A/N: A non-magic AU with time travel! What a terrible idea! You probably shouldn't read on... But while you're here, a few notes. I know most of you probably follow me for Dramione, so I apologize for jumping from ship to ship like this. Except, not really. Embrace the awesome! I don't know if this requires a trigger warning or not, but better safe than sorry... There will be fairly frequent mentions of illness (various types of cancer, mainly). Nothing graphic. I've put rather more planning into this fic than usual so I would love to know what you think. Okay. Let's go.
i - and do you think that love itself, living in such an ugly house, can prosper long?
Hermione Granger had not a clue where she was.
Darkness enveloped her, thick and stifling, and she fumbled through her messenger bag for her mobile. The screen afforded her a little eerie, bluish illumination. Unfortunately this did nothing to alleviate her claustrophobia. She had found herself standing in a narrow room with steel walls and a high-vaulted ceiling, somewhat like being plunged into a crevice in a sheet of ice, and she had no idea how she had arrived there.
How very characteristic of her to let her imagination meander and get her into trouble.
Hermione liked things ordered. She liked them filed and cataloged and explained. Unfortunately, she was also possessed of a remarkable curiosity. At seventeen, she was set to graduate a semester early from Gryffindor College for Applied Sciences. Phrases like Undocumented Test Scores and Ninety-Eighth Percentile Intelligence had become commonplace in her transcripts, so much so that, over the summer, MI5 had come recruiting. Her parents had balked at first, but she had talked them down with a systematic determination that seemed to have frightened them a little. There was simply no chance of her letting an opportunity like this slip through her fingers. She had been nursing a secret dream of making a difference in domestic policy for quite some time—some of the country's counter-intelligence measures were horrendously outdated, she often found herself railing, not that any of her friends actually cared about such things—and at last she could see her ambition materializing.
That was how she had found herself on a tour of a covert government facility over spring holiday, while her best friends were probably off at the water park, or else smoking in an alleyway somewhere. She had never been able to exert much of a good influence over Harry and Ron, both of whom skated through their schoolwork and got along on sports scholarships and were generally, utterly unlike her.
She could have used a bit of Harry's fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude just about now.
About halfway through the tour Hermione had spotted an unmarked doorway and had immediately raised her hand.
"Please, sir," she had said to the inscrutable, black-clad tour guide with the unnecessary sunglasses (They were indoors, for heaven's sake). "What goes on through there?"
"Weaponized bioengineering," the guide had replied without inflection, and Hermione's stomach had turned over. Of course, he would have no compunctions about telling this to an uninitiated visitor; he probably thought she could not understand most of what he was saying and, moreover, she had signed a non-disclosure agreement before entering the facility.
"Isn't that, er, contrary to the Geneva convention?" Hermione had ventured, wondering if she was pushing her luck.
"Exploratory studies only, no practical applications."
Out of nowhere she had thought, He's lying. Hermione was good at reading people. Her mother sometimes affectionately called her a "little Seer" when she came home to find a spotlessly clean house, because Hermione had sensed, somehow, that her day had been rocky. But perhaps she was overreacting. She had no real reason to suspect the guide of flat out falsehoods.
"Research is being undertaken to gain ground on the activities of Walpurgis Incorporated," the guide had gone on as the other tour members glazed over or glanced at their watches. But Hermione had frozen with dread.
Walpurgis Incorporated. The name was synonymous with all things nefarious in Hermione's book. Placing patents on living genetic material, dragging small-time farmers and agriculturalists into court, flooding the market with toxic chemical agents... Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, willing away the memories of the boy in her fourth year at school, Cedric, who had died of a rare form of cancer due to overexposure to Tri-Wheat Gro, the Walpurgis crop purging agent.
The guide had still been speaking. "It is a matter of some debate whether the health serums being developed by Walpurgis Inc. are a danger to the public. We wish to maintain a healthy awareness of all possibilities."
That had sounded reasonable enough. Hermione had wished she could see his eyes. Her Headmaster at Gryffindor College, Albus Dumbledore, had inadvertently taught her the power of holding someone's gaze over the years. As the tour had continued round the corner, the guide had hung back for a moment and pushed his sunglasses down his nose to look at her closely. And Hermione had understood why he wore them: while his right eye was intact, the skin around his left was a gruesome, criss-crossing mass of scar tissue, at the center of which rested a startlingly large glass eye with a bright blue, artificial iris that stared off at an odd angle.
"'Round here you might want to remember a few things," he had told her in a quick rumble. "Namely, not to ask questions you know full well you shouldn't be asking. Lots of people watching these halls. Constant vigilance from the eyes in the sky, so to speak. Hmm?" He had nodded at the blinking red light on a camera mounted on the ceiling nearby, then swept away to catch up to the group.
He could hardly have done anything that would have given Hermione more cause to dig deeper.
A younger version of herself would never have done it, but unluckily, her many years spent in Harry and Ron's company had dulled her rule-abiding instincts and left her with a bit of a reckless mentality. So when an odd, mechanical whirring noise had sounded from behind the unmarked door, she had thought, Just one look won't hurt.
The door had not even been locked, for heaven's sake.
But then the passageways behind the unmarked door had been much more torturous than she had anticipated, and she had managed, idiotically, to get herself lost.
