Universe: Blatantly AU
Hope you enjoy!
all my affection-
"Let's have a little quiet, everyone," Hermione said. "Everyone? Excuse me?"
She drew herself up and bellowed, "LISTEN TO ME!"
"...all right, thank you. I'm Hermione, your unfortunately-state-appointed mediator. Let's get started."
Every eye narrowed in hatred as bodies settled into their chairs. Hermione cleared her throat, moving behind the podium. "First, let's establish a few rules. I'm sure you've discovered by now that we're in a neutral chamber, meaning that all magic is disabled here - which includes the effects of transformative magic." Which explained why no one had Dark Marks on their forearms. And why Bellatrix Lestrange had only one eyebrow. And why Lucius's hair had a distinctly gray sheen. And why Lord Voldemort had gained sudden repossession of his long-lost nose, hair, human features, et cetera. Hermione supposed she had the single remaining horcrux to blame for his startlingly youthful appearance. He still hadn't revealed where the blasted thing was hidden, even after years of detainment and interrogation.
"First rule: Don't try your wands; they're useless," Hermione said. "Second: Respect the other members of the group and listen when they're speaking. Third: Don't be rude about my heritage."
Hermione sighed. "All right, let's go once around the circle, then. Say your first name and why you think you're here, in a sentence or two. So ... go ahead." She gestured to the first seat.
A muscle flexed in the Dark Lord's jaw. Hermione could see the reluctance swirling around in the pool of malice beneath the surface. "Fine," he finally said. "I am Lord Voldemort, and I -"
"Your real name. Aliases are not permitted."
"Doesn't that defeat the purpose of the anonymous part of Avada Kedavra Anonymous, Mudblood?"
"That's why we're restricting it to first names only, as I explicitly stated. And since it clearly needs reiteration, my name is Hermione."
A long second. Their eyes locked, battling. No one in the room missed Riddle's pale fist tightening around the useless wand in his lap. "I am Tom," he ground out, every word labored. "I am here for the sole reason that the alternative was community service."
An awkward pause. Hermione cleared her throat. "Next person?"
"I'm Severus," said the potions master, his lips tight and his eyes grim. "My presence is due to the fact that my true allegiance, apparently, has been poorly publicized to the idiots at the Ministry."
"We still need to have words about the allegiance thing," Riddle hissed.
"I don't see why we're introducing ourselves," said Bellatrix Lestrange, rather more loudly than necessary. "We all know each other. And you know us, too, Mudblood."
"Unfortunately, yes, I do, but an introductory period is required," Hermione said. "And it's Hermione. Next."
"I am Lucius. I came because I considered it an impropriety to neglect my court-appointed duties."
"And I'm Bellatrix." Bella pouted. "I'm here because Lucy dragged me along."
"Would you stop calling me that?" Lucius snapped, his proud features turning a shade of red Hermione had never seen in a Malfoy.
"Oh, you're all right, Lucy, don't have a coronary," Bellatrix said with a cheeky, lopsided smile. She prodded Lucius with her wandtip.
Hermione cleared her throat. "Please stop baiting the other group members, Bellatrix."
"How dare you speak my name," Bellatrix hissed, her head whipping around so fast Hermione took a step back. "You dare defile it with your filthy mouth -"
"And it's this type of behavior that got you here in the first place," Hermione said. "Next."
"Antonin," grunted Dolohov. "I'm here because I'm a minority and the Ministry of Magic is an equal-opportunity administration."
Hermione sighed. This definitely wasn't what she'd had in mind by telling them to 'say why you think you're here.' "I ... er, I don't believe they adhere to any sort of affirmative action when it comes to the justice syste -"
"If they're employing scum like you, they obviously are equal-opportunity," Bellatrix said.
"I'm not employed by them," Hermione said acidly. "Not yet, anyway. I'm a part-time intern at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; this is part of the training program, and we're taking turns -"
"Are you receiving pay?" asked Tom Riddle.
She pursed her lips. "Well... technically, yes, but it's hardly a stipend of -"
"Then it falls under the umbrella of employment, you imbecilic girl."
"Pardon me, my mistake," Hermione said, her voice shaking slightly with restrained rage. "I'm sure you won't mind if I practice ignoring your juvenile taunts; I'm sure you're used to people ignoring you by now."
He yawned. "Your insolence bores me."
"Let's ... move ... on," Hermione forced out. "Next."
All eyes turned to the girl in the next chair.
"I'm Luna," said Luna Lovegood placidly. "I'm here because ..." She blinked and looked around. "I thought this sounded like a nice idea."
Hermione stared. "Luna, how did you even find out this was happening?"
"I was in Diagon Alley to buy a Mild Bubotuber Destrangulator, and I happened to see an advertisement outside Flourish and Blotts."
"Yes. Written by a Mole Sluglet. They're common in Diagon Alley, you know - they eavesdrop on conversation and write down snippets of them with their own feces."
"Oh, God," said Snape with disgust.
"...you can really go," Hermione said to Luna. "You don't have to be here."
"It's all right. I don't have much else to do."
Lucius and Bellatrix exchanged a glance. Blatant disbelief was written on Riddle's, Snape's, and Dolohov's faces.
