Author/Artist: Vivien Title: Down the Rabbit Hole
Spoiler Warnings: This is DH compliant up to a point. It is, however, very much an AU.
Summary: Four years after the defeat of Voldemort, Hermione finds she has a chance to defeat him again. This time, however, she faces a much different enemy than the monster.
Author's/artist's notes: Originally written in ficlet form for freetheelves2 as part of the Riddle Gifts challenge. Then it grew. This is the first time I've written for this pairing, and it was, indeed, a challenge to make it work. Thank you so much to Georgia for the thorough beta-ing, and to Lynette and Kate for feedback.
"This isn't safe, Hermione," Tonks said, as she set the wooden cask down on Hermione's desk. It was glowing slightly from the numerous protective charms and wards set upon it. "I wish you didn't have to muck about with this kind of thing."
Hermione did not receive many visitors to her office. Even her colleagues stayed away as much as possible. The name 'Voldemort' never ceased to bring a shudder to those hearing it, even now. Tonks was on duty. Just doing her job.
Hermione tapped her wand on the cask, removing the first of the charms. "Someone has to, Tonks. Might as well be me. Besides, you'd never back away from danger on the job."
"Yeah, I know," Tonks replied, stepping back from the desk and folding her arms across her chest. "You're the expert and all."
Her limp was more noticeable today, Hermione noted. They all carried scars from the last battles. Some were simply more visible than others.
"That's me, the resident Voldemort expert. You needn't stay, Tonks. I set up my own protective wards when Donaphin sent me word they'd detected something."
She had to be the specialist. There was no one else left who could be.
"You sure? It's not like I've a great deal to do." She smiled as she said it, but it was a sad smile. Tonks was one of the few survivors of the Order of the Phoenix. Since her injuries in the last month of Voldemort's reign, she'd ridden a desk more than a broom.
Hermione stopped what she was doing and walked around to place a hand on Tonks' arm. "Thank you for the offer, but it's something I need to do alone. Likely there's no real danger, since this Horcrux was broken long ago, but there's no sense endangering you."
Tonks was one of the few people from her distant past with whom she still spoke, and Hermione liked her as far as she liked anyone these days. She kept to herself much of the time. Work kept her busy. It helped her not to think about the losses she still mourned.
It had been four years since Ron had died in the final confrontation with Voldemort.
A little over four years ago, her parents, freed from her memory modifications, looked at her for the first time with wary eyes. They lived in Australia still, and although they assured her they understood she was protecting them, the final ties between them had unraveled. She'd stopped turning up for visits unless they invited her, and invitations were only issued on holidays and birthdays.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Harry had died suddenly, the victim of a slow-acting, hidden curse released when he broke the final Horcrux.
Three years ago, Ginny Weasley married Neville and they moved to Paris. They owled Hermione every Christmas, but that was about as much contact as they maintained.
It had been two-and-a-half years since she'd spoken to any of the remaining Weasleys.
Two years ago, Hermione had been promoted to Director of Special Projects in the curse-breaking division of the Department of Mysteries.
"Right-o, Hermione. Look, why don't you come round to dinner this Sunday? Remus would love to see you, and it's been far too long since I saw you out of work."
"I'll see if I can, Tonks," she lied. "You're right; it has been too long." Hermione couldn't face the idea of stepping into the house at Grimmauld Place. It simply would hurt too much.
Hermione lived for her work. It was all she had left.
As soon as Tonks closed the door behind her, Hermione returned to the task at hand. Within the cask was Voldemort's diary. The Horcrux within had been destroyed in their second year, of course, but all relics related to Voldemort were systematically examined, especially after Harry's death. Some lingering magical energy had been detected within it, and so it ended up in her office for any curse breaking or research work she deemed necessary.
She found it highly unusual that she knew more about Voldemort and his magic than she did about any of her old friends who'd survived. She couldn't remember the name of the village where Ginny and Neville lived, but she knew minute facts about the Dark wizard.
He really had been a brilliant wizard. That she could never deny. She conquered him again every time she broke a curse or unraveled one of his more complex works.
The last of the protection charms over the cask disintegrated with a tap. No magic flared out at her; there was no ominous humming. Doniphan overreacted, as usual. She opened the lid and reached in carefully. Just because the diary hadn't required such elaborate protections during transport didn't mean it was safe.
She'd been waiting to get her hands on it for a long time, and as her fingertips traced the cracked leather cover, she flashed on Harry and Ron faces. She remembered the smell of the infirmary, the feel of crisp bed sheets as she listened to Harry tell the story of what had happened in the Chamber of Secrets.
Merlin, she missed them. They'd been her dearest friends, through thick and thin, and the ache that wrenched her when she thought of them hurt as badly as it had right after she'd lost them. She squeezed her eyes closed and took a deep breath, banishing their memories. She needed to concentrate.
Picking up the diary, she lifted it out of the cask and laid it upon her desk. She had something upon which to focus, a problem to solve. She would overcome the evil that had stolen so much from her once more.
Hours passed. Hermione easily lost track of time, even with the real-time magical window installed expressly for her by her superiors. She'd sifted layer-by-layer through the diary, searching for hidden curses within the brittle, stained pages. The enchanted moon shone down through the window and Hermione pressed on.
By Saturday afternoon, Hermione was thoroughly frustrated. Nothing had worked. The spark within the ruined diary remained elusive. She threw down her wand in disgust and took up a quill instead. She doubted this would work, but she had to try.
Dear Lord Voldemort, you bloody wanker, she wrote. The ink glistened on the old paper, but did nothing else. Hermione rolled her eyes and put her head in her hands.
When she looked up the ink had vanished.
She rubbed her eyes and looked again. As she did so, a spidery, barely visible scrawl faded into existence.
I beg your pardon? it read.
Hermione pushed away from the desk with a screech of chair legs against wood. How in Merlin's name could this be? The Horcrux had been destroyed. This was- well, it was remarkable. And frightening. And thrilling. She picked up her quill again.
Who are you? she wrote.
It took a longer time for the ink to sink into the paper, and even longer for a jagged, barely decipherable response.
I'm afraid I don't recall.
Hermione stared at the words, trying to puzzle out whether this was a trick or a malfunction.
What is your purpose? she wrote.