Could she try calling the front desk to send someone to get her? No. Surely her chances at being hired on would be ruined. Worse yet, she might actually face trespassing charges. She would have to wile her way out of this situation, no matter what.
Cloaking herself in determination, Hermione inched along the wall until she reached yet another unmarked door. On the other side she found, to her astonishment, a surgically clean white room the size of a small cathedral, lit by rows upon rows of harsh, naked fluorescent bulbs. At the far end stood two rows of upright steel beams from which rose a deep, unsettling sort of hum.
Unable to help herself, Hermione approached the contraption, fascinated. A small vertical fissure ran the length of each metal beam, almost too narrow to be seen by the naked eye. Between the twin rows stood a small white booth with an automatic door. When Hermione approached it, the doors slid open at once and she saw that the inside was tinted fiberglass. Behind the booth, on the wall opposite, an old-fashioned lift stood silent and empty with a directory printed on a plaque on the side.
LEVEL 3 – Electro-Cranial Stimulation Testing Facility
LEVEL 2 – Management
LEVEL 1 – Nightingale Project
SUB-BASEMENT – Particle Accelerator
Hermione's eyes widened. By all accounts MI5 did not even have a particle accelerator. Was this all some sort of elaborate joke? Had she wandered into a highly realistic nightmare?
Unless she was mistaken, she was currently on Level One. Hermione squinted at the words Nightingale Project, frowning. She could not fathom what that might mean.
A sharp clicking sound interrupted her reflections and she very nearly jumped out of her skin as she saw the doorknob on the door to the white room turn slowly. This could not be happening. There was nothing for it; she would have to hide inside the booth. Cursing herself, she slipped past the automatic doors and prayed that they would close behind her. Her prayers were answered at precisely the same moment as what sounded like a large group of visitors stepped inside the room. Thankfully, she could still hear them through the gap in the doors, faintly.
"... here we have Project Nightingale," said the guide of what was decidedly a very different tour from the one Hermione had taken. "So named for the musical tone emitted by the device while in action—an entirely coincidental side-effect."
"And it has been tested—?"
"We have not, of course, progressed to human testing. Nor is there any current plan to do so. However we are relying here on the principles of quantum entanglement. Stebbins, perhaps you'd like to join me in laying out the theory here..."
"Ah, yes. Er, yes, well. Quantum entanglement. Two particles sharing in exactly the same properties, the same exact state, no matter their location in space or time. By this logic one could entangle the particles of a certain device, then split them and impact some effect on the one half that would resonate upon the other, even through—through different points in time. In theory."
Hermione's jaw dropped. Were they really speaking of time travel? She had never heard anything so absurd in her life.
"One need hardly enumerate the possibilities this procedure would open up," the guide resumed. "Were communication with future time periods possible, we could potentially learn of viral outbreaks, wars, acts of terrorism, before they ever took place."
There was a flurry of incredulous muttering.
"But surely you've taken into account the obvious paradox?"
"Ah, indeed. However Dr. Broderick Bode on Level Two has isolated a number of variables he believes may mitigate the paradox effect... I've been cleared to offer a short demonstration before we move along. I must warn that if any of you have a weak constitution you may want to leave. Even for a, shall we say, 'dry run,' the effect is rather overwhelming. The energy will interfere with any other electronic device you may have on your person—thus the old clunker of a lift you see there."
Shoes clattered severally against the stone floor and Hermione's nails dug into her palms. What did they mean, demonstration? Did they really think they were about to start up a time machine in the middle of the building? Hermione wondered whether she ought to burst out of the booth and cut her losses, but decided against it. There was simply no way whatsoever that such technology could exist. Everything she had ever read—a considerable amount by any definition—confirmed it.
Still, whatever was about to happen could potentially harm her.
But it was too late. Already the guide was busying himself over what sounded like a control panel, and Hermione heard the automatic doors seal themselves shut. There was no getting out now. A moment later the hum emanating from the steel bars had intensified a hundredfold to a chilling sort of melodious blare, and Hermione was well and truly scared.
"Now, in the distant future when a thorough mastery of the elements is achieved," yelled the guide over the thrum, "the passenger would step inside that booth there with the communication device. Passengers would likely be convicts on death row, as we've no way of knowing the effects of temporal displacement on the human body. And in the event that the subject survived, they would in any case never be able to return. This journey is a one way ticket. We're going to set this one back as far as the meter goes—about sixty-five years—as the forward setting is not yet operational."
Abandoning all pretense, Hermione began to bang at the doors with both fists, yelling "Stop! There's someone in here! Stop!" But no one heard her.
"Notice the wave-form patterns of the infrared on the screen here," she heard the guide say before the whine of the steel bars drowned out his voice entirely.
All at once Hermione became conscious of a peculiar sort of tingling in her extremities, as though her very marrow were squirming and shifting around. It seemed that every hair on her body was standing on end and her teeth were chattering, though she was not cold. She was finding it increasingly difficult to catch her breath, and her eyes were watering.
It's not real, she told herself firmly, over and over. Time travel is science fiction. At worst I might get some mild form of radiation poisoning. Nothing incurable. These walls are thick. It's not real.
