33 – Inception
Many a time Tom had been a visitor in Hermione's head, but it'd been many months since he'd been an intruder. The distinction may have seemed minimal to some but, to any who might ask, he could assure them, they were two very different experiences.
Gone were the neat brick walls that built the maze of her mind, the ones she'd led him through in their early meetings. Also missing was the sludgy, clinging sensation dragging him down and slowing his navigation which had been present the very first time he'd run into her in Diagon Alley and sneaked into her head. No, the only thing that met him this time was that same swirling darkness he'd seen in her stare. There was somehow enough light that he could differentiate the shades, but where this light came from, he couldn't tell. When he looked, he saw only unending darkness beneath his feet and in all directions around him.
The darkness undulated with power. It sang to him, calling to something deep and primal within his blood. Tom swallowed against the temptation, though its lure was very…enticing. He shut his eyes against the song's silky caress, intent on shutting it out, but only succeeded in making everything louder. The sweet song had no words, yet it spoke to him all the same. It sought out the desires that drove him: power, infamy, immortality; it stoked them, heating him from the inside out.
Come, it beckoned, a voice like Hermione's now weaving through his thoughts. Let me in and you shall be a mighty Lord. All shall fear and cower in your presence. None will dare slight you. None shall be your equal.
That was wrong. That last bit was wrong. There was to be just one – his queen – the woman he was here for.
He shook his head sharply, as though trying to dislodge the words, but others crept in behind them. He reopened his eyes, but that same darkness remained, constant and writhing. It was a heavy thing. Tom swiped a hand through the air to try to ward it away or at least dissipate some of it.
But the darkness remained.
And it was suffocating.
Tom, come with me. Please.
Hermione's voice pierced his mind.
"Stop," he said.
Tom, it hurts. I need you—I need you to make it stop!
An image of his witch, staggered, bleeding, arms around her midsection, it flashed like lightning in his sights.
"Be silent!" Tom snarled now, viciously shaking the vision away.
My head—I can't—Tom, I can't—
Another scene scrawled itself into life before him.
This one emerged with the image of his witch, older and willowy thin. Her skin was ashen grey, bare arms peeking out from behind the fall of long, wild curls. She wore only a simple, gauzy chemise coated in blood and was illuminated by a throbbing blue-white light. The light seemed to come from somewhere inside of her, only visible through ancient rune-shaped windows carved into her deadened flesh. They reminded him of the scar on the back of her hand—the one that, according to his minions, had been responsible for nearly burning them all alive. This version of his Hermione, however, was not in command here. This one rocked on her feet, swaying as though drunk and wailing while clutching at her head.
The sound was horrifying.
A growl erupted from Tom's throat and he pressed the heels of his palms to his closed eyes.
"STOP THIS!" he roared.
Tom, please make them stop!
I can't—th-they won't stop!
"Shh, I have you," another voice rasped, high and tight.
Tom jerked his hands away from his face and his vision spotted back into clarity.
No longer was he in the darkness, but in a room. It was a decadent room with a hearth. And a bath. And a four-post bed wrapped in all the finest silks Galleons could buy. It was identical to the room he'd just left to enter her mind. At least he thought it was.
Tom spun around to check this illusion and see if the entire room was as he'd left it only, when he turned, he was still facing the bed. The scene continued to unfold without care for his confusion.
On the bed, beneath the sheets, was the woman—Hermione. The pallid shade of her face was broken up only by ruby lips and deep scarlet tracks of blood painting her cheeks and chin and neck.
Blood. So much blood—there was always so much blood.
By Hermione, there was a man.
The man was shrouded in dark robes, tall and thin and bone white. His head was bald, his face disfigured, resembling a ghoulish spectre of humanity with sunken crimson eyes that had sights only for the witch sobbing and writhing beneath the sheets. His hands rested upon each of her cheeks and his spindly, sharp fingers gently smeared the blood that continued to leak from her eyes.
Tom knew this man; he was this man.
He remembered this visage from the memories Hermione had shared with him and couldn't help but take in the monstrous details of this husk he was to become; a dark lord and this dread lady he frantically tried to calm. This horrific version of his witch shook her head frantically, clawing at his other self's robes with strength found only in desperation as Voldemort soothed and hissed and calmed her.
