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Strange Attractors

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~ First Arc – Adaptation ~

 

Strange Attractors Chapter One Photoset

01 Waking Up with a Headache

The intense migraine seemed to be trying to pulp her head like an overripe orange.

Hermione sneezed at the dry leaf that was stuck too close to her nostrils and tried to pull herself up from her prone position – she had been lying on her stomach when she woke up. She groaned as her head complained about the changing positions with a more intense hammering. The chilled air raised goosebumps on her skin. It was dark out here, she could feel dirt under her knee. Even without knowing that she didn’t have the habit of sleeping outdoors, she had the gut feeling that something was wrong.

Her right hand had started feeling the ground around her for her wand. Fortunately for her, she found it quickly. The easy thrum of its resonance with her magic was comforting.

The unease wasn’t just a feeling at the back of her neck—she had become so attuned to it that it was closer to a sixth sense by now. It had kept her alive through the war, through the insurrections after that and even against the newer dark lords. She wasn’t about to ignore it now.

The witch stayed as still as possible, silently casting a spell to augment her hearing. There were no loud steps of a group rushing in her direction. She heard the hoot of an owl some distance away, of little feet scurrying up and down tree barks. There was the fleet footed skip of a fox on a hunt too.

Hermione sighed in relief and cancelled the spell. She let the scent of the forest calm her down while she pulled herself up slowly. Her head was still killing her and her lower back the kind of ache that felt as if someone had just drive kicked it and then stomped with steel boots for good measure.

I don’t think there’s any broken bones.

She tried to stand up and faltered when her left ankle failed her. A check showed her it was dislocated. Hermione found a convenient tree to lean against, held her knee carefully and then pushed it back in. The movements felt easy and familiar, something she’d done often enough that she’d bothered to excel at it. The pain sucked, but she could work with it. A minor Episkey should reduce inflammation for the moment, right? Right.

Besides, she wasn’t in any sort of emergency where she needed to pour magic to heal it immediately because she needed to start running soon. It could wait.

Hermione stood up again.

She ran a diagnostic spell for bone integrity, just in case, because fractures could be easily missed. Glowing green letters floated and told her what she needed to know.

“Ha!”

No fractures either, though hmm, apparently, she needed to up her calcium intake. That could be dealt with later. It would have been annoying if she had to put her left ankle in a cast. The aches she was feeling spoke of a lot of bruises.

She grimaced. Her memory was spotty. She couldn’t really recall what was the last thing she was doing. The memory eluded her the more she tried to remember. What with her throbbing headache, she guessed that she’d probably knocked her head hard. A concussion was possible. She needed to get out of the forest and find some help quickly.

There! There were lights in that direction. That was surely the way out. She would walk in that direction—well, limp in that direction seems to be more accurate, but she wasn’t complaining.

Had there been a fight? An ambush?

She unconsciously gripped the wand in her hand tighter before forcing herself to relax. But why was she alone? It didn’t make any sense. If they had been fighting, she should be with others—she wasn’t foolish enough to think she could tackle a group of blood fanatics or new dark zealots alone. She should have woken up in the hospital, right? If she had been ambushed and somehow lost (a part of her snorted in disbelief at that—she hadn’t been an easy picking in a while), she would’ve been dead.

…or worse.

(Who were these ‘blood fanatics’ and ‘new dark zealots’? Why were these people, with these names, the first thing that came to her mind? She could not recall. Why not, well, Death Eaters? She’d spent her school years aiding Harry facing them, right? Her head felt light and weird…)

The forest didn’t seem to be a particularly old growth. The trees were loose and they slowly continue to get looser as Hermione walked on and finally left the tree line behind her.

The distant lights were apparently those of a castle.

Hermione shook her head, uncertain if she was dreaming or not. But no, the vision stayed, the numerous lights on the windows twinkled their welcome. Even the sky was perfectly cloudless, an infinite velvet bed with infinite diamonds upon them. She could even see the Milky Way, serene and majestic in a way that you can’t see in the smog-filled skies of London. Hermione’s breath caught at her throat.

“Hogwarts? I can’t be at Hogwarts.” She protested to no one in particular.

There was a battle, (battles?) Even if the castle survived, surely it would not look this unscarred, as serene as an ideal sanctuary?

The perfect scene she’d found herself at was marred by the sudden rage growing inside her. She remembered vague outlines but nothing precise. No! She knew why Hogwarts shouldn’t look like this. She can recall the battle (battles?). It was just there, at the edge of her mind…

The pain at her temples pulsed with her rising heartbeat and she dropped her face into her hand. No, she was not helpless. This was just a minor setback. She can get around this, yes? She was Hermione Granger, she’ll always find a way—

That twinge of oddness again, this time at her last name. It was her name, yes, but it no longer sat quite right with her, as if it was part of her but there were other histories she was missing. She was getting sick at these holes in her memory. Being Hermione, she channelled it into something more productive; finding answers. At the very least, she can borrow the Headmaster’s fireplace and floo back home—

(Wait, where’s home? Why can’t she recall any images, any feelings of where home is??)

The pain at the back of her waist was getting harder to ignore. She was gritting her teeth and focused on moving forward so much that she didn’t notice the drops of blood she was trailing. No, I’ll floo to the Ministry. She can always floo to the Ministry, she thought quickly, pressing down the rising panic. She was, after all, Unspeakable Granger—

(That uncertain twinge set off again—).

Unspeakable Hermione. She was Unspeakable Hermione.

(She held on to these solid pieces of her identity like an amulet, a lucky charm).

Well, at least she didn’t somehow forget Hogwarts. Considering that she’d spent her formative years there, under life-threatening conditions, it would be ridiculous.

Hermione stopped about halfway from the castle’s doors when her left ankle throbbed with pain. She sighed, sat down and after a vague accounting of what she was wearing (why was she wearing a tie? Was there a Ministry event, or something? Never mind, it could be useful) She wrapped her tie around the ankle to support the joint. She picked up her shoe to put it back on.

She had expected her comfortable and combat-tested boots. What she found was something else.

Hermione hadn’t paid attention when she took it off, but she did now. Why would she be wearing mary-janes for field work? Wait, perhaps the field work had been an unexpected surprise. But who was responsible for the dress code for the last Ministry meeting? Umbridge? She scoffed.

As she put the shoe on with some choice complaints and mutterings, it crossed her mind that it might have been a budget meeting. Hermione groaned. No unspeakable she’d ever met liked the Ministry’s budget meetings. The running department joke was that they have to ‘play normal’ and not scare the comptrollers. She still remembered the first time she heard the Department Head’s speech.

“That means formal office wear, everyone! No project is to be worked on during that day—they must be shelved and contained. I repeat, shelved and contained.

He sent a warning look around the room, and there was no shortage of people who looked away or ducked. As usual, there were always the more egregious cases.

That means your lab, Malina Moreau—no one needed to see what you managed to raise from the bones found in some ancient ruin. I don’t care if you’ve managed to recreate the Chupacabra! This also means that cloud assistant you were working with should be bottled, Neptune O’Neil. Don’t leave it to drift around the common room to rain on unsuspecting people! We also can’t have improvements to the coffee machine that is not Ministry approved—take machine additions off and remove the spells. You can all put them back later.”

A collective groan went around the meeting room at that. Never mind that half the room was cloaked and hooded, and some with genderless voices. The prospect mutual suffering in the wake of the dearth of good coffee made them all human.

“And for Merlin’s sake, the next person who leaves some mock-up, some joke version of the Lemarchand puzzle box for the bean counters to find for shits and giggles will be our next liaison to the Budget Office! Do I make myself clear?”

Hermione couldn’t help a small smile at the thought.  The Unspeakables were unaccountably weird—they would be the first to admit that to anyone asking, but the Department of Mysteries were one of the few that strictly kept themselves away from politics and were more interested in the greater workings of magic. Granted, the few psychos the department manage to generate in its lengthy history were also far scarier than Umbridge. Yet the department also took the responsibility of taking them down too—unlike other parts of the Ministry itself, where people like Umbridge infested the place by the dozens. And then we have people like Cornelius Fudge.

She had just passed the castle’s doors, the warm air wrapping around her like a blanket. Her energy was flagging down. It didn’t make sense for a short walk. Why the bone deep tiredness that made her wish for a nice, clean bed to just fall down and sleep on?

