vii – i've made my peace, i'm dead, i'm done;
i watch you live to have my fun
On the first of May, the students of Hufflepuff Preparatory School for Girls were transferred to Slytherin College. The resulting schism between social groups left Hermione in a bizarre and unique position. Oftentimes when she was sitting in Latin or Theology, listening to Katie or Romlida babble incoherently, she would turn to see Malfoy or Crouch rolling their eyes conspiringly in her direction. Once Malfoy even leaned forward and whispered, "Set them right, Granger, would you?" The boys' attitudes were almost as disconcerting as the girls'. Gemma, the Delacour sisters, and Luna Lovegood, among others, were faring surprisingly well in their new academic environment. Better than Hermione had expected, if she was being honest with herself. But many of the girls seemed to have taken their transfer as an opportunity to double down on attracting a future husband. Pansy Parkinson spent so much time reapplying lipstick these days that it was a wonder she ever even made it to class.
All this would have been cause for some concern to Hermione, had she not been so completely preoccupied already by a much bigger dilemma. Ever since the night of Slughorn's party the week before, she had been taking great pains to avoid Tom. She had thought he would call her out on it, seek to speak with her. Something. But all he did was sit at the back of classrooms, not taking notes, and answer questions flawlessly in an impassible voice. It was driving her mad.
She lost sleep wondering how in the hell she would ever manage to get her hands on the Ignotus serum if Tom wasn't even speaking to her. She had no idea how to go about extracting the safe combination from him, so that she could enter the sealed refrigerator in the lab. And surely he would notice, very soon, that her tracking chip never moved from her bedroom?
Through all this worry, Hermione also took it upon herself to fret as much as possible over her upcoming exams. Dark purple bags were growing under her eyes. Every night she dreamed of malevolent spectral versions of Tom creeping into her room and hiding in the shadows. In class her hands trembled as she attempted to take notes, and her thoughts drifted to Sirius Black, to Gemma crying, to Tom with a gun in his hands. It was not until the final week before exams that a distraction arrived sufficiently disruptive to draw Hermione out of her stupor. To her everlasting exasperation, all the sixth and seventh year girls were granted a day pass to attend Amelia's wedding, which had been pushed back because of various familial complications.
"I'm as happy for Amelia as anyone," said Hermione defensively when, walking into the reception in a handsome church in Manchester, Romilda pointed out that she was 'sucking all the happiness out of the room.' "I just don't see that it's strictly necessary for all of us to attend. I mean, the most important exams of our lives are coming up..."
"And we're all very tired of hearing you talk about it," said Romilda, patting her affectionately on the arm. "Come on, let's go see if there's anyone handsome enough to dance with. We have to get your mind off Riddle, don't we?"
"What? I—I don't—" Hermione spluttered.
"Oh please, don't try to deny it. You've both been miserable lately. It's practically a Shakespearean tragedy every time you look at each other."
Hermione allowed herself to be led to the front table, where Romilda promptly forgot about her the moment she caught sight of a waiter. Hermione hurried to a more secluded table, spreading her homework out in front of her and glaring at anyone who showed signs of wanting to engage her in conversation.
The band launched into a swinging tune that drew the majority of the guests onto the dance floor. Amelia looked resplendent in acres of white muslin, laughing and dancing at the center of the crowd. Hermione supposed she should go and congratulate her, but the crowd was too dense. As was the subject of her Biology paper. She could feel a headache coming on.
"I pity the poor soul who tries to ask you to dance."
Hermione's heartbeat stuttered. Tom sat down across from her, unsmiling. She thought that he, too, looked tired—though still painfully handsome.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in a small voice.
"Dippet thought you girls could use some extra supervision on your train ride back."
They stared at one another in silence for a moment that spun painfully on and on. At length, slowly, Tom reached across the table to brush his thumb against her temple.
"You're not afraid of me," he observed.
There was no sense asking what he meant. She thought of the gun in his hand. His cold tone of voice. I'm not fucking sorry.
"Should I be?"
"Never," he said quietly.
Hermione leaned into his touch. "Why are you really here?"
"The adjustments on the serum. All worked out. Of course, it will take a week or so to run test trials and make certain beyond a doubt. But it's done." Tom pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and twitched it before her eyes. "As a matter of fact, I found the solution right here."
It was her homework. Hermione looked at it wonderingly, recognizing her small, neat handwriting from a fortnight ago.
"From the paper I wrote for Slughorn on alternatives to Anthracycline?" she said.
"I graded it myself. Slughorn sometimes passes off some of his less desirable tasks on me. Your observations about the metabolic and antibacterial properties of silver extracts were what gave me the tip I needed."
Hermione understood. "The medical benefits of silver refinement weren't posited until the twenty-first century. I couldn't help slipping something into the paper, since I knew Slughorn wouldn't pay much attention anyway." She frowned. "I ought to have made the connection to the serum myself."