The sight of them there turned his stomach. Was this to be their fate, then? Is this where her plight and their love would lead them? This pathetic coupling of withered giants, born to rule, but swathed in failure in a cold, dark room of their own making.
Tom grimaced at the thought but found a disturbing truth in him as her body-shaking sobs struck something deep within him: It was far too late for him to turn back anymore.
He unwittingly took a step towards the bed.
"I'm here, darling, be still," said Voldemort—a tremble barely hidden beneath those reassuring words.
"Please—please make them stop!" Hermione's eyes opened, black as coals, darting impossibly to where Tom stood. They held an eternity of darkness one could lose themselves in lit only from somewhere deep within those endless depths by glowing red embers that burned straight through him.
"Tom, please!" Hermione cried, reaching for his young form.
"Hermione!" Tom's hand was outstretched, and his feet were moving before he knew it.
He needed to be there.
He would be there.
It wouldn't be like the last time, not like—
"Hello, lover," came a voice at Tom's ear.
He whipped around.
It wasn't only the owner of the voice that was missing, the entire room was gone. The darkness from before was back, only it was flat and black and still. The vision was gone, the voices quiet.
"You are on the wrong side of the wall," the voice was behind him again.
Whirling in the direction of it once more, Tom finally came face to face with Hermione…or, at least a version of her. Reflexively, he reached for his wand, only to come up woefully short. Nothing. Again, he had nothing.
"Tsk," Hermione clucked her tongue. She paced a circle around him, clasping her hands behind her back. "You won't find that here. This is my home where we play by my rules."
Tom sneered at her.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Why are you here?"
She snorted and padded by him. He had the faintest sensation of being tugged along even though he wasn't moving. As Hermione breezed past him, her silhouette flickered, changing in shape and form. It shifted quickly between the vision of the wraith-like woman he'd seen moments ago, to the young witch he'd come here to save, eventually settling on an older version of Hermione who looked unsettlingly plain. His hackles went up instantly.
"My home," this very mundane Hermione reminded him, "my rules. I get to ask the questions, not you. So, why are you here?"
His sneer grew into a blatant baring of teeth.
"I'm here," she said and swept a hand from her head to her toes in a mocking flourish. "There. You've found me. Time for you to go—"
"Where is my Hermione?" Tom snapped at her. His tone dropped into something very low and very threatening. That made her quirk a brow.
"You really are terrible with this whole 'time travel' thing, aren't you?" Hermione asked.
He was about to spit more hateful bile at her, but she waved him off and flicked her wrist to her side, drawing his attention to another scene.
Where the others were like dancing through memories, this one was akin to watching a play. The four-post bed he'd seen inside The Room was there again but instead of looking as though it belonged to an actual room, it simply looked as though it were a set placed upon a stage. The light he couldn't place from before was present again, glaring down on the bed's sole occupant while the rest of the surroundings faded into pitch black darkness. At the center of the bed, and the star of the spotlight, was his Hermione, precisely as he'd left her before pushing into her mind.
"There we are," said the plain Hermione. "Snug as a bug."
She was suddenly at the bedside without ever having moved, looking down at her younger self with an unreadable expression on her face. That look, or rather, that lack of one lasted only a second before something bitter crept into the lines around her eyes.
"We're fine, by the way," Hermione added with a sniff. "So good of you to ask."
As she said it, a small trickle of blood crept from the resting Hermione's nose and the older version of herself reached to wipe it away.
"Don't touch her!" The vicious snarl erupted from his throat as soon as her hand neared his witch's face and Tom launched himself at the older Hermione.
He got all of two steps before her body went taut and she slammed a palm flat in the air between them. Tom came to an abrupt halt, as though he'd leaped straight into a wall. His momentum stilled entirely. An overbearing force pressed in on him, dropping him to his knees. Tom struggled against this invisible weight, but he could hardly move, even commanding his voice to speak was taxing—possible, if the grunt he managed meant anything, but taxing.
Hermione watched him, the harsh look in her eyes softening somewhat as he fought against the very air around him. She curled a finger, beckoning him to her and the distance between them shrunk until he was suddenly there, kneeling at her feet. Plain Hermione smiled the most wicked smile he'd ever seen. It was the kind of look a wolf might give a rabbit if it could truly smile: all teeth, no kindness, with the scent of power pouring from it. On any other occasion, he'd find himself smitten by it; not this time.
