This picks up where Chapter 32 left off.
(I've finished Editing Pass #1, so the new ending is up over there. If you're curious, check it out.)
Ron Weasley put his arms around his sister. They'd lost so much. A brother. Two brothers – Fred and Harry. His best friend since the day they'd met. And Ginny seemed utterly lost without the presence of the headstrong green-eyed boy. It was worse for her than it had been those empty seven months, because now she knew that he was dead. She had seen it happen.
Harry had been so confident that he could do it.
If Voldemort was going to die anyway... couldn't the world have left Harry to them? Left Harry alive?
Ron had no doubt that it wasn't fair, but right then, standing in the Kitchens, numbed by shock, all he could feel was a massive wave of relief rolling over him. It rolled out the tension in every inch of him, and he was hugging his sister and kissing his mother and crying and everyone in sight was unified in sheer joy. Just for that second, the loss of Harry Potter was overshadowed.
Professor McGonagall was doing something to the wards she'd set up at the portrait hole. The Fortinbras' Membrane was folding down on itself until it vanished with a tiny pop, and the other wards sucked themselves away with swishing noises, and as McGonagall opened the portrait wide onto the deserted hallway, it hit them all again – it was over.
Lord Voldemort was dead.
Ron raised his fist and found himself yelling in victory, and suddenly a chorus of yells joined him, joyous yells, and they spilled out into the hallway and ran up to the Entrance Hall.
Most of the Death Eaters were running out of the great doors in the Entrance Hall, which flew open with a bang. Glorious light cascaded in from the heavens in long, mist-illuminated rays. Ron squinted. He hadn't seen light like that in a long time – and the dark figures fleeing down the lawn were being pursued by Kingsley Shacklebolt, by McGonagall, by his mother.
Ron found his mouth spreading wide in a smile as he looked up at the sky. This is for you, mate. This was for Harry Potter.
Ron turned and it was like the breath was knocked out of him.
Descending the sweeping staircase was a very thin, tall man, whose last patches of red hair had lost their violent color. He looked more tired than Ron had ever seen him.
"Dad," Ron said quietly. Next to him, Ginny and Bill turned around, and Ginny grabbed George by the shoulder. Percy was the last to turn, his stern face losing all its jaded cynicism as he saw his father coming down the steps.
They sprinted up the stairs and closed their father in the tightest hug they had ever given anyone, and the only thing missing was Mrs. Weasley, who was still running down the lawn, incapacitating Death Eater after Death Eater.
And they cried for Harry and they cried for themselves. "It's over," said Percy, and he was just realizing it. "It's over."
Hermione lifted him by herself. She carried him out into the deserted Kitchens, which were hushed in the aftermath of the happy cheers, and laid his lifeless body on a table.
She looked up at the broken windows. The grey sky glimmered through the gaps in the grime-covered glass, and the cheerless color somehow reinforced the leaden weight inside her.
I have no doubt, Hermione, that you shall move on. She closed her eyes.
Then, a jolt of utter terror. Hermione gripped the edge of the table and wondered why she suddenly felt so afraid. It hurt, the sudden, pervasive fear. Fear at a life without him? Fear at herself without him?
Herself without him. Yes, that was the phrase she'd been hunting for, the one that made her feel like she was going to throw up. Satisfaction, then, pooled in her stomach, and Hermione pressed the heels of her hands onto her closed eyes, trying to massage away the tears. What could satisfy about this? What could satisfy about a wrongfully slain love on a bright spring day? It was over. Everything was finally over – but Hermione couldn't focus on anything more besides this being over.
It had been perhaps fifteen minutes. He was cool to the touch, now. His eyes were still clear, like liquid chocolate, but there was nothing behind them.
As she examined his still features, Hermione felt another burst of emotion – love. It was the first that actually made sense, the tenderness that swelled inside her all of a sudden as she surveyed his expression, the expression he'd died with. Blank. Blank, like he'd been forced to live his whole life. But she'd seen that tiny smile at the edge of his lips before he'd said the words, before every muscle in his body had gone lax. She'd seen the love in his eyes, the knowledge that this was a rational decision, the right thing to do.
But wrong. So wrong.
