Author's Note: This chapter has been like 70% finished in my folder for months and I got sick of looking at it so hopefully moving on can help the writer's block. My apologies.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Vulnerable

"Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up."

-Neil Gaiman,The Kindly Ones

Hermione sank into the curve of the large, porcelain bath, her head resting against the lip. Much like the luxurious tubs in the Prefects' lavatories at Hogwarts, the one attached to her chambers at Malfoy Manor was also sunken in, a well in the floor as opposed to a standing fixture. It was entirely too large for simply one person, and it might have taken an hour alone to fill if not for the numerous faucets around the basin, dividing the circle into quarters and dispensing water as if it were a stream, bubbling miniature waterfalls over boulders.

There were soap dispensers as well, scented like lavender and vanilla and eucalyptus, and she considered them, a finger to her lips before finally settling on basil, the fresh, earthy aroma wafting around the tiled room within moments. She inhaled deeply, swishing her legs through the water and creating ripples unseen beneath the surface of foaming bubbles.

Tom and Malfoy's meeting had ended only moments earlier, the latter of the two terse and irate through the remaining hours of the conversation, sparing Hermione sharpened glares. She was hardly bothered by it, of course, lips clamped into a tight line to prevent them from rising into a smug, triumphant grin. She was not a babysitter nor a tutor, and it was best for all parties involved if Abraxas learned better than to treat her as such.

'Serves him right, the prat,' she thought, turning at the sound of a solid oak door swinging upon brass hinges. She scowled at Tom, her eyes narrowing as he entered the lavatory, closing the door behind him and coming to stand just beside her. It irritated her, that she had to tilt her head back so far to meet his gaze, the ends of her hair- held up in a hairband- dipping into the frothing tufts of bubbles. She slung an arm across her chest, attempting to seem less vulnerable, less naked and exposed.

"I'm still mad with you," she said, her words tight and clipped.

He looked down at her, his frown looking deeper than it was from her angle, and he shifted, sitting down beside the tub and crossing his legs, hands settling where his calves met. He was silent, eyes glancing around the room introspectively- to the arched casements of the stained glass windows, to the marble tiles that covered the floor and scaled the walls, glossy and reflective in the light from the chandelier that hung in the center, right above the tub.

When Hermione was just about ready to huff in annoyance, he said, "I can get you a ring, if you'd like."

She blinked, lips parting. "I...I don't want a ring, Tom."

He sighed, a sound of irritation. "Well then, a proper ceremony, if you want. You'll have to plan it though- I haven't got time for-"

"I don't want that either," she interrupted, her tone lilted, incredulous. "I don't want any gifts, or a party. I want an apology. I want you to treat me like a person instead of a possession for you to mark your territory on."

He pursed his lips. "Surely, you've spent enough time researching it to know that tying the same binds to a physical mark- such as the mark I gave you- make them all far more potent and efficient."

"I did. Though I'm having a bit of trouble in seeing how that impeded you from asking me first?" Tom Riddle might have been one of the most intelligent students Hogwarts had ever seen, he might have been wonderfully talented at pretending to be anything other than the monster he was, but he was abysmal at understanding the emotions of another. No matter how convincing his portrayal, no matter how masterfully he acted, he was simply incapable of it.

She should have been angry- insulted- and yet, it was sad, if she really thought about it. He wasn't just unable to feel love, he was unable to feel anything at all. Not sympathy nor empathy, not happiness or joy or the desire to celebrate. She could not even begin to fathom why- whether it was because he was conceived in lies and manipulations and false love, whether it was because he was raised without a mother or father to smooth his hair, to kiss away his tears. Or perhaps it was simply just a cruel hand of fate, a luck of the draw. In the same vain that some people are born with unprecedented ingenuity, one in a hundred thousand child prodigies.

It might have been all these reasons, or none of them at all. But nothing except anger and hatred and jealousy twisted within him, his heart a sad and pathetic thing behind the prison bars of his ribs. They would contort him, distort him until he was just as hideous and terrifying on the outside as he had always been, every smile the ghost of something fleeting. No horcruxes or worship could never capture the feeling of happiness or triumph for too long.

Perhaps that was why he had continued his unending quest to rule the world in her own time, chasing after anything that brought him even a sliver, a modicum of euphoria. No matter the juggernaut he would become, he would always be a little boy, foreign to the two worlds he straddled between and all the humans, magic or muggle, and the multitude of emotions that might as well have been an unsolvable puzzle to him.