"This is our head," Hermione said and with a nod of said head, the darkness shrouding all else crept over Tom's limbs.
It was as though a million hands moved over him, unfurling his body until he was settled on his feet once again. They stretched him taught before her, for whatever pleasure that wicked smile so desired.
"You don't belong here." Hermione's gaze raked over him, sizing up his rooted form and pressing a single, delicate hand to his chest. Her fingers stroked over him, feeling up the lean muscle he possessed in his chest and shoulders and arms no more delicately than she might inspect a horse.
Tom tried to jerk away but failed.
She released a tired sigh.
"You were not invited," she said at last, "nor do I have the time to entertain you. Now, you need to leave before you muck up anything else for us."
Hermione's eyes flicked to one side as she said the last, her lips pressing into a thin line. Although the rest of his body was anchored in place, he was able to follow her line of sight with his own and, for the first time since he'd arrived in her mind, he noticed a wall.
The wall resembled the brick of the maze his Hermione had guided him through when she first showed him snippets of memories from her time. He boggled at his oversight and wondered how in the world he'd ever missed it. That is, until he also spotted the barely visible crack in the wall—a crack that was seemingly the source of all the inky darkness covering everything. The longer he peered at it, the more he could just make out the rippling forms in the dark that had greeted him upon his arrival. He even thought he could hear that sweet, enchanting song that'd taunted him coming from the other side.
The wrong side of the wall…
Had he done that?
Was that crack—is that what he'd "mucked" up?
Tom remembered all the terrible images that writhed on the other side of that wall and his heart dropped into his stomach. Hermione's condition—had he done this? Rare words of regret bubbled up into his throat before he could stop them.
"I didn't mean to," Tom breathed. The words came easily in the shroud of darkness, though he instantly hated himself for how small and weak they sounded. It was as if he were back at the orphanage apologizing for hurting the other children again; only this time he meant it.
He'd done this to her.
Hermione clucked her tongue at him again, but it lacked some of the harshness from before.
"Don't look so worried, love," she said. "We're tougher than a little tumble into a castle wall."
Hermione's hand carded gently through his hair, drawing his attention back to her where he found her staring back, examining him. She'd obviously worked out where else his mind had gone. That or she simply knew from her command over this domain. Either way, he didn't care for it.
"What then?" he grit out. "What happened here?"
"You understand that's not how this works," she said with a snort, neglecting to extract herself from basking in his subdued presence. "You get to demand nothing, and you get to know nothing. Now, again, it's time for you to lea—"
"Answer my questions!" Tom snarled, jerking forward. It wasn't much, just enough to jostle the witch taking liberties with her exploration of his chest and arms, but it was enough.
Hermione hopped back; her eyes narrowed with her hand splayed haltingly between them again. He felt a renewed push from the air around him, felt those invisible hands reaching and gripping and biting into him in their attempt to pin him in place. Tom continued to struggle against them, earning himself another single, shaky step forward.
"How did you do that?" Hermione blurted, ceding ground when he took it.
"If I've not done this to her, then who?" His eyes narrowed. "You?"
What was this creature? She acted as though she was just as much his Hermione as the young witch resting fitfully upon the bed, but to what purpose would she harm herself or trap herself here? She couldn't be the same and that meant only one thing: she was a threat.
Tom's anger resurged at the thought and the dark world around them quavered. He was close to her again, only feet away, although this time, it was he who willed it.
Invisible hands scrabbled at Tom, struggling to find purchase, struggling and failing. He lunged again but the air shuddered. The bed was between them once more—Tom found it with his thigh and nearly toppled forward with his surge of movement.
Hermione peered at him from behind one of the bedposts on the opposite side. Her eyes were wide, and her white-knuckled hands gripped the post, shoulders shaking from exertion.
"You're here." All her bluster from before was gone, her voice now wavering and bordering on frantic. "You're actually here. You've given her something—an anchor!"