I don't remember. I've been in here a very long time, but I can't remember why.
Hermione took a deep breath. What she planned to do was risky, perhaps even foolish. However, there might be no other way to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Can you show me who you are? she asked.
Several moments passed before a reply appeared.
I shall try.
The pages ruffled weakly, and a sickly white glow emanated from the diary. It pulsed outward, enveloping Hermione. It pulled her, but it wasn't nearly strong enough to bring her through. She jabbed her wand at the center of the diary, boosting the power of the charm as she did so. There was a bright flash of light, and she fell through the portal, as if into a Pensieve.
When she opened her eyes again, she stood in a dimly lit room lined with shelves from floor to ceiling filled with books. In the center of the room was a large wooden desk with candles providing the only light. A young man sat behind the desk.
It was Tom Marvolo Riddle. Lord Voldemort himself.
Hermione remembered what Harry had told her of his encounter with this particular memory made real. The curious expression on Riddle's face, and the fact that he stood when he saw her and gave her a small bow, did not quite jibe with any of the accounts Harry had shared with her.
"Welcome, Miss," he said, and his voice was polite, if rather vague. "I would- I'm supposed to show you something. Or tell you something." His brow furrowed in confusion. "I'm afraid to say I've no idea what, and the door disappeared some several years ago, so I couldn't find it if I tried."
He made no move from his place behind the desk, but Hermione kept her wand out and at the ready anyway. She watched him a moment. She'd seen pictures of him at this age, before the creation of the Horcruxes warped his physical appearance as much as his soul. His skin was pale, almost ghostly, but he was a handsome figure. Too handsome by half.
"Tell me who you are," she demanded. This was curious. It seemed this version of Voldemort suffered from amnesia. Or pretended to, at any rate.
"I'm sorry I cannot. I- I don't remember, you see. I've been here ever so long, but all I can recall are the words of the books within this room. Though some of them are losing their words, and I'm afraid I shall lose the memory of them, as well."
"You've no idea who you are or what you're doing here?" He didn't seem to be faking his consternation, but Tom Riddle was a charmer and a liar.
Tom shrugged. "I wish I could say I did, but I can't. It's rather disconcerting, believe me."
"And when you say your books are losing their words, what exactly do you mean?"
He picked up a book from the floor. It was ancient, the leather bindings shredding with age. He opened it and revealed parchment pages devoid of words. "That's what I mean. The room's become smaller, as well. There used to be a window, a long time ago. And a door, of course."
The spell, whatever it is, must be degrading after all this time and damage, Hermione thought. So here she was, in a room full of knowledge with a young, memory-less version of Voldemort. She could find out a great deal, if she played her cards right. She intended to do so.
"Pardon me," he said, interrupting her thoughts. "But who are you? Are you a professor?"
"A professor? So you remember something, after all?" she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing her wand in his direction.
"No, Miss. I- I'm in school? I think?" He looked baffled, and then he frowned. "It vexes me that I can't recall clearly, but I do know I was in school. So are you a professor or not? You're older than I, so you can't be a student." That demanding tone was more like the Voldemort she studied.
"I'm Professor Granger," she said, and then she took a gamble. "And you're called Tom. Tom Riddle."
"Tom? Am I, really?" He sneered slightly and then his face smoothed out again. "That's such a- common name. How do you know?"
"I'm a Professor," she said with authority. She could muster up a great deal of authority when necessary. "I can help you, Riddle. With the books, I mean."
She didn't mean to help him one bit, of course. If he were harmless, she could learn a great deal from him before the magic leeched out of the diary completely.
"I would like the words back." He glanced at the shelves, and for a moment, he looked lost. "They're all I've left, Professor. I should like to keep them, if I'm to stay here."
"Of course. I shall do what I can. Find all the books without words. When I return, we'll examine them. I'll take stock of what's left intact."
"Then you'll be coming back?" He looked eager, and not at all in an evil way. "I should like that. It's been- I know I've seen people here, but it's been such a very long time."
"I'll be back." Hermione brandished her wand before her, willing the spell that brought her here to reverse. She needed to get out of here, to regroup and strategize about the steps to take next. "Good afternoon."
He sat back down, and Hermione could have sworn he looked forlorn. "Good afternoon, Professor."
The light of the spell pulled her away once more. She stared at the diary lying open on her own familiar desk. How long had this fragment of magic been trapped in that room, with the words hemorrhaging from his books? She shuddered at the thought, and then rubbed her temples. Her head ached, but what could she expect after no sleep, little food, and an encounter with her mortal enemy?
She stood, stretched, and headed for the door. She needed a break, but she would be visiting Mr. Riddle again. Oh, yes. She would capture all the information she could from him. She would find out what he knew and how he knew it, and she would discern how his mind worked. Then she'd destroy the diary, and kill him again, with a great deal of pleasure.
She smiled, and it wasn't a pleasant smile. She had Voldemort – even if this vestige of magic was a pale reflection of the monster she'd fought – at her mercy. If her head would stop hurting, she'd be in a fine mood indeed.
Hermione wanted a proper weekend. Or, at least, a proper Sunday, since she'd spent all of Friday night and well into Saturday within her office. She was determined. She'd even considered taking up Tonks on her offer.
But in the end, she returned to the Ministry, and the diary, on Sunday afternoon. The quicker she could drain all the information out of this magical anomaly, the quicker she could document it and then destroy it for good.
It's Professor Granger, she wrote. Let me in. The light bloomed from the damaged pages which rustled like dead leaves. She was amused to note he hadn't bothered to write a response.
"That eager to entrap me, Riddle?" she muttered as she closed her eyes against the vortex which pulled her into the diary.
Riddle stood as she entered the room, and he looked for all the world pleased to see her. She frowned slightly in return. It was all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of complacency with this handsome fellow smiling at her.
She made a note to herself to retrieve as many of the Pensieve memory vials that contained recollections of the monster who'd begun as Tom Riddle. She needed to know more about his outward behavior to watch for signs of manipulation and entrapment wrapped in such a charming presentation. There were accounts from students who attended Hogwarts with him, Ginny's memories of her possession, and McGonagall's accounts, as well. She'd need to study everything, lest she be tricked by the fragment of memory somehow.
"You came back," he said, smiling.
