Disclaimer: Harry Potter does not belong to me
I AM SO SO SORRY for this horribly late update!! This is the very last day of Christmas holidays and I finally managed to get this chapter uploaded. Thank you so much to everyone for your patience and encouragement - it really kept me going. Hope you enjoy this!
BTW, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone! Back to school tomorrow (waking up at 6 is inhumane...) and am NOT looking forward to it.
Hermione rubbed her eyes tiredly, the curling writing of the page in front of her swirling before her very eyes. She had been working for four straight hours since dinner this afternoon and her neck was just starting to complain from her hunched over position. The weak sunlight filtered in through the dusty windows and she stretched as she took a moment to glance outside.
It was a cloudy November Saturday, the seemingly constant drizzle of rain veiling everything in a fine mist. She could just barely see the lake from here, the grey waves churning in the wind.
Sighing, she turned back to her texts, finishing off the last couple of sentences of her Untransfiguration assignment. Carefully drying off the ink before rolling up her parchment, Hermione idly tapped the cracked leather cover of one of the books. It had been almost a week since that conversation with Riddle and once again, life had seemed to settle down into its usual rhythm. She saw nothing of him other than in class and at meals and by some force of sheer luck, had managed to avoid running into him whenever she was in the Head Common Room. She should have been thrilled that that particular little spat had left no apparent consequences but Hermione had that nagging feeling that it was anything but.
He was watching her.
Not obviously or surreptitiously. Not even literally, if that made even sense, since his eyes were rarely, if ever, actually on her. It was just a feeling she had. To say that he was aware of her was not quite correct since someone of Riddle's personality was always aware of what was going on around him; it was more like some part of his attention was now focused on her. Whether it was when she was answering questions in class or eating next to him, something was telling her that he was watching.
And if there was anything Hermione had learnt during the war, it was to trust her instincts.
Shaking her head, the girl resolutely stood and gathered up all her things. By all accounts, she had played her hand well, even if confrontations with Voldemort were hardly on the top of her list of favourite things to do. Any attention he might accord her were more than likely due to suspicion or wariness, a far cry from anything even remotely associated with love and so she was satisfied.
"Hermione? We have a meeting at quarter to."
Bellium glanced over at Madame Hartworth, her hushed whisper obviously not carrying far enough to be heard by the librarian. Hermione nodded at the Ravenclaw prefect, shifting the books in her arms.
"Yes, I know. I just have to drop these off in my room first; I'll see you there."
Smiling at some other students as she left, Hermione strode through the relatively empty corridors, her footsteps brisk on the flagstone floors. Given the sorry state of the weather, she figured most of the students were in the Great Hall or their respective common rooms; it was nice to be able to walk through these hallways undisturbed.
Finally reaching the entrance to the Head Common Rooms, she murmured the password and stepped over the threshold. It was somewhat odd to be here in the middle of the day; she did not often come back unless it was to sleep, preferring instead to study at the library or hang out in Gryffindor Tower.
The fire grate was dark and unlit and an unwelcome cold wind was infiltrating the room from the open window above the central staircase. Grimacing, Hermione hurried up the stairs to shut it, cleaning up the wet carpet underneath with a wave of her wand.
"Who's silly enough to leave a window these days?"
Naturally, there was no answer but the silence that followed was unexpectedly eloquent. Hermione blinked and, almost dreading what she would see, turned slowly to her right. Tom Riddle was leaning quietly against the doorway to his bedchamber, his eyes watching her as she straightened.
Instead of immediately turning to enter her own room as usual however, Hermione stood still, one hand still holding the latch of the window. The iron felt wet and cold against her skin, her grip on it tightening as she simultaneously relaxed her hold on her wand. If he was surprised that she did not retreat, he did not show it.
They stared at each other, neither moving. Oddly enough, no particular thoughts entered her head; Hermione merely looked at him in much the same manner that he was her. She did not want to be the first to speak; indeed, she was unsure as to what it was she should say. Tom blinked slowly, deliberately, like one of those realistic Muggle baby dolls and at that moment, it seemed as though the spell had been broken.