She raised a hand, pressing it against her forehead, a bead of water sliding down the bridge of her nose. "You should have just asked me. I would have said yes." It wasn't as if she was in any position to say no.

"I apologize," he said, and she nearly snorted at the insincerity of it. "I simply thought it was more practical. Not to mention a proper ceremony would have required documentation."

"Merlin forbid anyone knows you married a Dumbledore," she muttered, swishing a hand through a cloud of bubbles. "Though I suppose I understand the necessity of it. You still intend for me to be a spy on my cousin, and a marriage license would put a quick halt to that. Not to mention how easily a marriage could implicate me in your endeavors. Neither of which really explains why you couldn't at least tell me before hand. Arse."

Tom chuckled. "Name calling will you get you nowhere, Mrs. Riddle."

"It will make me feel better," she mumbled, sinking further into the water and finally turning to look at him. "It makes you no less of a monster, however."

He rose a brow, lips quirking into a small smile. "I believe the fact that you love a known monster says more about you than the monster in question." His smile grew, dark blue eyes flicking down before returning her face, a mischievous glint them. "Of course, if you'd like, I'm sure we can think of some creative ways I can make it up to you?" A hand reached out, fingertips gliding over shoulders, and she shivered despite the heat of the water and the billows of steam emanating around her. He chuckled at how responsive she was, his hand slipping over the curve of her breasts and disappearing beneath the bubbles on the surface, fingers pressing flat over the plane of her stomach.

She huffed, irate that he believed something so serious could be swept under the rug. That all would be forgiven once the bed sheets were rumpled and they both lay prone and satiated. Yet, there was no point in maintaining distance or her grudge; there would be no sincere apologies or understanding of what he had done wrong. He would only grow more furious, and his fury was not something she wanted to be subject to if she could help it. She winced at the remembrance of his fingers clasped around her neck, bearing down on her with all his might while she gasped for air.

No, best to choose her battles where it mattered. Some causes simply weren't worth fighting for.

His hand had slipped further down her body, the water saturating the sleeve of his oxford that had been rolled to his elbow as his fingers lightly massaged the dampened curls at her center. He had leaned forward, propped on his knees and braced himself against her with his other hand clasped over her shoulder for support, his lips brushing against the shell of her ear. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, the words warm against her ear, the spark that ignited a bolt of electricity to shoot down her spine, pooling in her stomach. She bit her lip, silencing a groan. There was something decadent about his voice- the soft timber, the command the lurked beneath.

She nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak, worried that her voice might waver with the anger that had yet to abate and the burgeoning arousal.

He pulled away from her, the air of the lavatory feeling suddenly colder without him pressed against her. She heard the sound of his clothes falling to the floor, the metallic clang of his belt buckle as it hit against the tile. And then he was slipping into the tub beside her, the water swooshing against her and curved edge as he disrupted the stillness, tufts of scented bubbles displaced, turning to froth. In another swift movie, he was before her, a knee slipping between thighs and nudging them apart, making room for himself between her legs, his hands gripping onto her hips.

"I know this isn't the honeymoon you may have imagined, but we can make arrangements after graduation, if you'd like." He pulled her tight against him, settling her on his lap, his head bowing as he traced his lips along the curve of her neck. She let her head fall to the side, allowing him better access as her eyes fluttered close. She could feel his erection wedged between them, and after a moment of hesitation, rubbed herself against him wantonly, grinning smugly when he groaned lowly. She moved in slow, languid motions, relishing in the way he tensed beneath her, nails digging into her skin as he struggled to maintain his even composure.

"I think it's the least you could to for your wife," she muttered bitterly, barely loud enough for him to hear her.

But he did hear her, and he chuckled, dipping his head down further to place soft kisses along her collar bone, slick from the water. "Don't worry. Soon enough, I'll give you the world, my love."

-xXx-

The tip of Hermione's quill brushed against her chin, the plume of the feather tickling her. She could hear the sound of water droplets colliding with tiles, echoing in the spacious lavatory. It was early morning, their chambers in Malfoy Manor awash in the golden and orange hue of the sun as it rose over the horizon. The large, arched windows that made up the entirety of one wall allowing as much light as possible in, and Hermione had found herself drawn to it, charming the writing table and chair to sit pressed against the center window instead of where it had been tucked into a corner, forgotten.