Hermione sighed. "Er. All right, then. The answer I was really looking for was that you're all here because you've killed someone using one of the most terrible curses known to man, and the Ministry hopes to engender in you a greater understanding of the severity of your actions." She cast a glance at Luna. "Except Luna. Anyway, that said, the longer you all go without such destructive behaviors, the more time you'll have to mull over what you've done. So." She looked from face to face, analyzing the expressions: revulsion; condescension; boredom. Great. "Let's go around the room and state how long we've gone without using Avada Kedavra. Tom?"
"Eighteen minutes," said Riddle. He met Hermione's narrowed eyes with cool defiance. "There was a gnat outside," he explained.
"You ... I can't ..." Hermione shook her head.
Merlin help me. In that second, she came this close to smashing her fist into his eye. "I can't even comprehend how you use that spell with such little thought to its moral consequences."
"Aren't you supposed to be somewhat impartial?" Riddle said, arching an eyebrow at her.
"They never said anything about impartiality; no."
Riddle tapped his chin with one long finger. "I feel as if the roots of the word mediator, from the Latin, imply -"
"Quiet. Be. Quiet. And work on your impulsive slaughtering for next time, if you don't mind," she said. She moved on quickly, not liking the murderous glint in Riddle's eye. "Professo - I mean, Severus?"
Snape cleared his throat. "If you don't count the single curse of several years ago, which was more of an assisted suicide than anything, it's been decades now," he said curtly. "As I said, there has clearly been some sort of miscommunication; I should be exonerated from blame and released immediately. In fact, I hazard a guess that I should be thanked profusely by every last empty-headed lunatic inside that accursed Ministry."
"Sorry," Hermione said. "Against protocol. I can't let you leave."
"For Merlin's sake," snarled Snape, sinking lower in his seat.
When Lucius spoke, it was in the very tone of repentance. "It's been many long years since I performed that dreadful curse, hard-suffered by the guilt of my conscience."
Hermione frowned, trying to hide her skepticism. "Er ... right. Bellatrix?"
"I will not shame myself by answering to you."
"Look, please try to be cooperative. It'll only go slower if you make this harder than it has to be."
Bellatrix raised her heavy-lidded eyes to the ceiling of the stone chamber and said nothing. A long minute passed.
"Are you looking at the Suspending Speelies?" Luna whispered. "I see them too."
Hermione leaned on the podium and closed her eyes.
This was going to be a long afternoon.
Two months later.
"No, please, sir, please don't assign me to do that again - I'm not -"
"I'm very sorry, Ms. Granger, but regardless of how unpleasant it is, it's the job of law enforcement interns to oversee criminal proceedings and processes. For the record, you'll just be taking notes this time, not mediating. We've determined that certain members of that group might need more ... strong-fisted supervision." Pelmer shook his head. "We've already gone through almost all of our interns and available volunteers; no one seems suitable to come back a second time ..."
His consternation faded to resignation. "Ah, well. We'll make do with what we have. Now, I really must be going."
Hermione's hope faded as she watched the retreating back of her superior. Oddly enough, she also felt a little put out that he didn't think she could be sufficiently strong-fisted, though it was true that note-taking was a little more suited to her strengths.
Maybe she should have punched Tom Riddle in the eye last time.
And now her Saturdays were ruined for the foreseeable future.
Who was the new mediator, anyway?
The first thing Hermione heard when she walked in was "Hem, hem!"
She nearly fled, but she forced her legs to ignore their instincts. Walking jerkily, she made her way to the corner and sat down.
The numbers had shrunk. Dolohov and Lucius, apparently, had managed to worm their way out of a repeat meeting. Luna, on the other hand, was inexplicably still present.
A wide smile was pasted on Umbridge's face, along with the grasping look of one who desperately wanted more power than she'd been afforded. Hermione felt a sort of sick satisfaction that the toadlike woman had been reduced to this, directing her probational partners.
Bellatrix eyed Umbridge with wary fascination, scanning the woman's plump pink body as if considering how best to disembowel it. Almost to her own alarm, Hermione found herself rather enjoying the sight of that expression.
"I am Dolores Umbridge, former Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic, and temporary probationary officer." Umbridge raised her pink stationery before her nose and read. "Is Bellatrix Lestrange here?"
Hermione smothered a laugh. The way Umbridge had pronounced Bellatrix's last name had sounded more like a sneeze than anything else.
"Yes?" Umbridge said, turning her eyes to Hermione. Cold recognition flashed in them for a heartbeat. "Is there something you would like to add?"
"Oh, nothing at all, High Inquisitor," Hermione said mildly.
Umbridge looked like she was choking a bit, but continued with the roster.
At the end of the list, Hermione remembered something. "Erm... don't the directions explicitly say to omit last names from the session?"
"If you'd like to direct this meeting, by all means," Umbridge said sweetly. "Go ahead, Ms. Granger."
"Was that another last name I heard?" murmured the last voice Hermione expected to hear: Tom Riddle's. She was so surprised that she let out an ungraceful snigger and half-covered her face with her clipboard. Umbridge's entire body went rigid.
"Sorry. I, er." Hermione waved a hand and cleared her throat. "Carry on, carry on."
"Hem, hem! Now. I believe we should start with a period of internal self-reflection. How can we make ourselves more appropriate members of society? Everyone move to a place of gentleness and contentment in your mind, and consider what makes a model citizen."
A choking noise from Bellatrix Lestrange. Hermione tried to picture what a "place of gentleness and contentment" would be in Bella's mind. A coffin, probably.
"Has everyone reached that pinnacle of calmness, trust, and charity?" said Umbridge, her wide, flaccid face the picture of relaxation.