Not that she would have necessarily told Tom if she had. The completion of the serum was the opposite of a positive development.
"It doesn't matter," said Tom. "We're there now."
There was a wild happiness about him that made him look somehow less human. A shiver raced down Hermione's back before she could help it.
"Tell me, Hermione," said Tom in a voice so grave she felt a little frightened.
"Tell you what?"
"Tell me... what's going through your mind right now."
She considered it. It went through Hermione's head to tell him the truth, for once. He knew something was amiss, that was certain. It was almost impossible, with the warmth of his hand against her face, to believe he would turn on her if she told him... what? If she told him that there were seven copies of him out there who both existed and did not exist? That she had to destroy everything he'd ever worked for in order to stop them from wreaking havoc on history? That in doing so she risked writing herself out of existence for a paradox?
Every one of her muscles tensed up. She looked into his eyes with her mouth bone dry.
"I'm in love with you," she said.
His face did not change. A small smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. Hermione's heart was racing as though she had just run a five minute mile. She did not think she had ever lied to someone by telling the truth before.
But did that mean she loved him? She probed her feelings, laboring to keep her features impassive. A month ago she might have said it was impossible. It seemed absurd to think she might love him, knowing all he had done. And yet.
And yet she could not exactly say she did not love him. She was at a stalemate with herself. Tom dropped his hand to the table and tangled his fingers with hers, his smirk growing.
"Yes, I know," he said.
She had never expected him to say it too. He did not seem the type. Still, it hurt a little. It hurt more than it should have. Hermione shook off the gloom and tried for a smile, noting that something in the set of Tom's shoulders seemed to have relaxed slightly. The tightness around his eyes had lessened. Whatever had preoccupied him, she had put it to rest for the time being.
"Hermione, what are you doing all the way over here—Oh! Hello Tom!" Amelia appeared, flushed and beaming.
"Mrs. Davies," said Tom politely, standing at once.
"Goodness, I think I like the sound of that," Amelia giggled. "Come dance, you two."
"Oh no, I don't think—"
"I wasn't asking! This is my wedding. I get my way."
Hermione kept her grip on Tom's hand as she was dragged unceremoniously onto the dance floor, unwilling to give up her only anchor of sanity. What a piteous thought that was. She rested her head against his chest as they danced in a slow circle to avoid having to look at his smirk any longer. It made her feel like screaming.
Would she ever see it again, after she destroyed the serum?
"Hermione," he said into her ear over the deep hum of the bass guitar.
"Everything from here on out is going to be perfect."
She nestled her head deeper against his chest so he would not see her crying.
With the addition of the Hufflepuff students, Slytherin graduation that year was a protracted affair. Tom stood at the front with Gemma Farley and recited the speech Black had written for him the previous night, injecting as much sincerity into his tone as he felt necessary. Well, he would be very sorry to leave the school, after all. He'd never had a home before Slytherin. He was already planning to return here to teach after he graduated from Oxford. It would be the perfect recruiting ground. Dippet had balked a little at the suggestion of hiring someone so young, but Slughorn would vouch for him.
Hermione stood in the front row in a specially marked cap and gown. Every time he looked at her he was reminded that she had tied him for Valedictorian, and he wanted to kill her with his bare hands. Also, he wanted to drag her into a corner and strip her naked and make her lose her mind. He indulged in a string of colorful mental curses before forcing control upon himself. Things were precarious enough already without allowing himself to get distracted.
Something would have to be done about her. Hermione was too stubborn for her own good, and she was keeping things from him. He knew she was in love with him; he'd seen it in her eyes even before she'd spoken the words. Still, somehow, she was up to something. Tom had no idea how the shady old man he had spoken to outside Slughorn's party had made it into the school, or how he had vanished under his very nose. He could only suppose the man was an enemy of Hermione's, somehow, which meant that there were endeavors in Hermione's life he knew nothing about. And that was unacceptable.
"Why don't you just force it out of her?" Dolohov had grumbled when Tom had complained, perhaps unwisely, of his predicament. "Use the usual... persuasion."
"If that was an option, obviously, I would have done it," Tom had snapped.
Why didn't he force cooperation out of her? Simply put, the thought of Hermione being hurt in any way was abhorrent to him. He resented and admired her for it more every day, because it meant that she was right, in a way. Some things, abstract things outside of himself, could matter, could be worth defending. Still, he would have to come to a decision about her sooner than later.
The party following the graduation ceremony lacked even the usual minimal attempts at containment. While the teachers luncheoned above stairs in their sedate lounge, bodies writhed to the music blaring from the record player down in the dark cellar. Dolohov was already passing around party favors, and revelers were doing lines right off the stone floor. Vane and Bell had disrobed to a provocative degree and were dancing atop the drinks table. Farley had given up demanding that people put out their cigarettes and was now running to and fro cleaning up glass shards as the rowdiest of the crowd smashed bottles of champagne against the walls.
