After the initial panic that comes with knowing your death is imminent, there's a startling serenity, a calm that settles in like a thick fog. It's the knowing, Hermione supposed; knowing that it's unavoidable, that no matter what you might try to do, no matter how much distance you put between yourself and the thing or person about to kill you, it won't do any good. Hermione Granger had long ago come to terms with the idea that she would likely never reach the age of 30. Somewhere between Dumbledore's death and running through forests, changing locations every two days, and plunging a basilisk fang through Helga Hufflepuff's cup, she'd realized that there was no life for her beyond the war. There would be no career in the ministry, no glamorous wedding to Ron at the Burrow, no children tugging at her robes and making their toys fly around the room in fits of accidental magic. Hermione Granger had learned to be okay with that. Hermione Granger had been ready to die, especially if it meant that everyone else could live. She'd had nothing more to lose back then.
But Hermione Graves…
Hermione Graves – with a plan that relied on her outliving Voldemort – was just now in the midst of the panic that came with knowing that a two-time murderer was rapidly losing patience with her. After she'd left Fleamont in the capable hands of Madame Pomfrey with the assurance that he wasn't in any serious danger, Hermione had been filled with such an intense dread that she'd simply gone back up to her bed and collapsed. Her conversation with Riddle was playing on repeat in her head, and now that Fleamont was out of immediate danger, the clarity of her situation made her want to smack her head into the nearest wall.
Her first instinct was to run to the Room of Requirement and simply camp out there until Tom's anger had abated at least a little. But she knew he was already curious as to where she disappeared off to and that both Malfoy and Dolohov were watching her. They probably thought they were being subtle. Adorable. No, she couldn't keep hiding out every time things went to shit. Any disappearance on her part would easily be noted – she only had one roommate in the seventh-year Slytherin girl's dorms, after all, since every other pureblood girl who would have been in her year had already been married off and pulled out of school. Vera Buchanan was the only one left, and she was too nosy and too loyal to Riddle for Hermione to even attempt to sneak out without notice. Even if she used Harry's invisibility cloak to get out, Hermione's empty bed wouldn't go undocumented.
Instead, Hermione stayed in her room, foregoing dinner with a muttered excuse about having a headache. Her sleep had been fitful, but dreamless, and she woke feeling as though she'd only blinked away the night. She was late to breakfast and only had time to grab a piece of toast before Transfiguration, but she'd avoided Riddle and his gang entirely. In fact, she hadn't seen him at all since their…conversation outside of the hospital wing. That only made her more nervous.
Yet he ignored her in Transfiguration and afterwards, not bothering to wait to walk her to class. She entered the Potions room on high alert, just in case he'd set a trap for her. But no, there was nothing out of order, except for the fact that Fleamont was still in the hospital wing and Abraxas was noticeably absent. Which meant…
No. No, no, no. Please, Merlin, no.
"Ah, Miss Graves," Professor Slughorn said in his annoyingly cheerful way. "Since you and Tom both appear to be without a partner, perhaps you'll join him up front for today's lesson."
Hermione complied, stomping down the growing anxiety in her stomach. For his part, Tom didn't react to her sitting beside him except to nod shortly in greeting. Hermione resisted the urge to scowl. There was nothing in his expression to indicate his murderous intent towards her, but she was under no illusion that he'd forgotten to be angry with her. His polite mask of indifference only indicated that he'd been planning and that he was confident in his own success.
"Today we'll be brewing a simple Pepperup Potion. Now I know it's not that exciting, but Madame Pomfrey will be needing her stock replenished as the weather turns. And it's a potion every wizard and witch should know. It'll save you quite a few galleons if you can brew it yourself." Slughorn smiled. "You'll find the instructions in your texts."
"I'll retrieve the ingredients," Riddle said quietly. He returned a moment later, and they set to work in synchronized silence. Tom, Hermione noticed, barely glanced at the instructions. He did not seem particularly keen on following them either, as he crushed a frozen Ashwinder Egg to dust before sprinkling it in the cauldron rather than dropping it in whole. She thought about scolding him – a fragment of her past-self – before she remembered that Tom Riddle had always been exceptional in potions.
