Hermione looked at the blond man sitting – well, lounging really – in the chair across from her. The house was beautiful; it had original woodwork that no one had ever committed the sacrilege of painting, leaded windows and little architectural details everywhere she turned. The room the man had showed her was perfect with huge windows and its own bath. "Why is the rent so low?" she asked. There had to be a catch; there always was. So far she'd met with a woman who had far too many cats, a man who'd leered at her and tried to look down her shirt, and been in at least three houses with rooms for let that had odd smells she hadn't been able to identify.
This one looked okay so far but by this point she was wary. Also, if it hadn't been for the rainbow flag hanging in the front hall window she would have been acutely nervous around a man this ridiculously attractive. From his bone structure to his nearly white hair this man had jaw-dropping good looks. To make it worse, he was dressed with the casual arrogance of wealth and draping himself all over the really quite nice furniture. He was about as out of her league as they came. Given she didn't really think he'd start flustering her with male attention, however, she just leaned forward and waited for his answer.
He sighed. "It's my partner – that's not an issue for you, is it?" She rolled her eyes and he continued. "He's a giant, fucking pain in the ass and he's managed to drive away three roommates so far. I thought if I dropped the rent maybe someone would decide the deal was worth putting up with him."
"At this rate you aren't going to even begin to make any money. Why get a roommate at all?" Hermione asked.
The man grinned at her and she stared at the way that smile turned his angular face into one filled with boyish charm. "I can't let him win," he said. "Say you'll take the room. You seem sane enough and – "
"Jesus. You just don't give up, do you?"
Hermione turned and eyed the newcomer, clearly the pain in the ass partner. If the other one was all blond and sunshine this one was, well, not sunshine. He scowled at her from under black curls so perfect her hands twitched with the urge to rumple them.
"What?" he demanded as she continued to stare.
"Just trying to decide which of you is prettier," she said.
"Me," said the blond. "Tom, meet… I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Fuck, Abraxas, you've offered her the room and don't even know her name?" Tom crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at her.
"I'm Hermione," she said. "And, yes, I've read The Winter's Tale and, yes, I know it's a weird name."
The blond laughed. "My loving parents burdened me with 'Abraxas'. I'm not going to be giving you a hard time for your name, Hermione. When will you move your stuff in? Rents due the first of the month -"
"Assuming she stays that long," the dark haired Tom drawled.
"So, I'm guessing the social skills classes in school didn't take for you," Hermione said with mock courtesy.
"You know, the classes the kids who can't manage to play nice with others get sent to," Hermione said. "Remedial 'how not to be a dick' sessions with the school social worker, basically."
Tom began to smile. "I'm afraid I didn't get sent to any such cute little sessions, Hermione," he said. "You sound well acquainted with them, however. Did they 'take', as you put it, for you"
She shrugged. "Well, I haven't punched anyone since 9th grade so I guess so."
Abraxas began to laugh. "I'll bet you a bottle of good scotch she stays all year, Tom."
"You're on," he said.
"I can move in Thursday," Hermione said, standing up. "Tom, why don't you put on your manners, assuming you have any, and show me to the door."
The man stalked across the room and she tried not to notice that he moved like a cat, all lean muscle and grace, and, at the door that led to the front hall, stood with an arm extended, waiting for her to pass through. "Abraxas," she said, "it was nice meeting you. I'll see you Thursday, nineish? We can sign the lease and you can give me a key and what all?"
"There's no lease," Tom said. She looked at him and he tossed her a key, which, even as close to him as she was, she fumbled and almost dropped. She glared at him as she straightened up and shoved the key into a pocket and he laughed. "You won't stay long enough to make a lease worth the hassle, Hermione, trust me. Move in whenever you want. Then out shortly thereafter."
She looked at him and said, flatly, "This place is clean, free of excessive pets and men who are likely to grope me after too many beers so, frankly, it's ideal. Get used to me, Tom." She walked past him and opened the front hall door. "Nice to meet you," she added.
As she shut the door behind her she could hear Tom say, "You are such an asshole," to Abraxas.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Tom may have called Abraxas an asshole but it became clear before Hermione had been in their house a day that Tom might as well have been describing himself. He planned to win whatever weird power game the two of them were playing over whether or not Tom could drive another housemate away. He was rude. He made unkind personal observations. He insulted her hair. He shut doors in her face. He suggested her ancestry was vile.
