Disclaimer in Chapter One


Chapter Two: I'm a Liar

The next day, Hermione quietly slipped out of the Heads' dorms. She was very relieved that Riddle was nowhere to be seen. The golden ring weighed heavily in Hermione's robe pocket as she left the dorms. She didn't quite know what to do with the dark object, yet. So for now, Hermione simply decided to hide it away. Luckily, she knew just the place for that.

Hastily, Hermione walked through hallways and corridors towards the seventh floor. A relieved breath of air left her as she reached a familiar stretch of bare wall. It was the enchanted entrance to Hermione's private sanctuary, the Room of Requirement. Quickly, Hermione opened the room, desperately wishing for a place to hide the golden ring. The Room of Requirement turned into a large hall, stuffed with piles and piles of things. It was pure chaos of old and dusty crystal balls, broken brooms, a pile of mismatched shoes, a stack of destroyed and rusty cauldrons. Obviously, whole generations of students had been here before Hermione, hiding away broken or stolen things. Hermione stepped further into the room. Not far away, she spotted an old chest of drawers. Some time ago, it had been painted in a dark green. By now, the old varnish flaked off at various places. Hermione opened one of the drawers, before she pulled the golden ring from her pocket and put it into the drawer. She felt strangely relieved, as if having lost a great burden, as she left the Room of Requirement.

Unfortunately, Hermione's elevated mood didn't hold for long. The whole day – in the Great Hall, during classes, in hallways, whenever their paths crossed – Riddle was staring at her. Hermione tried to ignore his penetrating gaze, but it made her feel uncomfortable. She hadn't spoken a word with him since last night and desperately wanted to keep it this way.

Riddle's stares and borderline threatening presence made Hermione contemplate her options. So, as she left the library at nine o'clock the same day, she wondered whether she should consult a teacher. The ring was clearly dark and Riddle's intentions seemed, at least, to be ominous. Hermione felt a familiar painful pang in her chest as she had to acknowledge her lack of a person, a friend, she could confide in. Deep in dark thoughts, Hermione trekked back to her common room. Hogwarts' hallways were deserted as curfew was approaching and were rather spooky at this late hour.

Hermione had just taken a few steps down another hallway, when suddenly a strong arm wrapped around her waist and a hand was pressed over her mouth. She gasped in fright but the hand muffled any sound she made. The arm around her tightened painfully and she was wrenched away. Hermione wriggled around, trying to break free, but her captor was stronger. Cold panic consumed her and her heart hammered away in her chest as she was dragged from the hallway and into another one. A door was ripped open and Hermione was brutally shoved into a dark room. She lost her balance and painfully fell to the floor, scraping her knees.

Her breath left her in short gasps, while adrenalin and fear rushed through her. Without thinking, Hermione dug her hand into her robe pocket and pulled out her wand. She didn't try to get up from her kneeling position, didn't try to reason with her captor either, instead she flashed her wand through the air and cried,

"Stupefy!"

The angry red light dashed through the air towards the position where she assumed her captor to be. Unfortunately her Stunner didn't hit its aim. A blue shield rose up in the air, illuminating the dark classroom. Hermione's eyes widened slightly as she could finally identify her captor in the dull light. She couldn't say she was surprised.

"Riddle," Hermione whispered hoarsely as she stared at the black-haired Slytherin.

Riddle didn't reply. He elegantly brandished his wand, cancelling his shield and simultaneously kindling a nearby torch, lighting the room.

"What-" Hermione gasped, still feeling shaky, "-is the meaning of this?"

Riddle's unfathomable grey eyes travelled over her kneeling form. Hermione could feel the dark magic hovering around him. It saturated the whole room and tugged balefully at her body. She couldn't help but flinch away from him. A twisted smirk curved Riddle's lips as he saw it. Hermione jutted out her chin in defiance and grabbed her wand tighter.

"Don't…" she warned sharply. "Don't try anything, Riddle."

Slowly she got up from the floor to stand on shaky legs. She never lowered her wand put kept it aimed straight at Riddle's heart. Every muscle in her body was tense and her eyes shortly flew from Riddle to the exit door behind him.

"Whatever you're up to, I want no part in it," Hermione told him decidedly. "I'm going to leave now."

As a reaction Riddle stepped in front of the door and raised his wand threateningly. The evil smirk still hung mockingly from his lips.

"I don't think so," he hissed, his voice cold and devoid of any emotion.

Hermione had to stop herself from shying away from Riddle's dark aura. The smirk abruptly dropped from his face, leaving behind a frightening glower.

"Give me my ring," Riddle commanded menacingly.

Hermione gulped. So, that was what he wanted. It didn't come as a surprise, but she had pictured the confrontation in a less dangerous light.

Hermione narrowed her eyes and snapped, "No."

By his reaction Hermione could tell that Riddle didn't hear that word very often. His Dark Magic in the air turned and furiously pressed down on her. Hermione could barely breathe as the power ripped at her hungrily. With eyes widened in fear, she stared at Riddle. His grey eyes seemed to glow in the twilight of the room and a distorted smirk curled his lips.

Without any warning, he slashed his wand through the air. Hermione didn't have time to defend herself as an unforgiving force crashed into her, hurling her to the floor. A painful moan left her mouth and her hand shot to her chest.

"I want you to give me my ring," Riddle said, his voice eerily soft and calm.

Hermione raised her head, erratic curls of hair falling in her face. A vicious smirk ghosted around Riddle's lips as he eyed her. His dark magic stormed around him in a vortex of destruction.

"Give up," the wizard hissed, his voice a dark whisper.