Hermione thought, suddenly, of Professor Snape's corrections to potions written in the margins of the book Harry had once borrowed. Despite her warnings to Harry, she had, somewhat guiltily, read through the entire book herself, memorizing each page to the best of her ability. Perhaps Riddle was a natural genius, she thought bitterly. It was likely that he'd never really had to work to be good at magic, not in the ways that she had. Hermione knew she was talented, but that talent had come from hours of practice and her stubborn determination to prove her own worth.
"You look as though you might have an aneurism, Miss Graves," Tom said, his deceptively calm voice low enough for just her to hear. "You have something to say."
"What did you do to Abraxas?"
That was certainly not what he had expected, if the brief raise of his brow was anything to go by. He probably thought she would berate him for not following the instructions, not accuse him of harming his "closest friend".
"Nothing he couldn't handle," Tom said after a moment, the corner of his lip quirking as he spoke. There was a subtle, but dangerous glint to his dark eyes as he turned to her. "If you'd like a more thorough explanation, though, I'm sure an examination of your wand would be most…telling."
Her mouth hung open involuntarily. He hadn't used her wand to…had he? Of bloody course he had, the prick. And now, oh Merlin, now he had leverage. She needed to get her wand back from him, and quick.
"Though your wand is perhaps not as fond of me" – and at this Hermione took a small bit of glee from Tom's clearly frustrated expression – "I was more than surprised to find its willingness to perform dark magic."
"If you've tarnished my wand-"
He flashed his teeth in a sadistic imitation of a smile. "You know what's interesting, Hermione? I could tell your wand has cast an unforgiveable before just by the way it sung when I crucioed Abraxas." He paused, as if thoughtful. "I wonder if the aurors will be impressed when I turn it over to them, or if they'll just throw you in Azkaban without even a trial."
"You wouldn't," she hissed, her eyes narrowed. Tom only smirked in return. There was a chance that he was bluffing, but she remembered what had happened to Hagrid when Riddle framed him, and there wasn't' even half as much evidence as there would be now. Dumbledore wouldn't be able to save her if Tom decided to follow through on his threat.
"Marvelous potion," Slughorn gushed only ten minutes later as he looked down at the orange concoction in their cauldron. "Absolutely marvelous. I daresay, Tom m'boy, Abraxas has been holding you back. And you, Miss Graves. Of course, your test results said you were exceptional, but this, truly, is a perfect potion. We must consider a reassignment of partners, I think. It will not do to stifle genius, you know."
Hermione almost groaned aloud at Slughorn's statement. If she had to work with Tom every day for the rest of the school year, she'd go mad. Of course, given his threats against her, she might only have another week at Hogwarts before Azkaban became her permanent new home. She resolved to start researching now, just in case she needed to break out. No matter what happened, she wasn't going to sit in a jail cell for the rest of her life.
"That being said," Slughorn continued. "Miss Graves, I'm throwing together a little Halloween party this Friday evening. Very exclusive, you understand, only my top students are invited. But I think you would be a wonderful addition to our party. What do you say, my dear?"
Hermione plastered a smile on her face. "I'd be delighted, sir."
"And I'm sure Tom would be happy to fill you in on the details." Slughorn gave the boy a knowing wink, and Hermione fought the urge to openly object.
"Of course, Professor." Even Tom's smile looked a bit forced, but Slughorn didn't seem to notice.
"That's settled, then."
"My knight in shining armor," Fleamont cheered the moment Hermione set foot in the hospital wing. He looked pale with dark rings under his eyes and his lips were chapped, but he was sitting upright even if his body seemed to shake occasionally. He was alive and relatively unharmed, glasses askew on his nose, unkempt hair sticking out in every direction.
"Does that make you a damsel?" Hermione asked wryly as she took a seat in a chair beside Fleamont's cot. Adessa was sitting cross-legged in the chair on the other side of the cot, grinning at Hermione but looking a bit tired herself.
"Indeed," Fleamont said without skipping a beat. "I fear you shall have to duel Dolohov for my honor. End him for me, won't you?"
Adessa rolled her eyes. "He's taking this a bit personally, in case you couldn't tell. Not that he shouldn't. Dolohov's had it out for him since first year."
"And Riddle," Fleamont interjected. "He's behind the whole thing."
"It's a conspiracy, apparently," Adessa snorted, leaning back in her chair. "Something about Riddle being threatened by him, or something."
"It's my hair."
