Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? And isn't the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?
― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Samhain came, and Hermione went up the mountain to dance with the Norwegian witches. They had a different name for it of course, Vetrnaetr – a word as harsh as the winter winds it welcomed - but the spirit of the night was the same as the one her friends would be celebrating illicitly back in Britain. The veil between the dead and the living thinned on this night, and on the mountain Hermione could understand why Muggles had once believed it a gate to hell.
Why they had said the devil himself danced on its peak.
Around their writhing, hooded bodies, cloaks floating eerily, the howls of the Wild Hunt seethed through the air. Those nightmare creatures were no longer released on the world, but their jubilant, anarchic cries echoed up through the dark on this night, mingling with the wind and sending chills down the interlaced nerves of her spine, seeping into her bone marrow, sending a thrill of fear through her blood. They raised up spectres of her past and future as she danced and she wondered at it; at the thrill and terror of it.
She had not made friends here, but these were witches she respected and thought she was beginning to understand. And lonely though it was, it was a privilege to see the rawness of their magic unleashed on the night.
But raw magic was brutal too. Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót, the old texts commanded. This night, as it had a year before, required a living sacrifice.
An owl came the following day. Hermione opened the scroll, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, still awed at the power she had seen the night before even as her guts were twisted with the memory of the sacrifice made to the incoming winter.
I was not accepted, his scrawl was furious, the 'i' in her name heading up the letter a smudged blot of anger where he'd stabbed the quill down too hard: They believe me too young to take up a post that is mine by any sensible right. Hogwarts is my home. Merrythought is gone and in her place is some fool under the spell of your godfather. As I have told you before, it has long been my great wish to teach and to be rejected in this way for someone far inferior is grating.
She tried to placate him, but letters were not soft things; stark black ink on parchment was no replacement for voice and touch and gentle hands.
You can apply again, in a few years. After all, it would be terribly strange for them to have someone just a year or so older than them as a Professor. I know what you are capable of, but wait and, in a few years, when you have done some of the things I know you can achieve, they'll be begging to have you.
It was a lie, but it was intended well. Hogwarts would never again welcome Tom Riddle.
Hermione was curing fish for the winter when the witch queen sought her out. They had come in great shoals to the harbour that morning, the water boiling with silver flickers. A biblical amount of fish; an impossible sight.
On the mountain, when the witches had cut the throat of the old woman, she had been smiling, her fingers buried in the ground. Willing and glad to give up her life to ask the barren northern ground to be kind, to bring fish to the harbour and let seeds take root. To keep the community safe and hidden.
Hermione had felt the responding surge of power as the woman's blood hit the ground.
Far less than the one she'd felt without knowing it exactly a year before: this was not a sacrifice to her. But she recognised it now. This power was in the earth itself, not in her. She had been sent into shock by the power transfer from that unintentional, horrific death a year before. This had been an ecstatic thrill in her veins.
And she understood something deeper now about sacrifice. The witches took a life and they spilled blood - but in doing so they honoured their victim. They were made beholden to her by the gift of her magic. Innegborg explained it to Hermione as they sliced and salted the fish, dozens of knives flickering in the weak sunlight as they obeyed the will of the witches.
"Muggle fire needs fuel to burn, just as magical fire needs magical energy. This is the way of all things," she told her. "But the fire must obey the wood - it cannot burn beyond what it is fed."
The sacrifice, Hermione learned, went both ways.
Albus's letters were more circumspect than Tom's. Little progress to report on time travel. He hoped the ways of the northern witches were not too brutal. They follow an older path, one that we fortunately have turned from. And yet, there is much to learn there.
Hermione wondered if it was a fortunate thing to turn their backs on old magic. She wondered if it would wither magic or if the magic found another path, like water going around rock but carving through it at the same time. She wondered what she owed to Mabel Jefferies.
She had been forced to confront something about this world she lived in up on that mountain. She came to terms with it slowly but surely. Magic changed things. Magic changed everything. Including her squeamish Muggle morality. That belonged to the universe she had effectively left at the age of eleven. It didn't fit here, and trying to make this world fit the laws of that one was ruinous. How could magicians allow themselves to be limited, made somehow mundane, as many of the adults she had grown up with?