The cold she was feeling wasn’t just physical now.

Hermione had figured out why it was familiar—this was the sort of tiredness that came after a battle, the exhaustion experienced after throwing spells left and right. Was there an attack on the Ministry? Was there somehow an attack at the heart of the Department of Mystery? (She was now fully aware that the Prophecy Hall was not close to the more well-defended and well-staffed offices.)

But if that was true, why am I alone, at Hogwarts?

She can’t remember. She can’t remember anything at all, what she had for dinner, her last lunch. Who sat at the cubicle next to her at work? Wait, does she even have a cubicle? No, and she didn’t have a mere table in a large open office set either. She was not that junior, not anymore. Yet when she tried to summon what her desk looks like she couldn’t see it in her mind’s eye. She can’t—

Hermione leaned back against the wall, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She was going to regulate her breathing carefully. Her right hand had gone to her left wrist and didn’t find the emergency teleportation bracelet that had been standard issue for Ministry employees for a while (for a year? Two years? She can’t remember. Why can’t she—)

She was going to be fine. She didn’t have time to panic. Headmaster’s Office, she convinced herself. All I have to do is to get to the headmaster’s office, ask the headmaster to call people through floo and figure out what’s going on. Yes, I can do that. Then, if the situation is contained I can floo back straight to the Ministry.

I the situation is not contained…no, she’s not going to think about otherwise yet. She didn’t need to give her creative and knowledgeable mind free-rein to run worst case scenarios. In that direction lies madness.

“Hello? Why are you out after curfew?”

The female voice was polite, even if overly-inquisitive. Hermione turned and saw a tall blonde. The teenager had a sweet face and a Hufflepuff tie, and she radiated order and goodness. Even from this distance, she could recognise the head girl badge pinned at her collar.

Hermione didn’t know how she looked like, but it must have been terrible for the girl to gasp and rush straight towards her.

“By Morgana and Circe! What happened?

‘I have no idea’ doesn’t sound like a good answer to give. “It’s that bad, is it? I’m trying to get to the Headmaster’s office.”

“Who did this—”

“Whoever it is, it’s too dangerous for students to deal with,” Hermione had to stop her before her helpfulness got her killed. She was all for getting less people killed these days, especially when she had no idea of their skill level. Back when she was in Hogwarts, her year mates had been gearing up for war, studying spells beyond the curriculum. Even now, she considered that she’d been lucky—that everyone she knew had been lucky.

She wasn’t sure what present Hogwarts was like.

“Don’t you think the headmaster and the teachers would be better equipped to deal with them?”

The head girl saw the way Hermione limped and nodded, making up her mind. “You’re right, come on. Let me help you.”

“Thank you.”

The girl was insistent on getting Hermione to put an arm across her shoulders and lean her weight more. It was easier to agree than to argue, so she did. This was how they made their way in relatively comfortable silence across Hogwarts.

That was, until the head girl spoke again.

“By the way, what year are you?”

Hermione blinked. The question was so absurd that she had to turn and stare at the Hufflepuff in disbelief.

“What year?

“You’re not in the seventh year, otherwise I’d have recognised you,” the blonde replied easily.

Hermione was about to mouth a rebuttal before she closed her mouth again to think. No. Did Malina slip her that de-aging potion she was working on? (She was working on eternal youth, of course, but a non-toxic, working de-aging potion wasn’t a bad intermediary goal). If she did, Hermione was going to slip her some after she adjusted the dose, and see how much working in her lab with the height of a thirteen-year-old was going to cramp her style. She’d be complaining by the second day, much less the whole week it was probably going to take to fix.

“I’m Hermione,” she answered. The head girl was unimpressed.

(The possible scenario that flashed in her mind was actually Malina feeding her the potion while they were hunkering down in a room, wishing her good luck before someone else sent her to Hogwarts, possibly via portkey. Then, the doors of the room would fall and her companions attacked…)

Hermione pushed any unpleasant images down. Her overactive imagination needs to shut up.

“And what house would you be from?”

“None, because I don’t go to Hogwarts,” she answered. She tacked on more words for plausible deniability when she saw the head girl’s expression, “yet. I’m not registered yet.”

The less the kid knew about her, the less danger she’d be in.

“Really? But you’re already wearing our uniform—trust me, I’m very familiar with Beauxbatons’ and Durmstrang’s, and this is definitely Hogwarts.”

Hermione couldn’t help looking down by reflex. Her skirt was a few centimetres below the knee, of heavy twill and in a style that even Hermione’s eyes could see as old and unfashionable. She was surprised she hadn’t heard any uproar from the denizens of Hogwarts at the uniform change to a dowdier one. Her mary-janes were clearly a perfect fit to the outfit.

It was clear that she was wearing a Hogwarts uniform.

A feeling of dread grew in her stomach. Who gave her a change of clothes? Why the need for subterfuge? It was as if she was sent to hide her, out of all things. But that was ridiculous. She was perfectly fine as an Unspeakable. Merlin save anyone who challenged Hermione Granger’s ability to defend herself. She’d acquitted herself on the field for too often.

What on earth happened?

'-

The trip up towards the Headmaster’s Office was not friendly to her migraine. She was sure there was a herd of hippopotami stomping on her skull.

“Urgh.”

“I’m sorry. I really am. It’s just a little bit more.”

Hermione didn’t want to spare more energy just to answer. She merely shut her eyes and walked. Occasionally, her right hand massaged her temples—her wand had been slipped back to its holster on her forearm. (She was glad it was still there). She didn’t even open her eyes when the head girl opened the door.

“What brings you to my office Ms. Abbott—oh dear.”

“We have an emergency, Headmaster. Hermione here needs medical help.”

Hermione opened her eyes, and the first thing that she saw was Armando Dippet, sitting on the headmaster’s desk.

That doesn’t even make sense! A logical part of her brain noted. She was sure she’d heard that Professor Dippet was dead.

Her wounds, her tiredness, her headache was taxing. The absurdity of being at Hogwarts, in a Hogwarts uniform, was eclipsed by Dippet’s presence.

“I…how…”

“Miss? Miss, what happened? What’s your name?” His tone was gentle and soothing.

Hermione’s energy truly ran out and shock finally managed to set in. Her knees buckled and Hermione lost consciousness on the floor of the headmaster’s office. She didn’t hear the head girl’s yelp or Headmaster Dippet knocking a knick-knack or two from his shelves in his hurry to reach her.

'-

Hemione was in a comfortable bed and she didn’t feel like waking up. She opened her eyes slowly.

She didn’t know what it spoke of her Hogwarts years that she could recognise Hogwarts infirmary by the pattern of spots on its ceiling.

The air was cool, sterile and all too familiar. The quietness was nice.

“Ah, I see you’re awake—no, don’t try to sit up yet. Just lie down for as long as you like. You’ve been out for a little over a day.” The nurse bustled to her left. Hermione glanced at the other beds and found them empty—which was how it should be. A school should be safe.

“I’m alright.”

The nurse’s face was unfamiliar, her hair a lively copper shade and she would be motherly if she wasn’t also so young. She couldn’t be older than twenty-five. The nurse smiled, as if humouring her.

“I’m sure you could still be better. I’ll find you some breakfast.”

Hermione pulled herself up to a sitting position anyway, especially since her throat was parched. It wasn’t Madam Pomfrey, but a part of her that knew Headmaster Dippet as dead also reminded her that Madam Pomfrey was dead. But…

Alright, so we have Headmaster Dippet in Hogwarts again. How did that happen?

As far as she knew, death was quite permanent. There were some theoretical methods to use to reverse death (it was the Department of Mysteries’ business to know, after all), but no one had found a practical application of those methods that worked. Besides, if you could resurrect someone properly, why choose Armando Dippet? The fanatics would have chosen Voldemort or Grindelwald, and a significant number of the DMLE would have chosen Dumbledore.

She poured herself a glass of water from the jug and saw the newspaper on the side table.

It was the Daily Prophet, as usual, though it was interesting to see the name set with more flourishes and curlicues than she was familiar with. She picked it up and scanned through the news – deaths from a violent attack at a home. Hmm. Possibly related to whatever attack she had survived last night. She quickly skimmed the others too.