Riddle's malicious magic still burned in Hermione's chest. She could hear her blood rushing in her ears as she felt his curse slowly squeezing around her heart, already making it stutter. There was no mercy on Riddle's face. Pain engulfed Hermione and she grasped her chest. Shakily she wrenched up her wand. The tip pointed at her own chest, as Hermione hissed,

"Pena!"

Her magic, warm and soothing, flooded her chest. Quickly it pulled at Riddle's curse which still squeezed threateningly around Hermione's heart. Without hesitation, Hermione moved her wand away from her chest and aimed it at Riddle. Her magic followed the movement. Still tightly wrapped around Riddle's dark curse, her magic detached from Hermione's body. Taking Riddle's magic along, it hurtled towards the wizard.

Riddle raised a surprised eyebrow as he was suddenly confronted with his own curse, backed up by Hermione's magic. An angry snarl appeared on his face and Riddle whirled his wand. The air crackled with his magic and a powerful burst of it slammed into Hermione's attack, sending it off trajectory. Riddle again brandished his pale wand and sent an angry curse at Hermione. She barely had time to erect a shield before the curse was upon her. It violently collided with her shield and Hermione was hurled away. A yell of pain left her lips as she brutally crashed into a table. Wood burst and splinters cut her skin, boring themselves into her flesh. Dazedly, Hermione lay on the floor, groaning in pain.

"Stupid witch," she could hear Riddle's silky voice spit at her.

His voice was followed by another curse. Hermione saw the yellow light rushing towards her. Frantically, she rolled over. Riddle's curse crashed into the floor, just where Hermione had been lying seconds before, and left behind cracks in the flagstone. Her eyes went wide as she stared at the destroyed stone. If that curse had hit, Hermione would have been severely injured if not worse. Her gaze flew to her attacker. Riddle again whirled his wand. Fear ruled her actions as Hermione reacted, otherwise she would have never used such a dark spell.

"Cremitare!" she yelled.

Fire burst from her wand. It sizzled angrily as it wrapped around Riddle, eager to incinerate him. Riddle had to raise a shield to protect himself. Hermione stared incredulously as her flames were simply sucked into Riddle's shield until there was nothing left. Riddle sent her an evil smirk before he once again brandished his wand. Instantly, his shield exploded in a green light. The blast of it hurled Hermione, like a ragdoll, against the wall. A yell of pain left her as she crashed into the stone. Weakly, she sagged to the floor and coughed, desperately trying to get air into her lungs.

Hermione still fought for air as she heard soft steps echoing through the room. With difficulty she raised her head. A cruel gleam danced in Riddle's grey eyes as he walked towards her.

"You leave me no choice, Hermione," he whispered, the threat evident in his deep voice. "It seems, I have to force that ring from you."

Hermione trembled helplessly as her eyes jumped from the merciless expression on Riddle's face to the pale wand in his hand. He was incredibly strong… too strong for me.

"Where is the ring?" Riddle inquired, his voice light but Hermione could hear the danger underneath.

Hermione didn't reply, but fearfully shied away from him, pressing her back against the wall. As she made direct contact with the wall, Hermione could sense a Silencing Spell layering the stone. Riddle must have cast it. The spell encompassed the whole classroom, making it absolutely soundproof. No wonder no-one had come to save her.

"You will hand over that ring," Riddle hissed threateningly.

To emphasise his demand, he sent a cutting curse at her. Hermione whimpered as she felt his magic slicing into her arm, blood following. She had no idea why she didn't give in to him. Maybe stubbornness held her back …or insanity. She grabbed her wand tighter, steeling herself.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Hermione said, struggling to keep the fear from her voice.

Riddle snickered darkly. "Have it your way then, little Ravenclaw."

Before he could attack her, Hermione sprang into action. Hastily, she slammed a bout of her magic into the wall behind her. Riddle's Silencing Spell bristled angrily at the intrusion. Shortly the room's walls flickered in a greenish light, but then the spell broke down. Hermione triumphantly grinned up at Riddle. Her wand was raised and magic gathered at its tip, ready to be released.

"Stop," Hermione ordered, only slightly breathless. "Attack me and I will release this little spell here."

She gestured with her wand. Riddle stopped in his movements but did not lower his wand. His eyes narrowed dangerously.

"You are weak. Do you really think you can stop me?"He tilted his head to a side as he stared at her wand. "With a Reductor?!"

Hermione wasn't to be discouraged by his scorn and her grin widened.

"Maybe not," she admitted lightly. "But I might just release this little Reductor. I think it's powerful enough to put a nice hole in that wall over there." The grin on Hermione's face sharpened as she added, "With your Silencing Spell gone, half of Hogwarts' population would hear such an explosion. They'll come running. I'm sure Dumbledore would be interested to hear what exactly has been going on in this room."

Dark Magic wrenched at Hermione, but she was incredibly satisfied to see fury twisting Riddle's face. He stared at her for a second, obviously wishing he could kill her with his glare. Then slowly, so very slowly, he lowered his wand.

Hermione didn't wait to see if he came up with another, quieter, murder plan to bring her down. She pulled herself up from the floor, her back aching nastily. The glow of the Reductor still lit her wand as Hermione slowly inched closer to the door. She never once took her eyes off Riddle. Cautiously, she groped for the door handle. The Slytherin still hadn't moved but observed her, strange expression on his face. Hermione finally opened the door. Before she could slip out, Riddle's voice held her back,

"Wait."

It wasn't the authoritative command it had been just moments before. Hermione hesitated. There was a hint of panic in his deep voice.

