Aca-demic Arrangements

Chapter 40

Hermione blinked at Tom where he stood barely dressed next to one of those large blank post-it pads with the sheets of paper you could rip and stick on walls without fear of forfeiting your security deposit. She'd once used those for a group project to lead the discussion and assign tasks before realizing she was the only one doing all the work and binned it. Why Tom owned one of these, she couldn't be too sure, seeing as how he was remarkably not group project friendly judging by his initial bristly personality before you got to know him—and after you got to know him. Even so, that, along with the full set of specialized colored markers and pens and their compatible 'no-bleed, no-smudge' highlighters stimulated her lady hardon for him.

"That make sense, then?"

His voice jolted her out of her mental wanderings and she shot upright from her spot on the edge of his bed. "Yeah! Yeah, it does!" she said.

Tom narrowed his eyes at her too quick reply, the suspicious mid-syllable voice crack, and her overeager, overloud voice.

"Really," he drawled. Stepping to one side, he tapped his capped marker to the diagram before folding his arms and eying her. "Explain it to me."

Hermione supposed she should have seen that one coming but, to be honest, she'd been too preoccupied admiring the way his rear looked in his pajamas instead of listening too closely to everything he'd said. Around the time he started talking about single elimination brackets and things far too reminiscent of Draco's obsession with rugby, she had flashbacks of all the nattering of fixtures and players and leagues and whatall and her mind tuned out somewhere along the way in favor of thinking on the curiosity of Tom Riddle's arse dimples.

Just like the cheeks on one's face, they weren't always there on a person's arse, even for one so physically immaculate as he—they were just as adorable, though. Whatever it was they had going on between them hadn't been happening for all that long so her opportunities to admire his posterior didn't occur as often as she'd like, but it was delightful when she got to glimpse it nonetheless. Her best memories were when they were shagging on The Chamber's throw rug and he'd manage a particularly enthusiastic series of thrusts, burying his cock so deeply each time, his bollocks slapped against her rear and she could dig her heels into those wonderful little dimples like they were stirrups to a saddle.

The secondary recollection of it brought a smile to her face.

Tom's face, on the other hand, scrunched and he cocked his head at her airy lopsided expression.

"What's that about?"

Since her deer-in-headlights reaction was entirely non-existent from too many years in college, Hermione just shrugged and reached out to toy with one of his drawstrings. "Thinking about your arse."

Tom batted her hand away, doing well to hide the grin threatening to break through his stern visage. "You can't have any pudding if you don't eat your meat." At the way her brows shot up and nothing about her expression cooled, he tapped his marker to the paper again. "You need to be informed of how this all works before Pansy shows up again, Dove. Now: explain."

With a sigh so heavy and labored it was only missing a chaise for her to drape herself upon, Hermione refocused her attention on the bracket. Having drifted off very early on in his explanation, her eyes went wide when she set them on all the actual detail he'd marked out for her benefit. She lost herself for a moment looking at the perfectly level, perfectly spaced and symmetrical elimination brackets he'd drawn in fat chisel tip markers, color coding them by regions and elimination tiers. For each visual piece of this strange aca-puzzle he presented before her, Tom had labeled them in the most elegant handwriting she'd seen in ages. Seeing it so put together and lovingly crafted in the ten or fifteen minutes they'd been up there while she was fucking off in her own head, daydreaming about his body made her gut twinge with guilt. She immediately went to work trying to replay all the words from his lecture she could remember in her head doing her best to piece them back together with some coherency.

"Right, so…" Hermione tapped her fingers to her lips while scanning the diagram title he'd written in a lovely green color that read 'The Road to Nationals' complete with a hand drawn drop shadow in a complementary shade of grey. After another scan, stalling as long as she thought she could get away with, she jumped in headfirst.

"Alright. Nationals. So there are eight regions here in the states, ours obviously being this 'West' region that includes all of the coast. All the participating colleges in their region have several groups of contestants who compete in these Quarterfinals here—"

She was motioning to the first color coded tier when Tom interjected. "It's usually about ten groups per Quarterfinal round with six rounds per regional Quarterfinal." He uncapped a marker and added some more impeccably straight and even visuals to his diagram. "One Quarterfinal 'phase' per region, six 'rounds' per Quarterfinal phase, and ten groups per round. These all get whittled down with one Semifinal phase per region with the last phase being Finals. One group left standing at the end of it all who gets a big trophy as well as the honor of competing in the World Open. See?" he asked with a flourish to his diagram.

Hermione's brow creased. "Wait, what? So that's sixty groups competing in just each region?"

"Right," he said with a nod. "Sixty per region, eight regions, totaling out—"

"Four hundred and eighty initial competitors?" she asked, astonished. "Bugger me! I had no idea this competition was that large!"