"Why am I still here?" muttered Snape.
Hermione transcribed the words to her clipboard. Snape didn't seem to have made much progress in the last months. Though he wasn't one to change, she supposed.
"Picture yourself in a pool of kittens," Umbridge said. "Their soft fur caressing your face, their gentle mewling soothing the tumult within you -"
"I'm allergic to cats," spat Bellatrix.
Umbridge's eyes snapped open, bulging horribly. After a second, a strained smile contorted her flabby lips. "...well, I can see I have no choice but to deal with this obstacle directly. You, Ms. Lestrange, shall have an alternate exercise." She withdrew a spindly black quill and a roll of parchment from her sleeve and handed it to Bellatrix.
"What's this?" Bellatrix said, brandishing the quill as if it were a wand.
"I'd like you to write lines." A maleficent glint appeared in Umbridge's eyes. "Write, I am not above respect."
"You can't force me to do that," Bellatrix sneered.
Umbridge smiled primly. "Oh, on the contrary, you'll find I'm perfectly within my rights to do so. Isn't that right, Ms. Granger?"
Hermione sat up a little straighter, folding her arms. "I don't endorse what you're doing, but yes, you're legally allowed to castigate uncooperative group members."
"You didn't even give me any ink, you stupid woman," Bellatrix said.
"Don't worry about that," Umbridge said in her most saccharine tone.
As Bellatrix lowered quill to parchment, Hermione closed her eyes and stuck her fingers in her ears, preparing for the inevitable screech. Bellatrix didn't seem like the type to have a high pain tolerance.
But nothing happened.
Of course - the room had been neutralized. Hermione let out a slow breath, removing her index fingers from her ear canals.
Bellatrix hit the quill on the desk a few times. "This bloody quill isn't writing."
Hermione let out another unintended laugh and clapped her hand over her mouth. All eyes turned back to her. "Sorry!" she squeaked, flapping her other hand. "I just... that choice of words was a little ironic -"
"Why isn't it working?" said Umbridge in a hoarse whisper. "Granger. Why isn't it working?"
"Neutral zone. No magic," Hermione said, unable to keep the amusement from her voice. "They didn't tell you?"
A dreadful silence. Even Snape seemed riveted by the pure horror on Umbridge's face at the failing of her weapon.
Then Luna clicked her tongue softly. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop.
All Hermione heard was a sort of strangled "AAARGH" before Umbridge fled the room.
"All right, is that it, then?" said Snape, getting to his feet. "I have things of vital importance to attend to, if you dimwits don't mind."
They all looked at Hermione. She shrugged. "I'll see you next week, I suppose."
"I pray to God not," snapped the greasy-haired potionmaster, sweeping away.
But he did.
"Why the hell has Bellatrix been removed from this treatment before I have?" Snape moaned.
"Dobby does not know, sir."
"And why in the name of Merlin is a House Elf running these proceedings?"
"Dobby is a free elf. Dobby belongs to no house!" The elf puffed his scrawny chest out, climbing onto the high stool behind the podium.
"He volunteered," Hermione said. "He and Harry happened to be visiting me when Pelmer was discussing this rehabilitation system, and he thought it sounded interesting. Our department is a little short on volunteers at the moment, and we have an interesting murder case that most of the interns are working on..." All except me. Hermione scowled.
"Dobby tried asking Kreacher to come, too," Dobby said brightly to Hermione. "But Kreacher said something about blood traitors, miss, and did not seem happy about the idea. So Dobby came alone."
An air of pure disgust hung over Voldemort, who sat slumped in his seat as if dead. "Let's get this over with," he said. "I'm Tom, and it's been two months since I used Avada Kedavra."
Hermione's eyebrows shot up. "Really!" she said.
Dobby blinked. "Why is miss surprised?"
"Yes, Mudblood," said Riddle, "why so startled?"
She shrugged. "Oh, no reason. I'm just considering the notion that you may have a chance at being a normal human being."
"Normalcy." He made a sort of 'pfft' noise, curling his lip in disgust. "Revolting."
"Functionality is hardly something to scoff at, Vol - Tom."
"You're right." Riddle sneered. "I have a plethora of other things to scoff at, such as the fact that the Ministry can find no other employees besides an uptight virginal Mudblood with an authority complex and an elf that has abandoned its proper station in life."
Hermione didn't think she'd ever heard so many offensive things in one sentence. And how the hell had he come up with virginal? She floundered for a second, aghast. Rage built up behind her collarbones, forming a maelstrom of unreleased words.
"Hermione is Dobby's friend!" the elf squeaked, indignance blazing in his green eyes. "Tom shall not speak of Hermione like this!"
"I'll speak how I damn well please," Riddle spat, drawing his wand seemingly on instinct.
Hermione grasped for a response, but it lay just out of reach, drowned in the fountain of her blind rage.
Riddle gave her a contemptuous look over his shoulder. "I'm not going to pretend to respect someone so clearly inferior."
Her mouth opened slightly. Her diaphragm tightened with an impending bellow. One more word, Voldemort. One... more...
"And," he said, "I'll not have some inferior species mandating my every movement."
"Inferior species?" Hermione exploded, rocketing up out of her seat. "If anyone here is an inferior species, it's you. You're so blind to basic human decency you can't comprehend concepts any child could grasp, and you're so cowardly you can't come to terms with your own inferiority. You may be intelligent, you may be a brilliant wizard, but who bloody cares? You lack the fundamental understanding of everything that's important, everything that could rid you of your perpetual dysfunction. You racist bigot, I could name any number of non-humans that are braver, more decent, and more human than you by a long shot, whether that's mermen, elves, goblins, centaurs, giants, or bloody Suspending Speelies!"