Hermione was nowhere to be found.
Tom lingered for a time, in case Slughorn or Dippet should happen to come down and see the vast array of pharmaceuticals Dolohov was now distributing. The sea of sweaty, dancing bodies appealed to him about as much as a needle in the eye. When it became clear that Slughorn was probably drunk off his feet in the teacher's lounge, Tom slipped quietly away to find some peace in the grounds.
Things would have been much simpler if he could have just checked Hermione's fucking tracking chip. Yet, to his surprise, he need not look far for her. He recognized the short-cropped hair, the ratty second-hand sweater. She was sitting in the crook of a tree branch at the edge of the forest and reading. She looked larger than life in the first brush of twilight, a pale fragment of moonlight come to walk the earth but striving for the sky. She did not look up as he approached, but he could tell that she knew he was there.
"What exactly are you doing hiding in the forest at a time like this?" he asked. She was strange. She was so strange. Was this what it was to find someone endearing? Tom's skin prickled uncomfortably—stop waxing poetic, he warned himself.
"I strive to break at least one rule listed on Umbridge's pamphlets each day," she said with a yawn, marking a page in her book and rubbing her eyes.
"Really, Hermione. There are study halls indoors, you know."
She gave an odd smile. "Luna Lovegood told me Mirrorlings don't like forests. They like manmade structures, places with technology in them."
"What the hell are Mirrorlings?"
"Oh, nothing at all." She shrugged, her expression strangely oblique. Was she avoiding his eyes? "It's just Luna, you know."
Tom reached into his pocket. "I have a graduation present for you."
He produced a sheet of paper, unfolded it, and handed it to her. He watched in amusement as her eyes traveled over the page, and her lips framed the words Order of Patient Discharge. Her jaw dropped.
"Sirius Black is free and clear," Tom specified, because she looked beyond coherence.
"You—You—How did you—?"
"Very unethical means, I assure you. Malfoy won't be happy about the amount I've transferred out of his trust account, but there's no need for him to know where it went."
Her eyes were suddenly sparkling with tears. No, Tom did not want to have a crying girl on his hands; that was not in the realm of things he cared to experience. But Hermione kept her composure, though she let out a shaky breath.
"I didn't get you anything," she said tremulously.
Didn't she realize what a gift it was simply to have her, to be able to call her his? Yes, perhaps he was contemplating what to do about her double-crossing—was contemplating all kinds of possibilities. But there was no denying what a wonder she was.
"You did," he told her quietly, leaning forward to kiss her. He thought there was an edge of desperation in the way she moved.
She was beginning to make him imagine things.
"Come on," Tom said. "In a little while the party will be over and this place will be overrun. I know somewhere quieter we can go. Besides, I need to check my results."
He led her by the hand through the grounds to the passageway in the bathroom. It felt natural to walk this way, connected together. It felt objectively right. Tom could not understand why something akin to panic was beginning to assail him every time his thoughts drifted to the question of what to do about Hermione.
When they finally arrived at the lab he checked the readings on the newest version of the serum, and his fist closed tightly, nails digging into skin.
"The tests were a success," he announced, replacing the beaker in the safe and sealing it up. "It's finished, for real this time."
Victory coursed through his veins. He wanted a cigarette badly, or he wanted to run into the night and claim it as his own. He looked at Hermione, sitting on the edge of a nearby counter and chewing her nails unconsciously. She did not look as celebratory as he felt.
"We did it," he pointed out. Wondering if she knew what it cost him, that word: we did it.
At last she smiled. "We did."
He walked over to her and lifted her down from the counter.
"This way," he said, tilting his head in the direction of the little room adjoining the lab where he sometimes spent the night if he became too absorbed with his work. She nodded, swallowing thickly. Tom pushed open the door and followed her inside, to where an old fashioned oil lamp sat on a little wood table next to a cot covered in knitted blankets.
He sat on the cot and crossed his arms behind his head, waiting for her to join him. Instead she began to pace around the tiny room, tapping her fingers rhythmically against her thighs and biting her lip.
She looked unbelievably nervous. "If you like, we can go back to the school instead and join the party," he offered.
But she shook her head. "No, I'd rather... No."
Her gaze whipped to his. He reached out and pulled her close so that she stood before him, breathing deeply. With measured movements, never taking his eyes from hers, he wrapped his hands around her leg and unclipped her stocking, rolling it down past her knee to the ground. Her ragged breathing eased with each of his movements. Slowly, he did the same with her other leg.
"You would rather stay?" he asked.