Was it possible for every bone in a person's body to liquefy and turn to scorching, boiling mercury at once? Was it possible for the grey matter in her brain to dissipate and seep through her eye sockets? Was it possible for her very consciousness to tear itself free from the anchor of the world as she knew it and be set adrift upon an ocean of shimmering vapor that ate away at the fabric of reality? Hermione was not aware that she was screaming, or that she even had a mouth with which to scream. She was aware of nothing but the raging, stampeding pain that tore her apart from root to stem. Then even the pain swirled to black, empty, insipid nothingness, and she was gone.
A weedy boy with a mournful, twisted face scrambled through the courtyard wearing a sickeningly satisfied grin, like a dog relishing to drop some small creature's carcass at its master's feet.
"Tom! D'you know they've just brought someone in to Dippet's office? Girl, about our age, bleeding all over the place. I spoke to the Prefect on patrol, he said she came wandering in yelling and screaming. Bleeding out her ears, he said. Nobody even saw her enter the grounds."
Tom Riddle felt the faint stirrings of genuine interest and turned to give Tony Dolohov his full attention.
"Did Dippet ask for me?" he said.
Dolohov's face fell. "Er... dunno. I didn't hear—but I suppose you ought to go. Head Boy and all."
Tom was sorely tempted to fasten his hands around Dolohov's throat and teach him a thing or two about dictating what he ought to do, but the lure of information was strong. A bloodied student—a female one, at that—wandering the school at night was not acceptable. Far from being concerned for the girl's well-being, Tom's mind was preoccupied with the notion that he himself had not ordered this attack. Which meant that someone else had done so instead.
Not on his watch.
He left Dolohov behind without another word and strode up the marble steps to the front doors of Slytherin Preparatory College. Once inside the entrance hall he unhooked an oil lamp from the wall and let his feet carry him along the familiar path to the Headmaster's office. He ran into Dippet and the Deputy Head, doddering old Galatea Merrythought, just outside the office doors.
"Ah Tom!" exclaimed Dippet warmly. "Good, you've heard. I was just about to send for you. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to have you come along to the Infirmary. If the girl wakes up it might put her at ease to have someone her own age in the vicinity."
"Who is the victim?" Tom asked quietly, assuming an appropriately somber expression.
"That's just the thing, it isn't a student! Not one from Hufflepuff Preparatory next door, in any case. No one seems to be able to identify her, and she isn't answering questions."
"What happened to her?"
The Headmaster lowered his voice as they strode past the dormitories on their way to the Infirmary. "She is incoherent. Ranting and raving about some sort of tour guide and quantoid entanglement, whatever that means. She was in rather bad shape. Covered in blood, teeth chattering, not much life behind her eyes I'm afraid. I wouldn't be surprised if the poor thing were a bit touched in the head."
Tom contained his irritation at Dippet's grandfatherly concern for what was probably some lunatic idiot who was about to ruin his night, and offered a look of deepest dismay.
"I certainly hope whoever's responsible for her state is caught," he said earnestly. And oh, he did. He would ensure that he caught the guilty parties personally, in fact.
"That they certainly will be," said Dippet, giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
They turned into the Infirmary and gathered around the single occupied bed. A smallish, plain enough looking girl lay curled on her side beneath twisted sheets, her arms and legs twitching restlessly every now and again. Her hair was a veritable rat's nest, and trickles of dried blood ran down her neck from her ears. What kind of imbecile would attack a girl this defenseless and botch the job?
Mistaking Tom's disgust for concern, Dippet lowered his voice and confided, "She appears to have come out of nowhere. We've been unable to track down any family whatsoever."
The conspiring look he offered made Tom clench his jaw. No family... As if he and the girl would have something to talk about.
"Maybe I ought to stay with her for the night, sir?" Tom suggested smoothly. "We wouldn't want her in here alone in case her attackers came back..."
"Indeed? Yes, yes, that would be most—Yes, quite." Dippet looked immensely relieved that he would not have to fulfill this duty himself. "We'll be having the grounds patrolled, of course. Be sure to send for me should you need anything."
When Dippet had left, Tom settled into a wooden chair by the foot of the girl's bed and watched her for some time. The wan moonlight filtering through the gauzy curtains hung over her window cast shadows across her face at sharp angles, so that she looked aged beyond her years. But in fact, everything about the girl spoke of weariness. There were pronounced dark circles under her eyes and her nails were chewed ragged.
And her hair... There was a lock of it, just near her temple, that was shot through with pure white. Lord knew what kind of trauma could have caused that. Was it possible she was a war refugee just come out of hiding? He had heard tell of certain groups, unaware of the victory of the Allied forces, remaining in bunkers for months into peacetime. Only that did not quite jibe with Dippet's account of events. The girl had been bleeding and shouting that very night. Someone must have attacked her.
Action was always the best recourse. Stretching out leisurely in the chair, Tom pulled a plain black, leather-bound journal from an inner pocket of his coat and flipped it open. Inside, the pages had been cut away to create a rectangular indentation large enough to fit a thin, glossy electronic device.
Tom pressed a button and the device blinked to life, revealing a blank white screen with a cursor waiting in the top left corner. Without delay Tom began to dictate a message to the device in a low voice, using a method of communication he knew none of the dunces at this school, or even any of the faculty, would be able to understand if he were ever intercepted.
01001101011001010110010101110100001000000110111101 10111000100000010001100111001001101001011001000110 00010111100100100000011000010111010000100000011101 00011010000110010100100000011101010111001101110101 01100001011011000010000001110000011011000110000101 1000110110010100101110...
