"I am afraid that I don't have a speech prepared for tonight," Tom Riddle says awkwardly, looking bashful up on the stage. "Although I am touched by all of you standing here, if only to see me again." He takes a moment to gaze at the audience, as if to meet all the eyes staring back at him in rapture. Hermione must admit his acting is impeccable. She must be the only person in the room who isn't fooled by him, who isn't sold by that angelic face. The truth is Tom Riddle could never feel embarrassed, because he doesn't have the emotional capacity for humility. Hermione snorts into her hand, pretending not to notice when Bellatrix glares at her.
"Although I do have an announcement… a sort of gift from my travels if you will," he says, a mysterious smirk creeping up the side of his face. It is a heartrending sight from the boy she thought was gone for good, a ghost of past and memory. But Tom isn't a boy or a ghost, she thinks. He is Voldemort.
It should be impossible, but Voldemort looks less human than the boy she remembers from Wool's Orphanage. He is handsome and smiling like any other dazzling star, but there is something plastic about him – no, not plastic, manufactured. He is the imitation of a good person, but he isn't the real thing.
"I make my return with a new vision, for in my time abroad I have found my… true muse." He flashes a dazzling smile at the journalists clustered around the back of the room, and the sound of snapping cameras fills the ballroom momentarily. A few swooning ladies bat their fans rapidly, in an attempt to cool themselves down.
Hermione glances at Helena Ravenclaw, trying to catch her eye, but it's no use. The young woman clutches at the tablecloth in anxiety, her blue eyes glued to the man on stage as if she is a bee and Voldemort is honey. She will drown in the honey like I did, Hermione thinks bleakly, staring at the brilliant lights without seeing them.
"I will unveil my new exhibition on the last day of summer." At this, the crowd whispers excitedly, and it sounds like the buzzing of insects. Voldemort waits until they die down, looking like a carved saint in the spotlight – removed and stony, impossibly angelic. No one would know that a devil is hiding behind that pretty face.
Hermione snatches a glass of scotch from a passing waiter, who frowns at her in disapproval. "Pardon me, miss, but that was meant for another table," he whispers angrily.
"Not anymore," she replies, downing it.
The waiter looks appalled. "I must insist that you-"
"Oh, get out of here before I have you put on that stage in your tighty-whities," Bellatrix snarls at him. She throws the half-empty drink in her hand at him, smirking when he gasps indignantly and hurries back to the kitchens to change. Hermione watches him go guiltily.
But she isn't guilty enough to give back the scotch.
"Was that really necessary?" she asks.
"Shut up," Bellatrix hisses back. "I can't hear the speech."
Hermione sullenly looks back at the stage.
"I have named my newest creation Horcruxes," Voldemort says, smiling reservedly as the guests gasp and chitter."As you know, my work tends not to be for the faint of heart, and I assure you this will be nothing like you have seen before. The shock may just kill you." He winks at them.
The audience laughs like the fools they are.
Even after Voldemort has exited the stage, the crowd stays on clapping wildly. Someone whistles and the sound pierces through the air like an arrow, making Hermione flinch. She watches Malfoy walking back on the stage, sharing the details of an after party in the Hamptons, but she can't hear him through the ringing in her ears. Her heart is beating very slowly, which is odd given that she should be having a full-scale nervous breakdown by now. Time seems to be moving in slow-motion, she can't get a grip on the events around her.
She sees Helena clapping and smiling, but the happiness on her face looks forced. That's right, she remembers. She thought Lord Voldemort was going to propose to her. She thinks he is the most brilliant and handsome man alive. She starts to chuckle at that, she is still a little woozy from the drink. It makes it hard to stop giggling. When Bellatrix looks at her like she is a lunatic, Hermione presses her fingers over her quivering lips to stop it. It doesn't work.
She is laughing and she can't control it, but it does not matter. What does anything matter?