There was a sudden, breezy laugh from the doorway. "It's not your hair." Euphemia walked into the hospital wing looking nothing but fondly at Fleamont as she shook her head. Rosalind, with her perfectly coifed blond hair, stood beside her.
"Besides," Rosalind said, "have you seen Riddle? Like him or not, you have to admit that he's got no reason to feel threatened by anyone. Right, Hermione?"
It took her a whole ten seconds to realize that the blond was referencing Riddle's classically good looks, and nothing more. Hermione shrugged.
"He's passable, I suppose. If you're into that whole roguish-asshole aesthetic." While Fleamont and Adessa were amused – and even Euphemia was close to a smile – Rosalind seemed more putout.
"He is not anything of the sort," she defended blindly, nose in the air. "He's a scholar and a gentleman. And the only reason Fleamont doesn't like him is because Riddle's a likeable Slytherin, which goes against everything he believes in."
"I would remind you that I'm a Slytherin and none of you seem to have a problem with me," Hermione said casually. She raised a brow at the blond girl. "I suppose Riddle's good looks have nothing to do with your opinion of him, do they Rosalind?"
She had the decency to look a touch embarrassed, and as Hermione stood from her seat – offering it to Euphemia – she decided she'd take pity on Rosalind, if only this once. She smiled kindly at the girl, doing her best not to look pitying.
"Whatever his merits, Riddle is still human," Hermione said gently. "He's flawed, and though I hate to perpetuate house stereotypes, there is a reason he's revered among the Slytherins. My mother once told me that pretty things are often the most dangerous. I urge you to remember that."
Rosalind was now frowning. "But, then…is he not courting you?"
Hermione stood there, slack-jawed, wondering if this question was something she'd ever stop being shocked at being asked. When Balthazar had told her that people suspected that she and Riddle were a couple, she had acknowledged the information and then promptly decided that it must have been the opinion of a small minority. Now she wasn't so sure.
"Merlin, no," she finally spluttered. "Is that what everyone thinks?"
Rosalind, though, looked thoughtful. "No, not everyone." She paused for a moment before taking Hermione's hand in an unexpectedly concerned gesture. "You're new here, and so I feel…honor-bound, I suppose, to warn you. But Riddle has always been both subtle and rather brief with his…interests. I like you Hermione, and I would hate to see you become merely another…ah, conquest of his. You understand me, yes?"
Hermione's eyebrows had crawled halfway up her forehead, for she did understand quite clearly. "I thought you believed him to be a gentleman?" she asked, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to discern exactly what light Rosalind viewed Riddle. The girl seemed both naïve and cynical, blinded by beauty and simultaneously aware of a hint of darkness beneath the surface. Hermione was horribly confused.
"Of course he's a gentleman," Rosalind said with a roll of her eyes. "It's not like he's misled anyone with false promises of marriage or anything. In fact, I'm quite sure he's up front with what he wants. And he never divulges any personal information – that's always other Slytherins looking for personal gain. But" – and Rosalind looked at Hermione very seriously again – "a lady's reputation is often all she has. Only the likes of Caroline Cross would throw it away for nothing more than a passing interest."
Hermione bit her tongue. She understood now, really. It was a sign of the times, she supposed, that women were valued solely on their ability to maintain their "purity". And the double-standard of it was truly incredible – that Rosalind could defend Riddle's flirtations as gentlemanly simply because he supposedly wasn't sharing the gritty details of his every sexual encounter while she simultaneously looked down on the women he was sleeping with. Her advice had ultimately been "don't sleep with any guy until you have him locked into marrying, or else you'll be worthless". It was ridiculous. It was sexist. It was infuriating.
"You know, Rosalind," Hermione began, having been unable to keep her opinion to herself. "You could have shortened that whole spiel by just telling me not to be a slag. That is what you were trying to say, isn't it?"
The blond was entirely red in the face. "I certainly didn't mean-"
"A little advice: you don't deserve to only be defined by your supposed value to men," Hermione continued, ignoring Rosalind's embarrassed protest. "And it's so much easier to support the women around you than to judge them."
Hermione didn't give the girl a chance to respond, brushing past her. Perhaps it wasn't wise to be so harsh to Rosalind, or to reveal how much of a feminist she was herself, but Hermione shrugged it off. What's done is done, her father used to say. Besides, it's not like anything she said wasn't something she'd be willing to publicly back up. She didn't need men to want to marry her and being vocally feminist in the 1940s sure as hell was one way to ensure that wouldn't be a problem.