"Please," Riddle pleaded softly. "Please, wait."

The unfamiliar tinge of defeat held her back. Hermione had never heard Riddle speaking like this. It didn't drive away her wariness or her anger, but it did make her curious. Riddle looked at Hermione, his face paler than usual and the menacing glint having left his eyes.

"I… I…" Riddle stuttered. "Please, don't tell Dumbledore anything."

Hermione's nose crinkled in disgust and she snapped fiercely, "Don't expect any leniency from me. You attacked me just because of some stupid ring."

"I'm sorry," Riddle quickly asserted. "I'm sorry, I attacked you."

Hermione snorted disbelievingly. "Yeah. Right."

Then she again reached for the door handle. Riddle took a step towards her. The movement made her train her wand, still lit with her Reductor, at him.

"I told you to leave me alone," Hermione warned threateningly. "I'll give that blasted ring to Dumbledore. He can deal with you."

"No… you misunderstand," Riddle whispered, urgency in his tone. "That ring… it's- it's not mine."

Hermione shook her head at this blatant lie. "Do you think I'm stupid? Really? Couldn't think of anything better?"

Riddle's grey eyes fluttered at her. Hermione was surprised to see insecurity swimming in them.

"I'm not lying," he replied cautiously. "Please, let me explain."

Hermione had no wish to spend any more time with Riddle. If she gave Dumbledore the ring and told him everything, he would surely get Riddle expelled. He would deserve it, Hermione decided hotly. Riddle peered at her, nervously fiddling with the wand in his hands, almost dropping it. Shouldn't she at least hear him out? Hermione released an angry breath of air then, very reluctantly, she nodded at him. Relief crossed Riddle's handsome face.

"Rosier," he explained softly. "The ring belongs to Rosier."

Hermione furrowed her brow in disbelief. "Marius Rosier?"

The Slytherin nodded his head. "I don't know if you ever heard about them, but there's a group within Slytherin house that has a lot of power and influence."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Of course I know. Everybody knows about them. Nasty bunch. What are they calling themselves? Walpurgis Night?"

Riddle peered at her with his unfathomable grey eyes and corrected quietly, "The Knights of Walpurgis."

"Whatever," Hermione said carelessly. "I also know that Lestrange, Malfoy, Nott, Mulciber and Rosier are a part of this group. And that you-" she threw a dark glare at Riddle, "-are their leader."

Riddle's eyes widened slightly as he heard the last statement. A hint of embarrassment crossed his face before he hid it by bending down his head.

"I'm… I'm not their leader," Riddle admitted hesitantly. "Rosier is."

"Pfft, that's ridiculous," Hermione sneered. "I've seen how they treat you, Riddle. Like some sort of royalty. I sure as hell never saw them behaving like that towards Rosier."

Riddle quickly shook his head. Desperation laced his tone as he explained, "That's all for show. They want me to act as their leader in public."

"Why?" Hermione shook her head in disbelief. "Why would they want a fake leader?"

"You said it yourself, Hermione," the Slytherin explained. "Everybody knows that I'm the Knights' leader. Consecutively, if anything goes wrong, who would take the blame? Me."

Hermione considered Riddle for a moment. He looked at her pleadingly, desperation on his face. He was the leader of the Knights. Why did he pull such a lie now?

"Even if it's true and you're not their leader," Hermione stated gruffly, "You're still part of that group. The Knights are a bunch of dark wizards. I've heard of a few incidents involving them. People got hurt and cursed. The professors could never prove it, but everybody knows that the Knights are to blame." Hermione narrowed her eyes at Riddle. "Why should I trust you? Why would you be a part of the Knights if you're as innocent as you claim to be?"

Riddle averted her eyes and slightly bowed his head as her accusations washed over him. He didn't answer her right away.

"I- I need them," Riddle finally admitted quietly.

"Oh please," Hermione snorted disbelievingly. "Why would you need them? Tom Riddle doesn't need anyone. The way you strut around the castle, I always thought the whole thing belongs to you."

Riddle's grey eyes shortly glanced up at her but he quickly lowered his head again as he spotted the disdain on Hermione's face.

"I can't see the popular Tom Riddle following anyone around," Hermione scorned. "The teachers adore you, the girls love you and everyone else wants to be just like you. The famous Pureblood Riddle. King of Slytherin. Don't tell me that they are not catering to your every wish."

"I'm not," Riddle whispered, almost inaudible.

"What?" Hermione inquired harshly.

Finally, he raised his face and looked her in the eyes. Determination glinted in his eyes and his voice was firm as he stated,

"I'm not a Pureblood."

Hermione was taken aback. Silence fell after Riddle's statement and she could only stare at him.

"What are you talking about?" Hermione asked weakly. "You're in Slytherin, of course you're a Pureblood. I know you are a Pureblood."

"I'm a Halfblood, okay?" Riddle snapped. "Are you satisfied now?"

"I don't understand."

"Everybody in Slytherin knows," Riddle hissed, bitterness creeping into his tone. "Everybody. Even the first years think they are better than me."

"Riddle, what are you talking about?" Hermione questioned in bewilderment. "Pureblood or not, you're Head Boy. I know that the Slytherins respect you. I've seen it for myself."

Riddle sneered. "They don't respect me. They respect the Knights. Even though I'm the lowest among them, I'm still a member of the Knights. The other Slytherins are bound to respect me. If they don't, they would go directly against Rosier himself. Don't you see? That's the only reason I joined the Knights."