Hermione kept stroking the back of his hand with her thumb. Tom Marvolo Riddle, the most enigmatic person she'd ever known, or, surely, would ever know.
It was strange to think of the little things. He couldn't breathe in anymore. The air in his lungs was closed and stale and would live there until he rotted. He couldn't think, either. That brain inside his skull was nothing more than tissue. These hands, these perfectly tapering fingers, could never hold anything again. The muscles of his arms could never contract as he lifted a book to hand it to her. His right eyebrow would never lift itself questioningly again. Those sculpted lips could never quiver in derisive laughter, could never smirk, could never part and spill the words she wanted to hear. Or words she didn't want to hear. There was nothing behind this handsome face – not anymore. It was just a face, now. It was not Tom Riddle. Guilt filled her. Massive guilt. Remorse, even, and as sudden and as twisting as the emotion was, it made sense to her. How could I have let him kill himself?
How could I have done this to him?
Hermione was on the very edge of the bench, and suddenly her hand leapt to her stomach, and she toppled over the edge and was kneeling on the ground, her innards twisting in pain. Why?
One of her hands grappled with her frizzy hair. Get it together, Hermione Granger. She sucked in a deep breath and tried to force back the pain, which was radiating out from the very center of her body. She didn't understand, and that, for Hermione, was terrible. Could a broken heart do this to her? She hadn't felt it before. It was nothing she'd ever felt before. It was the uncomfortable yank of a Portkey, multiplied a thousand times – and then it was gone.
Hermione stood slowly, closing her eyes, taking a deep, shaking, painful breath that cut to the bottom of her lungs and spiked back those hot inconsistent tears. She cast one last glance at the prone figure on the table. No more of this insanity. Tom Riddle was dead, and the earlier she managed to accept it, the better it would be for her, surely.
Though God knew it hadn't really hit her yet.
She left him lying there on the table, feeling like she was leaving part of herself there with him, and walked out of the Kitchens, leaving the portrait hole open.
As she walked slowly through the hallways, she could hear echoes of cheering, of joy, resounding around the stone walls. It made her just a little sick, but a faint smile made its way onto her lips nonetheless, as if she were trying to fool anyone who might have been watching. She walked up a set of stairs and found herself in the Entrance Hall. The Grand Staircase glowed self-conscious in that new light through the doors, the light that practically blinded her.
Everyone else had left the building. Everyone was walking down the lawn, or was descending those steps leading up to the doors. There were people leaving that Hermione hadn't seen – people they hadn't managed to coax out of hiding. They were all going out into that world. A world free from the Dark Lord.
She leaned backwards against the staircase's rail and sat down, another entirely unprompted feeling coursing through her – joy.
It grew and grew until she thought she might burst, but the other half of her heart was so heavy that it weighed her down. She was so happy, but so depressed, and that torn feeling made her start to cry, and she wasn't sure whether it was in joy or in misery. Why can't I just deal with one thing at a time?
She stood up, anger and frustration adding themselves to her swirl of emotion. She shouldn't have been feeling happy. But then – then again – she shouldn't have been feeling so dejected, either. She was free. They all were.
Hermione stalked her way over to that doorway, but she couldn't go through, because her hand found the doorframe. That huge, wooden post, surely a whole tree. That same one she'd leaned against as he'd approached her. Hermione's face contorted in pain, and she trailed one finger down the wood. This archway, where they'd spoken late into the night, where he'd said that he'd like to get to know her better, where he'd been so absolutely shocked when she'd dared to call his bluff.
Hermione's eyes lowered themselves to the ground, and she leaned her forehead against the wood as she recalled every moment they'd had. Every moment she could desperately draw upon to stave off her anguish.
That unbidden joy within her grew into elation, and simultaneously the depression sank down into the very deepest trench of utter misery.
This building, sacred to Tom Riddle, Jr., housed his memory now. Housed his... his corpse. Hermione swallowed. How had he felt when he'd done his first charm with a wand? How had he felt brewing his first potion? Such unbelievable talent, rivaled only by Albus Dumbledore... gone... I will miss everything about you so much – your arrogance, your intellect, your kiss, your smile, your honor... She composed the eulogy inside her head for the funeral she knew he would never receive. Only when she was able to force herself back down to the Kitchens to retrieve his body would he even be buried, probably. There was no respect for him, although Hermione fully intended to tell everyone the sacrifice he'd made – the sacrifice that had proved beyond shadow of a doubt that he'd loved her more than he'd loved himself.