Frantically searching, her eyes darted to the image of her young self splayed beneath the bedsheets. They raked over her unconscious form and she stiffened. Tom followed her gaze and spotted the offensive object that had this other Hermione spooked: his horcrux, a veritable piece of his very soul, hung from around the chain his witch had created for it. Apparently, it had come free from her shirt in all her tossing and turning and now rested innocently upon the sheets.
"No," the other Hermione gasped. "No, no, no, NO!"
With an explosion of movement, she scrambled onto the mattress. The vision of this too-plain version of Hermione flickered between other images of her, wicked and ravaged by time, with her talon-tipped hands and feet clawing at the sheets to propel herself as a spider would skittering along its web. In seconds, Hermione was within arm's reach of her young self, one pale arm, now soaked to the elbow in dried streaks and chunks of red, reaching for his ring.
Tom's vision went red as soon as she neared his witch again.
"Get AWAY!" he roared. Gripping the bedpost nearest to him, Tom yanked—hard.
With a startled shriek, the grotesque vision of Hermione was in his arms, held in place with his steel grip and an equally steely glare pinning her in place. The bed had moved again, this time behind him, and Hermione's hands were trapped against his chest. Melting from the monstrous visage back into the plainer one that had greeted him, Hermione looked stricken with eyes wide and watery as she stared up at Tom in pure disbelief.
It was, however, only for a moment.
Hermione's features twisted into a vicious snarl that rivaled his own. "You IDIOT! You'll ruin it—all my hard work to get us here!"
She wadded her fists into the cloth of Tom's shirt, hoisted him off his feet, and shoved him with the force of an ogre, launching him into the darkness. The air rushed from Tom's lungs with the force of the blow and he flew deeper into the shadows. The spotlight shining down on his Hermione and the creature grew ever smaller and dimmer and farther away. The plain Hermione's silhouette flickered into that monstrous woman and Tom's heart leapt into his throat as she neared his sleeping witch once more.
Hermione was his, she would always be his. No would-be dark wizards or idiot minions or evil shades would take her from him!
Tom thought of the raw fury that'd coursed through his veins within his memory, and from upon the hilltop, and in this very space, witnessing this thing try to steal his queen away. He drew upon his rage until the thick of it crowded all else within his veins, weaving throughout the magic flowing there until they were one in the same. The dark world around him shook, the very fabric of the place trembling. Stretching out a hand in the direction of the elder Hermione's image, Tom felt the hum of his soul grow. It grew louder until it rattled his teeth within his skull. The creature Hermione froze and turned, that stricken expression once again warring with something else on her unnaturally plain face.
"Not that spell!"
The light of his soul gleamed from his ring at his Hermione's neck, a spark set to ignite the darkness. Tom met the creature's gaze and sneered.
Arcs of red lightning and a shrill, blood-curdling scream erupted throughout the room. The oppressive black shroud that'd covered everything moments before was beaten back, revealing the familiar place The Room had conjured, now fallen into disrepair. The hearth was broken, chips of marble scattered across tiled floors which were shattered and covered in scattered ash. Archways adjoining the room to the bath or the outside had fallen, their wooden beams rotted clean through and infested with things that crawled and writhed and stunk. And the bed…the bed Hermione slept upon was destroyed, the canopy fallen off to one side with the frame sunken and resting on a pool of moth-eaten linens far too old and filthy to be worth anything to anyone.
Between the bed and Tom was the elder Hermione, the shade, the creature—whatever she was, she was there. On the broken tile, brought to her hands and knees with coils of red smoke and sparks of lightning snapping off her shuddering, nearly seizing form, she was there.
His rage still pounding through him, Tom approached her with one arm extended—no, his wand extended. How he'd manifested it, he didn't know, too occupied with the focus of his ire. He was only even vaguely aware he was on his feet again and in different clothing than before, clothes that were suspiciously like those he'd worn the night he killed his father and grandparents.
"I th-th-thought…w-we ag—reed…" The stuttering, shaking voice came from the twitchy woman at his feet. "…n-n-n-not that w-wuh—"
Tom's lips peeled off his teeth. He twisted his wand.