Hermione was good at stewing. She'd been in a foul mood ever since her conversation with Rosalind, and in the back of her mind, she wondered how many of her nothing-more-than-civil interactions with male classmates were being considered flirtatious or inappropriate by the other students. She tried not to let it bother her, but the more she observed other girls in her year, the more she realized her own behavior stood out like a sore thumb. It was apparently rare to have friendships with people of the opposite gender – unless they were a sibling or cousin. Hufflepuff seemed to have the most exceptions to this rule, but event then it was sporadic.
Hermione looked around at the dinner table and repressed a sigh. She'd initially sat with Riddle and his gang because the obnoxious prat had essentially demanded it, but now it was her only real option if she wanted any company during her meal whatsoever. She'd failed to make any female friends in Slytherin – Vera and the sixth-year girls she spent time with were an extremely close-knit clique, and the younger girls did not bother to hide their disdain at her tainted blood status. Hermione wouldn't even say she had male friends in Slytherin. There was Abraxas, but he was a shaky alliance at best, and she knew that he despised her on some level. The rest of Riddle's gang were distant to the point where Hermione didn't even really know all of their names. Which left only Riddle himself, and they were more rivals locked in an unending game of tug-of-war than anything else, except perhaps mortal enemies. But then, only one of them knew the true extent of the rift between them.
Hermione sadly realized that she only considered three people her friends: Adessa, obviously, Fleamont, and Balthazar. And really, she wasn't so sure about Balthazar. He was nice, and Hermione did like him well enough, but there was something about him that felt…off. Not necessarily in a bad way, but she was certain that he was hiding something. At the very least, he always looked like he knew more than he was letting on, and that had a tendency to make her uncomfortable.
She had been at Hogwarts in this time for a little over a month – she could hardly believe how fast time had flown, given that Halloween was this coming weekend – and yet could only claim two friends that she was sure of. It was not exactly something to be proud of. She had resolved to work harder, and was in the middle of a surprisingly unforced academic discussion with Mulciber and Avery – two sixth-years in Tom's gang – about the medical merits of using butterscotch in potions, when Tom walked into to dinner, no less than twenty-minutes late, followed by a limping Abraxas.
Seeing the usually aristocratic blond boy wince as he sat at the table was enough to remind Hermione of her conversation with Tom in potions, and she wondered exactly how long Abraxas had been held under the cruciatus. He was no doubt taking a full arsenal of pain potions to be up an about at all, yet he looked as if he'd just been plowed by a muggle eighteen-wheeler at full speed. Before she could get too worked up about it – and before she could examine the bizarre surge of protectiveness she felt for the boy who had tried and failed to effectively torture her not that long ago – Tom was leaning closer to her, and she froze.
"You will make yourself available in the common room at eleven this evening," he said lowly.
She swallowed, trying her hardest to make sure he didn't see the tremors in her hands. She was under no illusion as to what he was planning; it would be revenge for the disrespect she had shown him the day before, and it would be brutal. He might even kill her. She would not put it past him to lose his temper and avada her right there in the common room.
"And if I were to not comply?" she asked, her voice sounding very small in comparison to his smooth baritone.
He glanced at her with a raised brow and a wicked glint to his dark, almost-black eyes. "Your wand would find its way to Headmaster Dippet, along with a testimony from Abraxas and other witnesses that you used an unforgiveable on him in response to a comment on your blood status. I don't think I need to explain the consequences."
She could see it in his expression that while he would rather have her compliance, her refusal to participate in whatever scheme he had planned would do little to diminish his overall satisfaction. She was trapped brilliantly, and if the situation was not happening to her directly, she would have appreciated the clever manipulation. Instead, she was just pissed that she had allowed herself to be backed into a corner. If she survived tonight, she'd have to make sure this never happened again.
Hermione forced herself to pick up her goblet of pumpkin juice and take a sip as if she couldn't have cared less about the conversation they were having.
"That won't be necessary. I'll be there."