It was not until he had sent off the communication and waited for a response—a rapid confirmation, satisfactory—that he glanced up to see that the girl was awake. And she was watching him.
She closed her eyes as soon as he met her gaze, but Tom was not about to let her play coy. He snapped his journal shut, stowed it away, and shifted his chair closer.
To his mild relief, she did not prolong the charade. She squinted at him from beneath her lashes and spoke in a ruined, tremulous voice that seemed, nevertheless, to carry some sharpness.
"Where am I?"
"Slytherin Preparatory College, near twenty miles outside Manchester."
She seemed to draw some comfort from his words. Her eyes bore into his in a clear-sighted way that reminded him uncomfortably of Dumbledore, the Head Boy of some three years ago, who had never quite seemed to trust him. Tom saw none of the mental incapacity Dippet had described.
"You must have had some shock," he observed.
"I thought I had. I thought—But you were speaking in Binary just now. That must mean..." A faint frown creased her brow. Tom kept his face impassive, but inside he was seething. How had she recognized Binary so easily—she, a girl?
"Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable, Miss—?"
"Granger. Hermione Granger." She pursed her lips and seemed to lose herself in thought for a moment. "I usually like to read the morning paper to start my day, but I'm afraid I haven't gotten the chance..."
Curious habit. Tom looked around the Infirmary and spotted a copy of the London Gazette, which he handed to her. Hermione Granger's eyes darted immediately to the date atop the headline, and she ceased to breathe.
Had she lost several days in her delirium? This seemed the most logical explanation, yet there came to Tom, unbidden, another possibility. A tantalizing one.
No, surely not. He would need much more to go on than some frightened girlish quirks to ascertain that. He would need to watch her carefully.
"This is... today's paper?" she asked shakily, flipping through the pages with quick, jagged movements like an automaton.
What an odd question, Hermione Granger.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, once, twice, three times. At last she seemed to come to some momentous internal conclusion.
"I think I need to speak to someone in charge," she said, swinging her legs off the side of the bed and wincing. "A Professor or a Headmaster."
Tom quirked an eyebrow. She was wearing a pair of trousers (In itself an anomaly he had thought reserved for the so-called feminists his classmates found such enjoyment in disparaging) cut from unusually form-fitting fabric. He was hardly inclined to be disheveled by a little provocative attire, but the sight of it on this sharp-eyed girl drew him up short.
"Can you walk?" Tom inquired. "I can send for the Headmaster to come to you—"
"No, no, I'll be fine," she interrupted impatiently, scrubbing at the blood on her neck with her sleeves. She staggered a little as she stood, and Tom seized her shoulder to steady her. She flashed him a small, thankful smile and seemed to fully take him in for the first time. Her eyes took on the old, familiar slant he had seen so many times, the one that was one part discomfort, two parts admiration.
Too easy by half.
He kept his arm out at mid-level for her to cling to as he led her out of the Infirmary into the grounds. When they arrived at the front doors the crisp January air raised goose bumps on his skin, and Tom realized that Granger had on only a thin cotton blouse. He shrugged off his coat and placed it around her shoulders over her feeble protests.
Dolohov had returned, accompanied by Barty Crouch, Alan Black, and Abraxas Malfoy. The lot of them ogled Granger unabashedly until Tom cleared his throat pointedly.
"We have a guest," he said. His voice carried without effort. "Miss Granger, Tony, Barty, Alan, and Abraxas. Where's Dippet?" he added, scanning the darkened grounds.
"By the lake," answered Abraxas.
Tom swept down towards the lake with a meaningful look over his shoulder at Abraxas. Keep the others in check. The boys tended to get unruly the first week of term back, and Tom did not want to have his attention diverted.
"Professor?" Granger asked, striding up to Dippet and offering a handshake rather than the customary curtsy. Her brazenness was almost amusing.
Dippet looked quite bewildered. "My stars! Tom—What an unexpected—Well, my dear girl, we are very glad to see you up and well."
"Sir, I'm very grateful for your hospitality," said Granger, shaking his hand and speaking very fast. "My name is Hermione Granger. I'm afraid I got some distressing news this afternoon that left me in a pretty bad state. I hope you'll forgive my behavior."
"Think nothing of it, dear girl, of course! I can only imagine what you must have been through... Distressing news, you say?"
"The last of the war casualty lists came in. I've lost my family."
Granger spoke it baldly, without inflection. Tom watched her, feeling a little fascinated, which in itself was unusual. Good Lord, had the quality of education at this school fallen so low? There was nothing especially interesting about the girl. Except that he could tell she was lying.
She was not very good at it. Her eyes darted to and fro and she pressed her lips tightly together as if to avoid any small quirk that might give her away. Still, it was a bold lie. Dippet's face fell in a comical expression of horror.
"Good heavens! But—My dear girl, how terrible... Is there anything we can possibly do to help?"
"I'd like a place at your school."
Tom's eyes snapped to hers, and he was half convinced he had heard wrong. But she went on, "I've no place to go now, you see. Nothing to call my own. I can promise I would work as hard as anyone."
Dippet looked to Tom, who shrugged.
"Well," the Headmaster hedged, "yes, indeed. Yes, I shall speak to Headmistress Umbridge over at Hufflepuff Girls' Preparatory School about admitting you."