‘…many Departments in the Ministry had disagreed with Minister Spencer-Moon’s suggestions of the application of a generalist competitive examination for civil service, following the guidelines found in the Northcote-Trevelyan Report…

Hermione snorted. Entrance exam for ministry employees? The purebloods were going to have a cow and block the motion in the Wizengamot if it meant half their kids won’t pass. But why was the Minister’s name unfamiliar? Never mind. Besides, it would be more useful to make sure that different departments actually have the same standards first before standardising the exam. Also, standardising wages throughout the UK? That was a bad idea. Living in the City of London was more expensive than Leeds or Newcastle-upon-Tyne—whose standard of living would the wage be set against?

The Guild of Tailors and Seamstresses at Diagon Alley complained that something Must Be Done about this inexplicable shortage of good fabrics, pushing costs to rise and customers to complain. ‘After all,’ one spokesman for the guild said to the reporter, ‘If we’ve managed to overcome food difficulties by increasing and improving our wizarding farms, surely something similar can be arranged for the garment industry?

Hermione paused. Something about it was so alien (what fabric shortage? She hadn’t heard about any fabric shortage until now!) And yet at the same time so familiar.

(‘overcome food difficulties’)

(‘inexplicable shortage of good fabrics’)

She glanced back at the title. Daily Prophet. Saturday, 26th of September 1942.

The logical part of her worked lightning-quick, had figured out that the wizarding world was getting confounded by the shortage and rationing that the wartime muggle world was experiencing.

However, a larger part of her wanted to hyperventilate and dizziness had started to set in.

Fuck it.”

'-

Hermione laid down on the bed again with both of her hands were covering her face, while trying to come up with a reasonable argument why she was seeing a living Dippet and a Daily Prophet from 1942. She rubbed her temples over the bandage. The seriousness of her wounds easily discounted any pranks. The fact that she hadn’t seen anyone she recognised was another.

But time travel is impossible…

Perhaps she was merely dreaming. Feverish and half dead as she was, was it a surprise? Maybe she was still face down in the forest. Maybe it wasn’t even the Forbidden Forest. But going down that assumption lies madness. She might end up being desperate enough to wake up to try to kill herself (hello, Inception!)—and what would happen if she was actually alive now? She’d be well and truly dead.

She can prepare to test it later, but it was better to continue as if she was indeed in 1942 (somehow) and looking as if she was Hogwarts-aged.

'-

The sound of the rolling food tray caught her attention first before the footsteps. Her hair felt sticky and weird. She would bet it was in an explosive cloud around her head. She scratched her forehead and inadvertently displaced the bandage there. Hermione shifted it back into place with a sigh.

“What’s your name, Dearie? I caught on that it was Hermione from dear Agatha, but she didn’t give me your last name.”

Hermione glanced up and smiled at the nurse. She can’t be Hermione Granger, then. The first name that crossed her mind was the scientist Marie Sklodowska. The only person to have ever won two Nobel prizes in two different fields. A tribute to the first hero of her childhood. Unfortunately, a foreign last name would only make her stand out more, so she picked up Marie’s married name instead.

“Curie, Ma’am. Hermione Curie, but please, just call me Hermione.”

“I’ll write it down now.” She glanced up and saw Hermione’s still waiting look.

“Oh, I’m Maggie Edelstein. Nurse at the Hogwarts Infirmary.” She grimaced slightly. “And traditionally, all the nurses at Hogwarts are matrons, so everyone addresses me as ‘Madam Edelstein’, never mind that it makes me feel so old.”

She couldn’t help a small giggle from escaping, at least before she closed her mouth abruptly. Maggie Edelstein only smiled in return.

“I can call you Nurse Edelstein, if you want?” Hermione offered.

“Please do—and thank you for that.”

“It’s no problem at all.”

Nurse Edelstein brought a tray of dinner over to Hermione. The tray, fortunately, had legs of their own so it could stand like a small table over her blanketed thighs. The nurse left to do some organising in the back room but was soon back to accompany Hermione, as there were no other patients in the infirmary. Hermione did her best to finish the food, no matter how bland it tasted to her tongue, because she was aware that she needed to eat enough to heal. At first, Hermione asked what she had been doing just to open up some small talk. Upon hearing the cures stocked in the infirmary and the ones that aren’t, she started asking questions about keeping an ice box.

“Some of the potions that can spoil quickly can be kept fresh for longer under low temperatures,”

“That’s a good idea!” Maggie was enthusiastic, “but wait, some potions are only stable at high temperatures.”

“Then you’d need thermoses for those,” Hermione replied. “Actually, thermoses could be used for lower temperatures too.”

“Thermoses?”

“You know, containers that can keep drinks hot for long periods?”

The nurse shook her head. “A vessel with a warming charm cast on it is not a good idea, as the charm itself can interfere with the magical properties of some ingredients.”

Hermione shook her head. She’d had to bite her lip to stop herself from interrupting. “No. It’s not a magical solution at all. It’s a vacuum flask. Um, do you have any paper and—” pen, she almost said, “—quill? I’ll draw it and explain.”

And so, the tray of food was removed back to the food trolley and the small table underneath it reused as a desk of sorts. Hermione drew a general cross section of what a thermos is like, and how between the inner walls and the outer one is a vacuum (or as near to vacuum as possible). This lack of matter meant there was virtually nothing that can conduct the heat outwards.

“But does it really work?”

“The muggles have been using it for years now, or even decades. I don’t remember when exactly they invented it, but it’s been a while. If it didn’t work, why would they keep using it all this time?”

Hermione knew she’d captured the Nurse’s interest now. She was glad to know the nurse wasn’t one of the more rabid muggle-haters.

Yet after a while, Maggie sighed. “Unfortunately, the Hogwarts Board might think it’s not a worthwhile expenditure. After all, why does a school infirmary need to be comprehensively stocked? They’d argue that it would be mostly Quidditch accidents that needs to be handled.”

She listened carefully before looking down her bruised and scratched arms. They were bandaged now, of course, and smelled of sweetly-scented herbs.

The brunette raised her arms to display them.

“Because of Grindelwald, Nurse Edelstein. His sympathisers are everywhere, even in England.”

The nurse paled. “Is that what happened, Hermione?”

I can’t remember. It was an echo that never stopped in her mind, one that she blocked out most of the time. I can’t remember, I can’t remember, I CAN’T REMEMBER. But of course, she didn’t say that.

Hermione shook her head. “I can’t…I can’t tell you anything yet. Not until I’ve finished speaking to the headmaster and Professor Dumbledore. But what I’m trying to say is that, just because Hogwarts has been safe all these years, it’s no guarantee that it will continue to be so.”

Dumbledore was here already, right? Her memory about Hogwarts in the 1940s was fuzzy, but she might as well gamble it.

Nurse Edelstein nodded. “You’re right, but you should rest first. I’ll tell the headmaster that you’re still recovering. In my opinion, you can keep recovering even until the day after tomorrow if you don’t feel like meeting them yet.”

“Thank you.”

‘-

For all the soothing calm that Maggie Edelstein exuded around her, Hermione knew that it wasn’t the entire story of her own condition.

If it was the entire story, she wouldn’t have blood-red urine.

(haematuria, another voice inside her commented with a knowing nod.

Wait, why did she know that?)

'-

Nurse Edelstein managed to hold the headmaster back for a day, but after that she couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm. Hermione yelped when he entered because she had yet managed to corral her hair to something more manageable.

“Your papers have come through, Miss Hermione! I have no idea who sent them, but they’re here.”

What papers? She thought, but did not say. (Who sent her here and why?)

“May I see them, Professor?”

“Ah, here. I’m afraid it got caught in the rain—your last name is beyond comprehension.”

She had to grudgingly admit that it was an ingenious device to allow her to pick any last name to her convenience. “It’s Curie, Headmaster. Hermione Curie.”

“Right. We’ll write that on your records. How are you feeling, dear?”

“Terrible,” she said easily, but with a smile that took the edge away from the painful truth. It still caught Dippet flatfooted.

“Um, well, yes, I can see…it’s such a terrifying event. A most unfortunate event. And for it to happen so close to Hogwarts too!” Dippet nodded. “However will the students feel on their Hogsmeade weekend?”