He held her calf and lifted her leg onto the edge of the cot to brush a kiss against the inside of her knee. He heard her sharp intake of breath and looked up to see her frozen, eyes half closed, cheeks flushed. He could hardly stand to sit still and watch her when she looked like that. With a low growl he pulled her head down and kissed her, and they fell into a tangle together almost at once, her hands on his shoulders and his on her waist.
Tom turned down the knob on the oil lamp so that they were plunged into semi-darkness. She slid his shirt over his head and he helped her out of her uniform until they were pressed together, skin against skin, and her small noise of contentment as he kissed a trail down her shoulder almost knocked the wind out of him. He held himself over her carefully, seeking approval in her eyes. She gasped briefly, then relaxed and buried her face in the crook of his neck. And it was slow and decadent and she was his, and he was hers. That too, because he could not help the words that fell from his lips, a string of meaningless words that came faster and faster, Hermione, don't leave, just—don't leave me, don't, Hermione, Hermione, don't leave me, don't—
"No," she answered, a promise, a short, quiet pant. Her fingers dug into his back. "Tom—"
His name slid from her tongue again, and hers from his, mingling together, twisting and spinning, faster and higher.
How would he ever live without this?
He held her tightly and listened to the beat of her heart as she fell asleep. When he was certain she had drifted off he stood and dressed in silence. Then he slipped out of the room and sealed the door to the lab behind him, locking her in.
Hermione waited, feigning sleep, until she heard the door shut. Her eyes opened and adjusted to the dim light. She hugged her arms around herself, shivering.
If, as she hoped, Tom intended to return to the school to supervise the end of the graduation party while she slept, then she had several hours of free access to the lab. Hermione rose, quickly threw her uniform back on, and approached the refrigerator safe.
The combination could be any string of unrelated numbers; logically, she did not have a prayer of guessing it. But Hermione was not in the habit of giving up easily. Her mind ground into overdrive, producing a hundred possibilities, each as unlikely as the next. If Tom was being practical, he would have picked a series of numbers at random. Yet somehow, she suspected him of harboring a secret penchant for the grandiose. His passcode would be something meaningful, something that represented his being above others.
The day I left the orphanage was the most important day of my life.
That was not the sort of information he shared with just anyone, Hermione thought. He had sounded too reserved while speaking it. Could it be...?
The day Tom had left the orphanage would have been the first day of his first year at Slytherin, seven years ago. Hardly daring to breathe, Hermione lifted a trembling finger and punched a date into the keypad: 01-09-1937.
For an agonizing moment nothing happened. Then there was the low sound of air being released, and the door popped open. A wave of relief washed over her, so powerful she staggered back. What now? Hermione opened the bottom drawer to verify that Ignotus Peverell's paper was still stashed there. This part of the problem would be more easily solved. She pulled the paper out and carried it over to a countertop. There, she lit a Bunsen burner and touched the flame to the edge of the first page.
The paper was old and dry. It went up in a roar instantly. Hermione dropped the fiery mess into a steel sink and watched it shrivel and burn until nothing was left but cinders. She turned on the tap and washed it all away. No copies. Nothing left. She felt a bead of sweat run down the back of her neck and forced the image of Tom out of her head.
Now for the serum. But before Hermione could move on, she was distracted by a small crash. She turned around to peer through the darkness at the laboratory door. Could someone be lurking outside? She strode to the door just to check and tugged on the handle.
It was locked.
It was locked from the outside. Tom had locked her in.
He had known all along that she was planning something. A little whimper of dismay escaped her, and she pressed her forehead against the cool glass of the door, thinking furiously of what to do next.
Then, without warning, she was thrown across the room.
She landed against the far counter, her head colliding painfully with the tabletop's edge. Stars burst in front of her eyes. When Hermione managed to sit up she saw three shadowy, blinking figures standing by the door. Another pair was emerging from the room with the cot behind her, and still two more seemed to creep up from behind the safe, their veiled, flickering eyes fixed on her. It was difficult to look at them without wanting to blink or turn away. Hermione could not explain the feeling of malaise their presence provoked, except to think that perhaps her mind was having difficulty wrapping itself around the presence of beings who both did and did not exist. Her overwhelming sense of dread was much more easily explained: these were the copies of Tom Riddle, and they had come for her.
Hermione pushed herself to her feet and gauged the distance to the safe out of the corner of her eye, her vision swimming. Her head hurt terribly where she had hit it against the counter.
"We can talk about this," she croaked to the aged figures closing in on her; the wizened, ancient spectres who reminded her of nothing less in the world than her Tom. "Just tell me what you want."
"The time for talk is past, girl," said the Riddle closest to her. His voice was sibilant to her ears, and a little garbled. He looked almost translucent at the edges, as if at any moment he might vanish.
"What you're doing can never work," Hermione insisted. She could see no way out of this but to keep talking, to keep them distracted. She backed towards the safe inch by inch as she spoke.