If a Muggle spilled blood onto the earth, or sent it to mingle with the earth as ashes, the earth did not listen. But magic was a force of nature, and nature needed magic to give back to it. An ouroboros of strength.
In the days that followed, Tom became more obsessed with finding the locket, as though rejection from the only place he really saw as home had reignited that desperate search to prove himself special, valid, belonging in the eyes of a society that valued blood even more than it power.
His letters shocked her with their emotional honesty -
It is the only place I have ever felt at home except for when I am with you, and you are not here.
He grew more possessive in his disappointment, furiously demanding by Owl why she had not responded quickly enough. He had never taken rejection well; from either side of his family, from Dumbledore, from Hogwarts.
In early December, Hermione went home, grateful to leave the arctic island. Bitter enough in early autumn, in winter it was almost unbearable. She was learning more slowly than she ever had, confronted by magics beyond most people, and returning to the castle in Wales with its warm fires and soft chairs and splendid views, lushly green even in early December was like sinking into a warm bath after one of Innegborg's mandatory dips in the ice-crusted bay.
A shock, and then a relief.
He came almost as soon as she had arrived at home. She was in her Potions lab when the castle whispered his impending presence with a rush of warmth along the skin of her arms. He'd come by Floo, but the clever magic of the building brought him out of her fireplace instead of the hall's.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then he was pulling her tightly against him, luggage cast aside as he buried his face in her neck.
"I wish," he said low and fierce into her hair, "you wouldn't go back again. Not yet."
"I have work to do here before I go away again," she reassured him, leading him through a door that was not always there into her now so-familiar little sitting room. "I'm not sure how long it will take. Come on, there's cake."
They sat in her little sitting room, as they had so many times before. But no familiarity could dull the force of his presence.
Tom's beauty always startled her, especially after some time apart. It did not romanticise itself with absence; there were no flaws to dream away. But now it was exaggerated by the gauntness in his face. His cheekbones were ice picks in carved marble, and she frowned as she examined him. He was, as always, immaculately turned out - clean-shaven, his dark hair longer but still neatly parted to the side - and yet there was something ragged around his edges as though an invisible fray had begun to unravel.
She felt the dread weight in her stomach stir to life.
But slowly the ice in his face thawed - over tea and cake and boozy dinners with Cerdic, and long afternoons in the alchemy workroom downstairs, and three days later he laughed that lower-pitched, genuine laugh she had missed so much.
"Would you like to stay for Christmas? I mean my whole family will be here, so I understand if you don't want to but..." she asked him that morning, reassured by that laugh, the more precious for its rarity. He was reading her Muggle books again and there was colour in his cheeks.
Tom looked up, surprised.
"I have to go away for a few days first. But I can come back. Yes."
Hermione dropped onto the sofa next to him, putting her stockinged feet on his lap. He ran a long finger up her sole experimentally and she giggled, wriggling them.
"Where are you going?"
"To look at flats in London," he said with feigned nonchalance. Hermione poked him with her foot.
"Tom..." she drew it out so it was two syllables, not one. To-om.
He turned a page.
"Why are you going to look at flats in London when you have a perfectly usable and probably enormous house in Cheshire that, may I add, I still haven't been invited to?"
He wrinkled his nose.
"Cheshire," he said scathingly. "I don't want that house. Why would I take you there? It's boring and surrounded by Muggles, so I can't do anything interesting anyway. I have rented it out."
"Rented it?" she was flabbergasted at this turn of events. She'd never exactly thought about what he'd do with the Riddle manor, which he seemed to occasionally occupy when he wanted to be alone, but letting it was not precisely what she'd have predicted. It was a very mundane thing for him to do. She couldn't begin to imagine him showing prospective tenants around.
"Abraxas is dealing with the particulars," he waved an unconcerned hand. "You know how tiresome I find that sort of thing. I want to live somewhere magical."
Somewhere, he didn't say, like this.
"So live here, with my father."
