better off without the man he was, but … in that last—at the end …" She swallows. "He saved my life."
For the first time since she's met the woman, Hermione sees faint surprise on Druella's face. Then Druella lets out a quiet laugh. "Odd," she says. "A riddle to the end." Then she turns and walks down the hall, her mourning silks glowing in the cheap electric light.
Hermione returns inside, into the shabby apartment which is nonetheless clean and comfortable. She sits before the letter and reads every word of it twice, then three times.
She knows that to stride boldly into the ranks of Slytherin Industries will to be invite ridicule: for her sex, for her common name, for her lack of status. At the same time, it's a dream she's never before seen so clearly, a shining opportunity born out of the longest night of her life. It's hard not to think that all the events of that voyage led to this: a blank for her signature at the bottom of the page.
For the first time in weeks, she allows herself to think, willingly, of Tom Riddle.
There are no straight paths or clear answers, only knots and snarls. She feels disgust for the man, of course, a mélange of pity and anger and revulsion. But she remembers his fear upon the rail, too, the way he shook as she saved his life. She remembers the frustration in his voice, the desperation and disbelief, when he asked her, "Why did you do it?" — the way he could not fathom his salvation at another person's hands, the way he looked at her in silence, as if trying to understand a new language, when she gave her answer.
She remembers waking to the feeling of his body at her back, cutting the cold in half, cradling the life that still burned in her.
She considers how change always moves in the same directions: from the outside in, and then from the inside out.
She signs her name.
Thank you so much for reading, I really hope you've enjoyed it! Comments and kudos make my day. :)