Having a secure living arrangement, being fed well-rounded meals, and having a much wider store of information at her fingertips did wonders for Hermione's outlook. She hadn't even started to peruse the restricted section yet: there were plenty of books open to everyone that had theories on time travel. She checked out most of them, taking them back to her office to study. It was a bit of a departure from tradition for her, but vague paranoia had begun to eat away at her thoughts. When the students arrived, one student in particular, she wanted to be in the habit of doing her research in a place that wasn't so easily disturbed. However much Hermione wanted to throw herself completely into her work, though, reality had to be attended to as well. Realizing that she had another top priority to add to her list, Hermione had grudgingly begun to budget her time very carefully. The first thing on her list was to memorize the new identity Dumbledore had crafted for her.
It wasn't too difficult; he had questioned her about her years of schooling, her family life, and a few other things. A lie based off of truth is that much stronger, and the end result of their efforts was such a solid composition that Hermione could probably have applied for a job at the Ministry without concern. She was a muggleborn who had decided not to attend school and had opted for a private tutor instead. Her academic records were the same ones she had achieved in her own time: even though she was still slightly ashamed of the few 'E's she had received on her OWLs and NEWTs, Hermione had felt it was best to be honest about it. She was studying under Professor Dumbledore to become a teacher and would be assisting several of the other Professors as well.
The other teachers seemed to like her well enough. Professor Slughorn especially, once he got a look at the paperwork on her academic achievements. It was a little strange thinking about her 'job,' one which put her in a curious position of being almost-but-not-quite on the same level as the professors of the school. She even had her own office, which made her want to laugh for some reason. It was small, as Dumbledore had said, consisting of a front room with a desk, a bookshelf and a few chairs and a back room just big enough for her bed and a wardrobe, but it suited her well enough. Being used to her country home the place felt a little cramped at first, but and at least she had windows, which helped it to feel roomier than it was, and there was no rule that said she had to stay in her office. The books she borrowed from the library soon filled her shelf up. The desk, while carefully and neatly organized, already had the look of frequent use.
Hermione's dreams, strangely enough, were untroubled. Considering the tumult of the past few days and the unpleasant shocks, she should be barely getting any sleep at night. But no, the dreams had to pick now to quit. So, once Hermione finally managed to drift off each night her dreams were untroubled. But she was still certain that something about that strange light was familiar to her. Her mind kept coming back to it, as if something in her subconscious insisted that that it was a clue of some sort. Of course, suspecting it was a clue did nothing whatsoever to help her.
Wrapped up in her thoughts, Hermione was distracted from the events going on behind her. When she finally became aware, it was almost too late. There was a moment of gut-wrenching horror as Hermione turned her head, seeing the leather bound book fall as if in slow motion, its cover flipping open, its pages flapping. Startled, forgetting completely that she was a witch and could have used her wand to stop the book, Hermione threw herself bodily from her desk chair and leapt to catch it. She succeeded, though not without scrunching up the carpet and giving her chin, stomach and elbows a good friction burn on the stone floor. She let out her breath in a great whoosh of relief and slowly got to her feet.
"Really, is this necessary?" Hermione asked in exasperation, growing tired of repeatedly catching the books that belonged on her shelf. They were all library books, which meant that she was doubly careful with them. None had fallen in the past half hour, and she had been lulled into a false sense of security. Tapping her foot in an unconscious expression of great irritation, Hermione glared up at the source of her troubles, which stared evenly and quite serenely back at her. "You do realize that bent pages, warped bindings, torn covers and the like will not endear me to Mr. Deumont?" Mr. Deumont was the librarian; an improvement on Madame Pince without question, but still rather strict. Hermione's voice cracked with frustration, and she made a dismissive gesture with her hand before setting the book down on her desk. Carefully watching out of the corner of her eye, on the alert now, she remembered her wand the next time a book fell.
Wingardium Leviosa! Hermione thought, flicking her wand, almost bored, catching and levitating the book to join its companion. She frowned up into the face of her new cat, and could have sworn that he was laughing at her. "One more book, mister!" The cat waved his tail back and forth slowly, before rolling over onto his back and allowing his head to fall over the side of the shelf. Ordinarily, the animal's large size would have prevented him from having enough space to do so, but by now he had displaced enough books to have a decent amount of room. Almost absently, his hind foot gently pushed yet another book off into space. For the second time inside of thirty seconds Hermione cast a hover charm to rescue a book. This time, however, when she set it down, she wasted no time talking to the cat: she stormed over, lifted him up underneath his two front legs, no easy task considering he was more than thirty pounds, and bodily removed him from the shelf. Quite unconcerned, the troublesome feline purred an odd triple-toned purr as she transferred him to the floor, where he wound around and around her ankles.