Tell them I loved you more than I loved myself.
Eyes still shut, Hermione tilted her head and faced back the way she'd come. These halls of Hogwarts, so familiar, so dreaded, so loved. Could they ever look the same to her again?
She wondered what she'd see when she opened her eyes. Would she see the place of her nightmares? Would she see an imagined glimmer of the in-between world, in all its perfection? Would she see the place of arching wonder that she'd seen her first time setting foot inside Hogwarts? The identity of the school had undergone so much twisted transformation, and the cool dark red inside her eyelids shielded her from whatever she might think.
Hermione opened her eyes, but she couldn't focus on the dusty, dimly-lit hallway in front of her for just what it was. Painfully strong emotion rushed into her.
She gasped for air for a half a second. Her face twisted up.
Twenty Minutes Earlier
It was so dark. Everything was so dark, and Tom Riddle reached out with one pale hand in the darkness. Where am I?
Where was he, really? This couldn't be death. Death couldn't be an eternity of this. This was an in-between, not a final destination.
Why did his insides hurt so damn much?
Tom suddenly felt afraid. So afraid. What if this really was it? What if this was everything? What if death was just this black void, this nothing, for all time, forever? Panic surged in him, fear, terror. He had left Hermione for this?
He took a deep breath and calmed himself. No. No; this couldn't be death. This was like that realm that he and Hermione had passed through when returning to Earth.
But he was supposed to be dead. What the hell was this? There was no cure for an Avada Kedavra, and if his soul was so deplorably unstable, shouldn't he at least have ended up in... in Limbo...
Tom's quick mind found another possibility.
Hermione had told him about Harry. When you killed his mother, you made a Horcrux by accident, because your soul was in such terrible shape.
An accidental Horcrux. A spark of hope.
He'd killed himself. He'd cast Avada Kedavra on himself, which was a murder. The murder of Tom Marvolo Riddle, and that explosion he'd felt inside... could it have embedded a part of himself in the nearest possible recipient? In Hermione?
In that case, why wasn't he back on Earth?
When you tried to kill him, though, the curse hit you. And you got torn soul from body, pretty much, just a wandering bit of soul without a home. Your body got completely obliterated by the rebound.
Torn soul from body. That was where he was. That must have been it – he'd blasted part of himself away, it had landed in Hermione – and the rest was here. Soul from body.
Satisfaction filled him, excited satisfaction. That meant – that meant that all he had to do, really, was find his way back. Find his way back through this inky nothing. Fix his soul back where it should have been – inside his own body. How?
Riddle thought long and hard about it, but the one thing his mind kept going back to was Hermione, so he focused on her. He had made her a Horcrux by accident. Part of his soul was sealed inside her, that bushy-haired, brilliant, snarky, self-righteous girl. Where better for it to end up, really?
Tom Riddle found himself smiling, right there in the darkness, and affection soared through him. Love. He could find his way back to her. He loved her – and it transcended everything, with beauty, with incomparable fondness. One part of his soul in her.
Something clicked. If one part of his soul had broken, perhaps the rest had split apart, too? Perhaps that was why he was here, in the realms of the unbounded... because his soul just wasn't stable enough to sustain limbo?
Tom reached for it, and it steadily rose. He let the shame, the humiliation, the guilt of true remorse close over his head as it he had let it only a few times before – and it struck him that he had come so far. From not even knowing what guilt was to being able to draw upon the most helpless sea of remorse at will? And she'd taught him how.
And he'd broken her heart. Again.
The remorse roiled and blossomed, and then he was in agony.
The very center of him was in pain. The remorse was gluing him back together again, surely – or something like it – for nothing else could be so blindingly raw. Tom wished for it to end, wished for it to stop – and he could practically feel each piece of his soul getting torturously dragged and cemented back into place, dislodged by his cold-hearted murder – that of himself.
Let it end –
And it did.
And then he felt himself moving, accelerating, though it wasn't in any particular direction – it was just towards something, something in the distance, something that was not just black and cold and empty and thump
He was unconscious. But his subconscious mind knew it.