Narcissa is leaving, she forgets her untouched glass of wine and disappears into the mass of waltzing guests, most likely to find her fiancé Lucius. With a smirk on her lovely face, Bellatrix rises to dance with Rodolphus too, her body looking sharp and lethal as a sword in the simple black dress that clings to her. The only one that stays at the table with her is Helena. She is blotting her face quickly with a handkerchief, gasping quietly and trying to smile at the revelers, as if that could hide the fact she was crying just now.
When she sees Hermione staring and giggling like a loon, Helena stands abruptly. "Excuse me, I have to use the washroom," she mutters in a very high voice, almost tripping over her gown as she runs.
Hermione bites down on her lip, hard – she shouldn't be laughing at the fact Helena's heart is breaking, nothing is funny about that at all – but she really can't stop it. She pictures Helena and Tom getting married in a church, and Tom handing her a drawing instead of a wedding ring; a picture of Helena with three heads in the eighth circle of Hell. I made it special for you, he would say, and Helena would burst into tears with happiness, because she is so in love with him it makes her an idiot. Everyone here is so stupid and in love with him. Hermione used to be one of them.
"Is something funny, Miss Granger?" a man's voice asks from behind her. For a moment, Hermione thinks – a part of her hopes even – that it is him. She turns around to find a dark-haired man standing there and her heart misses a beat, but then she realizes his hair is all wrong. It should be straight as needles, not curly. Regulus.
She tries not to look disappointed.
"I saw you from the stage, guzzling that scotch like a 50-year old sailor on his last leg." Regulus casually rests his hands on the back of her chair, they accidentally graze her bare shoulders and she shivers through her laughter. He is polite enough to act as though he hadn't noticed.
"Were you watching me?" she asks, which is a silly question, because of course he was.
"Well, I was wondering why you took my seat."
Hermione flushes. She is about to say that his mad cousin made her sit there when she sees the peculiar look on his face. She can't find a word for it exactly, other than…intense. "I couldn't afford a table," she says, but he doesn't seem to hear her. Regulus' dark eyes are hooded, making the resemblance between him and Bellatrix uncanny. He is staring at her lips.
"Miss Granger," he says lowly. "May I call you Hermione?"
"I don't see why not," she answers. She is trying to remember what Helena said to her about him, it was some sort of warning, but she can't quite get the words down… "There is another reason I was watching you," Regulus says in a husky voice, coming closer. "I admit Helena was right about one thing: that dress of yours is beautiful. It is hard for me to look away from you, Hermione."
"Oh." She isn't sure what to say to that, she settles for a nervous smile. "I feel like I'm suffocating in it. It's a hundred degrees in this thing," she says bluntly. Startled, Regulus blinks at her and suddenly laughs.
"You aren't like the other girls here, are you?" He lowers himself into the chair beside her, sitting closer than he needs to. She scoots back an inch out of habit.
"You couldn't begin to imagine," Hermione says. She sighs and slumps down in her chair, feeling like a petulant child at school. "This is the worst night."
"Oh? I thought it was alright." Regulus looks up at the thousands of freshly-picked flowers hanging above them from the coffered ceiling, the Egyptian ruins that tower over the guests like buildings. "Would a dance improve the night?"
Her head snaps up in shock. What? "No. God, no. I mean, no thank you, but I do not dance."
"Just one dance," he urges, and she stares at his finger stroking the back of her glove in shock. How did that get there? She starts to pull away, then stops. Regulus feels warm and…nice.
Why is he doing that?
"I really don't know how to dance," she finds herself explaining. Regulus' finger keeps doing the nice thing, petting her like he thinks she is a cat. Her eyes flutter sleepily. "I mean… I would, but I don't want to embarrass you, and I don't fancy embarrassing myself either by falling on my face in front of all these strangers," she murmurs.