His hands were clasped tightly together. Hermione was sure that the headmaster was more afraid of secret attackers hiding in Hogwarts than she did, and she was the one who was injured.

“I’m sure it wasn’t at Hogwarts, Headmaster. Someone probably brought me here to safety.” She assured him.

“Yes, yes! That’s a great notion. Of course, Hogwarts is always completely safe!”

She glanced back at the documents the headmaster had carried once she was sure that he wasn’t about to start fretting. It was a transfer application to Hogwarts, for a fifth-year student. All the classes listed, however, were advanced ones. Not that she was even worried at this point. She tried to see whether there was any information on her parents, but no. They were only stated to be deceased.

“Headmaster, I…how am I going to pay for my tuition?” She asked.

If it was Dumbledore she was talking to, he would have noticed that she didn’t sound distressed or upset when she asked that, only curious, and would start asking some pointed question. Dippet was conveniently oblivious.

“No need to worry, my dear. It is clear that you have taken the equivalent of OWLs in Norway. I was about to ask you regarding your class schedule, but if you truly have no problem with it, then it is clear to me that these reports on your intelligence is true. You will be one of the most intelligent witches in your year, if not the most intelligent, and thus, you can qualify for a scholarship.”

Norway? Well, she can vaguely recall visiting Lillehammer once, and there was also another city (Tromsø? Trondheim? One of the two), but this was more than half a century into the past that even her meagre memories might not match. She just hoped she was never asked about it.

“Once you have recovered enough, Professor Merrythought will accompany you to shop for school supplies in Diagon Alley.”

“That’s very nice of you, Headmaster,”

“No, no. It’s no trouble at all! And as for your attackers, we’ll find them soon, don’t worry.”

“Have you contacted the Aurors?”

Dippet huffed. “They say that my report does not have enough information. Clearly it is obvious that a Hogwarts student is in danger and they need to do something about it, and yet they seem content to merely sit about.”

Well, she wasn’t going to argue about the lack of information, considering that no one would be able to come up with a plausible location of her attack.

“Perhaps you should tell Professor Dumbledore.”

“Dumbledore? Why?”

The headmaster moved forward and she handed the documents back.

“He has been monitoring Grindelwald’s rise for a while. If anyone can tell you about Grindelwald or his sympathisers, it would be him.” She said.

“Hmm, yes. Perhaps I should drop in and chat with him. Anyway, I hope you get well soon, Miss Curie!” Headmaster Dippet said his farewell, and Hermione gave some polite answer in return before he left.

With that, she was once more left to the emptiness of the infirmary.

‘-

“Nurse Edelstein?”

“Yes, Dear?”

“Can you help me with my hair?” Hermione didn’t quite like how powerless she sounded. “It’s bad enough that the headmaster had seen it like this, I don’t want it to stay this way for days. I don’t even know what makes it knot at the back! It could be my own vomit for all I know.”

“Of course, Hermione. And no, it’s not vomit, I washed it myself on your first day here, you know?”

“Ah, thanks.”

“It might be blood, though. You had some head wounds.”

The brunette sighed. “Right. That’s not exactly much better.”

The nurse patted her on the shoulder. “Well, we can do something about it right now, don’t worry.”

‘-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Two Photoset

02 Stranger in a Strange Land

The first thing that she kept in mind was that she didn’t know Albus Dumbledore.

Oh, she knew one Albus Dumbledore. He was the wizard who’d had to duel the man he loved, had taken on the mantle of responsibility from the wizarding world and held it for half a century. The man she knew was wise and experienced, but he had also gained an edge of tiredness. Her headmaster knew her and trusted her implicitly. This transfiguration professor would probably saw her as a mystery—and he might even wonder if she was a threat to Hogwarts.

It was a good thing for her boredom that he decided to visit her the next day. Even Nurse Edelstein’s encyclopaedia of herbs were getting too dull to read and she was reasonably sure that she’d managed to get her hair under control today. Dumbledore’s auburn hair and beard were a surprise, though, as was the reduced number of wrinkles. Without his obscuring beard and moustache, he’d probably look like a well-preserved fifty.

“Good afternoon, Miss Curie.”

“Good afternoon, Professor.”

He sat on the chair by her bedside. “I’m sorry for your experience. I hope the rest of your school year in Hogwarts will be better.”

“Well, as they say, if you start at rock bottom, the only direction left to go is up,” she answered. She did her best trying to give a non-answer answer. She glided past his bright blue eyes. Even if he caught her surface thoughts, it would be mostly filled with thoughts of boredom and how it was nice to have food from the kitchens brought here instead of getting the usual hospital food. In addition, she was wondering how she could try to create a thermos. Just for proof-of-concept.

“True. I hope Hogwarts can live up to the standards of your previous school.”

“Oh, I’m sure it can. It’s just a small study circle arranged by the wizarding families around, Professor, nothing to write home about. ‘School’ makes it sound so official.” There, she’d just avoided giving any details about her hypothetical old school.

“Considering your achievements, I doubt that your school is as humble as you make it.”

“Well, if there’s only ten or so people in a class, everyone gets enough attention from the teacher. Besides, I’ve always liked to read since I was young—I think my mother said I’ve started dragging picture books when I was two and a half and I was already reading a year after that.”

It was another child she happened to know who progressed that fast—she simply used it as her fake history. Her memory, however, can’t recall who.

She had to suppress a sigh. Draco would’ve been better at this game of avoiding details and pretending to not know Dumbledore’s name. Hermione, however, didn’t always have the patience for layered political conversations—and this was one, isn’t it? Why would she need to, if she could usually foist it off him? It was as natural as letting Harry to take point on any raid—he was the equivalent of a magical tank, after all.

(Wait, when did she start passing political conversations to Draco? She was sure it didn’t happen in the first few years after the war—everyone was too busy helping with the rebuilding process back then and they were only awkward acquaintances at that point, not friends yet. There’s a context here that she was missing…)

“What class do you teach, Professor? And I’m sorry, I don’t think I caught your name.”

Dumbledore’s smile was knowing, but he nodded all the same. “Albus Dumbledore at your service, young lady, and I teach Transfiguration. I also happen to be the Head of Gryffindor House.”

“Nifty.” She commented distractedly.

“Miss?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Interesting, I mean. I’ve always found transfiguration to be interesting. It’s my favourite subject.” If she sounded happy, it wasn’t even a lie. She was also relieved that they didn’t have to dwell too much on her aforementioned past. “How far has the class gone on, Professor? Would I be missing too much? If you can give me the title of the reading materials, I’m sure Nurse Edelstein can find someone to get them for me from the library and I’d be caught up on all of them once I’m in class.”

Dumbledore chuckled. “Please slow down, Miss Curie. I think you can rest for a few more days before you try to tackle academia head on. I see that your records speak for itself—you are diligent as well as intelligent.”

“Well, achievement is 95% hard work.”

She couldn’t help with the trite sayings. If she didn’t focus on finding something pithy to say, she was afraid she’d start spilling something. Her nerves might even lead her to ask when Dumbledore heard from his ex-boyfriend last.

And that would be bad.

“You can take your time recovering for now. Resting when one is tired is not a vice.”

“Ah, of course, Sir. I’ll remember that.”

Still doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t try to get books from the library, though, or the various class syllabi. They do have class syllabus in this decade, right? Hermione was somehow unaccountably worried at the prospect of a teaching staff with messier habits.

Wait, last year’s notes! Yes, if worse comes to worse, she can find some kids from the Ravenclaw Tower who’re willing to sell copies of their last year’s notes for certain classes. At the very least, she could use that as a syllabus for any class. Hermione let out a mental sigh at the prospect of a backup plan.

“Rest well, Miss Curie.”

“I will, Professor.”

It was only after Dumbledore had left that Hermione realised that she had no idea whether Dippet did go to Dumbledore to ask about Grindelwald. If he did, she had no idea what Dumbledore thought about her recommending the headmaster that he was their local expert on Grindelwald.

She groaned into her hand, rubbing her forehead and shifting the bandage there yet again.

“I’m really not that good at these cloak-and-dagger things.”

Hermione wished Dumbledore would just ask her about it straight away.