A leather bound journal was placed on the table, open and glimmering with magic, charmed to hide the words written within its pages so only she could decipher them. To anyone else, it would appear as some idle musings, thoughts that were grasped and captured and written down on page before they could run away, to-do lists and doodles and notes hastily written down from independent research. Nothing of concern, nothing of interest.

But to Hermione, it was more concise. Large chunks of paragraphs under dates, the exact details of everything that occurred within the marked day, of every conversation shared between her and Tom, between Abraxas. Every opportunity considered, every path laid before the Dark Lord.

'August 17. Abraxas has spent the majority of the day at the office, not arriving home until nearly eight in the evening. There was an attack in Berlin, lead by one of Grindelwald's most trusted follower, a wizard named Artemis Lent. A total of seven casualties, five of which being our own men. Two Aurors from our Ministry, three from another. The Auror department is woefully undermanned, and Abraxas asked Tom if he might consider such a position as opposed to more political pursuits. Tom did not seem pleased with the idea, but we were unable to discuss further as Abraxas made an abrupt leave and Tom wished to retire...'

She sighed, placing the quill down as she leaned back in her chair and rubbed a hand over her face. She doubted Tom would even consider working among Aurors- there wasn't much leverage to be gained from such a path, least not the sort he wanted. But that didn't mean it didn't have perks of its own. Access to all sorts of dark artifacts, to dark witches and wizards whom he could manipulate, who would sympathize with him and his ideals and could be coaxed ever so easily down the precipice to his side. He could familiarize himself with the mechanisms of the department, the strengths and the failings, could control and distort crime scenes to his liking.

They hadn't discussed any of this, but she would bet every galleon to her name that Tom had already considered all of this to himself. Perhaps he was thinking of it now while he showered, weighing each option with care and thought against the other.

They had been at Malfoy's for over a month now, and he was no closer to making a decision than the day they arrived. She wasn't certain if that was necessarily a good thing. After all, the sooner he made a choice, the sooner she could plan around it.

There was a tap on the glass of one of the windows, and she startled, looking out to see a fat, tawny owl hovering just beyond the partition, struggling with the weight of a large package. "Oh!" she exclaimed as she jumped from her seat, flicking the latch forward and shoving the window open.

The owl swooped in, bringing with it a gust of cold morning air on his wings, feathers flapping noisily. He came to a clumsy landing on the bed, shaking indignantly, the feathers on his neck ruffling with the burden of his package. She rushed towards the creature, untying the parcel from his legs, muttering thank yous followed by apologies for not having any treats for him. He hooted in response, shaking his head at her as if to chide her for her impropriety before flying back out through the window, becoming nothing but a slim silhouette in the sky in a matter of seconds.

She turned her attention back to her delivery, the package wrapped in brown papers, a letter taped to it, her name written across the envelope in elegant, familiar script. Dumbledore's writing.

She plucked the letter from it, sliding a finger under the lip of the envelope with ease and tossing it back down on the bed as she unfolded the parchment.

My Dear Hermione-

I hope you are settling in well and that Malfoy is offering you the appropriate amount of hospitality. (She snorted here, lips quirking into a grin.) Let me begin by saying that this letter has multiple charms placed upon it, and that the true contents of it will only be revealed to you and myself. You do not need to worry about prying eyes.

Now, the package, as I'm sure you have assumed by now, is the book you have requested of Antheia. I perused it myself, and thankfully nothing within it appears to be of any concern should Tom take it upon himself to give it a read. Antheia, however, needs it returned to her as promptly as possible, as she had to pull quite a few strings to procure it. Due to the nature of the book, it has been charmed to prevent any copies from being made of its text, so I'm afraid you will have to hand write anything of interest. When you are finished doing so, please send me an owl with it in tow.

Also, I'm sure you haven't given it much thought considering everything you have on your plate, but at the start of term you will be required to select a course of study for your future plans. Might I offer the suggestion of a mediwitch with a specialty in dark curses? Certainly Tom will see the value in having an accomplished healer in his ranks, and our side would benefit greatly as well, especially seeing as how you will have first-hand knowledge of what curses we might be up against. Just a suggestion, of course.

I look forward to seeing you in just a few weeks. I'm sure we will have much to discuss, so please attempt to meet with me on the first few days of classes for tea and biscuits. Wispy has learned this new recipe that is an absolute delight and you must try them!