The room remained utterly still and silent in the wake of her yells. Snape looked grudgingly impressed at the lengthy spew of vitriol.
As for Riddle, an expression of light amusement had descended on his features. "My, what a pleasant demeanor," he finally said. "You're sure you don't want to go into politics?"
"OH JESUS CHRIST." Hermione threw down her clipboard, which hit the floor with a satisfying crash, and stomped out, slamming the door behind her. How dare he be so wrong? Incomprehensible. Utterly bloody incomprehensible.
It wasn't until after a few minutes of fuming that she remembered she needed that clipboard. But she couldn't go back in there while they were still sitting around.
Instead, she Apparated back to her apartment for a couple hours, snuck back into the empty room later, and snatched up her clipboard.
Flawless script had appeared below her notes: I look forward to next week's interaction, Mudblood.
She nearly threw the damn thing again.
Snape's owl came on Friday. The message was terse and unpleasant, much like the man himself.
Extracted myself from the weekly torture sessions. Advise that you refrain from angering the Dark Lord as much as is possible for your over-opinionated self.
-Professor Severus Snape
Order of Merlin, 1st Class
Hermione crumpled the note and tossed it into the wastepaper basket, letting out a slow breath. Snape was right. It wouldn't do any good to have an outburst like that again.
"Granger," said Pelmer's voice from behind her. Her heart jumped, a jolt of naive hope. Was the head of her Law Enforcement division finally going to relieve her of her post?
"Tom Riddle mentioned you shouting him into submission at last week's meeting."
Hermione flushed bright red. "Erm, yes. That... was a thing that happened."
Pelmer's grizzled face stretched in a smile. He thumped her on the shoulder, making her wince. "Well, that's a relief, Granger. Certainly a relief. We've run out of volunteers, and now that I know you've got enough fight in you to handle unruly behavior, it stands to reason that you should return to the mediating position."
She could only mouth wordlessly as he walked away. After a few minutes, a strangled "eeeeghhhhWHAT" worked its way from her larynx.
"Lovely day, eh, Hermione?" crowed Zacharias Smith as he walked by. Unfortunately for her fellow intern, this was not the right moment to clap her on the back. Hermione would thereafter be famed as having the most formidable Indian-burn hex on the Law Enforcement floor.
"Sit down," she said the second Riddle walked in.
"Not coming anymore. Sit down."
He eyed her before taking his seat, just long enough to infuriate her. When he sat, he slouched so low his square shoulders brushed the back of the chair. They were separated by a small wooden table, hardly more than two feet apart.
"Could you not sit like a thirteen-year-old?" she said. "I thought you had a little more dignity than that."
"You look slightly less boring from this angle."
Eyes will be gouged. Fingers will be snapped. "Yes, of course," Hermione said, her teeth locked tight together. She steepled her fingers, channeling Professor McGonagall as best she could. "All right ... Tom ... let's try to have a civilized discussion, shall we?"
"We shall doubtless try." He gave her half a smile, and she sat back in her chair, a little disturbed by his appearance. He didn't look like Voldemort, really; not with his newly repaired face. His low-set eyebrows gave his definitely-not-red-anymore eyes a devious, confident look, and - Merlin, who knew the simple addition of a nose could make such a distinct difference? He didn't look a day older than thirty-five. It was disturbing.
Hermione thought she preferred it when he didn't look so much like a normal person. A handsome person.
She tasted disgust at the thought and cleared her throat. "I trust you haven't used Avada Kedavra since we last spoke?"
"You mean since you shrieked at me and stormed out in a fit of pedantic rage?"
A brief pause.
"I'm not apologizing, you know," Hermione said.
"I never suggested you apologize."
"I never said you suggested I apologize."
"In that case, I apologize for the misunderstanding." He smirked. She made a derisive chhh noise in the back of her throat. "And no," he added. "I haven't used the Avada."
"Right." Hermione collected herself. "I'd like to ask you why you've stopped using the curse."
"Well, Mudblood - may I call you Mudblood?"
"You may call me Hermione, since I'm calling you Tom, Tom."
"That hardly seems appropriate in a business relationship such as ours." He arched an eyebrow, and she scowled, her cheeks flushing.
In fury, of course.
"This is not a business relationship," she said. "This is a relationship between the state and a prisoner."
"Oh, please. I'm hardly imprisoned."
"I beg to differ," she snapped.
A split second's silence. Hermione had just enough time to entertain the notion that her words might have been a bad idea.
Then, in one whip-fast motion, Tom Riddle lunged across the table and seized her by the throat.
Hermione's eyes flew wide, and she took a single second to ensure she didn't panic. She made a couple of spluttering gags. Then her fingers fumbled in her robe pocket for her pepper spray.
But before she could find the actual go; spray; protect me button, Riddle's other hand yanked the black canister from her grip. He leaned in, the dark wave of his hair falling past his eye. "You live only because you have amused me," he growled.
Black spots burst in Hermione's vision. The grip of his long fingers was terrifyingly strong. She was starting to run out of air, and worse, out of the logical non-panic mode she'd forced herself into.
So she pulled back her fist and smashed it into Lord Voldemort's face.
