Why would a seventeen-year old want to know about Horcruxes?
This is the question which troubles Hermione most as she sets herself to the tedious task of righting the abused bookshelves and restoring the books and furniture to their original design. She mends the broken glass and burst wood, all the while thinking about the strange price of immortality.
She had come across the notion of a Horcrux in her private studies of the Dark Arts, but she had paid little mind to it, partly because it had sounded ghastly and partly because there was not much clear evidence of its successful conception, except for one solitary account from Ancient Greece. The fact that this process involved willingly killing a person for the sake of a dark ritual was dreadful enough, but the entire thing also sounded extremely fanciful, if not downright fraudulent. To Hermione’s mind, it was simply a very tasteless tall tale.
And perhaps that’s all it is.
Still, Tom’s curiosity troubles her. Normally, it would be the older, more weathered wizards who would seek out such difficult and forbidden knowledge. After all, what do very young people care about old age and death?
Does Tom Riddle fear death so intently? Or rather, does he fear life? Does he wish to have a safeguard against it?
She spends the rest of the night tidying up the library and looking through the Restricted Section for books that might contain some knowledge on the matter. She only finds two medieval volumes, titled dramatically, Magick Moste Evile, which shriek most offensively upon being opened, but which reveal scant clues regarding the creation of Horcruxes, leaving out any detail of consequence. Indeed, the actual process of splitting one’s soul is always omitted from books on the Dark Arts.
But Tom must have already come across these books. He had spent enough time in the Restricted Section during regular hours to investigate them. So why break in now?
Surely, he didn’t do it for something already on display.
Hermione stares at the rows of books about her. Hogwarts has always been infamous for hiding its treasures. Riddle must think there is something hidden here, a secret cachet of books. But how does he know? Who tipped him off?
Hermione feels a strange stab of impatience. She wants to know. She doesn’t like not knowing.
Perhaps Tom is also hungry to know. Perhaps he wishes to find out how a Horcrux is made out of sheer, perverse curiosity. But he’s no Ravenclaw. Of that she is sure.
Dawn catches her still looking. She has been bending over books all night. The budding light of day bathes the floors a pale, rosy red. She walks to one of the windows and stares at the foggy winter landscape. Mornings always look coldly pink, like a fresh blood-letting. The thought comes to her unbidden. She touches her lips and swallows the bile rising to her throat. The books have kept her busy, pushing other thoughts aside, but she cannot hide from the glare of a new day. Hermione has never been very good at examining her own conscience, preferring to examine others’ instead, but in this cadaverous light, she can admit that the kiss was not entirely utilitarian.
Merlin, you really are perfect.
She turns away from the window with a shiver.
She’d like to say she did something completely out of character. But she’s no Ravenclaw, either.
Only when she returns to her rooms does the exhaustion of the night finally slow her down. She was only gone for hours, but it feels like years. She collapses on top of her bed and falls asleep with her eyes open, staring at a point in the distance. There, in that tiny, shrinking infinite, she can see a soul being split into seven miserable parts.
Tom Riddle does not return to the library for the rest of the holidays, which is a relief. For the first time since she arrived at Hogwarts, he is avoiding her. At meal times, he seems absorbed in quiet conversation with the two or three boys that always hang about him. His posture is a little rigid - shoulders held tightly inward, head bent down. He does not look up at the Great Table.
Hermione is freshly reminded of her transgression. In a sense, it is no longer he who broke her wards, but rather she who broke his. The line has been crossed. She must have shocked his sensibilities. He may be on the cusp of adulthood, but seventeen is still such a callow age.
She feels wicked and degenerate, like a deviously bored wife in a French novel who is toying with a young lover out of spite. Her experience in such matters has always been rather limited. In fact, she is still, in the parlance of the day, a “good and proper” girl, who has not let a man go too far. But it is not virtue that guides her actions. Sex, all things considered, is rather innocent. She has often thought that a kiss is more intimate and daring than intercourse. You offer your mouth, the seat of your voice and appetites and all its hidden chambers to the lips of another mouth, equally filled with teeming life. It is a far more intricate exchange. She may have offered her mouth to him in exchange for information, but a kiss is always a gamble. You always acquire more than you intended.
She thinks about leaving Hogwarts. She may be safer here, but she cannot stay in this post after what she has done. Perhaps it would be better for everyone to hand in her resignation. She begins to pen just such a letter before the start of the semester, but she’s not given a chance to finish it.
The outside world rushes in.
No one is prepared for the arrival of the Ministerial task force. The news reaches the library only a few minutes later. A group of toady Aurors appointed by the Wizengamot of Britain has come to arrest Albus Dumbledore for crimes against the state.
Hermione rushes to the Entrance Hall with everyone else. There is already a small crowd of students and professors gathered, watching helplessly as the Aurors restrain the great wizard. Headmaster Dippet is whispering furiously to the Head Auror about this being a mistake.
Dumbledore looks supremely serene as he climbs down the short flight of stairs and passes by the statue of the first headmaster of Hogwarts. He turns to the crowd for a moment.