Hermione wasn't stupid. If she was going to willingly walk into a death trap, she was going to go into it with as many contingency plans as possible. There was an owl ready to go to Dumbledore with every shred of evidence she had against Tom – memories of her time in the past as well as memories of memories she had seen in the future – if she wasn't back to stop the owl by morning. It wouldn't be enough to get Riddle locked in Azkaban right off, but it would be enough to launch a thorough investigation. She'd secured the evidence by placing a curse on the package that would pretty much instantly kill anyone other than the intended recipient should they try to remove the package. It might have been a bit extreme, but she wasn't fucking around. If Riddle killed her, then the least she could do was take him down with her.
These precautions hadn't stopped her from vomiting up her entire dinner in anxiety. That certainly hadn't been pleasant, but Hermione had reasoned later that it was always better to be tortured on an empty stomach. Maybe it was childish, but she didn't want to vomit in front of Riddle if she could help it. As if that was the worst thing that could happen.
At 10:58, she made her way to the common room, having chugged the calming draught she smuggled out of the hospital wing during her visit with Fleamont. She wasn't trying to be dramatic, but she wondered if this was how Harry felt walking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Lord Voldemort, knowing that he'd die without even putting up a fight. She'd always marveled at how he'd been able to do it so calmly and without hesitation when the time came. But that was just Harry: unfailingly self-sacrificing until the very end.
Leaning against the portrait-hole looking like a pair of dirty cops stood Rasmus Lestrange and Antonin Dolohov. The common room was otherwise empty, Hermione noted, but it didn't look like they'd be staying there anyway.
"Right on time," Lestrange drawled, looking disappointed. "Pity."
Dolohov grinned at his counterpart. "I think she's a bit late, actually."
"But Riddle said –" Lestrange started.
"Who said Riddle has to know," Dolohov sneered. "I'm sure he won't mind if she's a little…roughed up."
"Then you're even more incompetent than you look," Hermione said slowly, giving her the appearance of boredom. Despite the lazy way she strode over to the portrait-hole, her ebony wand was gripped tightly in her hand, hidden by the folds of her robes. "Whatever Riddle has planned for me, he clearly wants to handle himself. He won't be pleased if you keep him waiting. And if you think you can keep anything from him – if you think you can lie to him and get away with it – then you clearly haven't spent enough time on the wrong end of his wand. Perhaps I'll mention that to him."
It was probably a little hypocritical – and more than a little risky – of her to use Tom as a threat, considering that she was undoubtedly about to be tortured and possibly killed, but for some reason, the idea of Lestrange and Dolohov getting a chance to hurt her was more unappealing than death. Perhaps it was because, in her own time, Lord Voldemort was direct and to the point when it came to torture, whereas the Lestranges and Dolohov himself had been more creative in a vile, twisted way. The "why" of it didn't matter, though, as Hermione watched with some degree of satisfaction as Lestrange's face paled.
"Shut up," Dolohov growled before turning and opening the portrait.
Lestrange's wand prodded the small of her back and she stepped forward. It seemed that, for the moment at least, the fear of their Lord was enough to keep them from attacking her. She was led through a series of hallways the delved further into the dungeons until they stopped suddenly outside of a seemingly random doorway. She remembered it, though, from the night only a few short weeks before when she ran into the tail end of one of Tom's meetings. Before she could enter, however, Dolohov blocked her way, his wand digging into the flesh of her cheek. She resisted the urge to curse him where he stood; it was better to play along now and not make things worse for herself in the long run. There'd be plenty of time to get proper revenge on him later.
"He's going to paint the walls with your filthy blood," Dolohov said, a cruel smile twisting the features of his face. "But I hope he doesn't kill you. I hope he leaves some for the rest of us."
Hermione smiled prettily back at him. "If I make it out of this alive, Antonin, you can be sure I'll save a little something just for you."
Without another word, she brushed aside his wand and strode through the door. The room was candlelit and warmer in appearance than any other room in the dungeons. Tom Riddle was seated imperiously on a large desk at the head of the room, twirling his yew wand in his hand, seemingly not paying attention to her at all. As soon as she was through the threshold, however, the door slammed shut behind her, lock clicking. There was a tangible wave of magic as a massive silencing charm went up around the room.
That didn't bode well.
"Hello, Hermione," Tom said, still not looking directly at her.
What a dramatic bastard, Hermione thought for a brief second before her attention was drawn by the raising of Tom's wand.