He let out a yell and staggered back. A flood of oxygen rushed into her abused throat. She sank into her chair, sucking in hoarse gasp after hoarse gasp, and her fingers flew to her throat, massaging the life back into the tingling skin. "Merlin's pants," she squeaked, the words raw and painful.
Then she looked up at him. Blood spilled from his left nostril, running over his lips. His eyes glittered with sheer rage.
"You will die," he said.
"Someday, yes," she admitted, feeling bizarrely close to hysterical laughter. Must be the adrenaline.
He pulled himself back to his feet, swaying dangerously. "That day is today."
Hermione threw the table at him.
One week later
"You should really fix your nose," Hermione said. "It's all bloody and swollen, right there." She tapped the bridge.
"Well, why not?"
His voice grew low and strained. "Because, Graydger, every tibe I walk out of this accursed chayber, by dose disappears."
"Oh! Right!" Hermione laughed. "Sorry, forgot."
Riddle tried for a malicious glare, but it turned into a wince. His fingers flew to his nose, and he muttered, "Ow."
Hermione restrained a gleeful chuckle. "Alright. Back to orders of business, then. I expect things should go more smoothly, now that we've got the violence out of the way." She shook back her bushy hair and flipped a page. "So. What made you decide to stop using Avada Kedavra?"
"It's widter, id case you didd't dotice the seasods chaydgig. Widter equals fewer livig thigs available for decibation."
"Like the ... gnat you mentioned at our first meeting."
Hermione raised her eyebrows and took a note. "So most of your uses of the spell are instinctive? Relatively cursory?"
The sides of his lips twitched.
"Dothig. Just ... you said 'cursory'; I was edtertained." He cleared his throat. "Adyway. I rarely put thought idto this type of thig adybore. I hit cockroaches with Avada Kedavra regularly; Berlid dose dothig else kills the dab thigs."
"But not in the last two and a half months."
"Do. By dwellig has rebained blissfully idsect-free id recedt days."
"Well, then." Hermione flipped the page. "On an unrelated note, is the pain tracer working?"
"How do you..." Hermione fidgeted. "How do you feel about it?"
He shot a disgusted glance at her. "How do you thigk I feel, Budblood?"
Somehow, the word 'Mudblood' lost all menace in his strangled, nasal voice. "It's Hermione," she said.
"...How do you thigk I feel, Herbiode?"
"Well, I'd imagine you'd be experiencing more than a modicum of frustration."
Hermione waited for him to elaborate, but he just sat there, looking resentful and beat-up and sort of pathetic.
She wondered if he'd let her take a picture of him moping around. She could look at it whenever she needed cheering up.
"I hope you haven't tried breaking the tracer," she said. If he stepped outside the boundaries of his probation area, he would experience blinding pain.
By his glare, she could tell he had definitely tried breaking it.
Hermione sighed. "Dumbledore made it, you know."
"Bloody Dubbledore. Of course." He pulled his left sleeve up, glaring at his left forearm, which no longer sported the skull with the snake sprouting from its jaws. Instead, it featured the tracer: a rather benign-looking happy face. "Isd't it a little sadistic to have it smilig at be like that, gived that the dab thig hurts like a Cruciatus whedever I take a step out of lide?"
"If you didn't take the steps out of line in the first place, you wouldn't have to worry about that."
"There are other thigs in Dockturn Alley besides Dark artifacts," he mumbled.
"I'm sure there are. And I'm also sure you're not interested in any of them." She set down her clipboard, folding her arms. "What happened when you tried to get rid of the tracer, anyway?"
"It bultiplied and covered be with these." He poked the innocent yellow smiley. "I could't leave by apartbent for three days."
Hermione put a hand to her mouth, her lips quivering with restrained laughter. "...right. I ... that's unfor - ahem! - unfortunate."
"I suppose you thingk it's hilarious."
"Perhaps. Sort of. Yes." She cleared her throat and let out a short sigh. "Look, Tom. The purpose of these sessions isn't to antagonize you."
"Oh, of course. I'b guessig that's why you sbashed id by dose with a table. Because you dod't wadt to adtagodize be."
Hermione looked up at the ceiling, pointing at her bruised throat. "It was pure self-defense, and you know it."
"Oh, please. It was practically by duty to silendce you," he said. "You were beig idcredibly presubtuous."
"Presumptuous?" Her hazel eyes snapped back to his. "See, this is the destructive mindset we're trying to eradicate. Your narcissism is so extreme that there is literally no way to make you understand what the feeling of guilt is like."
"I'b sure you could fide a way if you put your clever little Budblood braid to it," Riddle said, with so much sarcasm Hermione could practically taste it.
He sniffed, and his regal face contorted in pain again.
"Oh, let me fix your nose," Hermione sighed. "Wait here for a minute."
She hurried out of the room, Apparated to her apartment, retrieved some minor first aid, and returned. She was surprised to find he hadn't left, or even moved. He just sat there, looking sorry for himself.
"It won't help anything to wallow," she said.
"I'b dot wallowig," he said. "Ow! What id hell's dabe are you tryig to -"
"It's just peroxide. Goodness, you're worse than Ron was when he was fourteen."
That shut him up.
Hermione leaned close, examining the tattered skin, the swollen redness atop the straight line of his nose. "Goodness, I certainly got you with that table, didn't I?" She couldn't keep a bit of pride out of her voice.
"Yes. Huzzah for you."