Not for the first time, Hermione wondered what on earth she had been thinking when she adopted the stupid thing. Very kindly, Dumbledore had arranged for an advance on her first paycheck. Aside from buying the supplies Hermione knew that she would need for the job she now had, she had also reluctantly taken Dumbledore up on his offer to put her in touch with his contact that bred cats. She had gone with him to visit the man. At first, Hermione hadn't been too keen on the idea. Thoughts of Crookshanks and worry about being able to take the cat with her if she found her way home prompted her to keep a fair distance between herself and the felines for sale. Still, it was a tempting offer. One cat in particular had seemed unduly interested in her.
He was a large cat, but beautiful in Hermione's opinion, even without the slenderness most felines had: he was more stocky than usual, built a bit like a bulldog with a barrel chest and thick, muscular legs. Grey and white, the animal had long, lustrous fur that reminded her painfully of her ginger cat. He did not approach her, but sat three feet or so away and simply stared up at her face, his head tilted to one side and his long tail slowly sweeping across the floor in a thoughtful way. When she noticed him Hermione was slightly unnerved by the level of intelligence in his yellow eyes - as well as the intensity of his scrutiny. A few minutes afterward, however, he had walked straight to her and begun twining sinuously around her legs: his head almost touched her knees. Shocking herself, Hermione had taken a liking to him. There was something about his actions, almost like sympathy and understanding, which drew her to him as he had seemed drawn to her. Hesitantly, Hermione had bought him.
She hadn't known at the time what she was getting herself into. That was three days before the start of the bookshelf incident. Presently, he still had no name. Hermione hadn't been able to think of anything that described him well enough. Added to which, he had slowly become so annoying that it was just easiest to yell "Cat!" when he pulled one of his stunts. She was slightly afraid the name would stick, but it was just so useful to have a one syllable word to get his attention, and he did respond to it… sometimes… when he felt like it. Hermione ground her teeth.
Having finished trying to knock her off of her feet, the cat leapt lightly to the top of her desk, gathered his bulky muscles beneath him, and once again jumped to the top of the bookshelf. He also knocked off three books in the process, with what seemed like premeditated delight to Hermione. She was growing very tired of playing this 'game.'
"What is it with you?!" She demanded, placing her hands on her hips after rescuing the books. "Is it the shelf? Or do you just enjoy watching me make them float?" He perked his tufted ears at her, tilting his head to one side and observing her actions with that curiously aware look that had first drawn her in. Very slowly, maintaining eye contact the whole time, he stretched his body out as far as it would go: knocking books off of both ends as he did so. Almost yelling in frustration, Hermione prepared to lift him down once again. This time he swatted at her hand with his paw, and quite deliberately head butted the last book standing off of the shelf.
Hermione did yell, that time.
"How many times do I have to say it? You," She pointed at the cat, "Belong down here," she pointed at the floor. The cat hissed at her, and when she made to pick him up swatted at her hand a second time: with his claws slightly extended.
Professor Slughorn, passing by Hermione's office on the way to the Great Hall for breakfast, was quite surprised to hear a very noisy stream of offensive names coming from the room.
Tom Riddle leaned his head against his fist, looking out of his window at the scenery passing by. The lanterns sliding past the window cast an almost eerie pallor over his face that made his eyes flash and his cheekbones stand out in sharp relief. Other than swaying occasionally as the train hit a bump or rounded a curve he was absolutely still - he did not even blink. The other Slytherins in his compartment were used to his silences and carried on as usual - swapping stories from over the summer and discussing upcoming Quidditch matches. Still, there was a subtle current of attentiveness than ran through all of them: it was clear that if Riddle so much as twitched his index finger they would leap to attention. Despite this, Riddle did not take the slightest notice of them at all.
It was impossible to tell his thoughts as they pulled into Hogsmeade station, but there was a brooding quality to him that deterred any comments directed his way. Shouldering his bag, Riddle straightened up and, maintaining perfect posture, swept from the compartment. There was no shift in his features, no discernable changes in the angle of his eyebrows or the set of his chin, but his manner became much more innocent. The moment his feet carried him out into the corridor on the Hogwarts Express he lost that forbidding, almost dangerous, aura that had swirled around him in the compartment. He was only Tom Riddle: Head Boy, model pupil, polite, courteous, thoughtful, and brilliant.
Why ever would you think any different?