Hermione shook her head. "No. That doesn't make any sense. With all their Pureblood supremacy nonsense, why would the Knights accept a Halfblood?"

"Rosier accepted me as a follower, because I'm useful," Riddle sighed. "I'm smart, the teachers love me and I'm quite popular with the other houses. Of course, Rosier would want to use me."

"I know you, Riddle," Hermione said suspiciously. "And I can't see you following Rosier around like a lap dog."

"Have you any idea how you get treated in Slytherin when you're a Halfblood?" said Riddle mordantly. "Let me tell you, not very well."

He tiredly leaned against the table behind him. Riddle ran a hand through his silky hair and looked quite uncomfortable with the situation.

"You know," he finally spoke again, "I grew up in an orphanage. A Muggle orphanage."

Hermione's eyes widened in surprise.

"I didn't know anything about magic or Hogwarts until Dumbledore visited me when I turned eleven," Riddle continued reluctantly. "It was quite the shock when I finally arrived at Hogwarts and it turned out that the whole thing wasn't just one elaborate joke."

"So, I got sorted into Slytherin." Riddle peered at Hermione. "And as I didn't know a thing about the wizarding world, I didn't know it would be a bad idea to tell the other Slytherins that I grew up with Muggles."

"They didn't like that, did they?" Hermione asked cautiously.

"Not a bit," Riddle laughing mirthlessly. "From the start I got treated like shit."

"I never noticed anything," she mused.

"Slytherins don't air their dirty laundry in public," Riddle said dryly. "They kept it to the common room."

Hermione peered at him. "So you joined the Knights because…"

Riddle threw her a faint smile. "Because they offered me some sort of protection. Finally, the other Slytherins would leave me alone."

Hermione scanned him pensively. "Still no reason for you to attack me."

"The ring…" Riddle whispered softly, "Rosier gave it to me. For safe-keeping. He didn't want to have it in the dorm rooms, so he ordered me to store it in the Heads' dorm."

He nervously fiddled with the hem of his black uniform robe and avoided Hermione's eyes as he continued, "I have no idea what curse was put on the ring but I know it's dark." He glanced at her. "I wanted to stow it away in my room and never think of it again. If Rosier knew I lost it…"

Hermione looked at Riddle and had no idea what to make of him. He seemed to be honest. If that story about him being a Halfblood was really true, then it seemed plausible he would seek protection from the other Slytherins. They were all horribly prejudiced as Hermione knew from experience.

She ran a hand distractedly through her curly hair as she scanned Riddle. Was he lying? She wasn't completely convinced of his innocence but if he said the truth, she couldn't very well hand him over to Dumbledore. Hermione sighed. This was difficult. After a long moment of consideration, she finally said,

"Okay… I won't go to Dumbledore."

Instantly, Riddle's face lit up. "Thank you."

"But-" Hermione raised a hand, "-I'm also not going to give the ring back to you."

The smile dropped from Riddle's face. "I… but I need that ring."

Hermione arched her eyebrows in suspicion and he quickly continued, "If Rosier finds out, I don't know what he's going to do to me."

"I'm sorry," replied Hermione firmly. "But that ring is really dark. It mustn't fall into the wrong hands. And if you're right, then Rosier simply can't have it back."

Riddle stared at her and again opened his mouth, obviously to argue. Hermione cut over him, "I need time to think this through. I don't want to be responsible for any harm the ring causes."

Riddle obviously wasn't content at all with her decision. Hermione didn't care. She simply turned and left the classroom.

– o –

He was strange, Riddle was. Here, Hermione thought she had pegged him as the conceited leader of a gang of bullies, and suddenly he turned everything around. She exhaled tiredly and leaned back against the tree trunk. Her head rested against the bark and she looked up at the blue sky. The beautiful day contrasted sharply with her memories of that surreal duel she had had with Riddle the night before.

Sitting here, nice and secluded, on the soft grass of Hogwarts' grounds, Hermione could almost forget her troubles. Sadly, they kept spinning through her head. What should she do with Riddle? Or with the ring? Hermione sighed deeply and closed her eyes.

She was ripped from her circulating thoughts as she felt something coil around her wrist. She opened her eyes and looked down at her hand. A smile tugged at her lips as she spotted a thin tree branch coiling its way around her wrist like a little snake. Hermione turned her head and looked up at the tree above her. She raised her eyebrows and inquired,

"No longer asleep, are you?"

As if to reply, another branch of the tree gingerly twisted itself into her curly hair, stroking it fondly and making it even bushier. Hermione grinned up at the tree.

"You know, sometimes I envy you," she told the tree. "You can just stand here and not bother about anybody's problems."

The whole crown of the tree gave a little shudder, losing some of its leaves, while the branch around Hermione's wrist squeezed her gently. It was a strangely reassuring gesture, and Hermione wondered if the tree wanted to tell that indeed sometimes it did bother about others' problems. Hermione absentmindedly petted one of the tree's branches. The wood creaked softly. It almost sounded like purring.

"A strange pair we make." Hermione laughed. "A swotty witch and an enchanted tree."

Maybe the tree couldn't see anything strange about that, because it continued to possessively stroke Hermione's hair. She smiled up at the crazy tree and fondly patted a branch.

Every Sunday, Hermione came down here. Just to sit in the grass, by the old knobby tree. No books, no other students were allowed to disturb her here. In her first year, when she had first visited this place, the old Willow had tried to strangle her with its twisty branches. Hermione was stubborn, though, and over years of continued visits, the Willow had developed an odd liking to her. The tree didn't try to attack her anymore. Instead, the old Willow seemed to await Hermione's presence, enjoying it even. It also came in very handy that the Willow drove away any other students and Hermione could have a little bit of undisturbed free time.