"I might have to stitch this back together, actually. There's this annoying flap of skin that's just -" She prodded it with the peroxide-soaked rag, and Riddle twitched again.
His dark eyes scrutinized her face, which was contorted in utmost concentration. "You're sort of adoying, ared't you?" he said.
"I'm not annoying. I'm overbearing and difficult. There is a distinct difference, which - ah, there!" She found the edge and yanked the flap of dead skin off the bridge of his nose.
He let out a yell and jerked forward. His cheekbone slammed into hers, and she fell back against the table, stabilizing herself with one hand. "Merlin's pants!" she said. "Would you calm down!"
Riddle let out a few short breaths, touching his nose gingerly. After he'd calmed down a bit, he said, "Did you say Berlid's padts?"
"Yes. Merlin's pants."
He stared at her for a second, and then snorted. Mistake - he choked on the blood he inhaled.
Hermione prodded the tender spot on her cheek where he'd collided with her. "Goodness, you have a hard face."
Their eyes met for a second, and she flushed red. "That ... was less awkward in my head."
"I cad ibagine bost thigs you say are less awkward id your head."
"All right, quiet. Just let me..." She leaned back toward him, furrowing her brow. "Let's just..."
She pressed the peroxide to his nose once more, and his eyes snapped shut, his eyebrows creasing in agony. He let out a long breath through his teeth and rocked forward.
His forehead touched hers lightly. She started back. "Erm!"
He opened his eyes slowly, eyeing her with a sort of suspicion.
"I ... there, there we go, er." Hermione ripped a plaster from its sleeve and stuck it onto his face. Then she turned back to the table, fumbling the plasters and peroxide back into the first aid box. Why was she so flustered? Calm down, Hermione...
She slapped the box shut and rounded on Riddle. "All right it's done let's move on I erm yes." She threw a tissue at him. "Blow your nose, go on."
"You seeb a bit agitated," he said, and for the first time in a while, she heard that light amusement creep back into his voice. The nonchalance didn't quite work with that voice and the fat plaster over the bridge of his nose, though.
Then he blew his nose. Hermione wrinkled her own at the sound, but afterwards, when he said, "Oh, thank God," he sounded like himself again.
"You're bruising," she said, without really meaning to. "Your cheek." And so he was. A heavy smatter of green and blue lay over the pale skin, right at the tip of his angular cheekbone.
"As are you."
"...wonderful." Hermione reached for her clipboard and moved back to her seat, which she took slowly.
They surveyed each other with caution.
Hermione didn't know what to do except pray she got taken off this duty soon. They hadn't even really talked about anything, and yet she was already wound to the end of her patience, stretched so taut she could snap at any second. Why had Pelmer chosen her? Why? Yes, Zacharias Smith was a blustering moron, but surely he could be strong-fisted if given the opportunity?
"Preoccupied?" Riddle said.
"Just sort of wishing I weren't here."
"Oh. Fancy that; me too."
"Yes, well, what else have you got to be doing?"
Hermione couldn't help but emit a wistful sigh. She hadn't had any time to devour a book for two solid weeks, which was practically unfathomable. This was her longest spell without books since she'd been Petrified in second year. "I miss reading."
"What, Witch Weekly?" Riddle said snidely.
"Har har. No; I'd just started on Transfigurative Hyperextension in the Third Astral Plane, and I haven't had time to get past Chapter Seventeen for two entire weeks. It's been awful."
Riddle looked at her like he expected her to yell, Surprise! Just pulling your leg!
"You," he said. "You're reading that. A Mudblood."
"I'm a witch before I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione said, "and before all that, I love to read."
The look he gave her was definitely appraising. Hermione folded her arms. "What? Is it really that shocking?"
"Frankly, yes. Your temperament suggests you're from Gryffindor, which doesn't imply any great intellect."
Hermione considered for a second. "Well, yes, sometimes I think I should have been in Ravenclaw. The hat even considered putting me in Slytherin for a minute, though I insisted it wipe that option from the running -"
She caught his eye and cut herself off. "Why did I just tell you that?"
Hermione let out a sigh, kneading her temples. "Alright, look. I don't want to -"
"What else have you read recently?" he asked. "I want everything from the last three months."
She narrowed her eyes at him. That list would take forever. Was he being facetious?
"I'm not joking," said Riddle, as if he'd heard her thoughts. He stretched out in his chair. "Come on, then, let's hear it."
"I ... well, if you're sure." She started to count off on her fingers. "Mass Conjuration on Third-Degree Bases; Troll Communication and the Nature of Shielded Intellect; An Analysis and Treatise on Magical Ministries and Governments in Wizarding Egypt from 1830 to 1856..."
Hermione had never met anyone who drank in the titles like Riddle did. He seemed to be memorizing them. About halfway through her list, he snatched her clipboard and started transcribing her words. Every so often he would stop and ask a question about a book.
"Was that one any good?"
"A little elementary," she said. "Nothing of substance to be gleaned from a re-read, if that tells you anything."
"Pity. Sounded mildly entertaining." He scratched the title off the list. "Keep going."
He had filled up the parchment by the time she stopped. "Why do you even want to know these books?" she asked. "Don't you only read Dark stuff?"
"I've already exhausted the measly Dark section at Flourish and Blotts', the restricted area at Flitterquills', the Dark Theory and Practice shelves at Andrews and Garner, and any other Diagon Alley location you could name. Awfully limited." He shook his head. "And since every other place is off-limits, I might as well get started with some decent literature, if I have to read this light-magic garbage."