I hope all is well.

-A.

P.S. Ishtar is doing well, though she has a bit of a mean streak I'm afraid. Haven't seen a gnome in some time. I suspect they are either in hiding or have been the unfortunate victims of a massacre. She is considerably plumper.

Hermione smiled at that, setting the letter down on the table and casting an incendio on it, flames bursting from the center of the parchment and easily consuming the rest of it, the corners curling in the heat. Charmed though it may be, there was no reason she needed to tempt fate any further by leaving it around. Best to cover all her tracks within a pile of glowing ashes and embers.

She cleaned up the evidence before turning to the rest of the package, tearing the paper away to reveal the tome. It was in much better shape now than it had been in her own time, the spine neat and not yet creased, only one corner had worn away at the leather, revealing the frayed and sturdy board that held it all together. The lettering- silver and embossed- was entirely intact, and she could read the cover and author with ease. Ancient Runes and their Efficacy with Magick and Potions.

"What's that?"

She rose her gaze to see Tom standing just outside the lavatory, wearing nothing but a towel tied at his waist. He was still soaked from his shower, too curious to the sounds of her unwrapping something to dry himself off with a quick wave of his hand, his hair in dampened wisps that curled against his forehead. His torso glistened with the beads of water, and she blushed, scowling when he rose a brow and smirked.

"Nothing you haven't seen before, darling," he said, taking several strides towards her and reaching out to grasp her wrist, turning it over slightly to see the cover of the book. His eyes instantly gleamed, a sharpness to them. "Is this it then?"

She nodded, allowing him to take it from her as he began to flick through the pages, scanning them quickly before turning it over. "I believe it was Marloff's Elixir of Everlasting Youth," she said, craning her neck better to see each page as he flipped through. Every so often, he would take a bit longer to turn the page, his hand rising to the top right corner and bending it down to mark it for later examination before he would move onward. Thank Merlin Dumbledore had the foresight to read through it before sending it over; she would have driven herself mad trying to hide it from Tom until she was certain it was safe.

"Ah," he muttered, his hand coming to rest in the center of the book, holding the middle of it down with the heel of his palm. She leaned forward, settling a steadying grip on his forearm as she read through the introduction of the potion. She hadn't realized she was reading aloud, under her breath, until Tom narrowed his eyes at her, hissing in annoyance before pointedly flipping the page when she had not finished it.

She mumbled an apology, but it went unnoticed as he rose his chin, frowning at her. "You find this preferable to a horcrux?" The question was punctuated with raised brows, an incredulous look in his eyes and a lift to his voice. Mocking, condescending.

She folded her arms over her chest. "What's wrong with it?"

"What isn't? It's incredibly daunting and time consuming- six months to brew, Hermione, really? Incredibly difficult- not to say I couldn't do it of course, but it would certainly be a testament to my ability. Plus the ingredients...unethical and illegal is merely the tip of the iceberg. I haven't even heard of half of these, which is enough to tell me that they aren't the sort of things one can come by easily. And the ones I have heard of?" He paused, exhaling a breath though his nose as he shook his head. "You know what they say about consuming unicorn's blood, of course?"

She snorted ungracefully at his words, unable to stop her eyes from rolling at the irony of it all. Who was he to chide her about using unicorn's blood? "That I'll live a cursed life? I think I'm already quite cursed, seeing as who I have for a husband and whose home I'm currently in. I never would have taken you for the superstitious sort," she said, thankful that he had smirked at her tirade instead of responding in anger at her words.

"I don't put any stock in silly stories, of course. The only curses I believe in are the ones which I employ quite readily, thank you." He closed the book shut, specks of dust floating through the air, golden and brilliant in the light and he handed it to her. "It will do for now once we've researched the other ingredients, but I still insist on a horcrux. Far more efficient. Remind me to recruit a Potions Master. Certainly they'll come in handy in many aspects."

She pursed her lips, teeth digging into the soft flesh as she held the book to her chest. Carefully collected pawns, lined up in a row in a game of chess. Commanded outward to battle, ready to fight and die to protect the King and Queen. Her stomach clenched violently, and she was thankful that she had not eaten yet, that there was nothing to expel.