He was back.
It was a few minutes before his body realized he was there again, before his nose started breathing reflexively, before his brain revived itself.
Tom's fingers moved a little, touching the wood beneath him lightly, so lightly.
His eyes opened, and there was sun, and the windows were broken. The information hit him like it had been waiting. Fortinbras' Membranes, when forcibly destroyed, emit a powerful shock. He was lying on a table, and the Kitchens were empty.
Tom's mind wasn't even sluggish. It was like he'd never left this body, never descended into that dark, for now he was here, and he sat up on that table and slid off of it and stood.
Suddenly he felt like laughing. Happiness he'd never felt in his life coursed through him. He was so happy. He was so happy!
He closed his eyes and composed himself, shaking out his right hand. His fingers closed around the wand in his pocket. Yes. He drew it. He sent a sizzling explosion into the wall and laughed aloud, a dark, powerful laugh. Nothing had ever felt more powerful than being here. Being alive. With a whole life before him – and where was Hermione, for he needed to take her in his arms and kiss her until she realized it too – he wasn't going to leave her. Not ever.
Tom flicked his wand. The door to the House-elf quarters flew off its hinges, but there was no one in the room.
He shrugged to himself, flexing his long fingers, and grinned.
Riddle stalked over to the portrait and climbed out into the hallway, lithe and graceful as ever. His dark eyes flicked from side to side.
He heard cheers from above, and his heart soared into pure elation. He didn't think he'd ever felt it so strongly. Never, not about anything.
His long legs broke into a run, and his dark eyes creased at the sides as that true smile engulfed his face. God I'm here and she's here and everything is so so so so
His hand stretched out and he burst through the passage door and then he was standing in the Entrance Hall.
She was standing in the doorway, like she'd been waiting for him, and for just a second Riddle stared at her. Her eyes were shut, even though she faced in his direction. She'd been crying. She looked awful. She looked like a mess. She looked like an angel.
Hermione Granger stood alone in the doorway, that doorway where they'd first talked like civilized people. She looked torn, but then, of course she would. She was, by all rights, miserable, but that fragment of soul within her would be warring with her, telling her that really she was happy, for he was so happy that he could not express it to himself nor anyone else. So happy he felt tiptoed.
She straightened up, her face weary and sagging, and then her hazel eyes opened.
Hermione seemed rooted to the spot, and Tom couldn't keep his legs under control. His strides were overlong, strained, trying to get him to her as fast as possible – and he was walking to her and joy was swimming in his stomach and that grin stretched his face and then she was in his arms.
"You're... you're..." Her voice was tiny and wet and miserable.
"I'm alive. I'm here."
She drew back from him, complete disbelief written all over her face as clear as the daylight outside. "How?"
"I did to you what Voldemort did to Potter. An accidental Horcrux."
Understanding dawned on her face, and with it came the most beautiful smile Tom Riddle had ever seen. "Oh," she said breathlessly. "Oh."
Then she was crushing herself to him in the most painful hug Riddle had ever felt, and then she whispered, fiercely, "I can't believe you left me. I can't believe you left me."
For a second, he couldn't believe it either. Then – for the first time – Tom Riddle felt remorse at having killed somebody. He felt remorse at having killed himself – and he laughed hollowly, for wasn't that so fitting?
He felt a sharp, magnetic pull inside him, and Hermione let out a sharp breath, presumably as his soul was yanked from her back into him. Tom swallowed, licking his lips. "I'm sorry," he chuckled, and he felt the bitterness of remorse seal him up even tighter, and it constricted his breathing and his throat and his lungs but maybe that was just looking at her standing there in the feeble sun, for the Dementors just beyond the grounds were being chased away and now the blue sky clawed its way through the grey –
"Hermione Granger," he murmured, "I intend never to leave you again."
She gave a fierce grin, a feisty grin, and said, "I won't let you."
Then she reached up and pulled his head down to kiss him, and he stepped forward, hunched over to meet her body with his own, and her figure molded itself to the hard line of his like it had never left it, like they'd been born together, like they were created to press together just like this. His lips were insistent; hers were ferocious. They fought each other to get closer, as close as possible, and he pressed her up against the doorframe and lifted her. She wrapped her legs around his waist, whispering into his ear, "Remember that day in the snow?"