But Granger shook her head. "No, I don't want to go learn how to cook and sew. I mean a place at your school, sir."
There was stark determination in her gaze. All the more pity when Dippet let out an incredulous laugh, covering his mouth with his hands a moment too late. Granger looked deeply affronted.
"My apologies, Miss Granger, but Slytherin College is a school for boys."
"Girls are not admitted, you see, it simply isn't done."
"Miss Granger, our students are required to become fluent in Latin and Greek, to debate Philosophy and Theology, to learn the most contemporary evolutionary theories..."
"Give me an aptitude test," Granger demanded abruptly.
"Give me the standard test of admission. If I get anything less than an excellent score I'll do whatever you ask from thereon out. But if I match the highest score you've ever gotten, I get a place at your College."
There was boldness, and there was plain foolhardiness. Tom knew for a fact that the highest scores this school had ever seen were his own. There was not a chance in hell Granger would match them. A shame; she was clearly not as clever as he had thought.
"I must say—Most unusual—" Dippet spluttered to himself. But he had always been a weak soul, and in the face of Granger's insistence he capitulated. "Yes, very well," he said indulgently, speaking in a soothing tone one might use with a belligerent toddler. "Tom, wake Professor Merrythought, would you? Let's get Miss Granger here a test. I'd like this over with so that we can report the situation to the proper authorities by morning."
Tom turned on his heel without a word and walked swiftly to Merrythought's quarters. Twenty minutes later found the Deputy Head, the Headmaster, and Tom all gathered in the Head's office while Granger sat behind a locked door with the testing administrator.
Tom watched the needles of Dippet's grandfather clock inch their way along, marking off segments of the night, and slowly smoked cigarette after cigarette. Dippet kept up a steady stream of muttered comments to the effect that there was nothing to worry about, the aptitudes required to pass the test would be well beyond a frightened girl's knowledge. But Tom was not so sure.
He had seen behavior like hers once before.
A little past two in the morning, Granger emerged from the testing room, her face unreadable. The administrator who followed behind her was shaking his head.
"She can't have cheated," he was saying again and again. "Can't have cheated. This is the new round of tests. Just finished drawing them up this afternoon. Not possible."
"One hundred and three out of a hundred," said Granger. "I'm told that matches the highest score you've gotten in the last decade."
A haze of white-hot rage clouded Tom's vision and for a moment he struggled to school his expression into one of calm amusement. Match his scores? There was no way. She must have cheated.
Dippet's mouth opened and closed stupidly.
"I believe we had an agreement, Headmaster?"
At last Dippet managed to get a grip on himself, and held out his hand to shake Granger's.
"We'll have to speak to Headmistress Umbridge about getting you lodgings across the lake, of course," he said shakily. "But with scores like those you'll have no shortage of scholarship money to pay your room and board."
She ought to have been overjoyed. Slytherin College had never, in its grand tradition of several hundred years, admitted a female student before. Instead she merely gave a curt nod.
"Can I ask, sir?" she said. "Was anything found on my person when I arrived? A messenger bag, maybe?"
Dippet's eyes dropped for just a second before he answered.
"No, I'm afraid not," he said.
Lies. Tom would have to find that messenger bag, somehow.
Dippet smiled. It made him look rather like he had a bad stomach ache.
"Welcome to Slytherin College, Miss Granger."
Hermione followed the edge of the woods, skirting the lake that separated one campus from another until she arrived at the front gates of Hufflepuff School for Girls. The place was a surreal conglomeration of the medieval and the academic. She observed the barren hedgerows, the stained glass windows, the high crenelated stone walls, and felt panic clutch at her heart once again.
Time travel. She'd had all night to ponder, to deny, to rage and despair, after she had passed Slytherin College's ridiculously outdated admissions test. She had yet to come to terms with what she was living. All that kept her going was a deep-seated survival instinct she had not know she possessed. Unconsciously, it seemed she knew that she had to keep moving, keep swimming against the current with all her might, or the accursed rapids of time would overtake her and she would drown.
She had no luggage, no money, nothing to her name. Hermione entered the fortress-like school a veritable orphan bereft of even the slightest sense of belonging. Her clothes were horrendously out of place, and she tugged self-consciously at the synthetic fabric of her collar as a tall, slender girl in a pressed school uniform came striding up to her, beaming brightly.
"Hermione Granger, yes?" The girl shook Hermione's hand vigorously. "I'm Gemma Farley. Head girl, and your guide. We're so happy to have you here. We haven't had a new boarder in ages. The girls can't wait to meet you."
Gemma laughed kindly. "Not too many in the eldest girls' corridor, don't worry. Heaven's, you don't have any luggage, do you? Of course not. Well, war orphans are all too common around here these days. You'll feel right at home soon enough. Come on, this way."
The Head girl kept up a constant stream of chatter as she led Hermione up a set of oak steps to a narrow corridor lined with arched ivory doorways. She had soft, earnest features that lent themselves naturally to an inclination of trust. Hermione found herself relaxing fraction by fraction. She listened with one ear to the history of Helga Hufflepuff, the wife of a celebrated chemist who had committed herself to a nunnery after her husband's early death, and gotten a school named after her for her troubles. She also strove to memorize every turn and staircase. When she got back home, never again would she be caught wandering off without a concrete idea of where she was going.