Stepping lightly down to the platform, Lestrange, Malfoy and Black trailing behind him like wingmen, Riddle glanced up and down the train station. The usual chaotic mess of students swarmed all over the place, but when he set off for the carriages they parted before him like the red sea before Moses. Ignoring the clear, carrying call of "First years, follow me, now!" Riddle chose a carriage and swept inside, still keeping silent, ignoring the skeletal Thestral pulling the carriage.
"I'm telling you, they've got no chance! Dumbledore made McGonagall captain. I mean, really," Black brushed his hair out of his eyes, a smirk on his face, "I always knew they took players on a sympathy basis, but a girl for a captain?" He laughed derisively, "They must be desperate!"
"McGonagall hardly counts as a girl. I swear she's hiding something beneath those skirts."
"Still, there's no contest. We'll flatten them, even if we lost Rosier last year."
"We'll need good luck replacing him. He was a genius on a broom."
Refraining from rolling his eyes, Riddle crossed his legs elegantly and once again returned to staring out the window. He could see the outline of the castle on the horizon ahead, but the joy of his return was marred by a bitterness that made his lip curl. All his hard work, all his careful planning, all of it… wasted. Mudbloods still fouled the air of his beloved domain with their presence, the great serpent that was his legacy slept again: his only accomplishment was not to have been caught. Thanks to that meddling old fool of a transfiguration teacher he hadn't even been able to stay for his final summer, which had been the whole reason for his calling off the avenging Basilisk.
One day, he mused, raising one long fingered hand and stroking his index finger across his chin, one day he would return, not as a student but as a master. The unworthy would be purged and the purity of the school would be restored. Malfoy turned to Riddle, his mouth open, looking as if he wanted to say something - perhaps more speculation about Quidditch. Upon catching sight of Riddle's face, however, his words died in his throat. Slightly flushed, Malfoy seemed to flail around before coughing and turning away again. Riddle did not deign to notice his moment of uncertainty, and merely continued his musings.
The major concern of most of his fellow seventh years was not the major concern of Tom Riddle: NEWT scores, however much weight the rest of the world placed on them, meant little to him. He was perfectly secure in the knowledge of his capabilities, he knew his strength and how to control it: knew how to breath the merest whisper of power into a dust mote and alter its course in the air, he knew how to send an explosive force capable of crushing stone from the tip of his wand with the merest flick of his wrist. He knew what it was to hold ultimate power in his hands, power to give or take the life of another, and… his index finger slowly caressed the ring on his hand, he knew now what paths he must take upon leaving the school. All this nonsense about career advice and test scores, he snorted very softly, was only a necessary charade. Lord Voldemort needed no one's guidance; he was made to lead not to follow. And he would… soon…
Soon… He was patient. For now, he would wait… and plan.
"He does seem quite attached to you, Miss Granger," Dumbledore commented over his glass that evening at dinner. The cat was lounging at her feet, woven in and out of the legs of her chair and apparently asleep. She could hear his odd purr even from a distance. A noncommittal "humph" was her only response: the claw marks on her hand stung just enough to be thoroughly annoying, but not nearly enough to bother seeing a healer about. Dumbledore chuckled softly before letting the matter drop and returning to his dinner.
The great hall was buzzing with activity, full of students once again. It was an interesting experience for Hermione, being up at the staff table rather than down with the students. She was between Dumbledore and Professor Merrythought, the Defense against the Dark Arts teacher. The woman was obviously old, but she seemed to have the tough quality of seasoned leather rather than the frailness of age. On the few occasions that she and Hermione had spoken directly to one another Hermione got the impression that this woman was simply very, very tired. If the visible scars and pronounced limp the teacher wore were anything to go by, the woman had good reason to seek a quiet retirement. She was like a female version of Mad-Eye Moody. Well, unlike Moody, Professor Merrythought would likely be able to enjoy a good few years of her retirement; she didn't look nearly as feeble as some witches and wizards Hermione had met. Remembering the OWL and NEWT examiners, Hermione cringed. She'd have someone put her out of her misery before she got that old. There was living a long healthy life, and then there was clinging on until you lost all of your faculties. Shuddering at the thought, Hermione determinedly returned to her pork chops.
She very carefully did not look at the Slytherin table all through the start of term feast, and did her best to ignore the curious glances thrown her way from the student body. As she was easily the youngest at the staff table, and as there were no staffing positions open, it was only to be expected and she was determined not to show how nervous and fidgety it made her feel. Still being young enough to feel slightly out of place talking to staff members as if they were her equals, Hermione kept her eyes down and focused on not bumping anyone's elbow or spilling something by accident.