"Of course," he murmured. "And you're still mine."
"And you're mine," she replied, a smile in her voice, and that almost-destroyed look of happiness was on her face as she drew back, legs still crossed around him, like she couldn't even dare to imagine this was happening.
"Hold on," Tom said, and he gently lifted her from him. She set her feet back on the ground, and he settled his arm around her waist, and she put her hand on his back.
Hermione didn't think she could stop looking at those eyes, now that he was back behind them. Like the first Christmas after a hundred years of winter – and to top it off, the smile she had seen so rarely didn't look like it would ever leave. All his teeth were so white they practically glowed – and his left top canine was slightly smaller than his right. She'd never known before. There was so much she'd never known that she could discover, now. There was everything left to find out, to explore, to live.
There was no one left in the castle. They were the last ones out, unalterably tied together by arms and hearts and eyes, and they couldn't have said who was the first to step out into that new world because it didn't matter for them just then.
Not while they were together.
Hermione found her parents a week later and led them back to their right states of mind, as well as back to Britain. They took an instant liking to Tom, of course, because he was the epitome of courtesy and graciousness – so Hermione and Tom lived with her parents for the next two weeks, while Kingsley Shacklebolt and a few others worked out large amounts of internal turmoil at the Ministry. Tom refused to say anything to Hermione about the fact that they were living with Muggles. She supposed he didn't want to hurt her feelings, so she didn't push the issue and felt grateful for him being on his best behavior.
Meanwhile, Hermione wrote the Weasley family daily. Well, she started by writing Percy daily. He was the only one, initially, who would read what she wrote – but eventually contributions from George, Charlie and Bill started to trickle in, and then Mr. Weasley, and then, finally, Ron and Mrs. Weasley. Hermione explained that the reason Voldemort had died in the first place was that Tom had cast the Killing Curse on himself, and only by some miracle of good fate had he managed to return to Earth.
It was awkward, but Hermione took up individual correspondence with Ron. They wrote long, long letters about Harry, and Hermione frequently found herself crying while reading and writing them. Ginny had had to seek professional help, for she had sunk into deep depression. It was hardly unanticipated, but it was still very hard on the Weasley family, especially after they'd already lost Fred. Meanwhile, Percy had taken quite a high post in the new Ministry, Bill and Fleur moved back into Shell Cottage, and George resumed Wheezing back in Diagon Alley.
Mrs. Weasley took a rather more active part than she was accustomed to in that she joined the Daily Prophet staff to help circulate some actual information. Hermione was pleased to see the influence of the sharp-tongued, honest witch permeating the pages of the Prophet.
She knew Mrs. Weasley would – and could – never truly forgive her for what she'd done to Ron, but Hermione also knew that Molly Weasley tried not to hold grudges where grudges were not due. They would be civil to each other, and maybe, someday, the bad feelings between them would fade.
The funeral for Harry James Potter was held on April 20th in a remote area of Great Britain. Nearly three million witches and wizards flooded the area to pay respects to one of the bravest wizards who had ever lived. It had been perpetuated, in the general public, that Harry had killed Voldemort, and Tom Riddle? He fully approved of that. He didn't like the way Voldemort had truly died – he would have far preferred it if the Dark Lord really had been killed by the Boy Who Lived. And the world would never know otherwise, and it would be written in the history books – and as for Tom...
Tom spoke to Minerva McGonagall, Headmaster of Hogwarts, about teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. She, like everyone in the Order of the Phoenix, knew what he had done for them – for the world – so she did not even think of denying him straight off, as Albus Dumbledore had once done. McGonagall merely told Tom he would have to wait until he was twenty-five, like every other applicant, and she would see what she could do for him.
Hermione and Ron, bizarrely, had to return to Hogwarts, along with everyone else from their graduating class. Tom, too, enrolled as a seventh-year, although Hermione had to pressure him into it. The year flicked by, and the normalcy seemed so forced to Hermione – especially when it was punctuated by nightmares so vivid that it seemed they, rather than the real world, were reality. After finishing her N.E.W.T.s, and passing with all Outstanding marks, Hermione vigorously sought a profession.