Another of the Riddles answered her this time. This one seemed far less coherent. His first few words were lost in a string of odd mechanical noises that sounded something like binary being recited at top speed. The first Riddle laughed.
"You are too late to stop us," he said. "None can stop us."
"But what can you possibly hope to accomplish by making the world more dangerous, more selfish and dark?"
One of the Riddles by the safe blinkered into nothingness all of a sudden, and reappeared by the door at his companions' side.
"What we do, we do for the glory, the benefit of the deserving. The weak will perish, and the strong will prosper. We are—"
Hermione lunged for the safe. Halfway through her dive she thrust her hand into her pocket and pulled out her phone, which she threw at the head of the Riddle by the safe door. He gave an incoherent cry of English and binary. A spiderweb of thin fissures of light burst across his shoulder where the phone hit him. He staggered back, clutching at the wound. Hermione took the opportunity to wrench the safe back open all the way and remove the beaker. She was halfway to prying open the lid when something seized her ankle, and one of the Riddles yanked her to the ground. The beaker slipped from her hands and smashed against the counter, sending the serum dripping into the sink and spreading in a puddle across the counter.
"No!" snarled four Riddles in unison, diverted.
Hermione attempted to pull free but another Riddle closed his hands around her throat. He was viciously strong. The blows she pummelled against his head had no effect. Gathering all her strength, Hermione reached up and gripped the handle of the safe door, putting all her weight into dragging it forward. It came toppling off the counter and struck the Riddle with his hands around her neck, who vanished. Unfortunately the safe then fell onto Hermione's left leg with a sickening crunch.
The pain was overpowering. Hermione screamed and flailed. She banged her fist against the counter, knocking a Bunsen burner over and setting it alight. The remains of the ashes from Peverell's paper, sprinkled over the counter, caught fire, and soon the whole countertop was ablaze. The flames lapped hungrily, further and further down towards the other end of the counter where the serum had pooled.
The Riddles were staggering now. The part of them with one foot planted firmly in the realm of existence was dimming. None of their voices were intelligible any longer. Hermione tried to crawl as far from them as she could, but she was trapped underneath the safe.
One of the Riddles screamed. It was a piercing, inhuman sound that tore through Hermione's head like broken glass. A moment later, this first Riddle had dissolved into nothingness.
A heavy chunk of the burning countertop, blackened to charcoal, detached itself and fell, striking Hermione across the face. She dropped her head back against the ground and wailed in pain.
Another of the Riddles popped out of existence.
The world was beginning to darken before Hermione's eyes. She could sense that the injury to her leg was bleeding badly, and the blood loss was making her head fill with fog. Or perhaps this was it. This was the end Prince had predicted for her, a slow unimpressive fading from the world.
She thought of Harry and Ron, always by her side. Their smiles and pranks and solidarity.
She thought of Tom.
Hermione, don't leave me, don't—
On the floor where it had skittered, a little to her left, Hermione's phone blinked and hummed.
With her last reserves of strength she picked up the phone and peered blearily at the screen. There was no more movement around her, no more spectral figures circling close. Only the hissing of the flames and the constant darts of pain shooting up her leg. She pressed the button, and Prince's face appeared on the screen.
"If you are receiving this message, then you are near to succeeding in your task," he said emptily. Hermione realized in a distant way that she was hearing a pre-recorded message. Smoke was filling up the room, tarring the walls and ceiling a sooty black and forcing labored coughs from her lungs. "You have done what was required of you. Now, I ask something more."
Why wasn't he here telling her this himself? Did he realize what danger she was in?
"My explanation of the copies of Riddle was a half-truth. The Nightingale is not likely to fade out of existence if they are destroyed. So you must ensure that the young Riddle upholds his end of a deal with me, as I will not be here to do it myself."
Not here? Hermione coughed weakly. The smoke was eroding her ability to think straight.
"In a little under two decades a girl will be born in a north London hospital to parents Daisy and Carlisle Evans. Riddle threatened to prevent her birth if I did not cooperate with him. This cannot happen. She must be allowed to live. You must make sure of it."
Evans? The name sounded familiar. Something about Harry's parents. His mother's maiden name...
"He will find you soon." Was she dreaming, or was there a tremor of fear in Prince's voice? "That is all."
The screen went blank.
Hermione heard a distant knocking, but it was too late. Dark shadows were pressing in on her vision. She closed her eyes and lost all sense of time.
Tom walked along the path that led to the train station in the village, straight-backed, content. Things were going exactly as they were meant to. Everything would be perfect from here on out.
He felt like utter shit.