Tom snorted and shrugged. "Yes, but the eliminations happen fairly quickly. Most groups aren't very good, some vomit on stage, some get scared and don't show up—"

"No, no, wait a minute." She held a hand up to halt his explanation and leaned forward with sudden intense interest. "Your trophies in The Chamber—the big ones with all the shiny bits about the size of the Riff Off one I won—those are from Nationals?"

It was Tom's turn to be confused. He wasn't altogether sure where this was heading, so he nodded. "Yes. We started competing Freshman year here, with a bit different lineup of course, but—"

Before he could finish, Hermione had launched herself off his bed, snatched up one of his philosophy books from a nearby stack on the floor and began to bludgeon him on the arm with it in loud, resounding THWACKS.

"OW!" Tom yelled, dodging, ducking, and dipping away from the tranquility of Lao Tzu turned murderous in the hands of his not-girlfriend. "Bloody hell, woman! Stop it!" Finding an opening in her flurry of blows, Tom ripped his book free from her clutches and cradled it in his arms well away from her reach. "What the fuck was that for?!"

"Rickle, you absolute todger!" Hermione reached out barehanded and smacked him on the chest before taking up a hands on hip stance and fixing him with a stern scowl. "You have three of those! THREE trophies that declare Rebellious Phrase 'Nationwide Champions'!"

Gobsmacked that this was, apparently, her justification for beating him with literature, he rubbed at his sore parts and growled at her, "Yeah, isit?! Wot about it?"

She smacked him again for raising his Cockney at her, but her hand lingered on his chest and her voice lessened in its harshness but not its enthusiasm. "Tom—you've won this competition three years in a row, competing in a mass of nearly five hundred groups each time! That's—that's brilliant!"

His mouth dropped open at that and he did his best to formulate a proper response because, honestly, he didn't think it was all that big of a thing. The winners of Nationals went on to compete at the World Open along with the previous year's champion if it was a different group. With Rebellious Phrase having won so many years in a row, however, they'd not had anyone from the U.S. accompanying them since the very first year they took first place. It was old hat at this point and they'd not won the World Open—Germany was the title holder there—but this was his last year for a chance at it and he'd been more invested in plotting new sets than thinking about the other competitors.

"Tom," she called to him again, snapping him out of his shock, "I had no idea you and the boys were such a big deal in this circuit!"

"Wuh—ah, a bit," was the eventual and most eloquent thing that managed to fall past Tom's lips.

It wasn't the best, as with dating, he wasn't particularly used to anyone being impressed with anything having to do with him and a cappella. While it may not have been his best moment, it was the moment he realized that he was irrevocably in love with one Hermione Granger.

And then she slapped him.

"Twat!" she said, proceeding then to cup both his cheeks and, ignoring the befuddlement on his face, kissed him.

Both of Tom's eyebrows shot into his hairline and, for a second, he willed himself to do nothing other than stand perfectly still. When his non-reaction only resulted in Hermione repositioning her mouth over his in a way that allowed her to trail her tongue along the seam of his lips more comfortably, he relaxed, tossed the copy of Tao Te Ching he'd been holding to the side, and curled his arms around her waist.

With a groan, he opened to her and let her explore and tickle the sensitive skin of his lips while tugging her closer. His tattooed hands swept over her back, up to her shoulders and down again past his starting point to the ample curve of her rear that he used as a handhold to nudge her closer. It was then, with her arms having made their way to drape over his shoulders and his hands having found a steady encouraging rhythm to lead her slow grinding of her hips to his, that she pulled free from their kiss. He and his stifled erection protested the loss.

Gazing up into his half-lidded eyes as they opened, Hermione's voice was quiet and breathy when she spoke. "You should have told me. All this time, you acted like this was just some kind of hobby."

"Well, it is that…"

"Oh, shut it." She bumped him with her nose and sighed between them when his forehead came to rest against hers, barely noticing that Tom had taken to rocking them in the slowest, slightest semblance of a dancing sway. "If I'd known, I never would've joined Pansy, even for a second."

Tom's swaying step faltered for half a moment at Pansy's mention, but he picked it back up just as quickly. With a shrug, he said, "Even if you had, Dove, no way you could've known she'd keep pursuin' you."

To that, Hermione scoffed. "Of course I did."

His steps stopped and he pulled his head far enough away to look down at her face. "What?"

"What?" she echoed. Her head cocked to one side. "Pansy is a classic obsessive personality. I had little measure of her at first but after talking with her a couple times, I figured her type. She had her sights set on something and she was perfectly willing to use me to get it. I thought about it a bit after Theo told me about that prize pot at the pub—before I made my decision to go in on it. One sample of me in my element and I knew she'd be addicted. All it needed was a bit of play of hard to get to keep her interest and, hopefully, lead me to a bigger payout with her ignoring everything else as long as she could get me. I had no idea she wanted the World Open, though! Or that there was such a large dollar prize to get there and—Tom, why are you looking at me like that."