'-

It was one of the things that she loved from heavy duty magical pain-killers. Usually, they just knock her out to sleep for longer periods than usual, something about supporting the body’s natural healing mechanism. Once the sleeping period had passed, she can wake up just fine without the high feeling that certain common opioids gave. It was closer to an on or off switch—she was either still sleeping, or she was pretty functional when awake.

All the sleeping was hell on the social life, though. Of course, technically, one doesn’t quite have any when one is practically locked inside the infirmary.

(Wait, how did she know about the ‘fun’ side-effects of muggle painkillers? Why did she know that and when did she even—

Much more effective than oxycodone, that’s for sure. Her own voice added.

know that? How did she know??)

‘-

It only took to asking Nurse Edelstein once to get the syllabi for all the classes she was taking. Apparently, the head girl had dropped them off on the day before she woke up—she was informed that she was out for a whole day. That was nice. She probably should thank the head girl and get her something the next time she went to Hogsmeade.

Hermione asked about who the head girl and head boy was to Nurse Edelstein, primarily because she wanted to thank her.

“Oh, the Head Girl would be Agatha Abbott. The Head Boy is her twin brother, Andrew Abbott. They’re both from Hufflepuff.”

Well, she supposed they were this generation’s Cedric Diggory. She might feel it odd because Gryffindor had always had a tunnel vision focus on Slytherin and vice versa, focusing on their houses to the exclusion of all else, but logically, she knew that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff have their own talented people too. Why can’t this year’s head boy and head girl come from the same house? And why can’t that house be Hufflepuff?

“Does she like sweets?”

It wouldn’t be too hard to pick up some from Honeydukes.

Maggie Edelstein paused. “I think so. She was here once for a really bad flu and her brother handed a big block of chocolate to her as if it was digestive biscuits.”

Well, that thank-you gift was certainly covered.

“Thanks. Oh, can I go to the library to take some books? I’ll go straight back to the infirmary, I promise.” Hermione asked.

That had Nurse Edelstein giving her a stern glare. Given her experience with stubborn teenagers, it was also impressive. If she was a real teen, she would be cowed.

“You…! You’re supposed to be resting, Hermione! Did you know that the regular potions I stocked here did not seem to do be able to affect you much at the beginning? If Professor Slughorn did not step in to check your internal organs himself and brew a specialised potion, you would be bed bound in St. Mungo’s!”

“But, but…classes!”

No. We’ll track your progress in the next two or three days. If you seem to be on the mend and stable, then I’ll listen to your complaints.”

Hermione wasn’t actually that desperate to catch up on her classes—she was sure what she knew would be enough, and at most needing a refresher. It was actually rather relaxing to be able to only focus on classes instead of the next emergency in—

“Oh, fine. I’ll be keeping this encyclopaedia, though.” Hermione said.

(—her memory drew a blank).

“And if you sleep too late, I’ll confiscate it.” Maggie warned.

Hermione solemnly raised her hand.

“Promise.”

On the other hand, Hermione knew she was going to need to go to the library often. Nobody would think twice about a known swot being seen in the library again and again, and her dedication wouldn’t raise any questions. Besides, she didn’t even need to think about how to be a bookworm. She was one. It was like putting on an old costume that one thought no longer fits, only to find out that it still did.

She needed to figure out why she was here, and what she can do if it turns out that she can’t go back—she was pretty sure that the answer wasn’t to help lessen the effects of WWII. It was already running at full bore right now and was going to end in three years, more or less.

A part of her was afraid that there would be no home to go back to.

(What if the world had ended with fire? What if things had gotten so bad that everyone thought their best bet was to send one Hermione Granger back? The so-called brightest witch of her generation?)

If so, it was probably a desperate, haphazard effort. It might explain the state of her mind.

'-

Hermione hadn’t expected Professor Slughorn to come the next day. He was happy as he sat down at the chair next to her bed, the poor chair itself creaking slightly at having to bear his weight. Even his tweed coat had a cheerful pattern (how does he manage to find it? She wondered idly). His smile was genial on his pink face. Perhaps because he was looking forward to pulling another apparent talent to the Slug Club.

“My dear Miss Curie, you are looking so much better now! The last time I came here, I was so worried about whether you were going to survive the night or not.”

Her condition wasn’t that bad, was it? He seemed to catch her concerned look and waved it away.

“No need to worry now. If you’ve managed to pass the first two days, I’m sure you’d be up and running in no time at all. Oh, where are my manners? I’m just so excited to see you. I’m Horace Slughorn, Professor of Potions at Hogwarts. I’m also the Head of the Slytherin House, the same way that Professor Dumbledore is the Head of the Gryffindor House.”

Hermione smiled. She felt like she could kiss him for giving her the opening.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you in class, Professor. Also, I’m sorry if I sound so naïve, but what is a House? Professor Dumbledore mentioned it yesterday, too, but I forgot to ask.”

Slughorn’s eyes widened. “The Headmaster didn’t tell you?”

“I’m sure he’s busy enough running the school every day,” Hermione commented.

“Then allow me to do this for you! You see, Hogwarts has four founders, and the characters valued within the four Houses each reflect the character of that particular founder…”

She allowed Slughorn to go on. With enough positive responses at the right time, she would appear to be listening intently at all times.

He was actually rather comprehensive in his explanation, though a careful ear would notice that he was weighted more favourably towards Slytherin compared to the rest—it was where the ambitious and talented came and network among themselves, where people polish their skills and actually find an achievement to aim it at. He did give a good reckoning of Ravenclaw’s appreciation for intelligence and the search for knowledge. He was straining in his efforts to find enough good things to say about Hufflepuff but he kept at it, using weird phrases like ‘uncommon hard work’ and ‘for industry and worker bees’, enough that Hermione had to bite her lip to stop her laughter. It was probably because their viewpoint was rather diametrically placed from Slytherin and thus was hard for him to make sense of why people would want to be in Hufflepuff.

His description of the Gryffindors were sheer art, though. He highlighted their courage and also their tendency to run headfirst into danger without checking. He mentioned their bravery and their fighting spirit while leaving it open that it really is easy to get most men to fight for their friends, or that rare is the person who checks what exactly their friend is fighting for, and whether they agree with that direction or not. He did not insult them, but he laid their weaknesses bare in a way he did not manage for the other houses.

Hermione grinned.

“Your house and Professor Dumbledore’s house must often be in friendly competition,” she said.

Slughorn’s fluffy brows rose. “Hmm, well, yes. The children do so love to compete for the House Cup. How did you know?”

“You give the longest explanations for Slytherin and Gryffindor, while only covering what is necessary for Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff.”

She surprised him into laughter. The chair creaked again as he moved. “Very true! I’m afraid you’ve seen straight into the heart of the matter. If you are even half as talented as your equivalent OWLs scores say, my potion class would be a delight with you there.”

“You think too highly of me, Professor,” Hermione said, but she was still grinning.

“I’m sure I’m actually following a conservative estimate. By the way, Miss Curie, what house are you sorted into?”

Hermione furrowed her brows. She hoped she looked confused as opposed to cross-eyed.

“Sorted?”

“You’re saying you’re not sorted yet? Morgana’s—” Slughorn coughed. “By Morgana, Dippet certainly is taking his time. Compared to a first-year, you will have more sophisticated ideas and opinions of your own. If you wish to know more about Hogwarts, you should read Hogwarts: A History.”

“Why, I’d love to, Professor! It’s just that when I raised the idea of going to the library to Nurse Edelstein yesterday, she gave me a really scary glare. I suppose I’m still under house arrest here. All I wanted to do was start going through the required reading for the classes! If I can’t go anywhere else for a while, I might as well get something out of it, right?”

She pouted.

“Excellent work ethics, Miss Curie! You will fit right in with Slytherin. I can help you with that. Why don’t you make a list of five books after you’ve read what is required from your classes? I’ll send someone to take that list this afternoon and help you get those books while you are confined to the infirmary. What do you think?”

“I think you’re being very generous, Professor Slughorn. Thank you.”

“Oh, think nothing of it, dear. I can easily imagine your boredom.” His gregariousness seemed to have settled down slightly after that, and there was something like concern in his eyes.

“Truly, Miss Curie, are you alright?”