His eyes catch Hermione’s.
He smiles broadly. “Miss Granger? Do give the house-elves my thanks for the delicious coffee they delivered to my office before I was called away.”
Hermione frowns in misapprehension, but she does not have time to parcel his meaning, because, with a wink, Albus Dumbledore disappears.
The audience gives an astonished cry.
“But that can’t be done on Hogwarts grounds!”
“But he is gone!”
Hermione stares at the spot he has just vacated. She is just as stunned by his performance. Yet she is also terribly distressed. Surely, this could only solidify his guilt in the eyes of the Ministry. Indeed, the Aurors turn to Headmaster Dippet in anger, demanding an explanation. She can see they have been rattled, but the headmaster is no less shocked. He can give them nothing.
Seething with defeat, the Aurors take their leave, promising to return.
The crowd reluctantly disperses.
Hermione feels a familiar presence behind her, but when she turns, she only finds the back of students’ heads.
Things are not made much clearer when she is called into Headmaster Dippet’s office. In fact, what he tells her baffles her to such a degree that she forgets all about her intention to resign.
“Argos Lovegood has fled the country?”
“I’m afraid so. Accompanied by his sister, no less,” Dippet wearily reports. “Miss Medea Lovegood. You are familiar with her?”
Hermione nods, mind reeling.
“Well, rumour has it that it was Albus who helped them flee, since he has already helped the brother avoid a jail sentence. It makes a certain amount of sense. The Ministry must have dredged up enough evidence for an arrest.”
You mean concocted evidence, she thinks. She cannot believe her friends would do anything so reckless. She, of all people, understands the instinct to flee, but there has to be more to the story. Much more.
Headmaster Dippet clears his throat, pulling her away from her conjectures.
“In any case, we must not lose heart. This dreadful business will clear up,” he tells her in a falsely assuring tone. “Albus shall return to us in due time. Until then…I’m afraid I require your assistance. Albus told me you were his best student. He said to put my faith in you. I’d like to put that to the test.”
“I will take on some of Albus’ Transfiguration classes, but it would be a great help to me if we could share the burden. I wonder if your time could be split between the library and the classroom. Or would that be asking too much of you?”
Hermione sees no possible way of saying no. She must stay, after all.
The school is buzzing with wild and farfetched rumours regarding Albus Dumbledore’s supposed crimes. The stories are embellished with each passing whisper, from the grotesque to the absurd. There is a sense of danger and excitement pervading the corridors. One of Hogwarts’ most respected teachers is now an outlaw. It’s enough to make everyone forget about classes.
Hermione is not allowed to forget. Her job is not really to teach Transfiguration, but rather to restore a sense of normalcy, to make believe that this is still a regular school year.
It is a difficult task when her own mind is so preoccupied with her friends and mentor.
And then, of course, there’s Riddle.
When Dippet split the classes in half, she got stuck with the Slytherin and Hufflepuff contingent of the Seventh Years, because one misfortune must always be followed by another.
She expects him to haunt the edge of her vision or sit in the front row and make her feel obscene.
But he does neither. In fact, he gives her no trouble. He makes himself almost unseen, sitting in the back rows, head bent over his books. He only glances at her furtively, as if afraid to linger. When her gaze pauses on him, he’s always looking elsewhere.
There is a visible discomfort in him, a tension in the way he holds himself, like live wire.
It bothers her, though it shouldn’t. He told her this wasn’t over. So, what has he got planned? What is he going to do next? It’s troubling not to know.
Days after Dumbledore’s arrest, it all comes to a head.
Hermione dismisses the Seventh Years early. She has been trying to impress upon them the urgency of the coming NEWTs, but academics is the last thing on their mind. Rumours still abound about Albus’ whereabouts and she can do little to stop them from speculating. She suppresses a sigh as she watches them file out of the classroom.
Her eyes land on a figure still seated at his desk, chin resting comfortably in his hand. He turns a page in his textbook.
Hermione folds her arms across her chest.
She watches him in silence, waiting to see what he will do.
Tom Riddle does not look up. He seems not to have noticed they are the only two people left in the room.
Hermione gives a small, pointed cough.
Tom looks up slowly, as if stirred from a dream. His surprise is entirely artificial and he makes little pretence of it.
He smiles uneasily. “Ah, my apologies, Madam Granger. I had not realized it was time to leave.”
“Were you not paying attention during class, Mr. Riddle?”
“I assure you I was. I was simply checking a few spells in my textbook and lost track of time. I like to make sure I’ve got everything right.”
“How diligent of you,” she comments dryly.
“I’m glad you think so. I suppose I should leave now.”
Hermione nods, but neither of them moves a muscle. They stare at each other for a stretch of time that seems endless. Tom’s face is a blank mask of politeness, though his fingers are curled around the spine of his book.
They are at a standstill.
The silence is getting on her nerves. She has never been patient.
Before she knows what she’s doing, Hermione steps away from her desk and starts walking towards his. The clicking of her small heels on the parquet is the only sound in the room.
Riddle tenses immediately. He seems to flinch at every single click.