"That's why you wanted to go to Knockturn Alley?" Hermione said, her voice liberally coated with disbelief. "To get new books to read?"
He folded his arms. "Perhaps."
Hermione could do nothing but stare for a minute or so, processing this new information. Tom Riddle. Voldemort. Books.
All of a sudden, she felt an odd burst of rejuvenation. "Let's talk about books!" she blurted.
Her cheeks went hot before the words had left her mouth.
"Goodness," he said. "Calm yourself, woman."
"Sorry. I just ... no one else on this bloody earth will talk about books with me."
The beginnings of a genuine smile curved his lips. "Well. I would love to speak about books."
And they did.
Three weeks later.
"Granger, if you look at Chapter Thirteen in Draughts for the Dreary Denizen, you can clearly see that the Beguiling Brew is more effective with a Sundown Seed."
"That doesn't matter; they're Class B Non-Tradeable materials. And since you can make it with the Snorlax substitute, as -" She let a heavy tome thud onto the table - "Adipose Tissues and Magical Chemistry states in section eight point four, I think you'll find you haven't a leg to stand on." She gave him a prim smile.
Riddle bent over the book and scowled. "Damn."
"Oh, hush. You're just disappointed you don't have an excuse to go to the black market at the nearest possible opportunity."
"No, I'm just irked because you're right for once."
"For once? If we kept track of the instances in which you've been grievously mistaken -"
"Then it would be a very short list indeed." Riddle smirked.
Hermione put her hands on her hips in a most Molly-Weasley-esque fashion. "If you continue on like this, I'm not going to let you borrow Wandlessly Wandering."
"Don't try that with me."
"I'm merely making the observation that your reading pleasure of the next day or two relies on your civility to me."
"Civility?" He raised an eyebrow, folding his arms. "Are we ever civil?"
"We've verged on it a couple times, yes."
"Well. Verging on civility is hardly the state itself."
Hermione rolled her eyes, poking the bruise on his cheekbone. "Oh, hush."
She frowned lightly. Why had she done that?
He, too, looked perplexed. "Why the unnecessary prodding?"
"I, er, I just, you'd think that would've healed by now."
"I haven't bothered fixing it. I don't have many people touching my face, shockingly."
Hermione's lips twitched. "Yes, well." She touched her own cheek, which was unblemished. "Neither do I, but it's nothing more than an Episkey."
"Let's be honest, Granger: Does it really matter how I look?"
She shrugged. "It's always nice to look put-together."
"What, so I can show off when I'm leaving my apartment once a week?"
"Well, you've already started taking restoration potion, right?"
"That's more in the long-term interest of regaining my nose, eyebrows, and hair, rather than a vanity project. Practical."
"Still." She poked his bruise again, and he winced. "See? That pain could have been avoided."
Riddle sighed, rubbing his cheek. "You really are most infuriating, Granger."
"Oh, I know. It takes long years of practice to get this good at it, too."
A long pause elapsed while they looked at each other. For some reason, Hermione felt her stomach twist. She blinked and looked down at her feet.
"Out of curiosity," said Riddle, "how old are you?"
"And you're still only an intern?"
"I spent a few years in the Magical Accidents Department, but it didn't live up to my expectations."
"And you? How old are you?"
"Timeless." He flashed a white grin at her.
She rolled her eyes. "You do look absurdly young, though."
"Something to do with the Horcruxes, I'd suppose. The effects of immortality are varied and quite remarkable."
"Don't mind me if I don't try it for myself, thanks," Hermione said coolly.
"Of course not." He smirked. "You couldn't perform the magic required, anyway."
She gritted her teeth. "Merlin's beard. One of these days..."
"You've already smashed a table into my face; don't threaten anything even more brutish."
"Don't worry. One of these days. I'm leaving that threat open-ended; use your imagination. Think of the most terrible thing possible. Someday I will do it."
"But not today?"
"No. Not today, I suppose."
Riddle snorted. "Well, then, thank you for your mercy, Dark Lord Granger."
Her seriousness cracked. She let out a laugh. "Never thought I'd hear that."
"Try it on for size. I think it quite fits, given your remarkable obstinacy and self-importance."
"Oh, this from you."
"That would be the point. From one Dark Lord to another. Need I remind you of my anagram?"
"No, dear Merlin, spare me the tenth reiteration of how clever you were in rearranging Tom Marvolo Riddle." She pulled out a sheet of parchment from her pocket. "In fact, I came prepared. Here, some other names you could have chosen that would have been far more interesting anagrams."
He blanched visibly. "Oh, God."
She smiled. "I like this one: 'Mort, Old Maid Lover.' Though admittedly, 'Mermaid Volt Drool' does have a nice ring to it -"
"Why would you look these up. Why."
"Oh, this one's a little more apropos - 'Travel, Milord! Doom.'"
"You have far too much time on your hands."
"How about 'Tidal Overlord Mom'?"
"'Odd immoral revolt,' that describes you quite well..."
"Trim mold overload..."
"Dammit, do roll over."
"Armored doll vomit -"
"God, why -"
"Marvel, dildo motor!"
She brandished the parchment in his face. "There, look -"
He seethed. "This is unnecessary!"
"You are unnecessary!"
"Spare me your prattling."
"Spare me your rudeness," she shot back.
"No, I'm serious," he said. "Stop speaking."