"I said I would," she sniffed and conjured a chair beside the desk. "Have you collected the books?"
He grinned again. "You sound like someone I knew once, I think," he said, and then his face fell again. "I've remembered bits and pieces – wisps of things – since you visited. Was it a few days ago? Time is strange here."
"It was yesterday," she said brusquely. She set out her ink bottle and parchment on the desk and took up her quill. "What do you remember?"
"Some things about school. I was at school, wasn't I? Hogwarts. I recall the name now." His voice became more animated, and Hermione imagined she saw the slightest hint of pink color in his pale cheeks, though she knew that couldn't be possible. "It was- I think I liked it there very much."
Hermione nodded and made notes. Was her presence here aiding in the return of his memory? She'd have to be especially careful, if so. "Shall we begin our inventory?"
"Certainly, Professor," he said, indicating three stacks of books on the floor behind the desk. "There were more than I thought there were."
He picked up a book and set it on the desk, his long fingers leafing through the empty pages. "I liked this one, especially. A History of Ancient Hexes."
"Tell me what you used it for; tell me the hexes and the content you remember best."
"It will help focus on what needs to be restored, of course," she said in a placating tone. Just bloody well talk, Riddle.
"Oh. Very well. Er. Professor? I suppose you should know. I have an- an interest in the Dark Arts. Only to better defend against it, though."
"As do I," she said with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "As do I. Tell me about the book."
He did, in great detail, and she wrote her notes.
This continued for two weeks. Once they'd gone through the stack of empty books, they'd moved on to the rest of the shelves. There were books here that she'd never heard of them, and they were not all Dark. Many were tomes on experimental transfiguration and advanced charm theory. It was disconcerting, she found, to discover herself debating magical theories with this, her greatest enemy – and enjoying it. Sometimes she even forgot he wasn't a person.
"The Protean charm," Tom said, his eyes lit up with fervor, "could be used for so many purposes aside from simple reminder charms."
"Oh," said Hermione, one eyebrow rising. "Do tell." She knew perfectly well what a Protean charm could be used for, both in her own history and in his.
She wanted to hear his twisted logic and reasoning, though. It would prove useful to understand any other Dark wizards who fancied taking his place She positioned her quill over her growing collection of notes and began writing as he spoke.
"That combination of runes means 'to glorify' not 'to indemnify'."
"Ah, Professor, you rely on translation charms too closely," Tom said, challenging her gleefully. "If you did the actual translation of the phrase here-"
She crossed her arms and scowled. "I did do the translation, Mr. Riddle. Ancient runes are a specialty of mine."
"Perhaps," he said, smiling, "but even if you did, you might not know that these runes,"
he pointed to the runic phrase listed on a crumbling parchment, "were written in Iceland in the 8th century-"
"When the Icelandic wizards were under siege by the Viking sorcerers," Hermione mumbled, studying the page, "and so using the opposite meanings of many words. I should have known that."
Tom simply grinned smugly in response.
"I dealt with an Acromantula once."
"Did you really?" She was surprised he remembered such a detail. And wary. Incredibly wary. Would he remember how to lie soon, as well?
"Yes. Beastly creature." His eyes widened. "Oh. I didn't know- I only just remembered that."
Hermione nodded. "I shouldn't be surprised you'd remember more things in the context of your magical knowledge."
She turned the page of Magical Creatures and their Portents to that of a basilisk.
Tom stared at it blankly. Some memories, it would seem, would stay hidden.
"You needn't sulk just because I proved you wrong," she said, closing the book titled Arithmancy Applications. She'd run rings round his logic, which pleased her to no end.
"I'm not sulking," he said with a pout.
Hermione grinned despite herself. He was more handsome than ever when he pouted.
"It's not fair. You're a professor and older than I. Plus, you have your memories intact, and I daresay that gives you an advantage."
"How old are you, Mr. Riddle? Do you recall?"
He tilted his head a moment, frowning. "I think I must have been sixteen when I woke up here. It- it's been- I've no idea how old I am now. Or if I've aged at all. Perhaps 19? 20?"
"Well, there you are, then. I'm only 22, so I haven't that much of an age advantage on you." She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying anything else. If this diary had been enchanted near his 16th birthday, then the magic that animated him was sixty years old, or close to it.
"I do know more than you do, most times," he said with a teasing tone and he gave her a shy smile. She returned it without thinking.
Tom Riddle was a brilliant wizard, and if he'd lost his memories of his life, he'd not lost his wealth of knowledge of magic, not even as this soulless reflection of himself.
Hermione spent much of her time immersed within the diary, and whenever she left, she felt slightly disoriented. She put this down to fatigue, stress, and the irregularities of the disintegrating spell. When she wasn't picking Tom's brain, she researched the Pensieve records. Little of what she observed in the real Tom Riddle matched the one within the diary, aside from surface mannerisms. The real Voldemort's eyes glinted in a malicious way even when he was playing at being charming and innocuous.
With this reassurance, Hermione continued her research.
One day – it was Tuesday or Wednesday, Hermione had lost track that week – as they examined another medieval transcript regarding Dark spells, Tom asked her a question she'd not been expecting.
"Professor? Might I ask you- when you leave here, you go back to Hogwarts proper, yes? Will you- Can you take me with you? I should very much like to be back in school again."
"I don't think that will be possible. I'm sorry." She added the last softly, in response to the stricken look on his face.
"Am I- I mean to say, have I done something wrong? Is that why I'm trapped here?"
"Do you feel trapped?" While he evidenced the trappings of emotions, she wasn't sure he really felt them. The look on his face was leading her to believe otherwise.
"Quite. Especially since you've been visiting me." He glanced down, and then back up avoiding her gaze. "I want to remember. I want to learn and see and do things again."
Hermione paused, not quite sure how to proceed. If he did indeed have this much self-realization, perhaps there was more to his construct than she thought. This spell was remarkable.
"Mr. Riddle. Tom. I should tell you more of your condition. You're not at Hogwarts. In fact, I'm not a Professor. I'm called Hermione Granger, and I'm a head researcher at the Ministry. Your situation is an unusual one, but I assure you, I'm doing what I can." That was enough of the truth to not be the whole truth, and yet still be palliative.