It was more serious than anything else he’d asked or said. “I suppose there are some soreness, but that’s to be expected after being battered around so much. I dislike the weakness the most, though.”

“There are no sudden sharp pains?”

Something about the question piqued her attention.

“Well, no. That’s a funny question, Professor, because Nurse Edelstein always asked me about lingering pain, but she never asked me about sudden pains.”

Slughorn nodded. He didn’t deny her statement. “I’m not surprised that she didn’t. When the standard blood-replenishing potion and the like did not quite work, Professor Dumbledore and I was contacted by the headmaster. I had recognised a good number of the curses used on you and Professor Dumbledore managed to do the same. Many of these curses are dark and rare that Madam Edelstein cannot recognise them. As for the two of us…we have a, hmm, highly particular specialties.”

Slughorn was glossing over a lot of his own and Dumbledore’s history there. It wasn’t really a surprise, what did surprise her was how bad her condition seemed to have been. He grew quiet for a while before taking one long breath.

“Between the two of us, I think we’ve identified the worst of the curses and managed to stabilise your condition enough for the mediwitch that came later to work her miracles. Yet if we had not been available in the first few hours of your discovery…”

Hermione knew that Slughorn wasn’t even talking about St Mungo’s. Was she that close to death?

“I…” she took a deep breath. No, she wasn’t going to avoid it. She’d picked up some field mediwitch skills, and the least she could do was face it with open eyes.

“How bad was it, Professor?”

“I’m sure you don’t need to be concerned about it at all now. You’re already healing most of it away.”

She shook her head, unwilling to be redirected.

“Did I lose a loop of small intestine or so? No, it can’t be, because a burst gut of that magnitude is usually signified by a burning pain.” Hermione paused, thinking, “Oh! I remembered another symptom; possible vomiting of blood. I didn’t recall vomiting blood. I was in a bad shape but not that bad. There had been no follow-up fever. I don’t think I’d have only slept a day away if that was the case either, so I don’t think this is it.”

Her gaze was steady as she met Slughorn’s eyes, not reacting to his surprised or intrigued look.

“I remembered the persistent pain on my lower back. How were my kidneys? Were they bruised?”

From Slughorn’s wince, she figured out that she was on the money with that.

“They’re alright now, Miss Curie. Really, you don’t need to worry about it.”

“I still have blood in my urine. I don’t think my kidneys are exactly ‘fine’ yet.”

Her flat reply pulled Slughorn into giving her an answer. “There’s still excess blood that needs to be disposed of. Now, I’m sure hearing more will just lead you to worry excessively about it.”

“I’ll still worry even if I don’t know, Professor. The difference is that it would be a more irrational worry, one that’s harder to contain.”

Hermione didn’t realise that she’d looked down, her hands tightening into fists. It was still a shock for her to face her own mortality, especially when she couldn’t even remember how it happened. Did she fought well against forces that outnumber her? Was she negligent and was ambushed? If it had been an ambush, if she had been negligent, she couldn’t help but wonder who else was with her at the time?

Who else had died because she’d let them down?

“Shh, shhh. It’s alright, Miss Curie, Hermione. Everything’s going to be alright now.”

Slughorn had been confused for some moments before he decisively brought his chair forward and started patting her shoulder. His large left hand was awkwardly patting her hand. She appreciated the gesture. He might be a coward, and he might be odd, but for all his efforts at being an ambitious social butterfly, you can never accuse him of not caring for his students.

“It’s just…” she started. “Maybe I left someone behind—maybe I left many people behind. Maybe people were left behind because they were trying to save me. I don’t know. Why did I find myself alone? I can’t quite remember what happened, but I wish I was stronger—”

“You’re already stronger than many witches I know, Hermione. It’s not your fault, do you hear me? Whatever happens, it’s not your fault.”

She let herself cry on Slughorn’s shoulder, because she was just so tired of holding everything back.

'-

Slughorn apparently sent one of the Slytherin prefects to the infirmary—she could see his badge easily from the moment he entered, shiny dark hair and perfectly polished shoes. There was a thick tome in his hand, and his robes seemed to be of a deeper, richer black than regulation.

He moved with an old-world elegance as he approached her bedside slowly, respectfully. With that grace, he could be a courtier anywhere from the frozen courts of Muscovy to the cutthroat decadence of Istanbul. His sophistication was something that Draco would kill for, back when he was still the prat of his Hogwarts days.

“Miss Hermione Curie, I presume?” His accent could cut glass.

“Um, yes, that would be me.”

He had the darkest blue eyes and Hermione was chagrined to discover that having a teenage body meant going through puberty again. It was an annoying distraction, as she struggled to remember that she was in the 1940s. Even in the twenty-first century, it was not polite to jump a man without getting his name first.

“And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” She asked.

The words came out with more polish than she expected, as Hermione had half-expected to stumble through the sentence. Apparently, all the times that Draco insisted on showing how it was done among the purebloods ensured that something stuck.

She could see the almost-smile on the prefect’s face turning into genuine interest.

I don’t really mind taking over the lobbying, Hermione, but you know I can’t always be around for all the meetings. It’s better if you know enough to stick a dagger back in the legislation when those bastards try to take advantage of you. Draco had said with exasperation.

(There. Another memory about Draco. When? And what were they talking about?)

“Tom Riddle, fifth-year Slytherin prefect.”

She extended her right hand, but he kissed her knuckles instead of shaking it. His lips were soft over her skin spreading tingles while her memory scrambled at the name. It was familiar, but she didn’t know why.

“I’m sorry that you’re stuck in the infirmary for days on end.”

Hermione shrugged. “It’s annoying, but I do realise that I’m probably going to faint after one class if I tried, so I made my peace with it.”

“Yet I’m not at all sorry that I monopolise your company right now.”

It was hard to hold back her grin at his confidence. He was interesting, yes, but she wasn’t a fool that would be easily taken in—she had no doubt that he had many fans. Hermione didn’t want to be yet another one among the many girls trailing behind him.

“Really? You don’t even know little old me. Maybe I’m going to bore you to death talking about the standards of cauldron thickness. I’m sure you have much more interesting things to do than stay around, Mr. Riddle, heaven knows I don’t find running errands for teachers as one of my favourite things to do.”

Hermione met his gaze with a bland smile of her own. She really did not have a good track record with men with large egos. She already felt compelled to tweak him just on that basis, for one.

“You think too poorly of yourself, Miss Curie.” he replied.

“Well, no one else seems to volunteer for it. Clearly someone needs to.” She said easily. “Whoever would check my inflated ego otherwise?”

It was her flippantness, she knew, that caught him. She saw his eyes sparkle with interest now, as opposed to the more even politeness he’d started out with. His confidence implied that he was not one to back down from a challenge. Thus, if she couldn’t care less whether he stayed or not, then he was determined to stay to find out why.

“How far have you read Cook’s Encyclopaedia of the Magical Plants of Britain?” He asked, out of the blue. She furrowed her brows, not quite expecting the question.

“I don’t know, I jump around. That’s the whole point of keeping an encyclopaedia—I wouldn’t run out of reading material any time soon.”

He leaned back on the chair, his glance entirely too knowing and thus being generally annoying.

“If I were to make a blood cleansing potion, can I use red liverwort?” He asked. Hermione frowned.

“That wasn’t even in the ingredients…no, wait, you’re trying to replace something, aren’t you?” She turned her gaze to him, weighing his question. “You can replace blood kava with it, but it also means adjusting at least two other ingredients as well. The red liverwort is richer in metallic traces than most other plants that doesn’t react well with many others. Exchanging anything with it isn’t exactly an efficient substitution.” Hermione pointed out.

“If I say I was looking for some eight-petaled dryas in the Midlands?”

She snorted. The mistake was too blatant. “Looking for a dryas in the lowlands? Please. I’d say you’re either looking for the wrong thing or is in the wrong place. If the eight-petaled dryas is what you want, then I’d recommend checking the Lake District…or the mountains, even.”

The stared at each other for another second before he raised an eyebrow at her. He spoke up again.

“There are at least three common potions with laxation as one of their effects – I can easily exchange the laxative herb in each with rhubarb leaves. Is this true?”

Everything he’d said was correct. Hermione was about to nod her way through it until she noticed the wry edge to his smile.