His breath almost hitches in his throat when she stops in front of him.
Hermione leans casually against the desk in front of his.
He has to look up at her to meet her eyes. Yes, much better.
“Why do you want to be immortal?” she asks without preamble.
Tom’s eyes widen, but to his credit, he tries to sound nonchalant when he speaks.
“Who wouldn’t want to be immortal?”
“Wizards tend to have a pretty generous lifespan. Is a century and a half not enough for you?”
He glances sideways, as if checking an internal compass. He grinds his jaw.
“No. It isn’t.”
She did not expect the candour. His answer is disturbing and yet revealing in its own way, like staring into a cracked mirror.
“Do elaborate, Mr. Riddle.”
“Life offers no guarantees,” he replies testily. “We live in times of war. People are dropping like flies. Anyone could be next, including the great Albus Dumbledore. Why should I not protect myself?”
Hermione does not miss the sliver of satisfaction in his voice. He must find Dumbledore’s current predicament quite gratifying.
Still, she was right about him. Riddle seems to fear life more than death.
“You may think a Horcrux will protect you, but there is always a steep price to pay for such magic. Not to mention, your quality of life will be significantly lower.”
Tom parts his lips at the mention of the Horcrux.
“What do you know about them?”
Hermione inhales. She takes another gamble, possibly a very foolish one.
“More than you do, clearly, since you see fit to research them. I would not try the Restricted Section again, if I were you. The secret item you seek will not be there.”
Tom leans forward, drinking in her words.
“You - you’ve found the book?”
Hermione shrugs. “It does not tell me anything I did not already know. Such knowledge must be handled carefully. I would not wish it to fall into the wrong hands.”
Tom grips the edge of his desk. She is so close, yet so far from him. His eyes are filled with yearning and loathing and an irrepressible desire to debase himself.
“Teach me,” he says, licking his lips. “Teach me what you know about this magic. I will do anything you ask, Madam Granger. Anything. Make me your student.”
Hermione knows how dangerous it is to hear such words. How tempting.
“You already are my student, Mr. Riddle. But you’ve recently tried to hex me. That doesn’t bode well for our collaboration, does it?”
Tom swallows thickly. “I am abjectly apologetic, Madam Granger.”
“You also called me a bitch, if I recall correctly.”
His eyes glimmer with spite. “Given the circumstances… you rather deserved it.”
Hermione gives him a wry smile. “Ah, so, you aren’t abjectly apologetic.”
Tom lowers his head. “Do you know why I have been avoiding you?”
She blinks, unprepared for the change in subject.
“Every time I am near you or look at you,” he begins in a querulous tone of voice, “I have to restrain myself. I lose a bit of control. It’s inconvenient. I don’t like to be at the mercy of my primitive emotions. But I can’t stop thinking about the kiss. Whenever I try to focus on anything of substance, your face appears before me and refuses to leave. I can’t stop thinking about your lips, your mouth, your skin, your throat, even your smell -”
Hermione lifts her wand, but she does not hex him.
She simply taps his cheek with the tip, willing him to stop.
“Shhh,” she murmurs, the tip of her wand gliding to the corner of his mouth. “Hush now, Mr. Riddle.”
He stares at her, breathless and transfixed.
She could kill him right now and he would probably thank her for it.
Hermione stares down at him. Tom Riddle craves to be under her thumb. The problem is, she likes the idea of having him under her thumb. She has always been more comfortable in this role. She likes telling people what to do. It is always safer.
This is still a game, however, and his professed sincerity does not outweigh his deviousness. But it is better to keep him close. Keep him where she can see him.
“I will think about it,” she tells him, removing her wand from his cheek.
Tom’s eyes are ravenous and unrestrained for a moment, before the mask of politeness slides back into place. Strangely, she is reminded of the slaughter-pink of morning light.
“Thank you, Madam Granger.”
She walks past him, straightening the skirt of her dress.
“You said you are willing to do anything,” she says, standing with her back to him, showing him how much she does not fear him in this moment.
“Yes,” he rasps.
They come out of her without meaning to, the commands.
“Start with cleaning the classroom. I want you to polish every desk. I want all the blackboards to be free of chalk dust. I want to see my reflection in the floorboards. I want you to apply yourself to the task. And I want you to do it manually. Can you do that, Mr. Riddle?”
“Does that pose a problem?”
“You can refuse me, if you like.”
“No. I will do it,” he tells her, eager and hateful of his own eagerness.
Hermione nods. “Good. I will be checking the room later and I will know if you have used magic.”
“Yes, Madam Granger.”
She shivers slightly at the way he says her name, the deep resentment and desire, but she does not shrink. She cannot go back on it now. Her guilty conscience does not bear reflection. What had he said earlier? Life offers no guarantees.
She leaves the room without looking back.
She has no way of knowing if he will obey her. And yet, she knows, deep down in her gut, that he will do exactly as she told him.
In any case, she can ask the house-elves tonight. Dumbledore’s rather pointed mention of them in his parting words must have meant something and she is, as always, determined to find out.