"Meeting in five then."
Nodding impassively as he brushed past her, his robes barely touching hers as he headed down the stairs and out the portrait. Hermione released the window latch with a sharp indrawn breath, frowning momentarily before moving to dump her bag and books in her bedchamber. Following in his footsteps, she quickly made her way back down to the first floor where the meeting was held in one of the unused classrooms.
What was that all about?
She would have said she unnerved him, but that would not have been correct. In reality, Hermione was somewhat unsettled herself. Sitting down at an empty desk, she greeted the rest of the students, resisting the urge to look over at the tall figure seated several desks away from her with the two Slytherin prefects. Sweeping in exactly on the dot, Professor Merryworth conjured up some parchment and quills for everyone, not to mention a fair array of much appreciated tea and snacks.
"Since everyone appears to be here on time, let's begin, shall we? Mr. Riddle, if you please?"
Leaving his teacup untouched, the boy waved his wand at his parchment, which obediently began taking minutes as he started talking.
"Yes, Professor. As discussed at our last meeting, I believe we've come to the agreement that this year Hogwarts will be hosting a ball open to all students during the Christmas holidays rather than the usual February schedule, courtesy of our Head Girl."
Here, he paused as Rufus and Ian let out approving whoops around their respective mouthfuls of biscuits. Crumbs sprayed out of Rufus' mouth in particular and Megs gave him a hearty kick of disgust under the table.
"Keep your mouth shut, Ruf, or at least aim it in another direction!"
"The issues that need to be dealt with today are the details surrounding the ball and anything else that needs to be brought up about your houses."
His voice was precise and quiet, easily cutting through any side conversations without the need to raise his voice. In that respect, Hermione thought he was much like Snape. She sniggered into her cup.
Why am I not surprised. Slytherin indeed.
At the sound, one of the Slytherin prefects spared her a contemptuous glance, obviously having decided long ago that a Muggleborn, Head Girl or not, was barely worth the effort of recognition. Turning a pair of disconcerting pale eyes on Riddle, she gestured lethargically.
"If I may, Tom?"
He inclined his head marginally.
"Why not have it outdoors? I should hardly think there are many of us who would want to be crammed into a fully decorated Great Hall with a bunch of…well, we all know what I'm talking about. And during the holidays, no less. I'm sure I'm not the only one who needs a break from it all."
Her drawl was deceptively mild but everyone there knew what she was hinting at. The word 'mudblood' did not even need to be said; future generations of pureblooded Slytherins could have learnt a thing or two from her about effective subtlety. Hermione could feel Emily, the Hufflepuff prefect, stiffen next to her. She turned to the now smirking girl, whose eyes were avidly taking in the reaction to her words with an almost repulsive pleasure.
"Actually, I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what you mean. Maybe you'd like to clarify?"
Peonie's attention moved to Hermione, who had a bland smile plastered on her face. They both knew that she dare not take this any further with a professor sitting right there and whose lips were already thinned in repressed anger. The girl was no fool.
"Oh, I meant people, of course. I'm a bit claustrophobic, you see. Why, what else did you think I was talking about?"
"Claustrophobia? Yes, I've read that that seems to be abnormally prevalent in interbreeded mice that spend most of their lives coped up in dark dungeons, oh, I mean, cages."
Choked snorts of laughter erupted around the room. The girl pushed to her feet, her dark hair swinging about her angrily.
"Perhaps having it outdoors wouldn't be such a bad idea."
Once again, the cold voice cut through sharply. Peonie tensed, her jaw gritting before she sat right back down, wordlessly acquiescing to his command without further argument.
Hermione found that fact less than amusing.
"Actually, it would be. Outdoors at night in minus twenty degrees is rather ridiculous."
"What's ridiculous is the suggestion that a castle full of wizards and witches is unable to control the temperature for a simple dance."
Her eyes narrowed as he turned his head to fully face her.