He laughed and gave up on what she now saw was Crime and Punishment. She'd have to hide that one later, he'd only misinterpret it.
"I am not," he replied firmly, "going to live with your father."
That was fair enough (although she thought it would be a neat solution to the both of them seeming to go a bit mad without her). Cerdic had told her, quite surprised at her reappearance in the castle, that he hadn't seen a soul since she'd left. His hair had become even bushier in her absence, and she was convinced he hadn't been eating properly.
"Well, fine then but why London? It's so horrid, you won't find anything nice."
Hermione knew from experience that Wizarding residences in London left a great deal to be desired. Most people preferred to floo or, if they were capable, apparate in from villages like Godric's Hollow. The Magical part of London was small and had never developed out like it had in Prague or other cities. Wizards and Witches had tried to blend into Muggle places instead, or chosen to live far out in the country. Theirs was a small and unsophisticated community as a result.
"How would you know? You never go to London, my contrary little queen. If you keep wriggling your feet like that you should probably lock the door, by the way," he said casually.
He picked them up, his full attention suddenly directed at her, and tugged her down the sofa until she was straddling him.
She allowed herself to be distracted with sex; he would tell her when he wanted to and not before.
She could feel the whisper of his breath against her skin as he very, very slowly undid the buttons on her robes, inching them down to bare her shoulders. He left them there, mapping the bones of her collar, her shoulder, her jaw with his finger.
"You are the finest thing I have ever seen," he muttered. "How are you encased inside a bone and flesh shell like any mere mortal when I know you are as much a storm as you are a witch?"
She whimpered with need as his hand encircled her throat, tilting her chin up to meet his eyes.
"Who do you belong to?" he asked, voice rough and low and filled with the whispering promise of the sea before waves crashed against cliff.
"Myself," she half-teased.
His fingers tightened, one hand in her hair, one round her neck.
"In here, in this particular moment, I am yours because I choose to be," she said, reaching up to rest her fingers on his thumb as it pressed into the bone of her chin, pushing up. "But in life, Tom, I'll never belong to anyone except myself. I am not a thing to be claimed."
A dark shadow flashed around his face and she ground her hips down, leaning forward to press her lips to the juddering pulse in his neck.
In this, at least, he was just a man.
"Slughorn means well, but god he's a fool," Tom said later, tossing a letter onto the dining room table. They'd had a perfectly nice late lunch but his mood had soured again as he read the letter from his old Head of House. "He can't understand why I don't want any of the simply marvellous opportunities, Tom that he's set up for me."
His imitation was frighteningly accurate and Hermione choked on her tea, amused despite his irritation.
"What do you mean?"
"He has taken personal offence that I don't wish to become," he picked up the letter, "assistant to the Under-Secretary to the Deputy Junior Minister for Magical Archiving."
"I expect you could gain a lot of influence there," she tried, keeping her voice even.
"No, Hermione. They would see me as a Mudblood charity case. Some former pupil doing his old Professor a favour in return for some past contact or whisper in an important ear. They would give me a desk and a pile of useless scrolls and leave me to rot, until I retired or died of boredom or learned my place."
"That is probably true," she acknowledged evenly, "for most people. But no one who met you,
Tom, could write you off."
"Well I'm not going to be anyone's assistant and I can't think of anything more tedious than working at the Ministry, can you?"
"No," she said honestly, freed from the need to fit convention by a distance of some five decades. "I can't say it's a tempting thought. Do you want to get a job?"
She didn't think he needed to, really. Even if he hadn't had some money of his own now, he was the sort of person people like Abraxas Malfoy's father liked to open their vaults for. His so-called friends automatically picked up the tab when they were around him, she'd noticed.
"I wanted to teach. Failing that, I shall find another place."
She pondered that, but didn't reply.
He left for London, kissing her hard before he stepped into the Floo, and Hermione began to decorate the castle for Christmas and prepare to the onslaught of Dearborns. She saw her friends, bought gifts, and thawed out her bones after the Nordic chill.