Dark magic had a euphoric, intoxicating, addictive quality to it. The more Tom did it, the more he wanted to do it. It had always been like that for him, but especially after creating the horcruxes, and using the unforgiveables was the quickest, easiest way for him to get his fix. It was better than any drug he'd ever tried. Better than sex. Well, nine times out of ten.
The magic rushed through him as he watched Hermione's back arch off the ground, her wild hair clinging to her forehead with sweat, nothing but the sound of her screaming through clenched teeth. He reluctantly let up on the curse for a moment, delighting in the way her body slumped, defeated onto the cold stone floor. Less than thirty seconds, and she was already exhausted. He would have liked to keep going, but perhaps short intervals were best. He wanted her conscious and responsive for their discussion, after all.
"No back-talk today?" Tom was back to lazily spinning his wand between his fingers. Hermione had managed to push herself into a sitting position, but only barely. She didn't respond to his question, but he didn't need her to. He ran his tongue over the back of his teeth before grinning at her. "I really hate having to do this, you know."
There was a choked sound from the bushy-haired girl on the floor in front of him and it took him a moment to identify it as laughter. "Liar," she coughed.
The word was barely out of her mouth when a jet of red light slammed into her again. She writhed, her body bent at odd angles – a series of muscular contractions enacted to try to escape the pain. It was futile, of course. Only he had the power to stop it, and he wasn't in a particularly forgiving mood. How dare she laugh at him? How dare she continue to see through him, even when he had the upper hand? He lifted the curse again, this time after a full minute.
Hermione was curled up on the floor, a small trickle of blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. Her screams had faded into a whimper the moment he lifted the curse, but the quiet sounds were no less pleasant to Tom's ears. Her throat would be raw for the next few days. He had to admit he was looking forward to seeing the lasting damage from this little session of theirs. How long would she remain bedridden, unable to move without crying out from the agony? How long would she be too shaky to even raise her wand? How long would she flinch away from him? The after-effects were almost as sweet as the curse itself.
"I've been lenient so far," Tom said conversationally as he finally stood from the desk. "I've tolerated your rebellion, your abhorrent lack of manners, your disrespect. I hoped that you would see sense, but you forced my hand."
He walked over to her before nudging her with his foot, pushing her from her position curled on her side until she was flat on her back. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she yelped at the movement. He towered over her, looking down at the girl with a sneer of disdain.
"You need to learn your place," he murmured, his soothing tone a stark contrast to the sadistic glee burning behind his eyes. "You're beneath me, Hermione, with your tainted blood. You're a silly, little girl. You're nothing."
At her lack of reaction, rage flooded through his veins. The cruciatus was fine, but he wanted her to bleed. He wanted to see her bleed. With a slash of his wand, he cut away her robes, leaving her in the standard skirt and blouse uniform. She had apparently forgone the usual wool jumper, leaving his view of her white blouse unobstructed. That would do nicely, he decided.
Without even muttering a spell, he slashed his wand through the air again and again, watching as crimson streaks bloomed across her arms, chest, and torso. Hermione was screaming again, but in bursts. It was almost better than the cruciatus, watching the physical evidence of his spellwork staining her perfect, regulation-approved school uniform. They were shallow cuts – nothing that would require any serious healing – but they were perfect, and he was almost tempted to remove the last layer of her clothes to view his work more directly. Perhaps another time, he told himself. That would only be a distraction, and he still had a lesson to teach.
"Look at me, Hermione," he said a little breathlessly. She didn't immediately comply, her face still scrunched up in pain. "Look at me!"
Her brown eyes cracked open, watery and filled with pain. Almost instantly, Tom dropped to his knees, straddling her as he wound a hand into her tangled hair, pulling until her back was arched and her head lifted closer to his.
"Let's see what's in that pretty little head of yours," he hissed. Her eyes widened at that. Finally, there was the fear he'd been waiting for. "Legilimens."