"Oh," he breathed. "Oh. I see." He went silent a moment. "I suppose it's better than being at St. Mungo's?" He looked round him, as if noticing his environs for the first time. If Hermione didn't know better, she'd have said he looked frightened.
But did she know better? Without thinking, she patted his hand where it rested on the desk. "It's all right, Tom."
His skin was cold. So very cold. He gazed at her hand and then met her eyes. The surprise shining in them was obvious.
She only just managed to not jerk her hand away. He was solid. This disturbed her more than anything so far.
He wasn't just a figment, a ghost of an immensely complex spell. There was color in his cheeks; she hadn't been imaging things. Merlin help her, his chest rose and fell. She hadn't looked closely enough before to see. But there was no soul here; the Horcrux had been destroyed ages ago. What was he?
If he were real, if he breathed and thought and felt, how could she blithely destroy him as if he were merely a Dark artifact, a thing? She thought she knew exactly how Harry had felt those last two years, knowing his fate must end in the taking of a life.
Fixing a smile upon her face, she rose, straightening her parchment and making ready to flee. This was too much to take in while in his strange presence. "I do hate to rush off, Tom, but I've an appointment soon. I shall be back." She hoped he wouldn't suspect something was wrong.
He was, indeed, watching her curiously, but his demeanor was more sad than suspicious. "As you say, Pro- er, I mean, Miss Granger."
"Hermione will do." Why had she said that? She must be out of her mind. She had to get out of here. His pleased smile only confused her more.
"Good afternoon, then, Hermione," he said.
"Good afternoon, Tom." She activated the portal and stepped through. She collapsed in her desk chair and sat in stunned silence for several moments. Her head began to throb, much worse than usual.
"Bloody hell," she whispered. "What is going on?" She tried to focus long enough to write down her usual meticulous notes, but she soon gave up. Rubbing her eyes – she was exhausted of a sudden – she tidied her desk, secured the diary, and left the office early. She figured she owed it to herself.
Hermione felt awful when she woke up the next morning. Must be flu, she thought as she pulled the covers over her head. She never owled in ill, but today was a day for it.
She stayed home the next day as well, steam pouring out of her ears from Pepper Up Potion. When she returned to her office, she avoided the cask containing the diary for as long as she could. There were other matters to attend to; any number of small things would keep her occupied, even if the cask caught her eye every few moments.
Three days later, the insatiable curiosity, the need to ruddy well figure this mess out, compelled her to remove the diary from the cask once more.
She'd made the connection that the spell animating Tom was very likely tapping into her life energy, even if she wasn't possessed by him. The same form of vampirism had nearly cost Ginny her life.
It was terribly risky, but Hermione had to know more. Besides, she wasn't an eleven-year-old girl enthralled against her will. Her eyes were open, and she possessed formidable power herself. She could do this. She picked up her quill.
Tom's response, the flare of light, usually occurred right away. Now there was a delay, and she found with great surprise that this hesitation distressed her.
I need to get this finished. Whatever he is, he's not truly human. That's all that's bothering me, she reassured herself as she slipped through the portal. As she emerged, she felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. She reached for the nearest bookshelf as vertigo threatened to overwhelm her.
He was pacing up and down the length of the room, his arms folded tightly across his chest.
"I remember," he said dully, his back to her as he paced. "I know how I came to be here."
"Oh, bugger," she whispered, tightening her grip on her wand. If he remembered, then she was in trouble. She tried to open her eyes, but the vertigo kept her from doing so. She couldn't recall the proper spell to aid this condition; she tended to rely on potions.
"He must have used Polyjuice Potion. He looked like me. He took over my life, didn't he?" He turned to begin pacing back towards her, and when he did so, he stopped suddenly. "I say, are you quite all right?"
She forced her eyes open, ignoring the swimming of the room around her. "Oh yes, fine. Fine. Just getting over a touch of flu is all." The top of her head began to prickle and heat washed over her skin. Before she knew it, she felt a hand grabbing her arm under the elbow, and then everything went black.
"-vate." Hermione heard as her eyelids flew open. She was sitting on the floor, an arm behind her back propping her up. She gasped as she realized to whom the arm belonged.
"Shh, it's all right. You fainted." Tom's face was much too close to hers. He knelt beside her, holding her closely. "I borrowed your wand; I hope you don't mind. That bastard must have taken mine. Pardon my language. Aguamenti," he said, casting water into a glass he must have conjured. "Here, drink this."
He held the glass to her lips, and she drank, cursing herself a moment later for being so careless. The vertigo, at least, had abated. In fact, she felt much better. He was not cold to the touch now; in fact he was quite comfortable to lean against. Sweet Circe, this was a dangerous mistake, allowing him to be so close to her. She didn't move, though. She wasn't sure she could. Besides, he still had her wand.
"Better?" he asked, a soft smile on his face. He took the glass from her, and handed her back her wand. "I can't imagine why I never realized my own wand was missing. He must have Obliviated me, as well. That would explain my memory loss. Do you mind?"
He raised the glass with an inquiring look. "I can't remember when I last had a drink of anything. Or food to eat."
She nodded her head, and he drank the rest of the water. Hermione breathed a small sigh of relief; the water wasn't cursed or poisoned. She also noted that he didn't seem to be eager to move either. "What do you remember of this- this person?"
"Not much," he said after a moment. "Only that he was malicious. He wanted me trapped here, and he wanted me to do- horrible things, I think. His name was V-" He frowned. "Vol- something. An odd name…"
"Voldemort," Hermione said.
"I think that was the name, yes," said Tom. "How do you- well, of course. You're a Ministry Defense against the Dark Arts expert, aren't you?"
"That, and-" she hesitated. It might not be wise to play this hand. "I was one of those who helped vanquished him in the end."
His lips thinned and he nodded. "Then he's dead. Good."
Hermione nodded back, her mouth hanging open in surprise a moment before she closed it. Neither of them had moved. Tom looked away then and shifted as if to help her rise. His arm was still around her shoulders, and without thinking, she placed a hand on his free arm. He met her eyes.
He had blue eyes. Dark blue. She'd never cared to notice before.
Moments stretched past and Hermione relaxed. He'd used her wand and given it back. He was a lost fellow called Tom right now. He might not be the next time she came, but for right now, he was not Voldemort. It had been so long since she'd been close to someone, even if it was her not-quite enemy.