Hermione again closed her eyes and leaned against the tree. She enjoyed the branch stroking through her hair and tried to relax. Her light slumber was disturbed by a rustling and voices near-by. Hermione furrowed her brow and looked to the edge of the Forbidden Forest where the voices came from. Instantly her Head Girl responsibilities kicked in. No-one was allowed to wander into the forest. The Willow only reluctantly let go of her as Hermione followed the voices into the Forbidden Forest. Just a stone's throw away from the old Willow, she spotted two figures, hidden in the dark shadows of the forest. One was brawny, standing upright, chest puffed up arrogantly with a wand in hand. The other one knelt on the forest floor, head bowed in a submissive gesture. Trying to be as quite as possible, Hermione slipped closer. Cautiously she hid herself behind some shrubs.

"I ask you one last time," the bulky person hissed dangerously. "Where is my ring?"

Hermione recognized him now. Gelled hair and sneer on his face, Marius Rosier looked more like a gangster than ever. The kneeling person hastily answered Rosier's demanding question,

"I'm sorry," that person whispered softly. "I- I don't know."

Hermione was truly surprised to recognize Riddle. All pompousness had left him and he even had his eyes downcast as he knelt before Rosier. Riddle twisted his hands in his lap and Hermione was close enough to see how he nervously gnawed at his lower lip.

Rosier was bristling with anger. He stepped closer to Riddle and brutally grabbed his dark hair, wrenching his head back. Now Riddle was forced to look up at the other Slytherin. Hermione watched with growing anxiety how malice twisted Rosier's features as his icy cold eyes glared down at Riddle.

"You will pay," Rosier stated, a murderous threat lurking in his tone.

Riddle's eyes widened and he breathed shakily, "Please, I'm really sorry. I'll find the ring. I promise."

Rosier didn't reply. He raised a fist and punched Riddle violently in the face. Hermione put a hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp as Riddle was thrown to the ground. She wanted to yell at him and tell him to defend himself or try to get away. Riddle did neither. He cautiously rubbed his jaw and once again got in a kneeling position.

"I'm sure I can find the ring," Riddle spoke up again, his voice raspy and weak.

"Oh, you will," Rosier said, a fearsome edge to his voice, "but before that, you will pay for your blunder."

Riddle's grey eyes shot up to the other. Hermione could see apprehension swimming in them. Before Riddle could do or say anything, Rosier raised his wand. Angrily he cut it through the air and hissed,

"Dissecare"

Hermione's eyes widened in shock as she watched a sickly orange light detaching itself from Rosier's wand. The curse crackled furiously as it rushed through the air before it forcefully crashed into Riddle's chest. Hermione could see it leaving behind multiple cuts in his uniform shirt and in the flesh underneath. Riddle groaned in pain and doubled over. His hands grabbed his chest and Hermione could see dark blood flowing through Riddle's fingers.

That's it, she thought furiously.

Hermione stood up, abandoning her cover. The Slytherins hadn't yet noticed her presence. Rosier again flicked his wand and sent another curse at Riddle. This time, Hermione didn't just stand by and watch. Her magic stormed around her angrily and she brandished her own wand. Instantly a blue shield appeared around Riddle. Rosier's curse impacted with the shield and bounced off it harmlessly, not able to cause any damage. Furiously, Rosier whirled around. His eyes darkened dangerously as he spotted Hermione.

"Look at that. It's the Mudblood," he threw a cruel taunt at Hermione.

Rosier took his wand from Riddle and now aimed it at her. Hermione kept her own wand threateningly trained at Rosier. She gulped nervously as she saw the menacing expressions on the Slytherin's face. Trying to hide all fear behind a mask of confidence, she ordered sharply,

"Leave him alone!"

Rosier merely sneered at her, "Do you really think I'll listen to a filthy Mudblood."

Hermione's fingers tightened around her wand at the insult.

"Get away from Tom," Hermione snapped at the Slytherin. "I've seen you using that curse. It's dark. If you don't do as I say, I'm going straight to Dippet. I promise you, you'll get expelled before you can even owl your father."

Insecurity flashed through Rosier's eyes. His gaze nervously flicked over to the castle as if already expecting Dippet to storm down to them.

"Just leave," Hermione told him sternly. "Leave now and I won't tell anyone."

Rosier's fingers twisted around his wand. He obviously wanted to curse her but Hermione stood her ground, glaring at the other. After a while, he hissed,

"You'll regret this, Granger."

Hermione crinkled her nose in disgust. "Just go."

Rosier sneered at her, but then he indeed turned around. With sharp eyes, Hermione watched the Slytherin go. When she was sure Rosier had left, she released a relieved breath of air. Then Hermione rushed over Riddle. He was still kneeling on the forest floor, holding his bleeding chest. Hermione crouched beside him and gingerly clutched his shoulder.

"Riddle?" she whispered concernedly. "…Tom?"

He slowly looked up at Hermione. With worry she noticed the pain dulling his eyes and soothingly rubbed her hand over his back.

"Don't worry," she told him gently. "I'll have you healed before you know it."

"What are you doing here, Granger?" Tom inquired, voice laced with pain.

"You might not know it, but I always take a stroll down here on Sundays." Hermione smiled at him softly. "Lucky for you, I guess."

A small smirk curled Riddle's mouth and he joked weakly, "I'm a lucky guy, eh?"