Being the mistress of a magical household had its odd moments. Bedrooms appeared that hadn't been seen in decades in preparation for the extra guests. She and Buttons cleared and tidied and found odd remnants of former guests – from discarded quills and books to evening robes and jewellery. The dining room grew half again over the course of a few days, slowing spreading outwards, the gleaming mahogany table expanding to match until it could comfortably seat another twelve people.
The castle felt excited. The stone dragon on the tower flapped its wings, the snarling griffin statue paced more impatiently than usual. Hermione hadn't managed to get to the root of the old blood magic that tied the ancient building to the family and she was constantly surprised at its apparent sentience. It wasn't actually sentient, of course, but still she couldn't help but wonder at the thrum of anticipation she felt through her connection with it as they prepared to host the rest of the Dearborn family for the first time in more than two decades.
Cadwagan and Hestia would arrive first, a few days before Christmas and Caradoc on Christmas eve. More nerve-wracking was the addition of two of Cerdic and Caradoc's cousins and their families, a great aunt and uncle, and several assorted in-laws. Ivy McKinnon was spending Christmas with her Muggleborn boyfriend's family for the first time, and Hermione thought she would miss the other girl's easy-going presence.
How Tom would deal with this extensive crush of Wizarding relatives remained to be seen, but he had got on well enough with Caradoc on the few occasions they'd met. She hoped the warmth and love of a family Christmas might help keep away the shadows on his soul for a while.
He came back from London halfway through the afternoon her uncle and aunt were due to arrive, the house letting her know with that now-familiar surge of energy, like tiny fireworks were bursting all the way up the veins and capillaries of her left arm.
She found him, crouching down in the hall floor playing with Alhabor, whose long grey tail was thumping fast as a heart-attack on the stone floor. This laughing, bright-burning Tom Riddle was different than the one even she was usually allowed to see. This was Tom the boy, and the sight of him tugged cruelly at her heart, beating in time with the wolfhound's tail. Hermione leant against the dark wood of the doorframe to watch for a moment.
The dog was as poor a judge of character as she was, she thought, a little bitterly, as he turned around, face lighting up the dark hall.
"You're early," she said, by way of greeting as she stepped forward. It had only been five days, but with all she'd packed in and the constant dull ache of his absence it had felt like longer. As it was, here in his moment with his face unguarded and joyful, one knee touching the faded blue-and-red swirls of the ancient Afghan carpet, a dusting of ash still clinging to one dark curl as it fell forward onto his high alabaster forehead, she felt so much that it felt like there wasn't enough room in her chest for it all. She felt, just for a moment, like she might cry.
It was a mark of how far they'd come that he didn't stand, but stayed with his fingers curled into the thick iron-and-steel fur of Alhabor's neck.
"London seemed colder and drearier than usual," he replied softly, as though the words were a secret confession. Perhaps they were.
Twenty minutes later, his hand was fisted in her hair instead, hips thrusting her forward, her face pressed into the mattress. Afterwards as they lay in the soft grey December light in her tower bedroom, her cheek pressed to where his heart thrummed fast and then, gradually, steadier in his chest, he held her as though the world could come crashing down around them, sky and sun and stars all together in an apocalypse of ash and fire, and he wouldn't let go.
With the arrival of more Dearborns that Hermione had really imagined existed, the castle became less a refuge than a village. Their visit was this: a fire lit cycle of meals and walks and card games and riding and laughter and drinking and more meals. Her aunt and uncle had arrived as she was drifting off in Tom's arms and so she'd rushed down to greet them more dishevelled than she'd liked, Tom smirking at her shoulder as she was engulfed in their boisterous warmth.
As Christmas approached, more and more arrived – some by Floo and some by broom and some by carriage but all of them rowdy and eager to tell Cerdic off for his decades-long hermitage and meet his mysterious daughter.
Tom was superficially charming to her family, but as he was with most people he was largely uninterested. Polite in a cool way, he didn't fit in with the unruly, privileged Dearborn clan. And yet, he was so charismatic even they were wooed. Tom was polite, but it was a politeness that made the other person less powerful and he more. It made people want to be charming back to him, to somehow gain his approval.