“Wait, no! That was a trick question, wasn’t it? You’d want rhubarb stalks—the leaves are bloody poisonous! And these are closer to potions question than herbology!” She frowned.

He was undaunted by her indignant protest and gave his assessment.

“You already know around half of the Encyclopaedia’s contents.” He stated.

“I…” what was she supposed to do, deny? She didn’t even know how much she’d read, but it wasn’t the first herbal compendium that she’d read. His guess might not even be that wrong.

“What is it to you?” She asked back.

“Please don’t pretend you’re boring to me when we’re both perfectly aware that you’re not. You’re not average.” He said.

“You will never be average, Miss Curie. I’ll stand witness to that.” His statement sounded strangely like a promise, and the solemnity caught her off guard. He was serious. But those words…he should’ve been more careful with those words because just like ‘I swear’, ‘I stand witness’ had been important words in various magical rituals. What was he trying to do?

That odd not-quite-a-smile played at the corner of his lips. He was too intriguing for his own good.

“I just…sometimes there’s nothing more rewarding than sitting by a fireplace and read in winter. I’ve always read too much.” She spoke quickly, because she had no answer to her confusion, and she did not want to start losing her head around him. “What about you? If I ask you where I can find winter aconite in the wild, where would it be?”

A pause, and the answer rolled smoothly as if he’d just read it. “I would say ‘not here’, not outside a botanical garden, for the winter aconite is native to Europe and not wild in Britain. That, is also a trick question.”

There was the mildest reproach in his tone. If he expected her to look contrite, she certainly wasn’t. Hermione wasn’t exactly a young girl prone to stumbling in front of a crush, even if he was distractingly pretty for a guy. She merely smiled.

“Well! I didn’t even worry, because surely someone with your extensive knowledge would have found the answer too obvious. Even if it’s clear that you will be potion master faster than a master herbalist.”

There was no way that she’d allow him to trip her up, and if he owed her no apologies, then she didn’t either. Silence collected in the room as they held long steady glances at each other. He nodded first, as if giving respect to the position she’d taken.

“Professor Slughorn has informed me that you needed more information about Hogwarts. This is his personal copy of Hogwarts: A History.” With that, he stood up and deposited the book on the side table. Hermione’s eyes widened.

“I can’t take this—”

“You’re not taking it, you’re merely borrowing it for now and will return it later.” He clarified. “Please, don’t trouble yourself over something so trivial. Unless, of course, you can assure him that you’ve borrowed the same book from somewhere else?”

She couldn’t answer the question with an affirmative.

His words were firm, and she remembered other things too. Exchanging and taking small favours were sometimes a game among the young purebloods and halfbloods in Slytherin because it was casual and it was an easy way to start learning more complicated social games later. (She knew she’d heard this first from Draco somehow, even if she can’t remember how). She needed help so Slughorn gladly gave her this. She probably can say her thanks in the form of his favourite, crystalized pineapple candy.

“Alright. Please give the professor my thanks.”

“Certainly. Professor Slughorn also mentioned that you have books you’d wish to borrow from the library?”

“Ah! I’ve written them down and I’m sure I have the list somewhere…”

She started patting down the blanket in front of her, trying to find the errant scrap of parchment. That was when she could feel the lightest tap over her left elbow, over the fabric of the oversized robe she was stuck with.

“Hold still.” He was too close to her ear. She could almost feel his breath over her neck, feel the hand that was still on her elbow. She could feel heat blossoming from the two contact areas.

He caught a slip of parchment about to slip away from under her arm and pulled it free, stepping away.

“I believe this is it?”

Hermione took it from him quickly, focusing on the script and hoping her face did not just blush. As if going through a second puberty was not a horrifying enough occurrence.

“Yes, this is it.” She returned it to him. “No need to rush.”

He stared at her carefully, as if he was looking for something.

“What?”

“I might be free this evening after prefect rounds.” He stated.

“Alright.” She said. She thought she could see him almost surprised. Almost.

“Alright?”

“I did say that there’s no need to rush, right? So, it’s fine however it turns out for you tonight. I’m sure you have other things to do apart from running errands for Slughorn or the current Hogwarts invalid.”

Hermione truly had no idea what it was that she said that made him observe her minutely again, it was enough to give her feelings of sympathy for the butterfly underneath the magnifying glass.

“I’ll visit tonight—if it’s not too inconvenient for you.”

And with that statement and a firm nod, he was gone.

'-

She had a nice satisfying nap in the afternoon (she still needed a lot of sleep to recover). She woke up sometime around five and started to skim through Hogwarts: A History quickly.

Hermione had known what it was like, memorised sections of it. But she knew that the book didn’t exactly stay the same across editions. What she was trying to locate first were the differences. Once she had the time to sit and read carefully, they were always enlightening.

This was especially true for editions that came out at around the same time that a new Minister of Magic had been elected. Why? Because it would reflect the new official position. It told her what parts of history gets scrubbed and hidden, what parts are now considered inappropriate or unnecessary for children. It told her about what the current Ministry likes to highlight; it was a canary in the coalmine to their future policies.

She’d turned this into her personal early warning system.

It was how she got the drop on the new Werewolf Registration Act when it was still in the planning stages. When she knew who the individuals responsible for it were, finding their personal weakness one by one was not difficult. Over the negotiating table afterwards, with Hermione’s ammunition and knowing their family histories backwards and forwards, Draco Malfoy owned them completely. (Being an upper-class twit has its uses, he’d said dryly).

(Draco rolled his eyes. For all his grudging praise and sore-loser attitude before when he came short in the investigation with her, today, he’d gladly raised his glass and called for a toast in her name to the whole damned room. The entire fricking ballroom. All her hissed calls of ‘Malfoy, quit it!’ was soundly ignored. It probably helped him that he had Harry on his side. The Boy-Who-Lived casually dropped an arm across her shoulder and winked at her, eyepatch and all—though does it get called a wink when one only has one eye? Harry kept her from going after the pale twat. Neville and Luna were also blocking her way, damn them.

Ron was some distance away from them, but he did raise his glass for her all the same. There was a stunning blonde next to him…oh, Lavender. Ginny gave an awkward wave, but Hermione didn’t have any hard feelings. She waved back with ease. If Ginny wanted to accompany her brother, why not? They were family. Hermione and Ron were on one of their longer breaks and she was surprised that any jealousy she felt was just a passing twinge.)

The memory disappeared as fast as it came, but something inside her relaxed. They were still there, even if in pieces, even if not easily recalled. Her memories were still there.

Nurse Edelstein checked up on her sometime before supper and then rang the bell to inform the house elfs that they can start preparing for Hermione’s meal and send it up.

It was at that time when she managed to remember who exactly Tom Marvolo Riddle was. Well, at any rate, she remembered who he came to be, in her future.

He was Dark Lord Voldemort. The mad man with seven horcruxes. The dark wizard who tried to kill Harry and failed (twice).

She laughed, free and without compunction.

It was just…the sheer irony of the meeting. He had no idea who she was. At all. She herself had no idea who he was either. They were but two highly-intelligent students chatting each other up in the Hogwarts infirmary.

Tom had looked so normal—but of course, why shouldn’t he? He wasn’t that mad man yet. People overestimate how abnormal killers should look, as if there should be some chilling aura that they oozed. But if the neighbours of many a serial killer never quite noticed the wolf among them, as evidenced in their interviews, why should anyone notice what Tom Riddle is or is becoming?

(She’d helped sort various criminology and criminal psychology papers based on their relevance for Harry to read as he rose through the ranks of the DMLE and tried to change the Aurors into something more modern. She’d also read many first-hand accounts of some of the more famous crimes, and this includes the eyewitness statements. She knew the pattern of the Befuddled and Concerned Neighbour very well).

People wish to think that these callous killers should look different because they don’t like to contemplate that they, too, can easily be one. The average person does not like to think that the line between the upstanding citizen and the norm-breaking monster was not a firm wall set by a benevolent emperor to keep out barbarians, but a simple path drawn by a stick on a sand, with a ringmaster standing by.