"If that's the case, then what's the point of having it outdoors in the first place? We might as well have it indoors if you're looking for a climate-controlled environment."
"You're forgetting the fact that part of the argument was not having the whole school squashed into a single space. As we've already established, there are those who would prefer not to be in that situation."
"You're also forgetting the fact that we all fit perfectly fine in the Great Hall during meals even with all those tables there. Not to mention that the risks of holding a ball outdoors requires a great deal of regulations and supervision in order to prevent certain students from wandering off the premises."
Emily raised her hand hesitatingly, clearly unwilling to get involved in the Heads' little dispute.
"Umm, why don't we just get the Great Hall conjured to look like the outdoors on the walls as well as the ceiling? I agree with Hermione that it would be unnecessarily difficult to coordinate a ball outdoors. Students can always just head off around the castle if it gets too crowded."
Professor Merryworth nodded in approval, wisely ignoring the disdainful sniff coming from the Slytherin corner and looking inquiringly at both Heads as they glared at each other.
"That seems to be a reasonable suggestion. Miss Granger?"
"Fine. As long as Riddlehere doesn't have any further objections."
To her surprise, he shrugged lightly, an expression of complete complacency settling on his face. Although he addressed the older witch, those pools of black continued to remain fixed on her face.
"Not at all."
The rest of the meeting continued in a similar fashion, with Tom seeming to raise frustratingly rational objections to every single one of her ideas but then yielding at the last moment. In retaliation, Hermione did the exact same thing, smirking whenever she triumphed. The rest of the committee watched with a sort of morbid fascination, like one does when two barrelling trains are about to collide but it would hardly be practical to jump in and try to prevent it. The Head of Hufflepuff herself looked a little taken aback but refrained from interjecting since their exchanges always ended just short of outright yelling. It wasn't until Hermione finally caught the oddly appraising look that fleeted across his face that the real issue at stake sank in.
He was testing her.
Hermione had nothing near as fiery a temper as Ron but neither was she as calm and collected as she might have hoped. On more than one occasion had her impatience and exasperation led her to blow up and resulted in either the three of them scrambling to fix it or retreating and reorganizing as soon as possible. Voldemort himself had benefited from Harry Potter's friends' tendencies to react impulsively and it appeared as though Riddle had the best of both worlds: a perverse pleasure in playing with his prey and a controlled sanity to temper it.
Her mouth snapped shut.
"So, no objections to the majority of the decorations being in green, Granger?"
Her voice was clipped. Hermione sipped her tea, carefully banking her thoughts as her eyelids lowered. His head tilted as the conversation continued to swirl around them. It would have surprised her to know that the dark fire burning within his eyes was reflected in, or perhaps reflective of, the very same one within her own chocolate depths.
Both of them looked up at the sound of clapping. Professor Merryworth was smiling brightly, her hat comically lopsided.
"Well done, everyone. That should be enough for today and please make sure that each person completes their assigned duties according to schedule. Any problems should be directed to either the Head Boy or Girl and we'll meet again the first weekend next month. Dismissed."
As the group of students rose chatteringly, Hermione vanished her parchment with a wave.
She turned to see Gideon just outside the door, freshly scrubbed and grinning. Responding with a relieved smile of her own, she walked over to him, moving aside as the others exited the room.
"Hey, you're here."
"Yeah, heard you had a meeting again. Ready for supper?"
Chuckling, she gestured at the remains of the pile of scones and pastries.
"Do you think so?"
"Well, there's always room for dessert, so they say. Oh wait, maybe just Red says that."
Laughing together, they headed towards the Great Hall, Gideon cheerfully fending off various conversations from other students. He smelled lovely, like clean soap.
"Did you just get back from Quidditch practice?"
"Yeah, did two straight hours. Constance came up with this great warming spell on our gloves. It gets pretty rough out there in winter what with the wind and cold; the fingers tend to stiffen up and it's hard to really do much."