The first few days she bristled and glared and if she'd had feathers they would have been in a perpetually ruffled state. She admitted to herself that she wasn't great with people – there was, after all, a reason she'd had to have lunch with the school social worker and the woman's little band of misfits for several years – but Tom Riddle took bad with people to a whole new level. You could almost see the contempt dripping from him; he despised everyone, thought everyone was an idiot, and while he could turn on a charm so practiced waitresses and coffee shop workers fawned on him, he could turn it off just as easily.
He never bothered to turn it on for Hermione.
"Filthy little pest," he snapped at her one morning as she set her used teacup on the counter. "Can't you at least rinse that out?"
"You do it," she suggested, too tired after a night wrestling with a deadline for a journal and revision requests that made no sense at all to react to his insult-du-jour.
He bristled at her and Hermione began to smile. So that was how to play this game. She settled down at the table and smiled at Abraxas. "How did you two meet?" she asked. "You've never told me."
"That would be because our personal lives are none of your business," Tom said as he banged her cup loudly in the sink as he rinsed it.
Abraxas ignored him. "We were at the same boarding school," he said. "Tom was on scholarship because he is bloody brilliant and I was barely passing math. It was a match made in heaven."
"He was your tutor?" Hermione asked and looked over at the fuming man. "That's so sweet. I didn't realize Tom was more than a pretty face."
"Oh," Abraxas said, hiding a grin, "he's a right prodigy. Won all sorts of nutty awards."
"I never would have guessed," Hermione said. "So, Tom, what do you do?"
"Do?" he asked.
"You know," she said, "for work?"
"I've got a grant to do independent research right now," he said. "What do you do?"
"I'm ABD," she said. "Medieval poetry."
He snorted rudely and leaned up against the counter so he could sneer at her more effectively. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"Because you look down on literature and the arts?" Hermione asked, her voice as sweet as she could make it, "and you look down on me so it seems logical to you that I must be doing something you see as worthless?"
"I'm sure it's a perfectly good field for women," Tom said. "All the cute little poetry things, I mean."
"What exactly are you researching?" she asked. "Ways to bottle how much of a jerk you are?"
He smiled, obviously pleased to have nettled her. "Cellular regeneration," he said. "Immortality."
Abraxas cut in. "What's the name of your lab team, again, Tom?" he asked.
"The Death Eaters," Tom said, sounding pleased with himself. His smug expression, however, faltered, when Hermione began to snicker. "What?" he demanded.
"Did you come up with that name when you were twelve?" she said. "It's the twee-est thing I've ever heard. 'Death Eaters'." She began to giggle in earnest and Tom stalked out of the room.
"That wasn't nice," Abraxas said from where he was sitting. "I didn't take you for someone who likes to kick cripples."
Hermione looked at him in disbelief and Abraxas sighed. "Look," he said. "He grew up in the foster care system. He had a childhood that was beyond bad. He's… statistically he should be in jail or dead and he knows it."
"He got a scholarship to whatever school you were at," Hermione said, waving her hand as if to brush away Abraxas' remarks. "He got out."
"How kind do you think boys are to the brilliant, scholarship kid?" Abraxas asked her. His voice was gentle and patient and Hermione felt vague stirrings of guilt in her soul for mocking the dumb little name he'd come up with for his research team, which irritated her because Tom was such a dick.
Hermione looked out the door, following Tom's exit with her eyes. "You protected him didn't you?" she asked, starting to understand their odd little relationship.
Abraxas shrugged. "And he protected me. He's a dirty fighter and I was the queer kid."
"He's an asshole," Hermione said, pushing away the image of Tom, uncomfortable and out of place at an elite school, fighting for acceptance, first as a gifted student and then, when that didn't work, with tricks picked up in foster care. He'd been clever enough to not get caught, he was sure. She'd bet no one crossed him or anyone in his circle, anyone he was protecting, more than once.
Abraxas shrugged again. "People don't turn into Tom because they've had it easy. Just… give him a chance."
After her conversation with Abraxas Hermione had meant to try to be reasonably pleasant to Tom; that intention, as genuine as it was, lasted until the next morning when he started reading poetry out loud in a high pitched, querulous tone and then asking Abraxas if he could explain what this meant, that the words were just too hard for a simple scientist like him to understand.