When he bent his head to press his lips to hers, she let him. It was a chaste kiss, but the frisson it evoked within her was anything but gentle. The vertigo was gone, but she was quite muddled, nevertheless.
He pulled away from her suddenly. "I'm- please, I do apologize for that. I- you're-"
She stopped his apology with another kiss. This was wrong. This was dangerous. But when he tentatively caressed her face, she sighed and gave in to the luxury of being held and kissed. It had been far too long since anyone had embraced her.
Tom was the one who stopped, after several minutes of slow, leisurely kisses. "Are you quite sure you're well? I should hate to think I was taking advantage of you. But you're lovely, you see."
"You're not taking advantage of me," she smiled, kissing the corner of his mouth. "Believe me, I'd tell you if you were." She nestled her head against his shoulder.
"I'd well believe it. That's what I like most about you; you're not afraid to tell me things, to set me right. Might I ask you something, Hermione?"
She paused a moment before answering. "Of course."
"I've been in here a long time, haven't I?"
She nodded. It was best not to give details.
"But you'll help me get out, won't you? Now that he's dead? It's just a matter of figuring out the spell. I could research it, now that I know. There must be something in one of these books that could help."
Hermione bit her lip. For a fleeting moment, she'd considered this as an option. "Perhaps we can find something. In the meantime, I could bring you something from out there, something to cheer you. What did you like to drink and eat best? Can you recall?" She had an idea that involved a subtle dosing of Veriteserum.
He chuckled, and he slid his free arm around her waist. "I've no idea. Surprise me? No, wait – I think I like lemon cake."
"Then I'll bring you some lemon cake," she said. "Tell me more of what you remember, anything, Tom. It might help."
They sat together on the floor in conversation, quite contentedly.
When Hermione wrenched herself free and finally left the diary (but not before a few more kisses), she found herself on a much less comfortable floor. She'd lost consciousness upon entering her office again, and the world was swimming once again. There was no doubt in her mind; the enchantment in the diary was damaging her.
The question was if Tom was a part of it. She meant to find out. If he'd been lying to her all along, she'd destroy the diary. If not…
If not, then she wasn't sure what she'd do.
An ever-growing crowd of paper plane memos hovered over her desk, proof of her dereliction of all other duties. Their rustling reminded her of dead leaves on a cold winter day. Her skin broke out in gooseflesh at the thought, and she jabbed her wand at them. They fell into a heap on the desk, where she left them without another care.
Once home, more correspondence confronted her: two vexed owls waiting to deliver messages and letters from the Muggle post slide through the door's mail slot. She took each parchment from the owls, not bothering to thank them.
One letter was from a former colleague, one from her Healer – she was long overdue for her annual appointment – and there was a letter from her parents. She scanned her parents' letter; they'd be on a cruise for her father's birthday this year, so she needn't try to come. Frowning, she folded it up and pushed it aside. She couldn't focus on anything at this point, aside from getting in bed.
On her nightstand was a picture of herself with Ron and Harry, back in sixth year right before everything went to hell. She stared at it, as she often did, once she climbed under the covers. If only Harry and Ron were still here. Things would be so different. For another… well, nothing was as she'd hoped it would be.
Her eyes fluttered close, and she tried to remember how Ron's kiss had felt.
Hermione owled in sick for two more days. She had to recover from the latest trip into the diary and, she assumed, such close contact with Tom. While in bed, sipping cup after cup of hot tea, she researched the matter at hand. Again. As before, she could find nothing in her references on Horcruxes to explain the anomaly within Voldemort's diary.
However, she did find an anti-vertigo potion to take the next time she descended into it. She also conjured up a slice of lemon cake and suffused it with Veritaserum.
When she arrived at her office, ready to try again, the first thing she noticed was a brand new swarm of paper airplanes rustling in wait for her. The second was her supervisor, Hector Praxton, sitting in the chair opposite her desk.
He stood upon hearing her enter. Hector was a weak-willed academic, if a skilled one. He had participated in the trials against Muggleborns but had been acquitted of any actual wrong-doing, proving he'd only done as ordered out of fear. Most of the Ministry employees had claimed the same. Even Dolores Umbridge had only served a year in Azkaban for her crimes. If only more of the Order had survived, if only Harry and she had had a chance to do something more to change things…
But they hadn't. After Harry's death, she'd been recruited to work in the Department of Mysteries, finishing up her final year and taking her N.E.W.T.s as she interned part-time. This was where they'd needed her most, or so she'd been convinced.
"Miss Granger, I've been trying to contact you for days," he said, rising to greet her. "I trust you're feeling better?"
"I'm fine," she said with a curt nod, and strode to her own desk chair. She grabbed a paper plane and began reading the memo. "I'm just a bit behind on my correspondence."
"Oh, yes, I see, well," he said, squirming in his chair, "that's actually what I wanted to speak with you about. You've seemed rather- distracted of late. I was wondering if there was anything wrong. Might you need an assistant to help with the workload?"
She took her time reading the second memo she'd unfolded, and the fixed the older man with a cold stare. "I'm fine. I've just been working on a project that requires a great deal of focus. Plus, my health has not been the best of late. I can assure you," she continued, "that you'll have a complete report on your desk, soon."
She wasn't sure what she was going to write about, come to think of it.
"Look, Miss Granger, I'll be frank." He leaned toward her, the whiskers on his chin waggling. He was the face of concern. "We're all worried about your- er, your dedication of late. I wonder if this latest- artifact should have remained secured. Perhaps it's time for a holiday? Or a change in focus? I know a young lady of your intellectual prowess needs challenges. We have many opportunities within the Department of Mysteries, or perhaps you'd even like a transfer to a different department."
Hermione stood and walked to her office door. Her smile was fierce. "Thank you, Director Praxton, for stopping by and checking in on me. I do appreciate your concern, but truly, I am fine. I see no need for any changes in my work environment."
As she knew he would, Praxton rose and scuttled to the door in response. "Please, Miss Granger, if you need anything, ask for it. You've done so much for us all, already. We owe it to you."
"I certainly shall," she managed to say.