"You wouldn't embarrass me," Regulus says, leaning in so close she can smell him. Cologne – the expensive kind that makes her inhale and randomly want to bury her face in his jacket – washes over her, his wine-scented breath close enough she feels it on her mouth. She wants to move away and move closer to him at the same time. Since she can't decide on either, she stays put, staring at him confusedly. "I'll help you," he tells her softly, and he seems to be saying two different things at once, although she can't imagine what those things are. "I won't let you fall."
Finally, she remembers what Helena called Regulus Black before. A little spy.
Hermione stares at his earnest brown eyes and she is tempted despite herself. Even if she twists her ankle and makes a fool of herself, it could be fun to dance in someone's arms for a night, especially a good-looking rich man like Regulus Black. This is what she thinks right up until she spots the man behind him.
Tom Riddle – or Voldemort, is it? – is circulating through the dance floor, smiling and charming every group of strangers like the snake he is. He lifts a flute of champagne in a toast and the old woman with a tiara who is hanging on his arm giggles, like a schoolgirl on a date with her crush, when Voldemort leans down to speak in her ear. Hermione's eyes narrow in suspicion. What lies is he whispering to her?
"I suppose you would dance with him," Regulus says, distracting her. He is watching Voldemort with her. She turns around before he can catch either of them staring.
"Actually, I wouldn't," Hermione answers firmly. He raises a brow at the bite in her voice. "I highly doubt that," he answers. "Any woman here would gladly give up her fortune and eternal happiness for a second of the Dark Lord's time."
"This isn't the Medieval Age," she grumbles. "And that sounds like an exaggeration."
"No, really," Regulus protests. "They would do it in a heartbeat."
"Then it's a good thing I haven't got any," she says in a moody undertone.
"Any what?" he asks, perplexed.
Any fortune or happiness. Your little Dark Lord saw to that.
Hermione stares at Regulus' face for a second, she must admit he looks rather adorable when he is confused. She shakes her head. "Never mind," she says, standing. "I have to leave now. My ride will be here any moment." And she still has to change and walk back to the meeting point with the driver Stanley. Regulus looks surprised – either by the fact she is leaving so early or the abrupt change in Hermione.
"What about the after party?" Regulus calls after her, but she is already walking away. Suddenly, Hermione gasps in pain as nausea rolls through her belly and the world jerks out from under her like a missed step on the stairs. This is going to hurt, she thinks distantly, as she falls toward the floor like a rock. She squeezes her eyes shut before the impact – and suddenly, Regulus is there, his arms coming around her waist from behind before she can hit the ground.
"My… my stupid heels," Hermione mutters. She struggles to stand upright in his arms, but her feet keep sliding out from under her. Stupid marble floor.
"What on earth possessed you to wear them?" Regulus asks, chuckling lowly in her ear. "Not that they don't look appealing, but you've never been very good on your feet."
"How would you know?" she demands. "And let me go already!"
"If I do, you're going to fall on your face."
She grits her teeth angrily. "If you don't, I'm going to give you a black eye-" she begins in a threatening voice, but she never finishes her sentence. She looks at Regulus, who hasn't moved from the chair, and he stares back at her in astonishment. Hermione stops fighting abruptly. If Regulus is over there, then who is…?
"To see you after all this time, Hermione... I daresay, you have me at a loss for words," the man holding her whispers quietly, too quietly for Regulus to hear him. Hermione freezes as she realizes exactly who it is.
She is suddenly aware of where Tom's hands are pressing into her flesh. His fingers dig into the soft part of her ribs lightly, his chest solid and steady under her back. Those pale, thin hands are sliding down to her waist to steady her. Do they linger for a second before setting her back on her feet? Hermione can't tell through the thundering blood in her ears. She steps away from Tom Riddle the second she can stand again. Their eyes meet and something unknowable passes between them, like an electric current.
Can he see her hands shaking?
"There you are, old man," Tom says abruptly, looking at Regulus. His lips twitch into a half-smile as he claps his hand on Regulus' shoulder, squeezing it. "I was looking for you." There is a tiny edge in his voice, an undercurrent of suspicion that doesn't sit well. Regulus seems to notice it, too, the smile on his face suddenly becoming tense. But Regulus doesn't defend himself… which may be the wiser option.