Hermione threw him a reassuring smile. Then she cautiously pried his hands away from his chest. She winced slightly as she saw the many cuts. They had sliced through Riddle's shirt and skin, leaving bloody incisions. Hermione was glad to notice, though, that the cuts weren't as deep as she had feared. The curse Rosier had used could have done a lot more damage. Tom really was lucky.

Hermione glanced at him and said, "It's not too bad. I know a healing spell to cure this. It's gonna hurt a bit, though."

Again that attractive smirk danced around Riddle's mouth. "Fire away."

Hermione nodded. Then she clasped her wand, summoned her magic and whispered the incantation,

"Recura."

A gentle blue light emitted from her wand and instantly latched onto Tom's chest. He shuddered and gasped in pain as the healing spell took effect. Hermione watched with satisfaction how the cuts knitted back together. Soon, only smooth skin was left behind, here and there blemished by blood. Riddle arched a surprised eyebrow as his fingers brushed over his now healed chest.

"It's… it's all gone."

"Yes," replied Hermione. "After all, I'm Head Girl. I know some spells."

She grinned at Riddle before she stowed her wand away in her pocket. Then she got up from the cold forest floor. Her fingers curled around Riddle's arm as she cautiously helped him to stand up.

"You've lost some blood," she told him. "You might feel a bit dizzy."

In silence, Hermione led Riddle back to the castle and then towards the Heads' chambers. Riddle leaned a bit on Hermione as he followed her. Finally, they reached the Heads' common room and were greeted by its welcoming warmth. Before they separated to go to their respective dorms, Riddle bent down to Hermione. His soft lips almost touched her ear as he whispered softly,

"Thank you."

Somehow, Hermione's stomach fluttered strangely at Riddle's closeness. Before she could react in any way, Riddle had bent up again and walked up the stairs to his room. Hermione stood alone in the common room, wondering about this very strange night.

– o –

Early next morning found Hermione sitting in the common room, reading a book. She looked up as she heard someone walking down the stairs. Subconsciously, a smile crept on her face as she watched Tom stepping into the common room. Hermione got up from the couch and walked over to him. Her brow creased as her eyes wandered over Tom. He looked better today. Not so pale anymore. She raised her hands and cautiously ran them over his chest, pushing his green and silver tie out of the way. Her brown eyes fluttered up to him and she asked in concern,

"It's not hurting anymore, is it?"

Tom flashed her a smile, his white teeth glinting invitingly. Then he shook his head.

"No. I'm fine." Hermione had never noticed how melodic Tom's deep voice was. "Thank you for helping me and healing me."

"Don't worry about it." She glanced at him tentatively. "Actually, I should apologize."

Tom arched an inquisitive eyebrow and Hermione continued timidly, "For… you know… not believing you that Rosier is such an ass."

Tom chuckled. "He's rather good at hiding it, isn't he?"

A grin stretched Hermione's lips as she looked up into his incredibly grey eyes. It was then that she noticed how close she stood to Tom. And her hands still lay against his chest. Instantly a heat wave hit her face hard and Hermione knew she was blushing.

"Er… Let's… let's go down for breakfast," she mumbled, embarrassed.

Hermione quickly stepped away from Tom and hoped he hadn't noticed anything. If he had, he didn't comment on it. Together they left the Heads' common room and meandered towards the Great Hall. Hermione was surprised at how natural it felt walking with Tom through Hogwarts' corridors. He smiled a lot and asked her about her school work. Hermione simply loved to talk about her essays and home work, but normally no-one wanted to hear about it. Tom didn't seem to mind, though. They even discussed the latest Transfiguration essay.

Soon they reached the Great Hall, but as Hermione entered Tom hesitated to follow. She turned her head and motioned for him to enter. Tom obeyed but threw nervous glances over to the Slytherin table.

"Hermione?" he asked softly. "Can I… can I sit with you?"

Hermione's eyebrows shot up to her hairline as she heard it. Getting suspicious, she looked over to the Slytherins. Rosier sat at the table, surrounded by his usual followers, and threw dark glares at Tom.

Smile on her face, Hermione peered up at Tom. "Sure. Why not?"

He returned the smile and followed her to her place at the Ravenclaw table. Hermione heard the other Ravenclaws whisper and murmur loudly as Tom Riddle, most popular guy in the school, really decided to sit with her. Hermione could see bewildered expressions on their faces. Some of the girls even threw her jealous looks. A slight smile appeared on Hermione's face. She gloated over the fact that all the people who always ignored her suddenly seemed to envy her.

"Thank you," a velvety voice whispered into her ear.

Hermione peered up at Tom. Looking at his handsome face, she remembered how Rosier had attacked him. Suddenly, all the other students didn't matter anymore. Hermione smiled up at Tom.

"You're welcome."

– o –

The next weeks were the most fun Hermione had ever had in Hogwarts. She spent an inordinate amount of time with Tom. The Slytherin probably just wanted to get away from Rosier. In any way, Tom wormed his way into Hermione's life. More often than not he spent meal times at the Ravenclaw table. He would completely ignore the flirtatious looks of the other Ravenclaw girls and concentrated his attention solely on Hermione. Hermione would never admit it, but she enjoyed the jealous looks of the other girls. Tom also walked her to classes and sat beside her in every Slytherin-Ravenclaw class. He even accompanied her to the library and, for once, actually studied. Hermione supposed she was a good influence on him.

She had to admit, though, that Tom also had a very strong influence on her. He was very good at distracting her. On some days, Hermione completely skipped her library session. Then she would just sit with Tom by the Willow – the tree only grudgingly allowed it – and talk to him.