No, no, that was not—
He entered the pub at the end of the lane where a scraggly man with a lazy eye often sat in the shadows; a man who knew people. To his annoyance, however, the man was not there today. He would have to deal with Prince directly if he wanted to find Hyrcus. There was no question of harming Hermione permanently—she was too valuable—but he needed her detained on an indeterminate basis. Hyrcus had connections who specialized in that sort of thing. Tom produced his leather-bound journal and checked on Prince's tracking chip. And, what the hell? The man was right here in this pub, apparently.
Tom walked up to the front counter and hailed a barman.
"Is Prince upstairs?" he asked.
"Nah," the barman grunted. "Ain't here. But he told me to give you this."
The barman slapped something into Tom's hand: a small metal chip. Tom stared at it for a moment.
Something was very wrong.
Possibilities surged to mind: Prince had double-crossed him and run away with the research; or, impossible thought, Prince had double-crossed him and run away with Hermione. This last possibility made him feel physically ill. He thought he might actually kill someone if he did not get out of here.
Tom turned around and ran out of the pub. He sprinted full tilt down the main road to the broken down shack, through the secret passageway into the lab. His muscles screamed for air. He ignored them.
You're being ridiculous.
Hermione would not leave him. She wouldn't. Never that.
It was a feeble certainty that did nothing to assuage the panic churning in his stomach. Tom practically hammered down the door to the outer facility. He had to punch the code in three times because he kept getting it wrong. At last he ran inside and saw the window to the laboratory door clouded with black smoke.
Jesus Christ. He could never have imagined fear like this existed: fear not for himself at all, but for someone else. It was worse, deeper, it was everywhere.
All hesitation vanished. His vision sharpened, his mind refused access to anything but unilateral determination. He opened the door on the first try and was thrown back against the corridor wall by a scorching burst of heat. The smoke slashed at his lungs, burned his eyes. But it was nothing. Tom forged on into the room. When his vision adjusted he saw two things.
He saw the Ignotus serum pooled on the counter, still enough of it to salvage and scrape into a phial. Flames were dancing towards it, inches away, seconds from consuming and destroying his life's work forever.
And he saw Hermione, unconscious on the floor, trapped beneath the fallen safe.
It was not even a difficult choice. Tom ran past the serum without a second glance and dropped to his knees at Hermione's side. He heaved the safe off her and clutched her face in his hands.
"Wake up," he ordered. It had worked once before. "Open your eyes."
But she was limp in his arms. There was a horrible bleeding gash on her leg and her pulse was sluggish. Her head lolled on his shoulder.
"Wake up!" Tom yelled at the top of his voice.
A beam fell from the ceiling and struck his shoulder, but he did not feel it.
She was dying.
He fucking loved her and she was fucking dying and he would lose his fucking mind if he did not get her out of here.
Eyes watering in the smoke, he scooped her up in his arms and tore his way out of the room. Debris littered the floor. He nearly tripped twice, and was hit with more falling pieces of the ceiling. The door had banged shut in the draft from the fire, but he kicked it open in an unconscious surge of adrenaline.
A car was waiting for him outside the shack. It was the same black De Soto Prince always ordered for him, with Prince's own keys sitting on the hood. Prince was nowhere in sight. Tom placed Hermione in the backseat and drove back to the school at breakneck speed, skidding onto the front lawn of Slytherin right to the very edge of the building. From there he carried Hermione at a run up to the Infirmary.
Farley was holding Parkinson's hair while she vomited into a pail at the far end of the room.
"Out!" Tom roared.
Both girls looked around in alarm and Farley went bone white at the sight of Hermione. Parkinson scuttled out of the room, but Farley immediately began dressing a bed. She approached and attempted to help Tom lay Hermione down on her back with her injured leg elevated.
"Get out," Tom repeated.
She pressed a cold compress to Hermione's forehead.
Something in his tone broke Farley's defiance. It always did. She threw him a withering glare as she left the room. Tom busied himself immediately with bandaging Hermione's leg, intermittently checking her pulse.
She was still alive. She was still alive. She was still alive.
He left the compress in place to cool her fever. He kissed her eyelids and willed her to return to consciousness, because he always got what he wanted, and he had never wanted anything as badly as this.
"Oh—Oh goodness me!"
Dippet, Slughorn, and Merrythought had come trooping into the Infirmary, flustered in their nightgowns, gaping in horror at Hermione.
"What on earth happened here, Tom?" asked Dippet in the closest thing to a stern voice Tom had ever heard him use.
"The festivities downstairs weren't to Hermione's taste, so we went to the village for a quieter atmosphere. There was a fire at the old shack, and Hermione saw a little girl inside, so she ran in after her. The girl got out through the backyard, but Hermione got stuck. I had to pull her out." Tom reminded himself vaguely to have Dolohov set a fire, in case anyone checked on his story.
"Well—My, my—Farley sent for us saying that Miss Granger was in quite terrible shape. I expect the nurse will be around shortly. You can go back to your dormitory now, Tom."
