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Chapter 54 – In the Wizarding Village
Tom began his job at the Institute of Magical Research only a few days after he arrived in New York, giving him just enough time to become accustomed to the time difference and find a place to live. He ended up living in a small studio on the edge of the Wizarding Village, a sizeable community of magical humans and creatures squeezed in between the Bowery and Chinatown. He had been surprised by how quickly he assimilated. There were no mentions of Hogwarts houses or blood status, and his nationality rarely drew comment, the Wizarding community having been the recipient of an influx of refugees from all over the world during and after the war.
The National Institute of Magical Theory, or Nimty, as the employees referred to it, was only a few blocks away from his apartment. Tom had been assigned to the Arithmancy Team, with a focus on developing new equations to facilitate expanding the Village, which was quickly outgrowing its original location, Extending Charms notwithstanding. It was interesting work, and most importantly, as different from his previous assignment as possible. He still thought of Hermione often, sometimes wondering what her response to an idea would have been, or what she would have thought of his new colleagues.
Tom purposely worked long hours, avoiding empty time that would inevitably be filled with memories and recriminations. Although he was far from happy, his strategy was tolerably successful at keeping his mind off of Hermione. A few times in the first month he was in New York, he reached out through the marriage bond to Hermione, but, finding it always blocked, soon stopped. It was obvious to him that his leaving had ended what they had once and for all, and that he had best get used to living his life without Hermione.
Hermione had undoubtedly made her choice, and it did not include him. There would always be a bond between them, but time and distance would surely lessen it and allow her to have the life she wanted, with Alphard or whichever wizard she deemed deserving. As for himself, he declined to consider the future beyond his work. Neither schemes nor romantic entanglements held much attraction.
Hermione lived as if in a haze for the first few days after Tom left for America. She could scarcely believe that Tom had left her again, and even more, that he had ostensibly left her because he believed she wanted him to. It was something of which she never would have thought him capable, love that was selfless, albeit misguided. However, as the days went by without any contact from him, she grew angry. Once again, he had made a decision without consulting her, even though it directly affected her.
Sometimes, Hermione would tell herself that she was better off without Tom, and occasionally, she would even believe it, but one conversation with Minerva defeated that particular coping mechanism. Although Hermione had seen Minerva less frequently since she had married, they still saw each other almost every week for lunch or tea. For the first few times after Tom's departure that the pair had met, Minerva had listened to Hermione's words of denial, then anger. But Minerva, never the epitome of patience, had had enough after a month of such one-sided conversation.
"I was more than fair to him, with all that he did! Then he decides to give up and go to America?" Hermione vented.
"Well, I don't know all that he did, and I'm not sure that I want to. But it's not like you can never see him again. You could be outside his front door in no more than two days if you wanted to be. The real issue is whether you want to be. He made a choice that you didn't like. Now it's your turn to make a choice. You can go after him, or you can move on. If you wait too long, you might not have a choice anymore. It's really up to you."
Minerva had not been so pointed in her observations before, and Hermione wondered whether her friend was compensating for the lack of forthrightness in her new husband, but wisely refrained from commenting.
"So you think I should go to New York?" she questioned.
"I don't think you should do anything in particular, but you do need to do something, even if that something is forgetting about Tom Riddle."
Hermione snorted and turned away, hiding her slightly wistful expression from her friend.
"You're probably right. What is it about these Slytherins anyway?" she joked.
"Do you really want me to answer that question?"
Tom had been at Nimty for almost two months when he heard that a team from London would be arriving the next week to consult on magical defenses for soon-to-be-expanded boundaries of the Village. He indulged for a moment in the hope that Hermione might come with them, but admitted to himself that it was probably best that she didn't. Despite his attempt at nobility, it was a far from natural action for him, and he doubted he would be able to maintain his equanimity if he were confronted with her presence. Regardless, the consultants would be working with the Metropolitan Magical Police Department, not his team. Even if she did come with them, he probably wouldn't even see her.
Tom's prediction turned out to be incorrect. While he did not see any of his visiting countrymen at work, he was confronted by the very person he most wanted to see and to avoid in the lobby of his building. Tom wished for a moment that he had sprung for an apartment in a building that allowed direct Apparition into apartments, rather than merely to the lobby.
"Hello, Tom," Hermione greeted him.
He couldn't interpret her tone or expression. She had a slight smile on her face that appeared almost tremulous. Her tone, however, was almost matter-of-fact.
"I was hoping we could talk, Tom. We didn't really talk before you left, and I think we should. May I come up?"