When she got home...
I will, she told herself firmly. No two ways about it. I have to.
At last Gemma gestured to a quaint little room on the last left of the second floor corridor, explaining that Professor Umbridge had been sure to arrange everything just so for Hermione's comfort. The room was painted a shocking pink that was an assault on the senses, and everywhere Hermione looked she saw doilies resting on lace tablecloths. She tried not to wrinkle her nose.
"Is it true Riddle found you?" Gemma asked suddenly, her voice dropping to a hush.
"The Head boy? Everyone's saying he rescued you or something, and brought you in. And that he spent the night in the Infirmary with you. Is it true?"
"No." Hermione shook her head, trying to remember why the name Riddle sounded so familiar. Her mind had gone topsy-turvy since she'd arrived here. "I mean, he did visit me in the Infirmary, but it was a Prefect who found me. Lestrange, I think."
Gemma flushed pink but made no comment. Hermione thought it best not to press the issue. Her curiosity had, at long last, reached its limit.
A strident noise from the doorway distracted her, and she caught a brief glimpse of a whole gaggle of uniformed girls before she was surrounded by a press of squealing girlishness.
"So this is our new dorm mate!"
"God in heaven, what is she wearing?"
"Why is her hair like that?"
"We've heard all about Riddle! We want details!"
"And an orphan, too, how positively tragic!"
"What is she wearing?"
Laughing, Gemma ushered the group back a little to allow Hermione room to breathe.
"As you can see, we've got an enthusiastic group," she said. "Romilda, that's enough! Do you want to tear the poor girl's hair from her skull?"
The girl named Romilda grinned and gave Hermione a rather condescending wink.
"We've brought your uniforms up for you," said another, a short, stocky girl with auburn hair and fair skin. "I'm Amelia Bones. And this is Mary Edgecomb and Katie Bell." She pointed out a girl with copious curly hair, and her friend, who flashed a brilliant, perfect smile.
"Any relation to Alexander Graham?" Hermione asked Katie Bell in a feeble attempt at humor.
"My grandfather," the girl replied brightly, and Hermione felt faint.
"So?" Romilda with the prominent chin and loud voice burst out. Hermione looked at her uncomprehendingly.
"It's not true about Riddle," Gemma supplied.
There was a collective sigh of regret from the girls. Hermione could not exactly say she did not understand. The polite, helpful, dark haired Head boy who had led her to Dippet had been the handsomest person she had ever met in real life, by a wide margin. She ought to have been a little more appreciative of his attentions, but she had been so preoccupied. And then, bizarrely, there was the fact that she had distinctly heard him speaking to himself in Binary code. She could not begin to fathom what that might be about.
Well, she would get the chance to thank him properly when they attended classes together.
"Do you think they'll come tonight?" Amelia Bones asked excitedly, and the others burst into fresh peals of giggling. Hermione hoped this was not a common occurrence.
"Must be. It's the first weekend this term. They always visit 'round this time," Gemma replied.
Her dorm mates exchanged glances, appearing to engage in some form of silent communication.
"Promise not to tell?" asked Katie Bell.
"Of course." Hermione's first instinct was to refuse to promise any such thing—she had always prided herself in strict adherence to the rules, after all—but she had more than enough on her plate without worrying about anyone else's transgressions at the moment.
"Well, the boys from Slytherin sneak 'round the lake after hours to pay us a visit sometimes. The younger years don't know, and we'd like to keep it that way. Umbridge would blow her top if she ever found out. It's not proper behavior for budding young ladies."
The more Hermione heard about this Umbridge character, the more she doubted her competency to run a school.
"You'll see later tonight," said Gemma. "Come on, we'll let you change into your uniform before you come down to join us for dinner." Before closing the door behind herself and the others, however, she poked her head back into the room and added. "I know it must be a lot to take in right now, but you'll get used to it. Umbridge tells me you've been accepted into Slytherin College. You must be absolutely brilliant. I've never heard of them taking a girl before. I'm sure you'll do well."
A lot to take in. She didn't know the half of it. Hermione smiled gratefully at Gemma before allowing her knees to give way beneath her and sitting down brusquely on her bed. Even the quilt was pink. She sighed.
While the majority of her consciousness had collapsed into a shuddering heap after her leap through time, her analytical mind had seized on a number of crucial points which she now rallied about her like life rafts in a storm.
One, that despite her hysteria in the wake of the tremendous, mind-bending pain of time travel, she had been quite certain that her messenger bag had come with her. If Dippet had found it and sorted through it, and spotted her mobile and laptop computer, it was more than likely he had stowed these away somewhere, either for his own purposes or to turn over to the authorities. She had to get the bag back.
Two, that time travel was not meant to be a reality. Science was not supposed to have even approached the threshold of that sort of endeavor, let alone mastered it. The government must have been working at it for much longer than anyone had suspected, perhaps even as far back as the year 1946, where she currently found herself. Which meant that if she was going to find a way home, locating the individuals involved in this research was a valid starting point. And what better place was there to undertake her search than an elite school housing some of the brightest young minds in the country? Hermione had read about Slytherin College in her time, and she knew that its founder, Salazar Slytherin, had been one of the most celebrate scientists of the sixteenth century. Surely a few of the faculty members would be able to offer her some assistance.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, she realized that she had to avoid crossing paths with anyone involved with her own future life at all costs. She had no idea what sort of cataclysm she might unleash if she were to inadvertently prevent her own birth, or some such absurd storybook scenario. She was probably the only human being ever to have traveled in time, and she did not care to test the laws of physics any further than that.