He disappeared back into the lavatory, not bothering to close the door. It wasn't as if there was anything between them to hide anymore. Husband and wife. Lord and Lady. For better or worse. Til death would they part.

She followed after him, wrapping her fingers around the doorknob and resting her shoulder against the dark mahogany framing of the door. He had tossed the towel aside, had used a wandless drying spell on himself and was in the process of tying a belt around his trousers, cinching them on his narrow hips.

"Tom," she began, and he hummed in response, not bothering to look at her as he continued to dress. "What do you think of me studying to become a mediwitch?"

Dumbledore had been correct in his belief that she had not given it much thought- she was far too occupied with which career Tom would set his sights on to even begin to explore her options. There were far more important things than herself and her place within the world.

He finally met her gaze, pausing in his buttoning of the clean and pressed white oxford. His hair had turned into a state she was certain he would never allow anyone but her to see, defiant curls falling out of their usual place. It was messy and untidy by his strict standards, and she quite liked it. It made him look innocent. Normal, even. Like the proper seventeen year old he was, concerned only by school and friends and witches with ample breasts and demure eyes.

Was this what he might look like if he had not become the man he was, the rotten and hideous monster lurking within the shell of someone beautiful? Was this what Tom Riddle might look like if he was anything but Tom Riddle, wild curls to match her own? Easy smiles that were not a front for something else, something insidious?

"Mediwitch?" he asked, his tone cold and sharp and immediately shattering any illusion she might have had of him being normal. Of a world where he and Lord Voldemort were not synonymous.

"You are always saying that you need a healer. And I'm certain the others wouldn't mind having someone a bit more accomplished than Nott to tend to their wounds after you've been let loose on them," she said with a small smile.

"We can get a healer elsewhere. Wouldn't you rather put your skills to something else?"

"Healers do require a lot of skills. Potion making, charms, knowledge of curses and their counters, transfiguration. Besides, it would appease Dumbledore, would it not? Surely, he would never think me capable of any violence if I dedicated my life to healing?" It was sound reasoning, and she knew Tom would agree with her. Anything that would provide him the upper hand over the older wizard was often something of interest. After all, hadn't that been the only reason he had wanted her to begin with? Sure, she was talented, an experienced dueler at any age, let alone so young. They were merely bonuses, the thick and sweet icing atop an already decadent cake. What he really wanted her for was the namesake, the ability and knowledge to distort a Dumbledore, carve her into his own. He had already made her a Riddle, had already severed what few, tenuous connections existed between her and her supposed cousin.

She had been, at first, nothing more than a novelty. A victory. And Tom Riddle would take any other victory he could- he was nothing but greed and anger and hatred and jealousy.

He was silent as he grabbed a comb from the vanity, running it through his black tresses, taming the curls. She had to grasp hold of her own wrist to stop herself from reaching out and ruining his efforts, mussing his hair as if doing so would make him any less calculating. Any less of a Dark Lord.

When his hair was in it's usual coif, the wave of one particularly stubborn curl hanging over his forehead, he turned to face her, his head cocked to the side. "No matter what path you would decide to take, you would excel. I've no need for you in the Ministry- to be perfectly honest, I think it best to keep you as far away as possible in fact. Too much attention, too many eyes." He considered her, his dark blue eyes unwavering, still as a painting, nothing more than brushstrokes and glossy oils. "Healer would be suitable, then. I suppose I'd rather have someone I trust attending to me and my men, and who better than my lady?"

She shifted her weight against the door frame, inclining her chin to hold his gaze as he closed the distance between them, hands settling firmly on her shoulder. "You'd be trusting me with your life," she said simply, a statement.

He smirked. "An honor I would only bestow upon you, of course. And not one to be taken lightly."

"It is the greatest honor of all," she breathed, a wide grin splitting her face in two. He trusted her. When he was at his most vulnerable, when his hair curled in a manner that he would otherwise deem unacceptable, when he was hurt or sick. He trusted her with his life.

A terrible mistake, really.

xXx

The summer had ended, the beginning of September sweeping upon them in heavy currents of rain, thick sheets of it flowing down the streets. Hermione was eager to leave, her belongings neatly packed and ready for departure a week in advance.

"Malfoy's been such a wonderful host," Tom had teased when he saw her methodically placing items in her trunk so early, murmuring under her breath. She had thrown a blouse at him in turn.