Tom turns to her. "Of course, now I understand what has been keeping you," he says softly. "You have met my dear friend."
Hermione's stiffens – friend? – but then she realizes he is talking about Regulus, not her. "How do you two know each other?" Tom asks casually, sitting at the table and motioning to a waiter for more wine. If Hermione didn't know better, she would say Tom looked completely at ease, as if the acquaintance of his two old friends was the happiest coincidence in the world.
But she does know better. Apparently, so does Regulus.
"Your little Kraut, Helena, introduced us. We've all become the best of friends in the course of about three hours," Regulus answers dully, as if the subject is terribly boring to him. All the magnetism and intensity that Regulus radiated a moment ago is gone now, he looks merely passive in Tom's presence. "My Lord, meet Hermione Granger. Hermione, meet You-Know-"
"Yes, yes, I know who," Hermione says derisively, interrupting him. "Tell me, Lord Voldemort," she sneers, rolling Lord around in her mouth like a sour piece of candy. Regulus stiffens when she uses Tom's forbidden name. "Do you own a castle in Wales that I don't know about or did you actually pay some bloke to knight you?"
Regulus' mouth opens in shock. He looks back and forth from her to Tom, as if expecting something terrible to happen, and Hermione smirks at Tom. His black eyes glint with anger. Show him, she thinks, the mocking grin on her lips changing into a sneer. Show them all what a monster you really are, Tom Riddle.
"As a matter of fact, I did neither," Tom finally says, cheerfully, and never looking away from her. There is a challenge in his stormy gaze. "Although I do have a villa in Lebanon. I find the weather there very agreeable. Have you been?"
Hermione stares at the unrestrained glee in his eyes and balls her fists in the enormous ruffles of her dress. He's laughing. It has been years since we saw each other last and he is laughing at me. She wants to punch him, she wants to dump that wine on the table all over his head. But any rage she shows will only satisfy him, he would take joy in knowing that he gets to her, and the last thing she will ever give Tom Riddle is petty satisfaction.
"No," she says flatly. She turns to Regulus, turning her back on him completely. "Regulus, the sound of that dance sounds wonderful right about now. What do you say?" Regulus looks at the mania in her eyes, raises his brow, and stands without questioning her. Hermione tucks her own arm in his, looking down at Tom triumphantly. To her surprise, he smiles at them blissfully.
"Enjoy the ball, you two lovebirds," he says, lifting the wineglass in her direction. Hermione can sense no sarcasm in his cultivated voice, no hint of a grudge or vengeance. Voldemort is a better actor than Tom Riddle ever was.
"Thank you, my Lo-" Regulus begins to reply, but Hermione rips him away from Tom before he can finish. "What was all that about?" he asks in an undertone, looking at her quizzically, and Hermione acts as if she didn't hear him. They only stop when they are far enough that she can't see Tom Riddle sipping wine anymore. She faces Regulus, trying not to noticeably glance over her shoulder when he places his hand on her waist.
"You're supposed to put your hand on my shoulder," he says, waiting.
"Oh sorry," Hermione blurts out. She quickly puts her hands into place, they start to step back and forth when the orchestra begins a new song. As promised, Regulus doesn't let her fall.
"I guess you really don't like him," Regulus says suddenly, halfway into the second waltz. He spins her and she stumbles into his chest, he steadies her with an expert hand, making it look as though she collided with him like an elephant on purpose.
"I told you," Hermione answers, a little out of breath. The spinning is not good for the champagne in her belly. She stops, gripping his jacket and breathing hard. "Regulus, I- I think I'm feeling… sick."
"Would fresh air help?" Regulus asks politely.
Regulus nods and searches the sea of dancing couples, perhaps for a woman to escort Hermione. She is about to say that she is perfectly capable of walking through a museum alone, but then he surprises her by tucking her arm back into his, pointing at the exit. "We'll head that way. There is a garden nearby, it's closer than the entrance."