Rubbing the back of his neck, the two of them walked along in moment of comfortable silence. The rain continued to fall just outside the open pillars, making small dark splatters on the flagstones. The scent of wet grass rose up around them, quintessentially English and pleasing.
She heard him pause and looked up at him curiously. He had slowed down, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
"What is it?"
"I was uh…wondering if maybe you'd like to go to ball with me."
Hermione blinked and then hid a smile. She had to give him credit; he'd asked her much more steadily than Viktor had all those years ago.
"Yeah, I just thought that since you'd gone to all the trouble of planning it, it would only be fair if you had fun too."
His face was faintly flushed, which Hermione found rather endearing considering how popular he was and the fact that there were probably plenty of girls lining up to ask him out. More importantly however, it reminded her that if she did not agree, it was most likely that she would end up having to partner with Riddle himself.
"I'd love to."
He returned her smile, clearing his throat.
"Good, right, then that's settled. Uh, well, you hungry now?"
Taking pity on his blatant attempt to change the subject, Hermione nodded. He started heading towards the Gryffindor table but stopped when he noticed she was not following.
"Head table remember? I'll see you in a bit."
"Oh, right. See you in a bit."
Watching as he headed towards a wildly gesturing Wills and mischievously grinning Allegra, Hermione shook her head and made her way down the centre of the Hall. Most of the professors were already there, not to mention Riddle, who was already eating. She sat down next to him, surveying the food that appeared in front of her.
"You know, you're surprisingly childish, Riddle."
He placed a spoonful of yam in his mouth, chewing languidly before answering.
"You think so?"
Hermione took a bite of her sprouts, grimacing but courageously swallowing it. Her parents had always gone on about eating her greens. She turned to look at him and nearly choked.
He was smiling.
Not the sort of sly Malfoy smile that got her hackles up, nor even the crazed incredulity that spread across Voldemort's own face in the beginning. She really knew nothing about him and so had no reference point to base it off of. But if she had to choose, Hermione would have to say that it was…unfamiliar.
His voice was low, barely a whisper.
"You don't know everything, Granger."
She opened her mouth to answer but a chirpy voice interrupted.
"So, Professor Merryworth tells me Hogwarts will be partying over the Christmas. Will we have the pleasure of seeing our two Heads dancing together?"
This time, Hermione really did choke. Coughing into her napkin, she took a large sip of water and did not bother to hide the horror in her face as she peered over at Professor Artill as he beamed at the two of them. The boy next to her continued to chew.
"I-I'm afraid not, Professor. I'm already going with someone else."
"Oh? That's a shame. You look well together."
Neither of them made an answer. Hermione flushed and then paled in quick succession, her knuckles white as she stared down at the fork in her hand. Recollecting herself, she offered her companion a broad smile positively dripping with sarcasm.
"Looks like you'll be all alone on Christmas then, Tom. However will you bear it?"
Glittering eyes slid over to her and he looked as though he was about to give his usual biting retort. Hermione tried to keep her expression smug but the way she was searching for his reaction seemed to leak out before she could stop it.
He said nothing though and calmly resumed eating.
In fact, if she had not been paying so much attention to him, Hermione would not have caught the quiet murmur that nearly made her bite her own tongue.
"You get used to it."
A/N: Before you all come to me and start attacking me for suddenly having Riddle make such an unexpectedly out-of-character remark at the very end, I have to say right here that I recognize that possibility but I did it for a reason. Readers have been reviewing and messaging me with their own opinions of Tom (since J.K. Rowling has left the younger version of Voldemort pretty open for interpretation) and I'm trying to to create a certain type of individual. Like I mentioned in the notes to the last chapter, so far, their interaction is not so much about romance as it is about dancing around each other, so to speak. I've left Tom's thoughts and actions vague on purpose because I like to see how different readers interpret it. And I'm very much pleased and gratified at all your thoughtful responses.
Anyways, thank you for reading as always and please do not hesitate to let me know if it feels a bit weird or whatever you're thinking so far!