She was going to be a Healer.
She'd never really planned on it before, but Hermione quickly realized that she didn't have to limit herself in any way just because of her choice of career. She simultaneously ran S.P.E.W., with relative success that was perhaps only due to her fiery determination and passion for the subject. Tom told her many a time that he 'didn't see the point', but she refused to be fazed, and eventually he gave up the battle.
Hermione unfolded the Daily Prophet. It was six o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday, and she was stirring her tea idly with her wand, sitting in the kitchen of their three-room apartment in the heart of London. The flat had been a twenty-fifth birthday present from her parents, who had decided to downsize now that her father was retiring – although her mother refused to retire from dentistry, as it was her passion. On the table sat her latest letter to Ron, which was four pages, in tiny writing, about the to-be-founded Potter wing of St. Mungo's. Her owl, Dante, was currently delivering some late Christmas presents – after all, she'd overcompensated as usual and bought too many, so lots of them were probably being delivered only that day – but he'd be back soon.
Hermione's fingers drummed lightly on the table and she peered over her shoulder at the door to the bathroom. "If you don't hurry up," she said, "you're going to be late."
"I'm shaving," called a low voice from behind the door, but she plowed on.
"And you may not know this, but being late, with Professor McGonagall, is punishable by death. Even when the students are on Christmas vacation."
"Come on," Tom replied, his muffled voice scathing. "I'm not going to be late to a job interview." The door opened, and he continued, "Who do you think I am, Ambrose Parsonage?" A co-worker of Hermione's at St. Mungo's, one who regularly saw fit to be a half an hour late to everything. Tom reached for his tie and looped it into place, twisting it so it was perfectly aligned. His pressed white shirt was tucked neatly into a pair of black slacks, an impeccable shine on his shoes. He had his robes in a briefcase which sat on the table.
Hermione frowned at him. "Ambrose is just... a very forgetful person, and he works very hard, so you should be -"
Tom rolled his eyes, sitting down and helping himself to her tea. "Yes, yes, willing to overlook his blatant incompetence. Sure." His eyes met hers, a dark twinkle in them, and her reproachful look melted. A smirk twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Excellent tea," he commented, and Hermione's mouth opened in outrage as he placed the cup, empty, back to the table.
"Did you just drink all of it?" she growled. "You are... you are..."
He patted her hand and stood up as she seethed, reaching for his coat. "As wonderful as watching you flounder for an adequate adjective is, Hermione, I believe you said something along the lines of 'punishable by death' – so we should get going." Hermione stood up so violently that she nearly knocked over the chair. Tom's lips quivered in restrained mirth, and he leaned against the kitchen counter, crossing his arms. He scratched at his chin as he surveyed her, as if in deep thought. "You know," he mused aloud, "I never even start to forget why I love you."
The proverbial storm clouds hovering above Hermione seemed to dissipate. There was a pause as she looked him in the eye, an almost-skeptical look on her face, and let a lofty sigh issue from her lips. "Infuriating," she decided. "That's what you are."
"In an endearing manner, I hope?" Tom asked, but it wasn't really much of a question, and the mocking tone in his voice told her quite clearly that he knew the answer.
"And manipulative," she added, pulling her coat from the hook and shrugging it on. Tom picked up his suitcase, flicked off the light and shut the door behind them as they headed out into the hallway. He walked a half-step behind her, his arm draped lazily around her shoulder. "Frustrating," Hermione said. "Arrogant."
Tom basked in the words as if they were praise and yawned widely. "Your point is?" he said, running his left hand over his dark, immaculate hair. They reached the deserted lobby of the apartment building.
"Just making sure you remember the reasons I love you," Hermione replied airily, raising her thin eyebrows with expectance. "Not that I could list them all, of course, but I wouldn't want you to forget."
"I never forget anything," Tom said, his voice warm. He leaned down idly and kissed her, the bitter taste of tea on his lips, and the door swung open behind them as someone brushed by and walked outside. A rush of cold air leapt in, and Hermione shivered. "Are you cold?" he murmured, kissing her forehead lightly. "You can have my coat, if you'd like, I suppose. If you need it."