The false Hermione screamed and wrenched backwards until he could see her face again, her whole body going taut as she fought against the pulsing force of his curse. Brown, bloodshot eyes rolled in their sockets until they finally locked onto him. The dark bags beneath her eyes intermingled with other deep bruising on her too-thin face and neck and chest. Pink, foaming spittle frothed from her quivering lips and painted a bubbling line down her throat. This Hermione wore a simple dress, one he'd seen before, not in one of his memories, but one of hers; it was from the night Hermione killed that woman in black. It was even still soaked in mud and blood and…other things.
…blood, always so much blood…
He remembered this dress.
"Who are you?" Tom hissed, releasing his spell for the moment but not removing his aim from her form.
Hermione's body collapsed once the coils of magic no longer held her aloft and she rolled to her side, coughing, spasming, and laughing. Mostly laughing.
"Answer!" Another lash of his magic made her cry out and stifled her delirious laughter. "What sickness have you inflicted upon my witch?"
Hermione wheezed, attempted to speak, shook her head and then tried again. "Prat," she murmured. "Roon'ing…everything…"
Aggravated, Tom shot another spark from his wand that pinned this battered shade onto her back. She laughed again and shortly thereafter she began to cry.
The tremulous sobs wrenching themselves free from her throat sounded far too much like Hermione's own for him to stand—Tom needed them to stop. With haste in his step, he closed the distance between them, grabbing her by the throat and forcibly choking off her tears. He wouldn't be swayed by a creature that wore his witch's face.
"One last time," he growled and pressed the tip of his wand to her temple. "Tell me: What. Have. You. Done?"
Hermione's hands clawed at the hand around her throat, her mouth flapping several times with only faint wheezes until he loosened his grip on her neck enough for her to speak.
"Better…" she rasped, one trembling hand slipping over the one leveling the wand at her head, "…if I…show you…"
Tom had little time to process what she meant before her fingers curled around his wand, lacing through the spaces his own left in his grip. There was a spark of madness from within the swirling darkness in her eyes that met his. It was a spark that flared alongside the light which burst forth from his wand as it answered the call of the only woman who'd ever disarmed him—his wand's rightful owner.
It was her after all.
With Hermione's shouted incantation, Tom felt himself being pulled deeper into this undefined space: a mind within a mind.
Impossible—this is impossible…
It was the last thing he thought before the undulating darkness returned to engulf him whole.
. . . . .
Everything was different here.
It was…quieter somehow. Quieter than even in his witch's mind—
But this IS her mind too, isn't it?
Tom was unsure how long he'd been out, but upon his waking, the truth hit him again like the Hogwarts Express bearing down on him: that tormented, savage, insane creature was his witch. As boggling as it was to accept, he still couldn't understand why she'd infected her young self so. If his spell assessing the young Hermione's health was true to any degree, she was dying, and it was this other Hermione's fault.
What in Merlin's name was going on?
"—MY VAULT?!" A woman's angry scream pierced the darkness and was met by terrified sobs.
"Please!" a girl's voice cried, "I didn't take anything—"
The pleading girl materialized in this pitch-black space. It was a prone figure and a vision more like the Hermione he knew but clad in strange attire that looked Muggle in nature. This was something from her time, her original time, it had to be. He didn't understand how he was seeing her so clearly this way if it was a memory, but he didn't linger on the thought because another figure scratched into existence.
The new figure was blurry around the edges, but he could tell it was a woman—the woman who'd been shouting—and she was clad in all black.
"I don't believe it," the woman murmured. She moved.
Hermione's shrieks shredded the air as surely as her pain shredded his heart.
It was as though he felt it himself: the burning, scrawled writing, being etched into his flesh. Skin stripped away, layer by layer, as the heavy weight of the woman-in-black's body pressed into his chest, he felt it. Tom's form emerged and solidified and next he knew he was moving towards her.
"Shh," another woman's voice, soft, soothing, and so very sad was at his ear. "Just watch."
Tom tried to speak and found he couldn't.
He tried to turn but slender arms encircled him from behind, setting him facing forward and forcing him to witness his young witch's torture.
The warm press of the new speaker's body fitted against his back and he knew who it was. Looking down to the arms hugging him, both covered in remnants of dried blood and offal, left over-top the right, and the word MUDBLOOD staring up at him from one naked forearm, Tom knew precisely who it was.
"Just watch…" she said again.
Hermione's screams shattered him.