Tom acquiesced, not wanting to air any of his private business in the building lobby. He didn't even know any of his neighbors beyond whether they had familiars that needed to be taken outside frequently.
Hermione silently followed him up the stairs to his fourth floor studio.
"Please, sit down," he said, gesturing to the small table with two chairs on one side of the room.
"It's much smaller than our flat in London," Hermione commented, her twisting hands betraying her nerves.
"I don't need much space, and I spend more time at work than I do here," Tom replied, shrugging.
Hermione looked out the narrow window into the alleyway for a few moments. Finally, she turned back to him. "Why did you leave without talking to me first?" Her eyes were accusing, but also hurt.
"I hadn't planned to, but you seemed to have other concerns, so I didn't think that you would find it a terrible inconvenience. In fact, I expected that you would consider my relocation to be a convenience."
"What do you mean?"
Tom paced across the small room. "You seemed to be growing closer to Black, so I felt it best to absent myself from the situation. I did not, and do not, wish for you to feel obligated to maintain a relationship you did not want."
"I agreed to give you another chance, Tom!"
"Your actions said otherwise. I do not mean to say that I deserved anything different from you, but continuing on as we had been would have been a disservice to both of us."
"I told Alphard that I wasn't interested in him romantically."
"I'll admit I'm somewhat relieved, but that wasn't the only problem. We were essentially roommates. We barely spoke, especially about anything important. You blocked our bond, even though I haven't since I awoke at St. Mungo's. I didn't see any way for our relationship to be repaired as things were, and you didn't seem to notice or care about my own attempts." Tom saw Hermione open her mouth to respond, but he cut her off. "If I was mistaken, I apologize, but I would not have left if I had not thought it would be best for both of us."
Hermione considered his words. He was right that she had maintained distance between them after she gave him his second chance. He was also right that she hadn't given him much opportunity to prove himself.
His next words roused her from her introspection. "What happens now is your choice, Hermione. Perhaps you could tell me now why you came here."
"I think that when I gave you another chance before, I didn't quite mean it. I know I didn't mean it. I didn't want to let you go entirely, but I couldn't forget your actions. And you were there, waiting, so I didn't feel like I needed to make a choice right away."
She stood from the chair and walked over to him. "But I have made my choice now, if you are willing." She took a deep breath. "A real second chance. I don't know whether it will work, but I want to try. I can stay on here as a long-term consultant. We can start over, actually learn how to be honest with each other."
"Are you offering this because you want to, or because you think you ought to, Hermione? If it's the latter, this is why I left London in the first place."
"Because I want to. Because I still love you, even though my life would be much easier and simpler if I didn't."
"You know that I love you. If you are sure this is what you want, then so be it."
Hermione smiled softly. Tom couldn't help but respond in kind. Everything he had wished for since he left London was happening. He knew there were no guarantees, but he felt cautiously hopeful.
"Although we might need to find a new flat. This could be rather cramped for the two of us," she said, attempting to lighten the mood.
He reached out and grasped her hand, wanting to ensure that she didn't pull away in response to his next words.
"I think it might be better for you to get your own flat, Hermione." As he had expected, she shifted to close herself off from him, pulling slightly at his hand. "We have a lot to work through," he continued, "and having some space could be a good thing. You can come here any time you want, but I don't want living together to be a substitute for actually communicating and spending time together like it was in London."
Hermione mulled it over. "Alright, I can see the potential benefits, but if I change my mind, we'll find a new place?"
"I suppose I should start looking for a flat, then. I've heard terrible things about landlords in New York. Is it true that there are regular billywig and knarl infestations?"
"They are endemic in some parts of the city, yes," Tom said, smiling at Hermione's enthusiasm, although he suspected that at least some of it was merely a front. "But I haven't had any trouble with them, or the landlord, and I think there is an opening on the second floor if you are interested."
"That would be rather convenient. But I should go. We both have work tomorrow morning."
"That we do, but I'd be happy to walk you back to your hotel. I think I heard someone say your entire team is at the Niffler Inn on just off of Canal Street? I don't know my way around terribly well yet, but I think I can get you there without too much difficulty."
Their conversation during the walk was light, but both were fully aware of the importance of what they were about to undertake.
In the hotel lobby, Hermione grasped the lapels on his coat loosely and tugged him down to her height. She brushed her lips across his cheek.
"Good night, Tom. I'll see you tomorrow. Maybe I'll make you help me move my things into my new flat." With an impish smile, she entered the elevator, leaving him watching after her. But unlike the last time he had seen her, he had reason to hope.