A thought strayed idly into her mind: she wondered whether the handsome Head boy with the striking black eyes might be able to help her in the beginnings of her research. The examiner had told her that his scores had been the ones she had matched. He was clearly a brilliant, dedicated student. Yes, she would seek him out. There was no need to tell him, or indeed anyone, exactly what she was doing, but she could use a little assistance.
Hermione's plans weighed heavily on her at dinner, and she stared into space with her fork hanging limply an inch from her mouth through much of Romilda and Katie's excitable chatter about the progress of their sewing patterns, or whatever inane subject they had taken on. The food was good, if a little bland, and the dining hall was spacious enough to comfortably fit the eight dozen or so girls who comprised the student body. Here, too, the walls were tinted a sickeningly bright pink. After she missed her mouth with her fork for the fifth time, Hermione's eyes fell upon a squat woman with a flabby face seated at the Professors' table, who was watching her keenly from the end of the hall. The calculating expression on her rather toad-like features was at odds with the excessively frilly pinkness of her attire, and Hermione knew at once that this must be the Headmistress. Hoping to make a good impression, she smiled and nodded politely in the woman's direction. Umbridge continued to watch her intently for a time before turning away, and Hermione felt her skin crawl uncomfortably.
Romilda was staring at her expectantly.
"I asked about those odd clothes you were wearing when you arrived. I asked about six times!"
"Cut her some slack, Milly, she's probably daydreaming about Riddle," Gemma teased, winking. "Didn't you say he visited you in the Infirmary, Hermione?"
"Er, yes," Hermione said, and left it at that. The last thing she needed was for rumors to begin circulating that she was somehow involved with the Head boy.
"I'd break both my legs if he'd visit me in the Infirmary," said Amelia Bones dreamily.
"Maybe he'll come along with the rest of them tonight," said Katie.
"He doesn't usually," Mary Edgecomb piped in.
"Yes, but he might. You never know."
"Doesn't the Head boy hang around with the other students?" Hermione asked, trying to enter the flow of conversation so as to appear natural.
"Oh he does," said Gemma. "But Riddle's a bit... different. You'll see tonight."
As it transpired, Gemma was right. The Slytherin boys came through the garden beneath the girls' windows after lights out at eleven o'clock, and Hermione's dorm mates showed her how to tie sheets together to climb down the outside wall until she reached the ground. Riddle was among the company. Hermione could not shake the feeling that his name sounded incredibly familiar, but every time she stole a glance at him she found her rational mind eroded a little. He had such a guarded mien, and whenever he caught her looking and offered her a deferential smile she had to fight down a hysterical burst of laughter.
The boys led them to a snowy arbor in a secluded part of the gardens, cigarettes hanging from their lips, gallantly offering their coats as Romilda and Katie made a show of shivering in the cold. The four boys Riddle had introduced Hermione to were present, as well as another, tall boy with a haughty face who Gemma pointed out rather giddily as Charles Lestrange. Hermione recognized the Prefect she had been too addled to properly meet when she had first arrived, the one who had dragged her to Dippet. She had no desire whatsoever to be out of bounds so late when classes were set to start in the morning, and wanted nothing more than to collapse onto a soft pillow. But she wanted even more to blend in, to avoid setting herself apart from the masses. It would not do to start arousing suspicion of any kind. So Hermione leaned against a gnarled old poplar and watched as the girls refused to drink the beer the boys had brought, only to relent moments later with much coquettish simpering.
"Won't you have any, Hermione?" Katie Bell called merrily. A faint pink flush was beginning to creep up her cheeks.
Hermione shook her head at once, eliciting raucous laughter from the boys.
"Hermione's a model student," Gemma announced. "We'll be lucky to have her to help us with our Latin and Calligraphy, I bet, even if she's come to us for some not so nice reasons."
"Oh, that's right, we never asked," Romilda interjected. "What did your family do in the war, Hermione?"
"Brother in the 29th infantry," Riddle spoke up unexpectedly before Hermione could answer. "Father was a General under Churchill in the Blitz. Purple heart and medal of honor."
"Oh my God," said Amelia Bones sympathetically.
Hermione gazed at Riddle and said nothing. It was a blatant lie; he knew nothing about her family. She had been about to declare offhandedly that she despised the concept of war as a whole, but now felt it might be better to keep silent. Many of the students, male and female, were nodding in appreciation.
"Nice to see you come from a decent family," said Gemma in a fierce tone that surprised Hermione. "I don't know how some people whose parents didn't even fight can hold up their heads in public anymore, you know? Healthy men claiming heart conditions and the like, or draft dodgers. If you ask me, they shouldn't even let those families through the door."
"Hear, hear," said Barty Crouch and Alan Black in unison.
Riddle gave Hermione a look that said plainly, You're welcome.
Under cover of the others' fierce discussion of various battles, Hermione approached Riddle and scuffed her foot against the icy ground. She did not quite know what to say.
"I never thanked you for watching over me in the Infirmary," she settled on.