Hermione laughed. "Well, with such an enthusiastic offer, who could say no?" A scowl curled the edge of his lip, and she reached up and tucked a strand of hair back into place on the sweeping dark hair above his forehead. "By the way," she said, "Happy Birthday."
"Why, thank you," he answered, a lazy smile playing over his features. "How old am I, again?"
Hermione's lips spread wide, and she dissolved into helpless chuckles, smiling. "I have no idea – weren't we saying it was your twenty-fifth? Don't blame me for you not keeping track of all the years down there."
"I don't blame you for anything at all," Tom replied. He straightened himself up, brushing Hermione's hair away from her face and pulling her black hat down around her ears. "Unless you'd like me slaughtered by McGonagall, I suggest we go. We have something like ten minutes to get to the Ministry."
"Yes, I'm aware of the time," Hermione sighed, and she slipped her gloved hand into his. "Have I persuaded you yet to come to Ambrose's New Year's party? I can't remember."
The door in the lobby opened automatically as they walked up to it. The icy blast was anticipated, this time, and Tom squeezed Hermione's hand. "If I recall correctly," he told her, "I needed more persuading. You said something about eternal debt."
"Oh, I hope I didn't," Hermione chuckled. "You'll take the phrase 'eternal debt' entirely too literally."
"It might be necessary. I don't like Parsonage; convincing me to step into the man's home might be a bit... much. Even if it is to celebrate the new year." Tom's lip curled in distaste, and Hermione flicked some snow at him off her shoulder. It was falling everywhere, silently, thickly, coating every surface in newness, and it muffled their laughter, but nothing could mute their smiles.
"Well," mumbled Hermione, "last year you refused to do anything at all for New Year's, so I suppose I won't be surprised if you decide again that it's not worth celebrating -"
"It's worth celebrating," Tom said.
Hermione paused and glanced up at him. "Why?" His dark eyes fixed on hers for a stunning single heartbeat, and his hand tightened around hers.
"It's another year with you, of course," he replied, as if it were nothing.
She laughed and turned her face skyward, her eyes crinkling merrily at the sides. "One would think I'd adjust to your unnecessary charms," she said. "You seem to keep forgetting you don't have to win me over anymore." Tom stopped walking. Hermione turned to face him, his lean, tall body completely at ease in the wintry air. His black felt coat was flaked with snow. She sighed. "Tom, come on. You're going to be late if we keep stopping."
He kissed her, again and again, ignoring her words completely. When he did reply, the timbre of his low voice was genuine, and breath curled out from his lips in cold puffs. His paleness contrasted starkly with the sudden tinge of pink in his cheeks, and Hermione found herself smiling just looking at him, just as he was smiling just looking at her. She was smiling just knowing he was next to her. She was smiling just hearing the words from his mouth.
"We've got all the time in the world."
Alrighty! Now for the connected-Riddles thing (if you're willing to take the simultaneous effect on the split Riddles in stride, skip this segment bro), which I abbreviated in edits:
I figured that since the 2 Toms were, really, the same soul – two fractions of the same person encased in two different forms – they would be connected by two things: their twin wands, and that last little bit of soul that links them together. After all, if the presence of destroyed horcruxes can land a wizard in limbo forever (which Rowling said it could), I figured even destroyed soul fragments are still tied to the original.
So I took some (more) artistic license (than usual) and inferred that, in a situation where there are two people, one having 255/256 of a soul and one having the remaining 1/256, the twin cores of the wand would mirror the twin reactions of the human bodies.
I'd like to address a couple other things – there seemed to be some confusion as to when exactly this took place. It is after Harry was killed by Voldy the first time (that's why Voldy's horcrux fragment in him is dead), after the first approximately-half of the Battle of Hogwarts.
And there was something in canon about Voldemort never being able to kill Harry because Voldemort used Harry's blood to revive himself, thus keeping Lily's protection valid forever and rendering Harry immortal as long as Volders lived? Wouldn't that also justify Voldemort never being able to die, if he has blood with powerful magical protection? Geh.
Thank you so much for taking this journey with me. I've learned so much about writing. And, um, about the internet. And I hope you enjoyed the trip as thoroughly as I did – every word, every minute, every second.
With love, as always,