On one weekend, Tom managed to completely lure Hermione away from Hogwarts. It had been years since the last time she had gone to Hogsmeade. Tom insisted on taking her out, though. First, Hermione hadn't wanted to join him, claiming she needed to write a Transfiguration essay. Tom hadn't listened and had dragged her along. In the end, Hermione didn't regret it. She quite enjoyed the trip. The smile on her face never left her as she strolled with Tom through Hogsmeade, ogling at the shop windows. She blushed, though, as Tom grasped her hand, his fingers gently curling around hers. Together with Tom, Hogsmeade certainly was a lot more fun to explore, Hermione decided as she followed the Slytherin out of Honeydukes.

"Here," Tom said and fished a candy out of a bag he had just bought. "You've got to try this one."

He offered her the chocolate and Hermione popped it into her mouth. The dark chocolate melted on her tongue.

"Mm," sighed Hermione. "This is really good."

"See?" Tom smirked haughtily. "I told you Hogsmeade would be fun."

"Okay, okay," Hermione said smilingly. "I admit you were right. Satisfied?"

"Very," Tom drawled contently.

Hermione noticed how his gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth. Tom smirked as he raised a hand and gingerly wiped a bit of chocolate from her lips. Hermione couldn't help but stare up at him, mesmerized by his beautiful grey eyes. Somehow, it was only natural that Tom should bend down to her and place a feather-light kiss on her lips. Hermione's head spun and there was a strange fluttery feeling in her stomach as she returned the kiss. As he felt her responding to the kiss, Tom snaked his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck, enjoying the pressure of his lips against hers. Electric jolts pleasantly flashed through her whole body as Tom deepened the kiss. All thoughts fled her mind as she felt him rubbing his tongue against hers. Hermione snuggled closer against him and just let go, trusting Tom to hold her.

– o –

In retrospect, that day Hermione had spent with Tom in Hogsmeade had quite obviously been a date. After all, he had asked her out and had paid for everything. Hermione supposed that the kiss shouldn't have come as such a surprise. In the end, though, it didn't matter that she had been so obtuse, because after that date Tom became her boyfriend.

"Her-my-oh-knee?" Tom's teasing voice drifted through Hermione's thoughts.

She looked up from her textbook as someone sat down beside her on the couch in the Heads' common room. Tom lounged on the sofa, head dropped back against the backrest, grey eyes scanning her.

"What?" she asked warily.

Tom smirked. "Are you finished with learning?"

Hermione threw him a reproachful look. "No."

"Merlin, you're still going on?"

He stretched his arms and yawned. Then, in a deliberate movement, he let himself slide down the backrest and allowed his head to fall into her lap.

"Tom!" cried Hermione and pulled her book away. "I'm working here."

Tom snuggled closer to her, raised a hand and teasingly played with her curly hair. He smirked at her and proclaimed fastidiously,

"And I'm bored. Entertain me."

"Honestly," chided Hermione. "Can you tell me, how exactly did someone like you become Head Boy?"

"I don't know," replied Tom mischievously. "My theory is that Dippet is secretly lusting after me."

Hermione drowned him in a withering look. It only made him snicker annoyingly. A sigh left her. Her eyes travelled over Tom's handsome face until her gaze got stuck at his silky black hair. Hermione couldn't resist. She raised a hand and ran her fingers through his hair.

"Okay," she surrendered. "What do you want to do?"

– o –

NEWTs were still important to Hermione. She really needed to get 'O's in everything, but since had she got together with Tom, Hermione quite enjoyed allowing him to distract her from school work. This was also the only reason why she didn't curse him as he, one day, dragged her out of the library, claiming that she had studied enough. Hermione only weakly protested.

"Where are we going?" she asked as he pulled her up a flight of stairs.

Tom looked at her and smiled. "To the Astronomy Tower."

Hermione furrowed her brow. "Why aren't we going to the Heads' common room?"

He threw her a pitying look. "Because we spend every evening there. Seriously, you need to be a bit more spontaneous."

Hermione pursed her lips sulkily, but Tom only laughed at her. Quickly, he pulled her up the steps until they reached the solitude of the Astronomy Tower platform. Tom strolled over to the edge of the platform. Hermione followed him and sat down beside him. Through the widely placed poles of the balustrade, they could look down at Hogwarts' grounds.

Hermione snuggled closer to Tom. A content sigh left her lips as she leaned her head against his shoulder. He draped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. A smile curled Hermione's mouth and she let her gaze wander over the Scottish landscape in front of them. In all her seven years at Hogwarts she had never taken the time to just enjoy this spectacular view. She had always been busy with classes, studying for classes or worrying about classes. Hermione laughed softly at the thought that, of all people, it now was Tom Riddle, her rival, who showed her that there was a life outside of school.

Tom bent down to her and pressed a light kiss on her temple. "What are you laughing about?"

Hermione peered up at him. The evening sun made his grey eyes glow in a red light. Hermione grinned.

"It's quite funny that the 'oh so cool' Tom Riddle is such a romantic, watching the sunset and all that."

The small smirk, which Hermione had come to love, twisted Tom's lips. He arched a haughty eyebrow and replied, "Believe me, sweet Hermione, nothing and no-one can destroy my reputation. Actually-" He flashed her his white teeth, "-I think my fangirls would just love to know that tidbit about me."

Hermione rolled her eyes at him and nudged him lightly. "You don't have fangirls."

Tom didn't reply but continued to smirk. They both went back to silently watching the sun slowly disappear behind the treetops of the Forbidden Forest. Hermione shivered when the sun was finally gone and night fell. Tom snapped his fingers and a warming charm fell over them.