Watching her sobbing on the floor, taking crucio after crucio once the mutilation of her flesh was complete, and doing nothing to help her—unable to do anything for her—it was madness.
His own feelings of rage that he'd clung onto so vehemently were dwarfed by hopelessness pressing in on him from all sides.
These are her feelings, he realized.
"Remember this," the Hermione at his back whispered, "this is where it starts…"
The image of his young witch arcing off a decadent rug burned itself into the backs of his eyelids and all he could do was watch.
Hermione's screams echoed in his ears, fading as the world did.
When Tom blinked, they were somewhere new, a street—a Muggle street at that.
A woman frolicked down the block, that same woman-in-black, still blurry, still undefined, but eerily joyous. She hummed and sang to herself, setting fire to trees and buildings and people.
Tom's breath hitched—he remembered this vision.
He tried to turn to the Hermione that'd drawn him further into her mind, but she was missing. He was free of her embrace once more, now free to move yet in his path was a pile of bodies. Very dead, very charred, smoking, and hideous bodies. Two figures were brought before the pile: a man and a woman.
His young witch materialized again, struggling, held down by a man shrouded from his sight.
"NO!" Hermione screamed as the woman-in-black sidled up to her next victims.
Unlike the woman, the Muggles' faces were clear and in them, Tom could see the resemblance.
A slender hand slipped into his and Tom jolted from the contact. He still couldn't speak but he did look at the emerging elder Hermione, unable to vocalize what he felt for his witch. He'd not known the love of parents and didn't weep for their loss, but Hermione…he felt everything within these trembling walls of her mind. The hopelessness from before, it was shifting into something dark and terrible.
Tom thought she was wrong, he thought this is where it started.
The elder Hermione peered at him and squeezed his hand before returning to watch the scene with a cold, detached, expression.
Shutter, the word came unbidden into his own head. Shutter the pain.
The woman-in-black sliced Hermione's parents open from chin to hip.
Hermione screamed her throat raw and the burning rubble around them flared into something white-hot.
The woman-in-black paused, pointed her wand at the young Hermione and the world burned away.
Her hand slipped free of his grip.
"Shutter it away," the elder's voice echoed in the unlit void, "until you need it."
When the world materialized again, Tom was greeted at once by Hermione's ravaged screams. Before he even had a chance to see her this time, he turned his head, snarling.
"I don't wish to see this!" he snapped, then paused in surprise. It was the first time he'd been able to speak since he arrived.
"I wish to show it to you," elder Hermione said, her wispy form solidifying next to him. She looped her arms through one of his and though he stiffened, he didn't wrench himself away.
At her command, his head turned back to the scene and his eyes remained glued to it no matter how hard he tried to look away.
"CRUCIOOO!" The woman-in-black tittered at an older Hermione, much like the one that led Tom through these visions. Hermione writhed in the mud, twitching and screaming with the force of the spell sent her way.
"You wanted to know what I've done," the elder murmured into his ear, "but first, I want you to know why."
Hermione's body convulsed under stronger waves of the curse.
"With your vision—the man you become—you would condemn us to this. Slavery…torture for those 'unfortunate' enough to not entertain a magically pure bloodline," she spat. "Our power would be bound and reserved only for our owners' pleasure until the magic in our blood has 'run its course.' It was, supposedly, a mercy to us…and a threat to your incestuous fanatics like her." The elder pointed at the woman-in-black and her eyes darkened.
Tom felt the air around them heat and knew this was her anger. He'd felt it before, aimed at him, only this—it was so much more. Every breath he drew was like swallowing fire.
"If you could bind the enemy's magic, why not theirs?" the elder asked.
Tom held his tongue, trembling where he stood. Every nerve in his body buzzed with the desire to wipe this scene away, to do something to make it stop. It wasn't just this version of his witch that made him watch now, though. To turn away, to ignore what his rule wrought in her time—he couldn't.
"The threat was nothing if not effective. And who better to vent their fear and anger out on, but us? They still had their magic, after all. Why not use it?"
Another enthusiastic curse flew from the woman-in-black's curved wand. "CRUCIO!"
The tortured Hermione's eyes squeezed shut and no more sound came from her swollen throat. Disappointed, her mistress hissed at her and stomped away, leaving her there to seize and spasm.