"Alright," she says, eager to be away from there. Hermione can't help glancing around them in paranoia. She sees no sign of Tom for the moment and breathes a sigh of relief. She finds Helena Ravenclaw waving at her enthusiastically from near the Ruins, she doesn't seem to be crying now. Then Hermione sees who she is dancing with – Tom.
He lowers Helena in a graceful dip, her crown of braids almost touching the floor. She looks like a princess.
Hermione feels her face turning red with an emotion she doesn't care to identify.
"Come on," Regulus says, oblivious to everything, and he leads them out of the Egyptian room. The corridor outside is immediately quieter and calmer than the ball. Hermione says nothing as he ferries her through a room of 13th century paintings and medieval swords, taking them upstairs. She is only aware of them stepping outside into a dark courtyard. Regulus brings her to an old stone bench with daisies growing in the cracks, she sits down and puts her head between her knees.
"Well, this isn't exactly how I imagined my night would turn out," Regulus says lightly, patting her back. She groans. "Please don't," she mutters. "You're making it worse."
He pulls away quickly. "Sorry."
Hermione sighs. "No, I'm sorry. You came here to have fun with your friends, not to babysit a girl you hardly know in a… a… Where are we anyway?" She sits up and looks around them in confusion, stopping when she realizes that Regulus is grinning at her. "Why are you looking at me like that?" she demands.
"We're in the roof garden," he says, nodding at the balcony where they can see the drop-off to Central Park. "As for why I'm looking at you, I can give you several answers to that. 1) You have very pretty eyes. 2) You're wrong about why I came here tonight. 3) I have to watch you because you're drunk and instable, meaning you could stumble off that balcony and plunge to your death at any moment…"
"What do you mean 'I'm wrong'?" Hermione asks quizzically. "If you didn't come here for your friends, then why?"
Regulus pauses. "I am here to support my Lord."
Hermione is already rolling her eyes. "Oh God, not this again."
"Listen to me, Hermione," Regulus says urgently, taking her hands in his. She flinches with surprise. His hands feel warm despite the night air, they are a bit clammy but welcome compared to the cold she has felt since seeing Tom Riddle tonight. She looks at Regulus warily. "Do you know why you're here?" he asks.
She stares at him. "It would appear that I don't," she says finally, yanking her hands from him. He's friends with Tom and Lucius Malfoy, Helena said not to trust him. Hermione knows she should get up and leave Regulus, but he is the closest thing to the truth that she has got. It would be difficult to find Malfoy now and question him… and why should she go looking for him? The answers are staring her in the face at this very moment.
"What do you know?" she demands.
"Not much," Regulus says evasively, crossing his ankles. He looks up at the night sky, pierced by stars and the Met's spotlights. "I went to school with him you know."
"With Tom?" she asks, surprised. Regulus winces at that name.
"Yes," he says reluctantly. "We went to Hogwarts together. Well, I was several years under him, but I remember him there well enough. He was the top of his class, one of the best students that Hogwarts had ever seen. At least, he was until…" He trails off, seeming lost in thought.
"Myrtle," Hermione whispers.
Regulus looks at her, surprised, and he quickly schools his face into one of calm suspicion. "How do you know about that?" he asks her.
"To- I mean, Voldemort told me." She feels nervous talking about Tom, especially when he is so close. He could be dancing with Helena Ravenclaw right under their feet, too far away to hear any of this conversation. But she still worries.
"He seemed to know you. He would've let anyone else just fall and crack their head," Regulus says, staring at her with that intense look in his eyes again. Hermione looks away. So Tom isn't as good an actor as he thinks he is. That was a relief.
"It doesn't matter," she says firmly. "I want to know what you know. Why am I here?"
"I thought you bought a ticket?"