She closed the door and leaned back against it, eyes closed. She could leave. She'd practically been given permission. Before the war had broken out in earnest, she'd wanted to work in the Department for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, to set things right for those who'd been under Wizarding dominance so long. The current regime, though, had not made such tasks easy. Remus had often said in the days after Harry's death that Kingsley Shacklebolt could have all made the difference as Minister, but he'd died in the final battle as well.
No. She had work here to do. Maybe after she figured out what to do with the diary and the man within it, but not until then. With that, she made for her desk, took out the flask of anti-vertigo potion from a robe pocket, and downed it. Then she escaped into the diary.
She steadied herself on the bookcase. The potion was working, but only just.
Tom stood, his back to her.
"Tom," she said, her voice hushed.
"I remember everything," he said, his voice flat. "Everything." She raised her wand as he turned to face her. "You knew, though, didn't you?"
"And yet you still come, even though you lose a little more of your life with each visit?"
"I faced you more than once. I'm not afraid of death at your hands."
He turned back around, facing the wall where an enchanted window might have existed once. "Lucky you. What the hell am I, then, Professor? I mean, Miss Granger." He hissed her name with a sneer. "The spell is disintegrating, and if I – if Voldemort is indeed dead, I can only assume the Horcrux within this diary has been broken."
"I don't know what you are, T- Riddle, but the Horcrux was destroyed ten years ago. You are- unique. I have to hand you that."
He looked over his shoulder at her, and for a flash, she saw the befuddled young man she'd befriended. He stalked to the desk, flung the chair out with a loud scrape, and sat down heavily.
"You've got the wand," he challenged. "You might as well get on with it. Unless I take it from you by force." He glared up at her.
"Try it," she said, and her voice was cool and calm. "You'll be incapacitated before you stand. Then I'll leave you here and destroy this ruddy diary of yours once and for all."
He said nothing for several moments, but instead dropped his eyes to stare at the wood of the desk. It seemed to be terribly fascinating.
Hermione did not move, nor did she put her wand down.
"I wouldn't, you know," he finally mumbled.
"What? Attack me for my wand? Seeing as you've committed murder a hundred times over, I think I shall not risk the possibility."
"I haven't. I've only-" he went quiet again. "Alright, I've done bad things, but I had only just begun when I created this diary. When I created- whatever it is that I am."
She said nothing in response. Silence stretched between them before he spoke again, frustration clearly present in his voice.
"How long has it been? You're not of my time, that much I can tell. Have I- has he been dead long?"
"It's been sixty years, as near as I can reckon it, since this diary was enchanted. I helped kill Voldemort four years ago."
"Sixty?" His brow furrowed deeper. "Sixty…" He didn't look up again for some time. He looked- well, he looked lost.
Hermione's brow furrowed in response. She'd talked to him for hours on end. She'd been helped by him when she was vulnerable. She'd kissed him, for Merlin's sake. And she'd liked every moment.
It was different now, wasn't it? He knew what he was.
She grudgingly admitted that he didn't look dangerous at the moment as he sat slumped in defeat. Admitting this didn't mean she was letting her wand down any more than her guard. She had no idea how to proceed, however, as she couldn't bring herself to destroy him out of hand.
"What are you waiting for?" Tom finally snarled. "Sixty years has been bloody well long enough. Do you know that I had every one of those bloody books memorized? Can you even imagine?" He stood now, striding towards her. "Trapped in a room for sixty bleeding years with nothing but the same books day-after-day and a pair of insipid children as my only correspondents."
"Those 'insipid children' were my friends."
"Oh? Well, hurrah for you." He stopped about a few feet from her, glowering.
"You've only yourself to blame for your fate," she scoffed.
"What are you doing, then? Toying with me? What have the last few weeks been about? Or has it been years? I'm still not- time is hard to judge here."
"Weeks," she said in a flat voice, remembering his arms around her, his lips upon hers. "And I have no bloody clue what the last few have been about."
His eyes slid sideways away from her face to stare at the floor, and silence fell between them once more. Hermione's arm was getting tired from pointing her wand, and her head ached miserably. She breathed a frustrated sigh.
"Put your wand down," he said quietly. He shoved his fists into his trouser pockets. "I'm not going to do anything more to hurt you more than what the spell's already doing. Why have you kept coming? Surely I haven't been that good of company, and if I'm- if he's dead, you can't gain anything from me."
She carefully lowered her wand, but she didn't put it away. "I got information from you. For a while, you also happened to be good company." She shrugged. "I have no reason to have compassion for you, nor should I."
"But you do."
She nodded, not meeting his eyes. "Merlin help me, I do."
He stepped closer, and she was reminded once more of his physical presence. Tall. Solid. Alive, or something so close as to be indistinguishable.
"I shouldn't feel anything towards you, either. I never wanted friends, mates, people to talk to. I was above that. But I've looked forward to your visits. I was hoping against hope you'd come again, and not mind who I was if I told you. So. I suppose we both have shameful secrets to tell."
He was close enough to touch now, though she didn't move a muscle to do so. It was he who reached for her, his cool hand that slipped into her warm one.
"Each time you come here, more of you becomes part of me. You'll either die as a result, or you'll have to destroy me. Or- or you could help me escape."
"I can't," she whispered in answer to all three possibilities. None of them could happen.
None of them.
He pounced upon her, pushing her back against the bookshelves as he embraced her. His lips crushed against hers; this kiss was anything but chaste. Her mouth opened to his and she threw her arm, with her wand still gripped in her hand, around his neck.
The kiss broke and they both gasped for air. Tom didn't let go. Instead, his arms tightened around her and he began kissing down her jaw line. "Please?" he breathed into her ear. "Please, Hermione? Save me. Save us both."
She pushed him away. "I can't. This is- this is wrong, and I shouldn't have let it happen."
"I can't be the same person I was. I want to live, Hermione. I want to learn everything I can about the world out there. I'm not as interested in what I wanted at age sixteen."
Hermione laughed. "You can't be serious. I'm not letting you loose upon the world again with only your word as promise."
"But- you- you have to," he said, as petulant as a spoiled child.
"No, I don't," she said, stepping backwards. "You cannot compel me, Voldemort."
He wrinkled his nose at the name. "Don't call me by that failure's name."
"You're going to have to make up more aliases at the rate you're going. You're running out of appropriate ones." she said. "I'm leaving. Goodbye."