The elder Hermione released his arm, watching her other self lose control of her bladder and bowels. Her hands twitched almost as if reliving the aftershocks.
"It was here that I understood one definitive truth," she said.
Tom watched as a House Elf in a ratty old sheet tended her twitching body and provided her with some sort of potion that calmed her convulsions.
"Good," the elder said, approaching the vision of herself, "evil. There are no such things."
She circled her prone figure and the House Elf tending her until the woman-in-black stomped back into view long enough to bark at the elf to leave. The woman snarled and spat taunts, but this other, tired Hermione wouldn't respond. She didn't cower, she didn't flinch, she did nothing. And it made her mistress furious.
Hermione, the one standing surveying the scene, the ragged survivor of such grievous pain and loss looked at him from the other side of her wrecked body. The woman-in-black drew her arm back in a wide flourish to undoubtedly send another mind-shattering curse at the witch on her back in the mud.
The sky around them flashed, a whip-like crack and bang thundering so close it shook the ground they stood upon. When the pinpricks of light dotting his vision cleared, Tom saw only one Hermione. Her gown was painted in fresh blood, her elbows soaked with that and more, and she was clutching a large rock in one hand. Hermione looked down at the woman-in-black and he did, too. Her skull was caved in.
Their eyes met once more, now over the corpse at Hermione's feet.
"There's only power, Tom," she said. "And those too weak to seek it."
She smirked at him, a devious, merciless thing, and threw the rock at him.
Tom hissed and made to catch it, but the world flashed again and visions tore through him faster than he could blink.
A man with a knife through his throat and shards of glass embedded into his face bleeding out at Hermione's feet.
A library with texts written about darker magics than he even knew existed.
"You've never been afraid of power, Tom," Hermione's voice came to him from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
A woman in Ministry robes crawling away in fear as her flesh is stripped from her bones.
Hermione wrenching a shard of her soul from her breast and planting it in a book—a children's book.
"I stopped being afraid."
Her drawing memories from her skull, tugging them free and bonding them to the words lining the pages of every innocent fairy tale.
The world shifted and Tom went from standing on his own two feet to free falling through the writhing dark. Visions flickered as though he was plummeting down a lift shaft, watching the floors rush by.
His young witch being dragged to a cottage.
"To answer your question…"
Her reading the book.
The darkness finding her.
"…to earn my freedom, I needed power…"
Hermione, young and weak and wasting away.
The darkness claiming her…
"…to get that power, I needed to get to you…"
Hermione, envisioned as a queen by his side.
"…and to get to you…"
"…I did what I had to do."
. . . . .
Tom came free of the elder Hermione's head with a gasp and fell backwards onto the broken tiles. His wand clattered onto the ground at his side, glinting and fizzling before shifting into the shape of his ring. Tom tried to palm it but it was searing hot to the touch, burning him on contact.
Hermione slumped when the spell was released, dropping again to her hands and knees. Her shoulders heaved with every great, heaping gulp of air she swallowed down.
"You," Tom panted, "what is it you want from me?" He clutched his throbbing hand from his half-sprawled position across from her.
She looked up from beneath hooded eyes that were still red and bloodshot from his earlier crucio. She shook her head.
"I've already told you at least once before," she said, "I am to be your equal in the world you make. It needs be nothing more, but I want nothing less."
Along with her words, she was finding again the strength he'd sapped from her. Shakily, she got her feet under her, knees wobbling as she struggled to stand.
"And what if I deny you now?" Tom growled somewhat ineffectively thanks to his position on the floor. "You've tipped your hand and shown me everything—I could put you down right here!"
It was a mad laugh.
"And let her die with me?" she asked, nodding once to the bed behind him whose collapsed canopy miraculously left the young sleeping Hermione entirely unscathed. "Doubtful. You love her too much for that."
Tom's jaw clamped shut at the accusation. He wanted with every part of his being to deny it, but it was far too late for that. After he'd come all this way on the frantic rage he'd ridden into Hermione's muddled mind to pull her back to consciousness, denial would be petulance and nothing more.
"You're killing her!"
"Time is killing her," she hissed. "I am merely having her set up all the pieces as only I—and now, you—can understand."