"No." There was no room in Tom's head to add a polite sir. An entire army could not drag him from Hermione's side.
"Perhaps we ought to let the boy stay, Armando," said Slughorn gently.
"Yes, very well, very well," Dippet stammered.
At length the nurse arrived, the pajama-clad teachers departed, and Tom took a seat at Hermione's side. The moon crept through the sky, and Hermione slept on. The adrenaline from the mishap in the lab was draining out of Tom. Though he watched Hermione attentively, he soon found his eyes closing in spite of him, until he could stay awake no longer. He sagged forward a little in his chair, laid his head against Hermione's limp shoulder, and slept.
When he awoke, she was gone.
Warm air washed over Hermione as a steam engine sped off. She leaned her head against the back of the bench and watched dawn break over the mostly deserted train station. She kept fiddling with her ticket with nervous fingers, and if she was not careful soon she would shred it to pieces.
She had woken up in the early hours of morning to find Tom's hand clasped in hers, his head resting against her pillow as he slept soundly. She had taken a moment to look at him, to memorize the planes of his face, before slipping away from the Infirmary. She had stolen quietly through the grounds and come upon Romilda, who was holding her shoes in her hand and grinning happily.
"Hermione!" she had squealed, oblivious to Hermione's frantic gestures to quiet down. "Are you just getting in too? Quite the night, wasn't—"
"Romilda, I need to get out of here."
Something in her tone must have impressed Romilda as serious, for once, because the grin had slid right off her face. She had frowned.
"There's an old shed behind the Hufflepuff gardens," Romilda had said. "I keep a bicycle there in case I want to meet up with someone in the village. It's unlocked."
Hermione had hugged her briefly in thanks.
"Don't tell anyone where I've gone."
The bicycle ride to the village had been anguish for Hermione's injured leg, but she had made it in time to catch the first train to Manchester. She had put up a fairly good show of crying and told the conductor a half-baked story about being on the run from a jealous boyfriend, and he had let her on board for free.
In Manchester she had sold her watch to a shady man on the platform for enough money to purchase breakfast and a monthly rail pass. From there she had taken several detours, riding from town to town at random for an entire day to throw off anyone who might be pursuing her. Hermione did not truly know whether all this secrecy was necessary. All she knew was that Tom had locked her inside the lab, and she had nearly died, and no matter what she felt that was reason enough to pack it in and look out for herself.
At present she sat in King's Cross station, stomach empty and heart hollow. She had made it to London on the morning of her second day on the run. She thought she could perhaps catch a train to Paris. She knew a little French. She could make a fresh start.
A tall, thin young man with shoulder-length auburn hair sat down on the bench next to hers and opened up a book. Hermione looked over at him and received the shock of her life.
She had seen pictures of Albus Dumbledore in his youth before. Somehow, in real life, he actually looked more impressive than she had expected. His eyes were a rather overwhelmingly piercing blue.
Hermione cleared her throat. Dumbledore looked over with an eyebrow raised in question.
"Er, I'm sorry," she said sheepishly. "But are you Albus Dumbledore?"
"Guilty as charged, Miss—?"
"Granger?" The corners of his mouth turned up in pleased recognition. "Would you happen to be the Miss Granger of whom I have been lately reading in the Gazette?"
"Er, yes sir." She was not at all sure that she wanted to be represented by the words of the Gazette.
"Slytherin College's first female student!" said Dumbledore in delight. "An honor, Miss Granger. In fact, I was just on my way to Slytherin now at the behest of Headmaster Dippet. I graduated there a few years ago myself, and I believe it may be the intention of the school to establish a connection between Slytherin and Oxford, as a way to ease students into life at University."
"That's—That's lovely, sir."
"Please, call me Albus."
Hermione gaped at him. "I don't think I can," she choked. She could think of nothing so awkward as calling her former Headmaster by his given name.
"You seem a little out of sorts, Miss Granger. Is there anything the matter?"
"A... friend of mine recently passed away," said Hermione, thinking of Prince. Not a friend, necessarily, but one of the bravest people she had ever known. She'd had the time, while sitting endlessly on trains for the past few days and watching the scenery fly along outside her window, to reconstruct what must have happened to him. Prince, too, had been connected to the timeline of the copies of Riddle. Their end had been his end. He'd had just enough time to arrange to leave her a message before vanishing from the world.
"He died to protect someone he cared deeply for, I think," she went on, now thinking of Harry's mother. Her calm, pretty smile and her bright red hair. Memories of Tom threatened to break in. She shut them down quickly and turned away to wipe a tear from her eye.
"Ah, so must we all," said Dumbledore gravely. Then he smiled. "I must say, it is quite a treat to meet you in person, Miss Granger. The rumors of your fascinating disposition have not been exaggerated."
"Professor Dippet speaks most highly of you."