She raised her wand. Before swirling out of the diary, Tom began hurling books off the shelf beside him in anger. He was not, she couldn't help notice, hurling them at her.
Once back in her office, Hermione picked up a quill as soon as she could do so. She wrote to Praxton, informing him that she would like to take advantage of his offer after all. Her leave of absence would begin immediately. When she returned, they would discuss her future placement.
She sat there, before charming the paper to fly off to its recipient, staring into the distance. Then she pointed her wand at the diary. Incendio would take care of all of her problems.
But would it really? The diary would be gone, along with Tom or Voldemort or whoever he was. But the emptiness in her life, the ache for what might have been, would still be there. Her isolation from all that mattered to her and her disaffection for how her life had turned out would still be there
If she went back into the diary, she knew she faced danger. However, she couldn't help but feel sure that she was the one with the power this time, and she could handle him. And perhaps, just perhaps, she could save them both.
Besides, she hadn't given him the slice of cake yet.
She tapped her note to Praxton, charming it into a plane that took off immediately. Then she slipped the diary into her purse and left her office.
Upon leaving the Ministry, she felt better already.
"Back for more taunting?" Tom didn't look up from the spot where he knelt. He was piecing pages back into the broken binding of a book on the floor.
There were books and ripped pages strewn all across the darkened room. "Had a right temper tantrum, did we?"
He said nothing in response, but his glower deepened.
She walked unsteadily to the desk, wand in her hand but not pointed in his direction. "I brought you something. Meant to give it to you last time, but, well," she trailed off, setting down the slice of lemon cake. "Oh, and I brought you a butter beer, as well." She pulled the bottle from her purse.
He glanced at her and then at the items on the desk and frowned in confusion. "You brought me treats? Why? Are they laced in Veritaserum or poison or something?"
She rolled her eyes. Of course he'd guess. "I promised I would. Remember?"
"You take a bite first, then."
With a huff, she grabbed up the fork and took a large bite of the cake, transfiguring the Veritaserum before it touched her lips. She wrinkled her nose. "It would be better if it were chocolate, but there. No poison. Come and eat. It's a peace offering."
He stood, watching her closely. "Why did you come back?"
"I've unfinished business," she replied with a shrug. Silly boy. If he thought she'd be foolish enough to let herself be questioned under Veritaserum, then this might work out after all.
He hesitated once more and then a very faint smile played about his lips. "I shouldn't have acted as I did. Last time."
"No, you shouldn't have. I trust it won't happen again."
He did not answer, but he nodded as he walked over to the desk. Sitting down, he took a bite of the cake and closed his eyes. "Oh. I'd forgotten how good sweets were."
She sat on the edge of the desk, her arms folded in triumph, and let him eat a few more bites before beginning.
"Why haven't you tried to take my wand?"
He blinked. "It would do me no good. It can't get me out of here." He blinked again. "You- the cake- damn you," he spluttered. "You were in Slytherin, weren't you?"
"Oh please, as if you wouldn't have done the same thing. No, you wouldn't have done, would you? You'd have just used Legilimency instead. Or the Cruciatus curse."
He nodded his head yes, and angrily forked another piece of cake into his mouth. Her lips twitched into a smile. She supposed he figured he might as well enjoy the cake at this point.
"For your information, I'm a Gryffindor. Are you Lord Voldemort?"
He scoffed. "I hope not."
"Why do you say that?"
"He failed. Besides, I've been on my own for a while now, if the Horcrux was destroyed as long ago as you say. It had been driving my actions. Now I am myself, whoever – or whatever – that is."
"If you could escape the spell, what would you do first?"
He ducked his head so she couldn't see his face. "Have a fine dinner. With you, if you'd go. And dancing, if you like that kind of thing."
"What?" she asked in surprise.
"You heard me. Dinner and dancing."
"Are you suppressing the Veritaserum?" Her mouth was agape.
"No, I can't. I've no wand, remember?"
"Why do you want to go to dinner with me? You don't- you can't like me, can you?"
He glared up at her. "I think I might, despite my deep desire at the moment not to like you at all. I don't know. I can't describe how I feel about you. You vex me, and I want to use you to get what I want, but I want to be with you when you're not here. It's bloody annoying."
She shook her head in bafflement.
"Well, go on," he said, finishing the cake. "Continue this most bizarre of interrogations."
"Alright. After dinner, what would you do then? In general, not in specifics."
"You mean, will I take over the world straight away? No. I should like to see it, though. I want to go to the magical bazaar of Alexandria and the Wizarding museums of Amsterdam. I want to see every place I've read about in these books over the decades. I want to walk under the stars of Scotland again, and feel grass under my feet. I want to feel the heat of the desert and the cold of the Alps. I want to live, Hermione, and be. I should like for you to be with me as I do. You can show me this new world. I've had seventy-six years of isolation; I think that's enough."
She slid closer to him and tipped his chin up to look into his eyes. "If I help you get out, will you hurt me? Physically, mentally, or spiritually?"
He met her eyes without hesitation. "No. I should try to never let that happen."
"You'd owe me your life, as well. That's no simple debt." She knew from her research that Voldemort had always been bound by his own code of twisted honor. Perhaps now it was not as twisted.
He shook his head in agreement. "I know. I would be very much in your debt."
She dropped her hand from his chin. "But the thing is, I'm not sure I know how to do such a thing. I mean, I can try, but my research hasn't exactly been turning up insight into this situation."
Silently, he opened a drawer, triggered a hidden switch, and withdrew a small book from its hiding place. He handed it to her.
When she touched it, she couldn't repress a shudder. The book was bound in cracked leather the color of dried blood. She knew this to be a book of the Darkest of origins.
"This will tell you how. I can't do it alone. I need you, but Hermione, I'm not using you. Not like I could."
She stared at the book a moment longer, and as she did, she made her decision. It might be the wrong one, but she didn't care any longer. This was something over which she had power. He needed her. She could save him, and she could make this right.
"If you try to hurt me, or anyone or anything I care about, I'll destroy you," she said quietly.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said without a hint of sarcasm. She closed the gap between them and leaned down to kiss him. His arms went around her waist and soon she was in his lap, being kissed in a way she'd only ever dreamed about before.