She folded her arms, tossing the parchment on the table. "What do you want me to -"
And then his lips pressed lightly to hers, and she froze.
"See you next week," Riddle said. He picked up Wandlessly Wandering and left.
Hermione couldn't believe it when she got Pelmer's owl.
Found another volunteer for Riddle's probation - some lady called Walburga. Need you on investigation detail Saturday.
She tossed the note in the fire, frowning. Why was she sort of disappointed, sort of irritated? This was what she'd wanted for ages now.
But the books. The intellect. The conversation...
Most importantly, she needed Wandlessly Wandering back.
So, that Sunday, Hermione found herself walking down Diagon Alley to the probation blocks, the small neat uniform apartments stacked away in the alley behind Gringotts. The day was glorious and ice cold, scoops of cotton-candy cloud scudding across the flat blue sky. Florean Fortescue's was still selling ice cream, for some reason, even though it was several degrees below zero.
"Mudblood!" she heard Bellatrix's voice screech from one of the probation blocks. Hermione flicked her wand, and the window slammed shut.
She squinted up at the blocks and clambered up the steps to the apartment at the very top. It sat isolated from the rest, a lonely little attic. Hermione rapped on the door.
When Riddle opened it, his expression made an instant transition from mild confusion to surprise to blankness. "Granger."
"I've ... er, come for my book."
"Of course." He reached over to a nearby desk and handed the tome to her.
"Right." Hermione stood there lamely for a few seconds. "May... may I come in?"
Riddle raised one eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"
"It killed the cat, you know."
"Good thing I'm not a cat, then." Save that one time with the Polyjuice Potion, that is...
She pushed past him and took in his three-room apartment: a tiny bathroom, a miniscule kitchen, and this, the bedroom with a desk and too many books. Every book lay lined up alphabetically, every corner in place, nothing misaligned.
"Not bad," she said.
"Better than a prison cell."
"Of course." She eyed his rumpled hair, his reddened eyes. "You look ... harangued."
"I must say, your replacement does not improve on you."
"Walburga? Who is that, anyway?"
"Someone who should be in an asylum."
"People could say the same of you."
"I'm serious." Riddle smoothed his hair back into place. "I couldn't get through a sentence without her shrieking about the fact that I'm..."
"You know. A half-blood."
"Don't say that like it's some dirty word." Hermione leveled her cool gaze at him. "I thought your racism had lessened, however slightly."
Riddle sighed. "I still think it's a shame you're a Mudblood."
"And I still hate your use of that word."
"Oh, fine, I'll stop."
"Tom, I'm asking you, please." She scowled. "That word hardly has a neutral connotation. And for goodness' sake, how am I in any way inferior to your average pureblooded witch?"
A stiff, awkward silence.
"I'll consider choosing a less pejorative term," he said at last. He shut the door, blocking the chill. "So," he said, folding his arms. "Why are you actually here?"
"To get my book. I told you."
"You should know by now I'm an awful liar," Hermione sniffed. "If I hadn't come to get my book, you would have said so long before now."
"In that case, my question is: Why are you still here?"
She considered for a second. "I suppose I want to find out why you..."
"Kissed me," she mumbled, turning beetroot red. "I mean, the simple answer, of course, is that it was a diversionary tactic so you could take the book I'd been threatening to withhold. But that seems a little too simple, by your standards. You could have chosen any other method of distraction, and -"
"You've put far too much thought into this."
"I - what?"
"I kissed you because I felt like it." He gave a lazy shrug of his narrow shoulders. "No other reason."
"...oh," Hermione said, unsure what to feel, unsure what she was feeling regardless of the appropriate response.
"Would you like me to do it again?" he asked.
"... I ..." She glanced around for a second, and then shrugged. "All right."
He snatched the book from her hands, tossed it on the desk, and his lips collided with hers. It felt nothing like the light brush of before. This time she could taste him like an ache deep in her mouth, feel every millimeter of their contact electrifying her body, sense just how close his tall body was. A shock of relief hit her when she collided with his frame, strengthening as she grabbed the front of his robes to keep him kissing her by any means necessary.
Riddle leaned in to murmur into her ear. "By the way: My name is Tom, and I haven't used Avada Kedavra in four years."
She froze, and then tugged away, her cheeks flushed, her lips bruised. "What?" she said loudly.
"I lied." He gave the most satisfied of smiles.
"Well, why the hell would -"
"I started lying because I wanted to irritate the Ministry and demonstrate some small measure of autonomy." He let his hands trace down her sides, and she shivered involuntarily. "I continued lying," he said, "because you're amusing. And easily frustrated. And attractive when you're angry. And unparalleled when it comes to intellectual battle by all save myself, which means our debates entertain me." A brief pause. "I say this objectively, of course."
Hermione glared. "And you, Tom Marvolo Riddle, are obnoxious."
"Oh, dear. If I could feel guilt, I'm sure I would feel just awful about that," he sighed, his expression the picture of innocence.
Their eyes met, and then something happened that Tom Riddle had never experienced.
They both let loose an identical snicker, despite their efforts to contain themselves.
Then the snickers turned into chuckles, and soon they were laughing, and snorting, and trying to stop laughing, and failing.
They eventually stopped with their foreheads resting against each other, smiles fading.
"Stay," said Riddle.
"Fine," said Hermione.
She flicked her wand. Episkey.
The bruise melted from his cheekbone, and she brushed her fingertips down from the spot to the angle of his jaw.