And in any conversation, across any room or wood or hill, his eyes sought her out and she wondered again at this enormous thing between them. No library in the world held the answer, though. Only his eyes and his touch and the sometimes-soft-sometimes-violent press of his arrogant lips.
Christmas came, and Hermione woke early, as she always did. Tom, who had learned to sleep on a hard bed shared with at least one other child was a far better sleeper than she – and he had absolutely no interest in Christmas. She slipped out of the bed quietly, and pulled on her thick velvet dressing gown and sheepskin slippers and, taking her wand, snuck out; down the stairs, through the hall, past the slumbering hound and out of the castle into the dark dawn. She climbed through the woods and up past the waterfall, until she was on the highest point overlooking its turrets and grounds, and the lake.
The spell for snow was no great magic in comparison to bringing down a mountain, but it wasn't easy and it still drained Hermione. She felt the winter chill through her robe far more strongly on the way back down, shivering as the first thick flakes began to fall.
When slipped back into the warm bed, grateful for the heat of his body, he stirred.
"Where did you go?" he murmured. "You're freezing."
She pressed her feet against his legs, giggling a little.
"Merry Christmas," she whispered impishly as he swore.
"A fine gift," he said sarcastically, rolling on top of her. This Tom, almost playful in the dark of her room, was another Tom all over again: violent and tender by turn as the sky lightened.
When the rest of the castle woke – the children first and then gradually the adults, they were greeted by a magical snowfall that spread as far as the eye could see.
The biggest child of all, of course, was Caradoc, who had arrived after they'd all gone to sleep the night before, no doubt out late drinking with his fellow Aurors. He barged into Hermione's room – thankfully after she'd thought to put her pyjamas back on - and yanked open her curtains singing White Christmas at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs.
He stopped suddenly and jumped a very theatrical foot in the air.
"Hermione, I don't want to concern you," he said, hand pressed to his chest, "but there seems to be a man in your bed."
Hermione pulled a pillow over her face, laughing and pink-cheeked.
"How scandalous," he continued cheerfully, unloading a pile of presents onto the end of the bed, before chucking her and Tom's piles onto the duvet, and then throwing himself down to sprawl across the end. "Great-Aunt Gwyllion would be shocked."
"Good morning, you horrible beast," she said lobbing a cushion at him, which he caught easily and put under his feet. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, little cuz, Tom. And what a Christmas! Just look at that," he pointed joyfully out of the window to the wonderland outside, snow and ice sparkling in the gentle morning sun.
Tom gave her a Significant Look. She smirked back.
"Best snow I've seen since I left Hogwarts," Caradoc mused. "I say Hermione, what does a poor, tired, and ever so slightly hungover wizard have to do to get a cup of tea around here? And maybe," he added hopefully, "a wee crumpet or three to tide me over till brekkers?"
Hermione sighed and called for Buttons.
Tom was quiet but not especially grumpy as she and Caradoc caught up, and began opening some of the little presents sent from friends that the long-suffering elf had put at the end of the beds overnight.
It was a strange disconnect to have them both in her room; an Auror and a murderer and yet as far as she could tell they seemed to like each other well enough. Certainly, Tom didn't put on his perfect Head Boy act as much around her cousin as he did the rest of her family.
His pile was bigger than she'd expected, with a lot of neatly wrapped gifts in expensive-looking paper. Expensive, especially in the Wizarding world, didn't always mean sophisticated however and she longed to know who had dared send Tom Riddle a gift wrapped in moving orange-and-gold stripes with a great purple bow that tied and untied itself apparently on whim. He glared at it until the ribbon drooped, and stayed still.
"This one's from Ivy, she asked me to bring it." Caradoc said, passing a large box to her. "Such shame she couldn't come."
It was heavier than she'd expected and when Hermione pulled off the paper and then slid off the top of the wooden box the reason became clear. She lifted out a little marble sculpture, all curved stone edges. A thing of no little beauty with its voluptuous arc. The card inside told her it was a Barbara Hepworth maquette. Ivy's Muggleborn boyfriend (whose family estate was in Cornwall), she wrote in her looping and excited hand, had taken her to see them in St Ives and oh – wasn't it glorious.