When the time had come to leave, she had received nothing but a taciturn goodbye from Abraxas, a warm hug from Edie. When Tom had left briefly to procure the portkey that would send them to King's Cross station, Abraxas had leaned forward, his handsome and regal face marred by a deep scowl. "Pity that he has set his sights so low on you. He could be running the Ministry in a decade's time, you're aware. You should be grateful for his attention to you. I would hardly consider a witch such as yourself a prize if you were my wife."

She had only grinned in response, eyes sparkling. "Dear Abraxas, not being your wife is the greatest prize I can imagine." Her tone had been cutting despite her sweet smile, causing the scowl to become a snarl.

But Tom had arrived before anything further could occur, and after a firm handshake and a promise to keep in touch, they had left Malfoy Manor behind.

It was as if taking a gulp of fresh air after having been submerged underwater, the oppressive weight of the Manor lifter off her chest. It was crowded in King's Cross, and the floor was muddy and dingy from the people that passed through, bringing with them the poor weather. Umbrellas were shaken out, depositing even more grime. Everything echoed and boomed within the high ceilings, every sound louder than it should have been.

Despite all this, it was still much more of a relief to Hermione, the beginning of a wonderful trip that took her to exactly where she wanted to be more than anything.

Home. Hogwarts's.

Even if it was the dungeons she would retire to, wearing a silver and green tie and sinking beneath emerald bedding. It was still home. And that alone made her grin widely as she entered the train, finding a compartment that was soon filled with the closest she had to familiar, friendly faces. Nott, Rosier, Dolohov and Mulciber entered with kind greetings, arranging themselves in the proper order wordlessly. Tom sat beside the window, Hermione nestled tightly into his side, an arm slung around her. Nott was to her right, the three of them opposite Mulciber, Rosier and Dolohov respectively.

Conversation quickly turned to Tom's exploits, each curious as to what path their feared leader had settled on. When Tom informed them of how Abraxas had suggested joining the Aurors, raucous laughter broke out among them.

"Talk about know thine enemy," Nott had muttered, following it up with, "Probably more openings, though. From what I've heard, Grindelwald has practically laid flat that entire department. Killed almost fifty Aurors in total over the summer, most from the German and Bulgarian Ministry but still. The Minister has even allowed use of the Unforgivables in capturing his men. A bit too late, some might argue."

Rosier chuckled. "Well, at least you've got that going Riddle. Free use of the Unforgivables. Sweetens the deal."

Tom frowned. "I am not joining the Aurors. Nothing but boorish, brainless fools who would rather be told the definition of justice than to decipher a meaning for themselves. Magical Law seems most appealing, and I doubt I'd have difficulty finding an audience to rally behind me. Though I would loathe the campaigning itself. So tedious."

"Not the sort to kiss babies?" Hermione teased, prodding her elbow into his side.

"I'd rather kiss a dementor," he responded, his tone flat, quite genuine in his sentiment. Before the conversation could continue further, he said, "Hermione here has decided to take pity on you lot. She'll be setting her sights on becoming a mediwitch."

"Thank Merlin," Rosier said with a grin. "Nott did a right terrible job of fixing my ribs. I still can't inhale too sharply or it hurts like hell."

"Then stop breathing," Dolohov said simply, one brow raised and lips set into a scowl. "That should do the trick."

Rosier looked to the other wizard, any sort of mirth absent from his eyes, his jaw clenched. "You first, mate."

Nott chuckled, his gray eyes meeting Hermione's. "Looks like you'll get plenty of opportunities to practice with these two." He turned his attention back to Tom, ignoring the two that seemed to be engaged in a heated staring match, as if the other might die through sheer will alone. "Other than your multitude of career opportunities, how else was your visit with Malfoy?"

Tom's face darkened suddenly, the edge of his lip twitching as though resisting the desire to sneer hideously. He raised a bottle of butterbeer purchased from the trolley to his lips, balancing it against his chin as he took a small sip, his movements slow and deliberate. It seemed he and Dumbledore shared quite the flair for the dramatics, Hermione thought.

After several long drawn out seconds, Tom said with a simple, casual shrug, "Malfoy will learn his place soon enough."

xXx

Hermione had arranged to visit Dumbledore on her third day back to Hogwarts, indulging in the warm tea and the quiet of his private office. Her final year of school would prove to be trying, with a full schedule to meet all her healer requirements on top of her duties between both Tom and Dumbledore. It would be exhausting, though no doubt more so than the entirety of her future.