"Tom?" she whispered cautiously.

"Hm?"

"Can I ask you something?"

Hearing the insecurity in her voice, Tom looked down at her expectantly. Hermione swallowed nervously. This was something she had wanted to ask him for quite some time now, but had never found the courage to pull through.

"Look…" she said in a wobbly voice. "Um… you know that my parents are Muggles and… and that I'm a Muggleborn, don't you?"

Tom blinked at her and tilted his head to the side. "Yes…?"

"The thing is…" Hermione breathed in deeply to calm her nerves. "I know you Slytherins don't… well, don't like Muggleborns that much. That's not exactly a secret. And I wondered…" She peered up at him. "If you have a problem with that. Me being Muggleborn, that is."

For a moment, Tom didn't reply. He simply stared at her, face unreadable. A swoop of fear hit Hermione. What if it bothered him? What if he-

"Hermione," Tom interrupted her panicky thoughts. "You know I'm not like the other Slytherins."

He smiled down at her and possessively pulled her against him. Hermione's face was buried into his chest, breathing in his pleasant scent. Tom's fingers carded through her curly hair as he whispered,

"I don't mind at all that you're Muggleborn."

Hermione put her arms around him, holding him tight. Now, she felt stupid. Of course, Tom wouldn't mind. What had she thought?

There was a finger under her chin, tilting her head up. Hermione stared up at Tom's handsome face. His fingers gently skimmed over her cheek as he gazed at her. Slowly, very slowly, a smirk crept on his face.

"How about I show you how much I don't care?"

Pleasant shivers ran up and down Hermione's spine, as his velvety voice washed over her. Still smirking, Tom bent down and kissed her. The kiss was demanding, almost aggressive, and he didn't hesitate to deepen it. Hermione's head swirled and desire curled around her stomach as she felt his tongue rubbing against her own. Tom's hands wandered over her body, stroking and rubbing at places, until he found the buttons of her blouse.

As he slowly started to open them, Hermione knew that she wanted this and that it was the right thing.

With Tom.

– o –

For once, life was nice. The NEWTs still scared Hermione but her boyfriend always managed to calm her down whenever she had another breakdown. My boyfriend… Hermione was still not used to saying it. Tom Riddle really was her boyfriend. Over the course of a few weeks, he had grown to be one of the most important people in her life. Hermione was very happy. Tom was simply wonderful. A very caring, reliable, affectionate boyfriend and, when required, passionate too. Hermione trusted Tom, in everything. It was very surprising, considering how she had thought of him the first six years at Hogwarts, but now Hermione would really trust Tom with her life. That was how much Hermione loved Tom.

People said love is blind. Maybe that was also true for trust.

Hermione had been blind for a long time as, one day, her senses came back to her. It was after a long day of classes that Hermione tiredly returned to her room. Since the morning, no-one should have entered her room, still Hermione could feel something was wrong. The page in her Potions textbook, that she had left open on her desk, had been flipped over. An inkwell had been slightly moved. Her trunk hadn't been closed correctly. One of her blouses had been folded differently. Those were small changes, which wouldn't have meant anything at all, but combined they made doubt bubble up in Hermione. The Head Girl's dorm was password protected. There were very few people who could enter her room. Dippet, for example, and Dumbledore, the deputy headmaster, and…

The Head Boy.

Hermione could see neither Dippet nor Dumbledore sneaking into her dorm. Still, Hermione felt horribly guilty for even thinking about blaming Tom. Why would he need to break into her room? Hermione would have shared everything with her boyfriend. Tom only needed to ask and she would've given him anything. Anything at all.

…only, there was one thing that Hermione would never hand over to Tom. The ring. The golden ring with the black stone. Filled with pitch black magic, the dark object still sat in the Room of Requirement. Hermione hadn't touched it since she had hidden it away. Neither had she talked to Tom about it.

Had he tried to regain it?

Hermione was disgusted with herself, but the doubts slowly started to gnaw at her. She resisted them, telling herself that Tom, her Tom, would never go behind her back. He was her boyfriend and he loved her. He had said so himself. Tom wouldn't lie. One simply couldn't fake emotions like that.

No. No, surely not…

The doubts didn't leave Hermione. Like poison they tainted her mind. She couldn't look at Tom anymore without wondering about the ring. She fought against her doubts but in the end her thirst for knowledge and truth prevailed. Hermione surrendered and soon found herself wandering towards the seventh floor.

Not much later, she was sitting in the Room of Requirement. The golden ring lay in front of her. Its dark magic washed unpleasantly over her. It stung her skin and angrily wrenched at her. Hermione didn't react; she simply stared at the ring. She had spent so much time with Tom lately that Hermione had become well accustomed to him.

…and to his magic.

The dark magic, which now oozed from the ring, was terrifyingly familiar. Hermione felt sick as the magic prickled her skin. Raising a trembling hand, she reached for the ring. As the tips of her fingers touched the cold metal, like a flash, the dark magic invaded her. Hermione gasped in pain as that force raged through her body.

It was Tom. Tom. Tom. Tom. His magic, all over her.

Hermione let go and numbly stared down at the ring. A hollow, empty feeling grasped at her and jabbed her painfully in the chest. For years and years, the library had been Hermione's only friend in Hogwarts. She had read everything. Everything. Sick curiosity had drawn her to the Restricted Section. There she had read dark words which now swirled through her head.

' Of the Horcrux, wickedest of magical inventions, we shall not speak nor give direction.'

– o –