"Run, Hermione. RUN!" A red-haired boy that Tom had never seen before was dragging him – no, not him, but Hermione – by the hand through a forest. The trees flew by them in a blur, the ground beneath them crunching loudly with every step. It was cold enough that the sweat was freezing on his body – not his, Hermione's, Tom reminded himself – and Hermione's cheeks burned from the sleet. Behind them, flashes of green and red and dozens of other colors whizzed by, seeming to get ever closer, but never quite hitting. There was a dark-haired boy in front of them, and for a minute, Tom thought he was looking at Fleamont Potter of all people. Before he could think on that any further, however, the sweaty grip on Hermione's hand went slack and the red-haired boy dropped to the ground, eyes glassy. Hermione didn't stop running as she fired a killing curse over her shoulder, tears beginning to blur her vision –
Tom was forced out of that memory, but immediately resurfaced in another.
A pebbled beach. Warm. Sunny on her tanned skin. A new smattering of freckles on her skin. Waves crashing on her tiny feet. Afraid of the ocean. No. Afraid of being swept away by the ocean. A woman's voice. "Hermione! Hermione! Where are you?" A beautiful woman with wildly curly hair that could only be her mother. A blinding smile. "There you are."
The image shifted again.
"I can't give you everything in the world, but I'll give you everything I have." The redhead boy again, this time on one knee in some sort of bizarre tent, a small, inexpensive ring in his outstretched hand. "Marry me?" Arms thrown around his neck, and suddenly Hermione was kissing the boy. Chapped lips against chapped lips. Frantic, like they might die at any moment. They could die tomorrow. They could die today. But no fear, just love.
Tom jerked himself out of that memory, half out of disgust and half out of a blinding anger that he couldn't identify or control.
"Who said Riddle has to know?" That was Dolohov, Tom was sure of it. This wasn't helping his anger. And then: "Whatever Riddle has planned for me, he clearly wants to handle himself. He won't be pleased if you keep him waiting. And if you think you can keep anything from him – if you think you can lie to him and get away with it – then you clearly haven't spent enough time on the wrong end of his wand." Now that was definitely Hermione. Curious. Very curious. Was she defending him, or herself, or both? It didn't matter. Dolohov and…yes, Lestrange too, would suffer for it.
A series of sudden shifts.
The dark-haired boy who looked so much like Fleamont Potter was dancing with Hermione in the bizarre tent, and from this close the differences between the boy and Fleamont were obvious. They were leaning into each other, arms wrapped around each other for comfort.
Clinging desperately to the back of a dragon and a terror of flying, a terror of falling. A cruciatus from a dark-haired madwoman whose cackling almost drowned out Hermione's screams. Hermione punching a blond-haired boy, breaking his nose, and the rush of satisfaction as he bled. Standing tall over a whimpering, bleeding man – a burning hatred towards him that had nothing to do with Tom's anger, it was all Hermione – and she eviscerated him, stripping his flesh from his bones. A werewolf howling, and Hermione howling back.
More kissing from the red-haired boy, freckled hands on the span of Hermione's bare waist, her hips –
Tom was shoved forcefully from her mind. Hermione's face was tear-streaked and pained. She was panting and clutching at his robes, almost using him for support. He pushed away from her and stood up, shoving her to the floor in the process. That had been enlightening…and perhaps even more confusing. He hadn't gotten a single entire memory, and the fragments had done nothing but make him even more curious about her than he'd already been. But now he had pressing matters to attend to with Dolohov and Lestrange. With Hermione properly cowed, there would be plenty of time for more in-depth exploration of her later.
"I don't think I have to remind you of what will happen to you and your wand if you should feel the need to tell anyone about this conversation," Tom said, trying to control his own breathing. He was still reeling from being ejected from her mind – how had she done that, especially in her condition, he wondered.
Hermione – now curled in on herself again – only whimpered in response, blood still flowing freely from her new wounds. Tom sneered. Good.
"Unfortunately I can't stay. There's a slight in-house problem I have to take care of. You understand, I'm sure," he said dismissively from the doorway. "Clean yourself up and make sure you're not seen on your way back to the dormitories. I'd hate to have to deduct house points tonight as well."
Without another glance in her direction, he strode out of the room. He'd handle the Dolohov problem tonight, even if he had to drag the boy from his bed himself. And then, maybe, he could reflect on what he'd learned about Hermione.
Author's Note: Here's a long update. Sorry for taking so long, but I've been planning out the rest of this story, and that has taken a lot more of my time than I originally thought. However, I can now assure you all that there will be at least a total of 40 chapters, so we have a long way to go still. Thanks for sticking with this fic!
As always, please feel free to comment, critique, etc. I love hearing from all of you guys!