He did understand. Tom understood that she was insane.
She was right about time travel not being his strong suit, but he knew at the very least that, if what she'd suffered was the catalyst for her seeking him in his own time, somehow, someday, she'd have to suffer it all again to find a new ending. She'd condemned herself to a life of madness and torment for merely a chance she could change her future.
His Hermione existed as little else to her than a pawn.
"You would put her—put yourself—through this?"
Tom released his injured palm to pat around for his ring again. It'd moved, rolled just behind his hip when he jerked away from it earlier, but the metal was finally starting to cool.
"For what? Ruling over a ravaged hellscape no better than the one the Muggles have made for themselves with their war?"
Hermione smirked at that and gave him a little shrug, nearly toppling with her unsteady step forward.
"The only path to Hell's throne is through the fire, my love." She took another, much surer step towards him and extended a hand. "Come. We may not be able to rule in Heaven but we can certainly rule in Hell."
From Tom's vantage point, it reminded him of an old vision—another of the many memories he'd been stricken with since his witch traveled back to this time. A kind version of this woman, not swathed in blood and guts for once, had looked at him, invited him out of his nook in the library to somewhere far less likely of catching anyone's ire. He knew from all those terrible memories what happened to that woman…but it wasn't this. His Hermione and this one may have been one in the same, but the elder and the woman from his visions…they were not. This witch was delusional and had never known his touch, she couldn't have. Even the wraith-woman he'd seen himself with as Voldemort was different.
By Tom's observation, that meant three things.
One: there was another way to keep his witch alive without this one's plans.
Two: he would find it.
And three: he would keep the elder from doing any more harm.
Tom eyed Hermione's outstretched hand and for the first time, he smiled up at her. Slipping his hand into hers, he felt her grip close around him and she started to hoist him up with surprising strength. He was partway off the floor, the fingertips of his other hand curling around the now-cooled ring. It began to hum again in his grip, but he denied it the form of the wand it tried to assume. Instead, he drew on the steadily recharging power of this shard of his soul.
Once Tom was on his feet again, Hermione slid her palms over his chest, leaning into him. He smoothed one hand up her side, tugging her so close that her hands had no other place to go but higher up between them. She moved them to cup either side of his face and hissed something terrible and sweet before swaying ever closer. Her lips curled into a smile to match his, growing ever wider as his other hand joined his first in its travel up the sides of her breasts. Hermione purred at the light caress, catching his lips with hers as his left palm tickled over the peak of one nipple to rest over her heart.
"It's for us, Tom," Hermione said, calmer than she'd been since he arrived here. She nuzzled his nose with hers. "I knew it, from all the times Mistress took me with her to the Manor. I knew it had to be you…I love you."
Tom pulled away from her only slightly, her heavily lidded eyes tracking him with the same pure emotion he could now name, the very same he'd seen in many different visions of her on many different days. The same that, he knew, reflected in his own eyes, if not for her, than for a mirror of her.
"I know," he murmured, kissed her once more, then moved a single arm-length back.
Her brow crinkled.
A burst of white light exploded from Tom's left hand where his ring was seated once again. It flung Hermione back like a cannon blast, her shrieks of betrayal slicing through the air.
Back, she flew—far away from him and his witch.
Back, beyond the mirage of the dilapidated room.
Back, through the crack in the brick wall.
Back, into that undulating darkness.
He didn't pause to think about boarding up the crack, merely clung onto his soul shard and willed planks into place.
He fortified every seam and dip and divot in that wall, leaving the elder to a prison only he could ever dissolve. Once satisfied that this piece of Hermione, a shade born of her own shattered soul fragment and bitter memories was stored—alive, but harmless—he returned to the broken bed.
Tom knelt by the canted mattress where his witch slept and smoothed her hair from her face. Her expression was pained, the lines in her face deep with stress and anguish. He took up one of the hands she'd fisted into the sheets and pressed a soft kiss to her wrist. The tense lines eased, but just so.
"Rest easy, darling," Tom whispered against the silky skin over her pulse point.
Her fingers relaxed at the sound of his voice, uncurling enough for him to tuck his ring into her palm. Tom kissed her again, this time on her knuckles he closed around his soul.
"Nothing will take you from me…not even the press of time."