"Does he?" she said with rather heavy skepticism.
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "Well, not in so many words. But to the astute ear, a condemnation from certain sources may be taken as a glowing recommendation."
Hermione considered him. There was something indefinable in his countenance that inspired trust. She felt a little better already, just speaking to him.
"In that case," she said, making up her mind on the spur of the moment, "I wonder if I might ask you a favor."
"I imagine that would depend upon the favor," said Dumbledore with a wry smile.
"Well, it won't make much sense now, but I'd like to give you this." Hermione dove into her pocket and produced her phone, which she had miraculously kept clutched in her grip through the fire. "All I ask is that you examine what's inside. Some time in the future it might become... important."
Her phone contained photographs of the lab. It contained voice recordings of her call log with Prince. It contained a few attempts to communicate with Sirius Black, when she had been unable to access her computer. There was enough there to set him on the right track; a track that would someday lead him to recommend her for an internship at MI5, and later to send a message back to her through Prince. With a little luck the phone had enough battery life left to let him look at it all without the charger cord.
Dumbledore took the phone and examined it with keen interest.
"What a curious device," he said cheerfully. "Yes, I suppose I can spare a little time to examine it. I was planning on visiting an uncle of mine in Hazel Grove on the way in, in any case. Ah, I believe that must be my train."
A distant rumbling was heard as a train approached, less than a mile off.
"It's been lovely speaking to you," said Hermione, standing to shake his hand.
"Quite the same to you, Miss Granger."
She bit her lip. "You should consider a career in teaching." She did not know what made her say it. The words simply slipped out. Dumbledore looked amused.
"Indeed?" he said thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose it would do just as well as a career in government. Those folks do tend to make a lot of themselves, but then again, my uncle Hyrcus got into some rather well publicized trouble about something to do with goats a few years ago, and now he works for the Secret Service. With a man called Prince, I believe. What a world we do live in... Farewell, Miss Granger."
Hermione forced down a garbled noise of shock and waved at him.
When she turned back, Tom was standing behind her.
She had no strength to panic, or run away, or rage at him. She stood and stared, her heart hammering painfully in her chest. She had not thought she would get another chance to look at him. He looked terrible. There were dark circles under his eyes. He was gaunt and unshaven and ghostly pale. She had never seen him looking so humanly breakable before.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"I've been up looking for you for over forty-eight hours without stopping. Your friend Vane tried very hard to set me a false trail. She told me you'd gone for a nature stroll with Farley in the south end of the woods, so naturally, I went into the opposite direction. Bribed the train station attendant in the village to tell me where you'd gone. And so on."
"I'm going, Tom. Are you really going to try to stop me?"
His face was hard and tense. Hermione, don't leave me, don't—
"Well, I think you should reconsider," he said flatly.
"Reconsider? What is this, a business proposal?"
"No one will keep you safe like I will."
"I can keep myself safe."
"No one will understand you like I will. No one will know what you're capable of, what you can do."
"I've lived with that before."
"No one will fucking love you like I will."
All the air left Hermione's lungs.
"You—I can't stand by and watch you engineer serums for immortality and use people and torture your classmates. It's impossible for me."
Tom set his jaw. "Well, then, I'm done with that. The serum is destroyed, anyway. So, I locked you inside my lab. So, you burned it down. Fuck the past. From here on out, we can do whatever we want."
He gripped her shoulders. A rumbling was heard in the distance again as Hermione's train arrived.
"Hermione," he said, looking directly into her eyes in a way he hadn't done before. Looking right at her, and this time it wasn't a lie. "I'm asking you, please, stay."
She tried to identify the fireworks explosion going off inside her. It wasn't just happiness, or relief. It was something more. It crashed over her in a tidal wave that washed everything else away, the station and the gust of air from the train and the sun rising over their heads. Hermione ripped up her ticket and leaned her head forward to rest it against Tom's, until the train passed on, without her on board.
A/N: My poor genocidal bby Riddle has some abandonment issues, mkay? Many thanks to love-warmth-life, AvoidedIsland, Mechanical Orange, heffy, In Memory Of Yesterday, Ella Palladino, XxCupCakeLoverxX, krook, Guest, Jessica, Guest, Anon...
1. Phew. Have I answered most of your questions? I mean, genuinely, I'm curious if I pulled off injecting any degree of sense into this (it's all very clear in my head but that's often no indication of how it comes across). If many of you are still confused, I can try to add more clarity via the epilogue.
2. Speaking of which... No, I'm not going to write an epilogue set nineteen years later and give them babies. I think you guys know me better than that by now.
3. Epigraph from Valentine by Fiona Apple.
4. Anthracycline is a component of chemotherapy. Probably not invented in the 40's. Eh.
5. Help I'm starting to think I wanna write a spinoff series about Romilda Vane.