When the golden plates cleared she looked up and, sure enough, Professor Dippet was standing. He was not as tall as Dumbledore, and he certainly didn't have the same gift for commanding attention without effort. Tapping a glass with his fork, he waited until the hall had fallen silent. Hermione felt obliged to give him her full attention, though his welcome back speech was not exactly interesting: it sounded as if he'd simply memorized it all. On the whole, it was rather like the speech Umbridge had given; delivered without conviction and wit a sense of getting things over with.
"To our returning students, welcome back. To our new first years, welcome to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I trust that those of you familiar with the school will aide our newcomers as they find their feet." Absently, Hermione noticed a few eye rolls from older students and she couldn't help smiling slightly. "Please take note that a list of banned items may be found on the door of our caretaker, Mr. Pringle's, office." Professor Dippet waved an airy hand at the man who was standing by the doors into the hall. "First years, please also take note that you are not allowed brooms, and that the forbidden forest is off limits to all students. Third years wishing to be allowed trips into Hogsmeade should turn in their permission slips to their heads of house."
Hermione had a vague feeling that the man might slip something into his speech about her, and couldn't stop a small grimace from flashing across her face when she was proven right. "You may also notice," Dippet said, waving in Hermione's direction, "That there is another newcomer to the school. I am pleased to introduce Miss Hermione Granger, who will be interning under Professor Dumbledore this year. I expect each of you to give her the respect you would any member of my staff." There was a brief burst of polite applause, and Hermione raised one of her hands to about eye level in what she hoped was a polite salute. It was with relief that she heard Dippet finish. "Off you go, now. Lessons start tomorrow." With the usual ear-splitting sound of benches scraping across wood, everyone stood and began filing from the Great Hall.
Hermione remained seated for a while, running her finger thoughtfully around the rim of her glass. Cat leapt lightly onto her lap before clawing his way up to her shoulders and draping himself across them, leaning his head into the curve of her neck and purring so that her teeth clacked. It was an almost uncomfortable weight, but Hermione was in the mood to be grateful for the sentiment behind it. She absently raised a hand to stroke him, watching the prefects herding along the first years toward their new dormitories.
You really shouldn't, she told herself, and yet, despite this solid and sane advice, Hermione gave into temptation and let her eyes sweep across the hall. Plenty of students had black hair, so it was hard to pick one out that might fit the description she knew. When the last of them had gone, Hermione could only assume she had missed him. Well, when classes started up she could indulge her morbid curiosity further. Indeed, she'd have little choice then. For now, it was time to head up to her office. She wanted to look over a few more books before going to bed.
She stood up, but Cat showed no inclination to get down. Bizarrely, his weight on her shoulders comforted rather than annoyed her, so she allowed him to stay where he was. Not paying much attention to where she was going, Hermione let her thoughts wander on the way out of the hall. A hiss in her ear was her only warning before she rounded a corner and bumped into something soft and warm. A peculiar scent briefly graced her nose before she stumbled back; it was like leather binding, potion fumes, and something else she couldn't quite pin down mixed together into one. Wood shavings? No… something else. Then she was looking up into grey eyes and blinking rapidly in surprise. Her apology died somewhere behind her lips as her eyes slid over the high cheekbones, pale skin and dark, slightly wavy hair that framed the face before her. There was a flash of annoyance, but it was replaced so quickly by concern that she doubted she'd seen it at all.
"I beg your pardon," The young man said, concern evident in his voice. "I should have been paying closer attention. Are you hurt?"
Hermione's eyes flicked down to his chest where, sure enough, a bright silver and green Head-Boy badge shone in the torchlight.
"No," she heard herself saying, "I'm not hurt." Claws flexed into her shoulder, and she winced slightly. Stupid Cat. "I'm sorry. I'm the one who wasn't watching where I was heading." Hermione couldn't be sure, but she thought the he was about to say something else, so she quickly continued before he could, "Excuse me, please." She stepped around him quickly, and he graciously edged out of her way. Hermione did not turn back to look a second time. Cat, however, craned his neck around and stared at Riddle with narrowed eyes for as long as he could.
Tom Riddle watched her go with slightly lowered eyelids. His expression was blank but the tilt of his head indicated a mild interest. When she turned the corner, however, he continued off on his own route.
Not much going on this chapter, and the Bug is not pleased with the length, but some important forshadowing was wormed in. Thanks to those of you who reviewed, favorited and alerted. You all get Valentine's candy: I bought it on sale, so I could afford more. ^^