"I've already received several letters from healers offering to take me on as an apprentice, which was a pleasant surprise. Good to know I've got somewhere to go. Are they friends of yours?" she asked, lifting her head up from where it was studying her timetable, laid upon her lap.

Dumbledore shook his head. "No, not to my knowledge. Though I've no doubt you have. At the beginning of each term a newsletter of sorts is set out with the details of promising students and their intended career paths with the hope of procuring them a mentor. You've managed to make your way rather high up on the list, considering your short time with us," he answered, opening a drawer from his desk and retrieving from it a folded, large stack of parchments. He handed it over to her, and she unfurled it carefully, eyes scanning until she found her name.

Hermione Dumbledore. Slytherin. Healer.

A refugee of war, Miss Dumbledore found herself under the care of her estranged cousin and Hogwarts's Professor after being orphaned by Grindelwald. She has displayed a wide breadth of knowledge, excelling in all of her classes. She has arranged to take a variety of NEWT level courses in Charms, Potions, Transfiguration, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Her strengths lie in Defense and Potions, and an attached list of recommendations from her professors prove that she is an exemplary student with a skill set that will surely be of great use to any healer...

She skimmed through the recommendations, snorting derisively as she read through Slughorn's. It read as if the man himself had taken her under his wing, guiding the poor and unfortunate orphan through a difficult school year following an immense tragedy. And receiving an Outstanding in his class all the while.

She supposed it was meant to be flattering, but she felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment. He had praised her, yes, but not without a good amount of praise to himself.

"That man is truly a wonder," she muttered, abandoning the study of herself in favor of Tom's. It was, of course, the first name on the list.

Tom Riddle. Slytherin. Undeclared.

While still uncertain of which career to take, it is no doubt that Mr. Riddle would be fully qualified for any he decides. He has been described as the ideal student, Prefect for his fifth and sixth year, earning Head Boy in his seventh. He received an Outstanding in all of his OWLs, a near unprecedented perfect score across the board...

The passage continued on for nearly a foot of the parchment, not including the many collections of recommendations that were no doubt far more indulgent than hers could ever be.

"He really has them eating out of the palm of his hand," she said, settling the stack of parchment back onto Dumbledore's desk.

The older wizard nodded. "Indeed. Even being undeclared, he'll no doubt receive plenty of offers, with professionals of all wakes of life bidding for the opportunity to mentor him. I'll admit I'm quite surprised he has stalled so long in his decision."

Hermione shrugged, settling her saucer and teacup down. "I suppose there's always the opportunity that he will decide on retail as he did previously. But I doubt it. Regardless, I'll be there with him. I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you of my recent nuptials."

Dumbledore's brows rose, sparkling blue eyes impossibly wide as his mouth formed a small 'o'. It was not often to see such an expression of shock on his face, the wizened man typically the one who knew of everything and spoke of it all in riddles. "Nuptials?" he repeated, leaning forward in interest.

"Indeed. You're as surprised as I was when I learned of it," she added, grabbing the tea kettle from the tray and refilling her cup. "Tom didn't think it worthwhile to fill me in on it."

Any evidence of surprise had gone from his face now, instead he seemed to be considering something, a long finger scratching at his chin in thought. "Interesting development. I'm sure his reasons for doing so were more pragmatic than romantic. Still, it is reassuring to know that he trusts you so well."

"Or that he wants to keep me close for more sinister reasons," she muttered into her tea.

He chuckled lightly at that, raising his own tea cup high above in a gesture of congratulations. "Still, I believe you are deserving of some recognition, my dear. While the road ahead of us is quite long and winding, you are doing an excellent job," he said. After a second, he added, fondly, "You've made me quite proud to call you my family."

She smiled wide at that, her eyes burning as she blinked back tears. It would never be the same as her own family and friends, the one she had left behind in the wake of a violent war. But she was hobbling together her own family. A bit of a mismatched one, with shifty Slytherins and Death Eaters, Gryffindors and future Headmasters and Dark Lords. But it was a family nonetheless, and it was wonderful to be a part of one again.

She rose her cup as well, clinking it against Dumbledore's before bringing it back to her lips.

-xXx-

Author's Note: Sorry again for the delaying in writing/posting. Up Next: Grindelwald makes his obligatory Tomione Appearance.