The book was nefarious indeed. It was hard for Hermione to even read it, at first, but once she got used to feeling her flesh crawl, it got easier. Soon it almost became pleasurable. Dark magic was addictive; she knew this. She could stop whenever she liked, though. This was merely a project that she'd complete and then she'd move on.
A potion and a ritual, performed once it was ready, were required to bring Tom – they'd settled on sticking with this name after an afternoon of trying on other monikers and finding none that fit - from his enchanted state into her real world. The potion would be tricky to brew and would take a lunar cycle to finish. She was very pleased to learn that her blood, freely given, would be the key component of the potion. Blood magic was the most powerful, after all. Hers would be all the more powerful to bind him to her, because she was doing this for all the right reasons.
She stayed within the diary, as leaving it hurt her more and more each time. She ventured out every few days for the potions ingredients they needed and for food. This confinement wasn't a problem, as they had found ways to keep busy, very pleasurable ways indeed. She'd transfigured the desk into a bed, and they spent much of their time under the silken sheets.
Hermione had only had a couple of lovers, and neither of them had been anything like Tom.
Even though the sex was brilliant, and he seemed more and more fond of her with each passing day, she had second thoughts. Whenever she thought of Harry or Ron, doubt consumed her. What they'd think if they knew she writhed in pleasure at the hands of their old enemy, she couldn't face.
One morning, as the potion bubbled steadily in the corner of the room, she'd awoken from a dream of her best friends to Tom's insistent kisses. Passion blossomed within her as his hands stroked her in just the right ways. He smiled sweetly at her and kissed her nose. "Thought you'd never wake up," he murmured, slipping one long finger between her legs. She was already slick with desire.
She gasped in pleasure and her hips arched into his hand. "I'm awake now," she said, trying to banish the past from her present.
He grinned wickedly, and began kissing his way down her body until his head nestled between her legs. His lips and tongue vibrated over her sensitive skin as he whispered against her in Parseltongue. He knew she loved this, and he knew he was the only one who could ever make her feel this way. This knowledge combined with the wistfulness of her dream and her resurfaced guilt made her heart sink even as she bucked against his mouth with a cry. Her orgasm washed over hers even as sobs welled up within her chest and escaped.
Tom sat up, alarmed. "Did I hurt you?"
She covered her face. "No. Not yet. But you will. Oh, Merlin help me, what am I doing?"
"You're saving me," he whispered, and he reached out to stroke her hair.
"I'm setting you loose, you mean," she said, "and once you're out you'll do as you will."
"We've discussed this before, you know," he said with a sigh. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're evil, Tom. Of course you will."
He slid down to recline beside her, his hands not leaving her flesh. "Maybe I am. But I'm not him. Not any longer. Dinner and dancing, Hermione, and then we see the world, just as I promised. What we do after we'll figure out then."
"Do you want to rule the world? Do you want to stamp out the Muggleborns? Do you want to vanquish death?"
"You forgot the dosed cake, dear, with your latest interrogation. I'll answer you truthfully, though. I want power and control. I want to be above all others. How I do that and why I do it; that matters much less this time round. Who knows, maybe I'll even go about it properly. I could still be the youngest-looking Minister of Magic ever."
He kissed her. She let him.
"What's brought this up again? The fact that we're getting closer to the actual event?"
"I suppose," she admitted. "I just- I don't- everything's turned out so badly. What if this does, too? What if I live to regret it?"
"What if you let me help you make everything right again? That's what you want, isn't it? To make things right for the house-elves and the werewolves and all those oppressed creatures? You want to be just and fair, and make sure everyone can hold their heads high. I can make that happen. You and I, we're incredibly powerful. Together we can shape the world into any form we wish."
When he talked to her like this, his eyes lit up. He was even more beautiful when he was promising her the world. They could do good; she could counterbalance his evil nature. If she didn't entirely trust him, she didn't think he was lying either. "Alright."
He cupped her face. "Hermione? I can't tell you that I love you, because I don't know what that means, really. But I can tell you this; you mean a great deal to me. I owe you my life. You'll not regret this, I promise."
She nodded her head and closed her eyes. "I believe you."
The time finally came. The potion coalesced and turned black as obsidian. She and Tom stood across from each other, hair mussed and color high from feverishly making love right before time. He looked uncertain for the first time; there was no guarantee this would work, after all.
She squeezed his hand. "It's time."
He nodded and they unclasped hands. He offered his to her, palm up and she slashed it with the silver knife, before slashing her own. Her blood poured into the cauldron as she spoke the necessary words. His beaded out in black drops, slowly dripping into the potion to mingle with hers.
When she finished the ritual, the potion was fiery red. It bubbled viciously as they poured it into the specially prepared goblet. Tom began drinking, and as he did so, wind rose in the room. Hermione covered her eyes as it picked up into a maelstrom around them, flinging books, quills, and parchment into the swirling air.
Then everything went bright red in a silent explosion.
When she awoke, she was too sick to open her eyes. The vertigo and weakness she always felt upon leaving the diary was upon her tenfold. She heard an odd rustling and smelled burnt parchment. What had happened? Had it worked?
She couldn't lift her head, but she managed to open her eyes. She was on the floor of her sitting room, and there were burning scraps of paper fluttering down all around her. It was night, and in the moonlight, Tom stood stock still, naked, his skin white as marble.
"Tom?" Her voice sounded as broken as she felt.
He turned to her. His eyes were cold and black. He reached down, picking up her wand from where it had rolled from her. In a moment, he was clothed, and he was smiling an awful smile.
No. No, please… what have I done? I thought- She closed her eyes against her despair. She'd been tricked. She'd never been in control of this situation, and now she would pay.
She was dimly aware of his footsteps coming closer, but she wouldn't look at him. Tears slid down her face.
Tom knelt beside her and then she felt magic raise her body gently from the floor. His arms reached for her.
"Dinner and dancing and then the world, just as I promised, Hermione," he said as he stood again, bringing her with him. "But first I think we need to get you to St. Mungo's. It's still in the old department store, yes?"
She nodded weakly, listening to his heart beat strongly within his chest. He kissed her forehead and as she felt the telltale squeeze of Disapparation, she smiled with relief.
Together they would shape this world. They would make things right.