It was, but Tom, Hermione saw when she glanced up at him, was frowning at it. Perhaps he couldn't see the beauty in it but she could. It seemed to hold the potential of a whole landscape in its curves.
She was touched and a little awed by the gift in a way she hadn't been in some time. The eyes of the future told her of its worth, but it was more than that: there was something so solid in the smooth camber under her hand that spoke of something more. Not just a treasure to be kept for the future but a treasure for now, a precious thing that was more than the sum of its parts in a way she couldn't imagine being able to explain to Tom.
It made her suddenly resentful of him, of his indifference to beauty.
Later, after they were all spent with merriment, Tom withdrew to read, the children were taken off to bed and Great Aunt Gwyllion waved Hermione over to where she sat, in a great velvet chair in the huge drawing room's bay window; well out of the way of their snoozing and bickering and laughing relatives.
In fact, there ought to be several more 'greats' in front of her name as she was nearly two-hundred-and-fifty years old, but she had been called Great Aunt Gwyllion by Cerdic as a boy, and by his father, and to add any more seemed unnecessarily pedantic. Like the witch queen in Norway, there was something ageless about her, but unlike the witch queen she was bowed over with the years and needed a stick to walk.
"That young man of yours," Gwyllion said in her caustic voice, "reminds me of someone I would rather forget. History has, but I have not, and you would do well to listen. Sit down."
Hermione, with her best tinkling Sophia-esque laugh tried to distract, but to no avail
"Sit," the old – ancient - woman said. She'd insisted on walking with them after breakfast and some present-opening and here she was, unfatigued, primordial grey eyes glinting dangerously.
Hermione sat, sinking into the sofa with this adopted relation who seemed to see through the act they were both playing. She fought the knowledge of the older woman's eyes, and yet -
"That boy… he's holding something inside him you'll likely never beat. Do you know that?"
"What," Hermione's tone was icier than she'd meant, perhaps because the other woman spoke a truth she was trying to ignore, "do you mean?"
"You know what I mean, girl. You're no fool they tell me, but you've chosen foolishly. He's yours through and through and no mistake – but for how long, child?"
Hermione had no answer for that, just the vaguest timeline gleaned from memories Dumbledore had shown Harry.
She felt like she was winning; was she wrong?
I am both winning and losing at the same time, she reflected later. Perhaps, I am winning a losing battle.
Tracing the lack of shadows on his face that morning, she thought not. But that night, alone in her room, he was rough and commanding in a way he had never been before, exerting the control he could not have over these people, in this castle, over her.
Perhaps there was no winning at all, she thought, as he held her afterwards, stroking the bruises he'd left on her neck and collarbone and throat and jaw and cheek by turn. None of them had hurt in the moment – and he had never hit her. They were consensual marks. She liked it when his fingers dug into her face, liked the knowledge of his power over her when his hand wrapped around her neck, liked how he whispered his awe of her as he held her down. Most of all, she liked the way he let himself lose control at the end. It the only time he ever did.
And yet that night, her arms fastened behind her with leather and not with magic for the first time, his fingers clenching around her throat tighter than he ever had, there was something desperate about him, something that scared her for the first time in over a year.
He is not tame, she thought. He is a wild thing, and this is borrowed time.
It was not as discomforting as she had imagined.
"Why did you make it snow?" he asked, voice still a little rough.
And she knew then that there was no answer she could give that could make him understand such a simple thing; that he might feel all he could for her but there was something missing inside him.
"It doesn't matter," she replied quietly after a moment. "Let's go to sleep."
Huge thanks to SallyJAvery (formerly DrSallySparrow) for her eyes on this. She's a great editor and an even better writer herself.
Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót = There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory. Used here rather naughtily for effect.
Thanks to all of you who take the time to review.
A few people have said recently, 'I never usually review, but -' or some variation on that. To all of you who feel they have nothing to add or don't have time to write a meaningful response I can't begin to tell you what a difference it makes even to have short responses. Just to know people are out there and reading keeps people like me writing. I read all the comments and often they really do make my day and I'd surely have abandoned this years ago without them.