"I'm not talking about the ball," Hermione scowls. "I mean why am I here? In New York of all places right where he happens to be tonight, and why is it that my host is partners with You-Know-Who?" All of her fears and frustration are spilling into the night, freed by the anger she has held in for so long. She looks at Regulus suddenly, the questions plain on her face. "Are you telling me this is all his doing? Is that what this is all about?" she demands.
She wouldn't put it past Tom to come up with an elaborate scheme just to torture her. But it doesn't make sense.
Regulus is smiling insipidly again. She restrains the urge to punch him.
"You are so much better than I'd ever imagined, Hermione," he says, bewildering her. "I had hoped for someone who could simply help me understand him better, but to find another person that hates him as much as I do… Well, this is more than I could have ever asked for."
Hermione frowns. "You have ten seconds to explain yourself," she says, "before I leave."
"The Dark Lo… er, I mean You-Know-Who," Regulus amends, at the scary look on her face. "He had no idea that you would be here tonight. Neither did I. Speaking of which, how did you-?"
"I sold half the clothes Malfoy gave me at a pawnshop and used the money to get a ticket," Hermione says impatiently. "They were sold out, so I used Malfoy's letterhead to write to the Metropolitan Museum requesting an extra ticket for a distant cousin."
"Your turn," she says, crossing her arms expectantly.
"I paid a visit to Lucius about a week ago," Regulus begins, frowning. "He was behaving oddly, saying that we had to stay inside his office and keep away from the main parts of the house. I sensed that he was hiding something, but I never imagined it was a person. Then I saw you hiding behind the stairs."
Hermione's eyes widen. "The carpenter… It was you?"
"I was painting that day," Regulus says, grinning at her. It clicks that if he had attended Hogwarts then he would be an artist, too. Perhaps he was not as successful as Tom had been. "Anyway, as soon as I saw you, I knew Lucius was up to something. I left his house that day and was able to find only the barest details about you. That your name is Hermione Granger, you came here from London a few weeks ago, and you used to work for a hat shop."
Hermione's eyes narrow suspiciously. "Then how did you know I'm connected to Tom?" she asks.
"I'm getting to that part," Regulus says, grinning at her. "As you know, Lucius and I belong to noble families of art connoisseurs. We are collectors, gallery-owners, scholars… the works. Lucius has always wanted to prove himself to his father, but let's just say that Malfoy Sr. is a difficult man to please. When he returns from Africa at the end of summer, Lucius needs to show him that he is worthy to take over the family business."
The project Lucius was talking about. "He's working with Voldemort," she says, nodding. "On the exhibition."
"Yes," Regulus agrees. He looks impressed that she caught on so quickly. "It sounds simple enough, but you have to understand the ties between the Malfoys and You-Know-Who. After the incident at Hogwarts, Tom Riddle disappeared for a year, and Lucius went nearly mad looking for him. Tom was his one chance to prove himself to his father, the diamond in the rut that Lucius was supposed to help bring to fame with the power of the Malfoy name. We knew that Tom was expelled, but we didn't know where he had gone off to, and we were lost without him. He was sort of our…leader, if you will, in our school days." Regulus looks at Hermione, willing her to understand, but he doesn't have to.
Hermione understands the power that Tom Riddle has over others all too well. It's like a spell, she thinks. He casts spells on people and bewitches them.
She thinks of a girl locked in a boiler closet for a day, talked into it by a boy who looked like an angel. A boy who knew exactly how to get his way.
Regulus snaps her out of it. "Lucius set off to find him, but he came up with nothing," he continues. "It turns out that Tom Riddle is a very common name. I suspected that our headmaster Dumbledore knew everything, but he wasn't going to tell us where Tom went. According to him, we were all a bunch of miscreants without a cause so long as Tom wasn't around to direct us. Dumbledore was right about that," he says grudgingly. "We were nothing without Tom, a couple of conceited schoolboys with too much money and influence, and no idea what to do with it all."