What made it worse was that he was funny. He dropped over the top interpretations straight out of critical theory 101 and then would say, rubbing his nose, "But that can't be right. Help me out here, Abraxas." She would sit there, the audience of one for his little performances, and listen to him massacre words she'd loved her whole life and make the whole thing entertaining. She wavered between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry and wanting to throw things at his head.
The longer the game went on, however, the less funny it became. She knew he was retaliating for the way she'd laughed at 'Death Eaters' and tried not to let him see her react. She even patted him on the shoulder once and said, her voice light, "We'll make a student of English of you yet."
"I'd go mad first," he said, voice just as light. "I'd lose my mind, just tortured into insanity by this drivel."
Her smile faltered and his became predatory. "Tell me what's your favorite, Hermione, so I can go look it up."
She fled at that and she could hear Abraxas sigh behind her. "Do you have to be such a prick to everyone?" the man asked.
"I think you'll owe me that scotch by the end of the week," Tom Riddle said, his voice infuriating in its smugness. "I'll take 24-year Macallan single malt, please."
"That's what you think, you bastard," Hermione muttered as she dragged herself up the stairs to her room.
Abraxas found her later, coming in with an invented excuse that he was going out on errands and did she need anything. She'd curled up in the window seat, her back braced against the wall and a copy of Tell Me in her hands.
"Going shopping?" Hermione asked, wiping the water away from her eyes. "Planning on picking up some scotch, perhaps?"
Abraxas perched himself on the edge of the window seat and plucked the book from her fingers. "He went too far?" he asked.
"You ask as though this might be something new for him," she said. "Does Tom Riddle ever not go too far?" She took her book back and opened it up again, head down until Abraxas put his hand over the pages.
"What are you reading?" he asked. "And, no, I'm not going to the liquor store. Tom can buy his own booze."
She hunched over but when he pulled his hand away from the pages and rested it on her shoulder she began to read. "'I want a red dress'," she said, pushing the words at him, and Abraxas sat and listened.
"That's – " he began.
"Hardly important compared to what Tom's doing," she interrupted, her tone bitter. "Trite. Unimportant. Drivel was, I think, the word he used. Suitable for not very bright women."
"I was going to say filled with rage," Abraxas said. "Moving. Passionate." He sighed. "You know," he said, "I'd understand if you wanted to leave. He's really pulling out all the stops for you for some reason."
"I'm special," Hermione said. "Lucky me."
"I'll tell him to back off," Abraxas said, standing up, putting his body between her eyes and the dark shadow who'd stopped in the hall to listen to their exchange.
Hermione huffed out a laugh. "Isn't that not playing fair in your little game?"
Abraxas brushed a hand over her hair as she sat there. "Some things are more important than winning," he said. "I'll get you some chocolate while I'm out. There's a place that makes custom dark chocolate with bit of bacon in it. I think you'd like it."
"Thanks," she said, wiping at her eyes again. "You're really great, Abraxas."
Abraxas shrugged. "It's just chocolate," he said. "No need to get maudlin about it."
Tom found the poem she'd read to Abraxas and, sitting propped against the headboard in their bed, read it to himself. He'd have expected her, expected any girl, to head back and wallow in something drippy and emotional. Something about love or generic misery. Not this. "'I'll wear it like bones, like skin, it'll be the goddamned dress they bury me in'," he read again, letting himself feel the words on his tongue.
He knew about masks.
He marked the page and leaned his head back. When Abraxas walked in he cut the man off before he could start his lecture on leaving the girl alone. "I think I've worn out what I can do with the poetry," he said. "She's tough, this one. Maybe I'll just go back to her hair until I can find some other way to hassle her."
Abraxas regarded him with those steady grey eyes that had always seen too much.
"If that's what you want, Tom," was all he said on the subject. "I got you some chocolate when I was out."
"Dark chocolate with bacon?" Tom asked.
Abraxas smiled. "How'd you guess?"
. . . . . . . . . .
A/N – The poem Hermione reads is "What Do Women Want" by Kim Addonizio. (www poetryfoundatio /poem/171221)
My best guess is that this will be 6 or 7 chapters long. I'm wrapping up the ending now. Endings are hard. *shrug*