'Like what?' he would've asked had he not known the blatant astonishment visible on his face. Mouth open and catching flies for the millionth time that morning, he rehashed all of what she'd just said a few times.

"You mean to tell me—" Tom lifted one of his hands away from her hips to gesture vaguely into the void. "—all that mess and the confused interactions and shite with Pans…that was fake?"

"Not all of it. Just—well, probably just everything after the first two times I talked to her."

"You manipulative lit'le tart!" Tom's face lit up with realization. "You was set'lin' in fer a long con!"

At the absolute delight in Tom's voice, Hermione's expression morphed into a cheeky one. "Well, she's not all that sly with her plotting is she? Thought I might as well get something out of it."

Tom guffawed and gave her a big wet kiss.

"Cor! Beau'iful is wot you are."

Hermione blushed, hiding the deepening shade of her cheeks beneath the fall of her curls. "Have I ever told you, you sound like an old pipeworker when you talk like that," she teased in a lame attempt to coax him from his accented flattery that always managed to do all the things needed to send the butterflies in her belly into flight. It was easier to ignore the compliments when they didn't sound so much like home.

"Been told I'm an old soul. Old pipeworker wiv a fancy for a pret'y Dove s'better'n some," he said, unmoved to slip out of the dialect that would've sent Blaise and Marcus into a tailspin and buried his face in her hair to kiss the top of her head.

"Incorrigible beast s'what you are." She snorted with a shake of her head. In a more somber tone, Hermione added, "But knowing what I do now, I won't join Pansy like I was going to."

That-particularly the way she framed it—surprised him. "Why not?" Tom asked.

Blinking dully, she said, "Because I want you to have a chance to win Worlds! You've only got this last year to go for it—I don't want to get in the way of that."

He chuckled at the reasoning. "And you fink wiv yor competin' that'll change me chance at gold, issit?"

Hermione looked at him as though he were simple and said with complete and utter confidence, "Of course it will."

Tom pulled back, swapping his jovial smile for bewilderment.

"Hell," she continued, "if it weren't for the rule that the defending champion gets to go to the World Open, it'd botch your chances entirely!"

"Wait a tic," he said at once, taking a step away from her to see her more clearly past the intense furrow of his brow. "You sayin' you fink you'd take Nationals—" Tom let out a succinct whistle through his teeth where they half bit at his bottom lip and sliced a hand through the air to help punctuate the noise. "—just like that?"

"You don't?" she asked.

The question chilled him to the bone; if that wasn't some kind of trap, he didn't know what was. It was enough to give him pause.

Did he not think she'd be able to take Nationals?

That wasn't it at all. Of course she had the chops! But Nationals…Nationals was a team event.

"S'not you, love," Tom said. "It's yer trio of barnacles I'd be concerned 'bout."

"Oh—pfft—I already had plans on how to get them competition ready."

"Really?" Color him intrigued.

Three years it'd been since Tom and the others started competing.

Three years since there'd been someone that'd proved a challenge and even then, Tom had never been truly worried.

To compete against someone like Hermione, though…that would be something else.

And to be shagging her and undoubtedly wooing her into a steady, official status of finally-his-girlfriend-after-all?

That would be a HELL of a challenge.

"Care to wager onnit?" The words left his mouth before he knew it.

Hermione bristled, her hair frizzing as though it sparked with its own self-contained electricity. "On getting to Nationals?"

"On who's to win Worlds?"

She had to stand and blink for a minute just taking in and processing what he'd said. Every minuscule competitive urge she thought she'd had under control from years long past flared violently to life. With as much automation as he'd had when he offered the bet, she felt herself moving to respond. The frizz of her hair fizzled out somewhat and a Cheshire Cat-like grin spread across Hermione's face in its wake. Stepping forward to close the gap between them once more, she slipped her arms back around Tom's neck and fitted herself flush against him. She gave a coy shrug.

"Seeing as I'm not a woman who'd so cruelly stifle the pleasures of a man who enjoys being beaten—you're on, Rickle."

Update as of 3/20/2018: Just to let folks know, life has all but swallowed me whole. I've been having to spend a lot of time on managing my personal health lest I end up in a bad spot. I know many folks have been waiting for updates and new chapters and they'll come, but I've been struggling quite a bit for a while now trying to get my physical well-being up to par but it's not there yet and it's not close so...things will just continue to happen and update as I can. Check my Tumblr (dulce-de-leche-go) for any breaking news updates.

Olive juice,