"It was the least I could do," he said quietly. His mildest tone carried more authority than the rest of the students put together. It was easy to see why he was Head boy. "Considering the ordeal you've been through, Miss Granger."
"Please," she muttered, "you can call me Hermione."
"Then you can call me Tom."
"Tom." Hermione tasted the word, feeling that it was strangely familiar. Then, all at once, she had it. She knew where she had heard the name Riddle before. She fought to turn the choking sound crawling up her throat into a cough.
No. No. It could not be. The polite, magnetic boy standing before her, the boy her own age with hair falling softly into his eyes, could not be Tom Riddle, the head of development and creative force behind Walpurgis Incorporated. Nothing had prepared her for this sort of eventuality. Again Hermione's situation was brought home to her in the most unexpected way, and memories of waiting rooms, biopsy tests, IV needles piercing flesh, swooped viciously down on her.
She had researched Tom Marvolo Riddle extensively for a paper in her fifth year, around the time Walpurgis Inc. had started to become a real world threat, and yes, the dates did correspond. He would have been exactly eighteen years old in 1946. He would have been completing his education at one of the country's foremost colleges.
"Are you all right?" Riddle asked, a picture of concern. And suddenly, Hermione wanted to recoil, to push him violently away, to scream into his face. He was one of the most evil people she had ever heard of, so how dare he stand there looking politely interested in her well-being? How dare he—he... any of it?
"I'm bored," Abraxas Malfoy drawled, breaking into Hermione's unpleasant epiphany. "Shall we get started?"
"Get started?" repeated Katie.
"Initiation," Riddle explained, tearing his gaze from Hermione's. She felt something like an electric shock, almost as though a physical link between them had broken. "Slytherin go through a little test at the start of their last year. Of course, we've never had a female student before, so if Hermione prefers not to..."
"I'll do it," Hermione said at once, feigning a confidence she did not feel. It was almost worth it just to wipe the superior air of mystery from his face. Riddle regarded her with narrowed eyes. After a moment he shrugged.
"All right," he said mildly. "Tony, the bottles."
He never said please, Hermione observed. He never made requests, only issued commands. And the others seemed to obey him without question. It had to be more than just his status as Head boy; he had to have some sort of malevolent hold over them. Dolohov brought over a heavy canvas bag, from which Riddle pulled an assortment of seven bottles. All were filled with questionable liquids, and none were labeled. Riddle lined them up before her on a bed of brambles glimmering with ice crystals.
"Seven bottles," he said while the others looked on eagerly. "Two of them don't hold a drop of alcohol, but only one of those you'll want to drink, the water. The other would be more use to you for making salad dressing. Two are brandy, and three are absinthe, none of which you'll want to choose if you want to make a good start to your term in the morning. When you pick a bottle, you have to drink everything inside."
He paused, and Hermione met his gaze with steely determination, nodding to show she understood.
"Here are your clues: first, every bottle of absinthe is placed to the left of a bottle of brandy. Second, the bottles at either end of the row look different, but neither is the one you need to choose if you want to stay sober. Third, all the bottles are different sizes, and neither the biggest or the smallest one are absinthe. Fourth, the second from the left and the second from the right taste the same, though the bottles look different. Got it?"
Hermione nodded again. It was rather miraculous, in fact, that she had stumbled upon a school whose initiation rites hinged on pure logic. She had heard stories of college students putting their underclassmen through all sorts of public humiliation. This would be a cinch.
"You're allowed to forfeit," Riddle told her, "up until you decide on a bottle. Once your hand touches it you have to drink the whole thing."
She hated the undercurrent of dark amusement in his voice. She suspected that nothing would please him more than to see her pick the wrong bottle and vomit down a stomach full of vinegar, or else go running starkers through the grounds under the influence of absinthe.
Not if she could help it. Hermione fixed the bottles, concentrating with all her might, and at last she smiled.
"Got it," she said.
She did not look away from Riddle as she reached for the smallest bottle. Her fingers curled around the cool glass, and she lifted it to her lips, tossed back her head, and tasted water. The students laughed and jeered. Hermione downed the drink in one and set the bottle down with a small triumphant smile.
"Hermione Granger," Riddle mused, his cool voice betraying something like anger, or perhaps satisfaction. It was difficult to tell. "Where have they been keeping you?"
A/N: A few things-
1. Neither of Alexander Graham Bell's granddaughters were named Katie, and even if they had been, they would have taken their father's name, Grovesnor, not their mother's maiden name. So sue me, I wanted to have some fun.
2. The epigraph is from my favorite poet, the delightful Edna St. Vincent Millay.
3. In case I'm not being heavy-handed enough about it already, Pureblood mania in this fic translates to what positions of prestige your family held in the army during WWII. Also, dark magic more or less equals technology. Don't draw too many deep philosophical conclusions from that. I'm not trying to make any particular social statement, I'm just trying to parallel canon as much as possible. Soooo... that's what's up.
4. This story will be 7 chapters and an epilogue, by my estimation. I'll try my best for weekly updates.
5. Yes, Tom definitely has technology he shouldn't have. All will be explained in time (ha-ha).
6. Yes, Walpurgis Inc. is a total dig at Monsanto. Let's all get on the same page here, GMO's are terrifying.
7. Gemma Farley is listed as a Prefect in the Pottermore welcome letter for Slytherin.