"But he came back, didn't he?" Hermione asks. She thinks of the night Tom left Wool's Orphanage, with nothing but a backpack and stolen diadem from that pawnshop he worked for. Now she wonders where he went after he left. The look on Regulus' face confirms her suspicions.
Tom Riddle would always return to those who were loyal – no, beneficial to him. If he didn't have any money or influence of his own, he would go to those who had it already.
"Yes, he showed up at Malfoy's estate one day. But he was…different," Regulus says, in an unidentifiable voice. He looks faraway. "It's hard to explain, but where there was a mile between us all before, there seemed to suddenly be a mountain. Of course, Tom had always been different from us, but this was…new. Something had happened."
Hermione studies the fear in his face – there is no other word for that kind of emotion – and she can't help glancing at the door behind them. It's still closed. "What happened?" she asks.
"I don't know." Regulus looks frustrated. "Knowing him, it couldn't be anything good, but that hardly seemed to matter. We had our friend back, the missing link was reconnected, and with Tom, you always felt… invincible." He looks into the distance, silent for a moment, and Hermione doesn't interrupt whatever thoughts are holding Regulus Black. Then he clears his throat. "He told us not to call him Tom anymore. 'My name is Voldemort,' he said. 'Together, we are going to change the world for the better, and wake the sheep to the horrors around them. They will thank us for it, they will never forget our names.' That was all we wanted, to be famous and thought of as heroes. We did whatever he said, even if it wasn't…right."
Regulus lapses into silence. He looks conflicted, staring at his balled fists on his knees. Hermione reaches over to pat his hand lightly. "Whatever he asked you to do for him, it can't be as terrible as what he would have done to you had you said no," she says, meeting his tormented eyes. "He's a monster... when he doesn't get his way."
Regulus shakes his head. "I shouldn't have…" he begins, then cuts himself off. His jaw flexes with effort to contain himself. "I've betrayed many people. My friends, lovers, anyone that he thought was a threat. It's what I do. I get close to people and then I stab them in the back. If Helena hasn't told you already, she will." He looks at her, sees her face, and smirks. "Ah, she has told you."
Hermione stiffens. "Is that what you're doing now?" she asks. "Getting ready to betray me?"
Regulus sighs, loosening his bow tie. "If I was, I would be doing a very bad job of it. I would have kissed you first if I wanted information from you." He meets her eyes. "I still might kiss you."
Hermione turns red. "Don't," she says, a dangerous warning in her voice, and Regulus bursts out laughing.
"Fine, I won't," he assures her, flicking an invisible tear of laughter from his eye. "We are kind of forced to trust each other now, aren't we? You know too many of my secrets."
"Yes…" Hermione pauses and frowns at him. "Why did you tell me any of this? Why would you trust me?"
"Because I saw the look in your eyes when the Dark Lord was on the stage," Regulus answers. "You hate him, but… you love him, too. You're just as hopeless as I am."
She is speechless.
"See?" he says, winking. "I'm very good. Now we had better get back to the ball before he finds a reason to come looking for us."
"Wait, Regulus," Hermione says quickly, before he can start walking away. "What does this mean for me? If Malfoy is planning the exhibition with Tom, then why did he bring me here? Why does he avoid me?"
"Malfoy is doing as he is told," Regulus says, a dark look coming over his face. "I have the feeling he hardly knows any more about your role in all of this than I do, except that you are connected to You-Know-Who, and that makes you important. As for the show, I don't know what the Dark Lord is planning but… Helena Ravenclaw has something to do with it." He hesitates. "I fear for her safety."
Hermione thinks of Helena, so sweet and gullible, although she had only met her tonight. She doesn't deserve to be hurt by Tom. "What can I do?" she demands.
"Play along," Regulus says, opening the door back to the ball. Back to Voldemort. "At least, play until further instruction."
AN: Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter, I love to hear from old and new readers! Your support is worth a thousand Ravenclaw diadems. :) Can we make it to 1000 reviews in the name of revenge on Voldemort? Share your thoughts. ;)