The warmth of the bonfire paints Tom's cheekbones in a luminous orange glow. Hermione watches him over the rim of her newly rescued traveller bag, discovered in the old DADA office. It is a battered, walnut-coloured backpack with checkered patches sewed carefully over rips in the leather. Old, but still functional.

Her wand is warm against her calf; Tom had found it when looking for firewood by the lake while she had been making dinner before. He didn't say a word when he returned, only reached out to give her her wand before turning to feed the bonfire. She thanked him with a nod. He had ignored it pointedly.

Now, they sit opposite each other, separated by the flames. He's grinding a butcher's knife that he found in the kitchen ruins; she's going over the elixirs he scavenged over the last couple of days.

"Got everything you want?" Tom asks, alternating between poking at the embers with a long, charcoaled branch and grinding the knife on a whetstone. Grinding noises blend with the chirping of crickets. He looks tired.

"Antidotes, two vials of Blood-Replenishing Potion, Burn-Healing Paste, one vial of Draught of Peace, and a Love-Potion Antidote. Guess I can leave the last one out." She tosses the rose-coloured aside and packs the rest in her bag. "Would have loved another vial of Skele-Gro or Star Grass Salve, but can't have it all, right?"

A nod, then more grinding noises. After a while, Tom inspects the knife from all angles and carves the tip of the charred branch until it becomes pointy. Seemingly pleased with his work, he sheaths the knife, tucking it away. Hermione's eyes track the blade as Tom slides it into his left boot, making a note of its location in her head for later.

"So what's the plan?" She asks when he starts to jab into the embers again.

"One more page here in Hogwarts, then we'll leave."

"And where will we go?"

"There should be another one close by. Hogsmeade, probably."

"Should I prepare for more Nundu's tomorrow?" She can feel the smirk creeping up on her face and notices, amused, that Tom is smirking too.

"Unlikely. I read somewhere that centaurs are their natural enemies, so it's highly improbable that it will have fled in the Forbidden Forest." He puts the branch away, stretching his long arms over his head until his shoulders pop. It looks painful, but she doesn't comment on it.

"I see," she says instead, watching him roll his shoulders - first left, then right. Then he bends his head back, the skin on his throat looks paper-thin, stretched taut from the angle. It's only when he's done stretching that she realizes the sweater he's wearing is too big around his slender body. She doesn't want to know where he found it.

When Tom brings out the diary and the page he found in the DADA office, the crickets around them hush. The night is silent except for the crackling of the fire at their feet.

"I think I figured it out," Hermione says, tugging her feet closer to her body. A chill slowly creeps up her spine. "The reason why you always look close to dying right before diving into a memory."

"And what are your deductions?" Tom looks interested but that might just be her imagination. She has come to understand, in their time together, that Tom Riddle has mastered the ability to appear exactly how he wants you to see him. Even though he's only sixteen, his composure never falters.

"You're afraid," she says and looks him straight in the grey of his eyes. "Somewhere in all of the memories we're hunting, hides some you're terrified of. And because you never know what the page contains until it returns to the diary, you're absolutely frightened of each of them."

There's a beat. And then another. Then the sliver of a smile - almost genuine - flickers across his face. He leans back into the stone behind him.

"Let me guess, you read one book about psychology, and now you think you can analyze me."

"No," she says, "but I've dealt with broken people for years. I'm familiar with despair."

Tom looks at her - or rather straight through her at an invisible point - and says nothing. The silence should be uncomfortable, but it isn't. Once again she realizes how easy it is to speak with him, no matter the topic. Easier than with Ron, that's for sure. Almost as easy as with Harry. She becomes lost in her thoughts again, caught on the similarities between Harry and Tom before the renewed rustling of the diary's pages rips her back into the present.

The magic of the Horcrux works just as fast and wondrous as the times before. Dancing flames dissolve into golden-grained dust, swirling around them. The hard stoned floor underneath her transforms into the soft cushion on one of Florean Fortescue's chairs. Diagon Alley sprouts out of the ground, one building after the next. Eeylops Owl Emporium, Ollivander's, Flourish and Blotts, The Leaky Cauldron. Hermione can see the sign of the apothecary swinging in the autumn breeze. Even the air around her feels warm and sunkissed, not as chilly as moments ago on Hogwarts' grounds. Amazingly enough, she's used to the spell by now. A perfect illusion. A perverse reminder.

In the midst of it all stands an eleven-year-old Tom, wearing a dirty, reddish sweater that hangs on his body like a potato sack. Much too large and without shape. His shoes are threadbare, and the soles are worn. She can see the filthy grey of his tennis socks flashing through a particularly large rip in his left shoe. There's a small bag of coins in his left hand; his fingers are clenched in a painful white, Hermione notices, even from afar. Probably because he was afraid of it being stolen.

People swarm around him, but no one seems to pay attention. Hermione watches as he tries to ask someone for help, but the people shrug him off, hurrying away. Some of them stare at the boy from the other side of the street, wrinkling their noses. When the boy steps over to the display window of Madame Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, the seamstress closes the curtains, shutting him out. The hand around the small bag goes limp for a second, before clenching anew. His shoulders tremble with effort as he struggles to keep his head high.

She can feel the phantom touch of her mother's palm on her own, her father's encouraging words ringing in her ears. Even though they had known nothing about magic, they had been here, with her. Ron had his family. Harry had Hagrid.

Hermione throws a glance at the adolescent version sitting next to her. He doesn't look at his younger self. Instead, he looks anywhere but.

"I never contemplated just how alone you were," she says, cautiously. One of the waitresses runs just past them, and the moment her hand brushes Tom it dissolves into a fine, gold grain. It materializes again once she's out of reach.

"I was not alone," Tom says after a while, finally looking over to his younger self. The boy's shoulders give in, his head hanging low. He's slowly making his way over to Ollivander's. Tom looks away just as the boy enters the building. For a while, his eyes follow the waiters, the chalices full of ice cream they place in front of customers. When he looks back at Hermione, he looks almost unaffected. "I was deserted. But I've never known anything else, so that's just how it was."

The simplicity of the statement makes her heart ache. In the glowing red sign of Fortescue's parlour, his sharp profile looks so much like Harry, and the pain of loss churns deep inside her guts. It leaves the taste of misery behind. Reminded of Harry's legacy, she feels guilt creeping up her spine. She shouldn't feel sorry for Tom. She can't.

"When I was there for the first time… when I finally saw magic with my own two eyes… I was mesmerized." Tom speaks without looking at her. His eyes are drawn to the magic all around them. People in rainbow-coloured robes. Owls and hawks in large cages hanging from hooks in the walls. A stranger, trying to sell potions on a small stand in front of the apothecary. "I thought everything I endured until then - every single undeserved punishment, every injustice - all of them were the price I had to pay for being chosen."

"Odd word choice," Hermione says. She had never felt chosen. Or special. Burdened, yes. Cursed even. Chosen meant wanted. Needed. She never felt needed. Not in the real world, and not in the magical world either. The scar on her arm starts to itch.

"That's how I felt," Tom mutters, shrugging. "Magic meant power. No one just gets power handed to them on a silver platter. Not back in my world."

Hermione doesn't answer. She looks at him and wonders how much bitterness must reside inside him, and what had happened to him that made him become this barren wasteland of a human.

"Stop looking like that. Pity doesn't suit you," Tom says once the memory starts to crumble. He puts the diary, and with it his past, away, like a metaphor for his life.

Hermione doesn't say anything. She looks into the glowing embers of the bonfire, even long after Tom starts to sleep. And she wonders if, despite the mental distance, some memories never fade. If the boy sleeping across from her ever had a choice to become something else.