Come on! You know you want to. Think of all the people that have harmed you and your family! Step this way, ladies and gentleman! Step right this way, and let’s make them pay with blood…

If Hermione was younger, she might have been tense at the prospect of going to school with a budding Dark Lord. If Hermione’s mental age matched her physical age, she might have been angry at him for all the crimes he’d yet to commit, she might have been struggling to hide her alternating rage and wariness.

But she had vague memories of her and Harry (and Ron, and everyone else) hearing about yet another wannabe dark lord and her first reaction was to roll her eyes. ‘Not this again’, she had complained to Luna (another Unspeakable, different division), ignoring the looks of awe from the junior Aurors as she walked to Harry’s office to plan their next campaign.

(Her Gryffindor boys always pulled her from the Unspeakable when there was a major assault, regardless of how much they complained about the inter-departmental paperwork that was required. She was only too glad not to let her skills in the field deteriorate.

And she wasn’t going to let them go into the field for a high-risk action without medical support, not after Harry lost his eye to a particularly dark hex. It couldn’t be regenerated as the curse had lingered in the scar tissue. But if she’d been faster, perhaps administered the right first aid…

Regardless of Harry’s assurances that it wasn’t her fault, Hermione began to study medicine and healing.)

Of course, at least half of those new rising dark lords couldn’t hold a candle to Voldemort, but that wasn’t the issue. She remembered what Harry told her, of how some of the junior Aurors were surprised about the blood purist zealots were actually like when they raided their homes. Many were kids, still living with their parents, dreaming of non-existent and completely fictional past age of pureblood glory.

If they had not been born to decaying pureblood families, with nothing left as their legacy but vitriolic hate, who knows what they might have been, instead?

Tom Riddle was in a similar position.

Orphaned and abandoned, Tom Riddle survived the rigours of life in a 1930s muggle orphanage when he was the odd one out, a magical child without even the slightest idea that magic was possible. His accident of birth, unwelcome in both worlds, decreed that he would always be an anomaly somewhere, an aberration. Perhaps that was where he came to the conclusion that life is a matter of survival of the fittest. Perhaps that was when he transformed into Voldemort—who knew? Once he was Voldemort, he seemed to consider that the nature of life was Hobbesian—nasty, brutish and short—that men are by their nature a cruel beast. It was clear that his personal philosophy was to take what he wanted and destroy anything in the way.

For all that she was a witch on the side of Good, Hermione also knew that she wasn’t as naïve as she’d been when she was younger. She hadn’t hesitated to throw a strong wind spell at one of the idiotic Yaxley cousins to blow him away from Luna when they were ambushed, even if it meant she was pushing him off a cliff. Does it make her a better person for casting Ventus instead of Avada Kedavra on him? After all, the result was still the same.

He was just as dead.

She had been bloodied more than once in battle. The people she’d sent spells against had died in numbers too, whether directly like with that wind spell or later on due to their wound’s complications.

The truth is, Hermione Granger could be a killer just as easily as Tom Riddle can.

All it takes was for her to be pushed to defend herself or the people she cared about. Why should she be afraid of Riddle, then? If he ever tried to kill her, she wouldn’t even think twice about defending herself and trying to kill him back. But before it came to that, she was quite capable of just sitting down and talking with him.

Should she fear him because he might kill her? Because she could die?

Many of the people she knew had died— (Blurs, flashes of images but no face she could recognise. Who, dammit? Who had died that she couldn’t remember—)

—what was death but the next great adventure? She had seen that tiredness in Harry’s eyes after more than a decade in the wizarding world. She could recognise it easily since she’d seen it often enough in the mirror.

Hermione Granger no longer cares for the spectre of death. She does not fear it.

I will not fear, she said to herself, almost giddy with the realisation. She felt free. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that can destroy me. I will face it and let it pass through me. When it is gone, only I will remain.

She was chuckling to herself when Nurse Edelstein walked in.

“Oh, honey, are you alright?”

Hermione wiped the tears escaping from the sides of her eyes. “I’m fine, Nurse Edelstein. It’s just…some of my memories were coming back.” 

“Really? Are they of your family?”

Her friends. The Hogwarts graduates of her generation that had survived the war.

(“So, what made you drop in today?”

Daphne Greengrass stared at her oddly. Yes, she knew they needed more experienced people, and in an emergency like this, it also meant pulling those who were not Aurors. She just didn’t know why Harry would choose Daphne. It was going to be dangerous and messy, and the blonde pureblood princess didn’t seem like someone who’d care to do anything that would break her manicured nails.

“Granger, you know that they got my father, right? They only need to use thirty curses for it.” Her tone was dry, ironic. My mother only made it because she threw floo powder on a burning pile of support beams and hoped it would work. Did you know that she crawled halfway our dining room because they’ve broken both of her legs by then, and even cut off her left feet?”

All because the Greengrasses wanted to be left alone instead of fighting for one side or another. Now? Now Daphne wanted her pound of flesh and the DMLE that was stretched thin easily welcomed her.)

After that, no matter how awkward she and Daphne were, they were still far more comfortable with each other than Hermione would be with people who hadn’t gone through the War and the post-war clean up.

“Hermione?”

She blinked and looked up into Maggie Edelstein’s concerned hazel eyes. It would seem that she was drifting again. She needed to do something about it soon.

“Family…” the young witch murmured. Maggie’s expression softened.

“If it’s too difficult we can postpone it for later—”

“Are we talking about all the people I’ve gone through the war with together?” Hermione asked all of a sudden. “Because if so, then yes, they’re family. We’re family, from the sheer amount of blood shed and deaths mourned, we will always be family until death parts us all.”

The witch had no idea what it was that she said that had created such a sorrowful look in the nurse’s eyes, but she wasn’t going to complain if Maggie was going to hug her. It was nice to be hugged. Hermione hugged her back with a content sigh.

Perhaps…perhaps there was a reason her memory was incomplete. She didn’t really want to know the depths of grief she could sink to if she knew that too many of her friends had died.

(There was an echo of truth at that idea that she did not like, and several memories with the vaguest glimpse of limp bodies, bruises and blood. She didn’t want to think that more than just a few of her friends had died over the years after the War).

Perhaps this way, she could keep holding on to the hope that they’re peacefully living their lives in the future she’d left behind and let that thought soothe her.

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Three Photoset

03 Polite Conversations Between Two Wolves

“Do you have any spare dresses?” Hermione asked.

“Dresses, really?” Maggie Edelstein asked, not quite sure about what she’d heard.

“Well, we know that the uniform I wore when I arrived was a mess. I can’t exactly wear that, can I?”

The nurse left the cabinet she was checking and walked over to Hermione’s side. Hermione admired the bright copper sheen of her hair.

“What brought this about?”

The brunette witch took a deep breath. It was not difficult to channel her actual reservations into the surface. “Well, Professor Slughorn visited and he’d been kind enough to promise to lend me his book.”

“Ah,” Maggie nodded sagely. She glanced at the side table where the thick volume of Hogwarts: A History lay.

“So, right around lunch time, there was this Slytherin prefect who delivered it for me.”

Maggie’s smile turned sly at this point. “So, Was he handsome?”

“Maggie!” Hermione’s surprised wasn’t even faked. “Oh, I’m sorry, Nurse Edelstein—”

Nurse Edelstein waved it away, her eye alight with curiosity. “Oh, it’s alright when there’s no one else. I know you’re not being a nuisance when you drop the title. So, who was it? And I know he’s good looking, young lady, otherwise you wouldn’t have been this distracted from your books.”

“Tom Riddle, Fifth year.”

The nurse sat on Hermione’s bed, mulling over it. “Dark hair, intense gaze?”

“Exactly.”

Maggie sighed. “Ah, he’s memorable alright. Already so charming at this age, isn’t he? He’d grow up to be quite a lady-killer. If only I was your age.”

It amused Hermione to see her lost in thought.

“Well, I’m sure he’d be flattered by your assessment.” The nurse gave her a look for her cheekiness. Hermione drummed her fingers over her thighs, observing her nails. “He said that he’d deliver some library books tonight, and I know we’re not even friends yet or anything of that sort, but I just hate the idea of not looking my best, you know? I already can’t get out of bed much, I still can’t go to class. I can’t get to know my classmates and everyone’s life continues to go on without me…”

“I understand,” the nurse said, softly. Her hand was on Hermione’s shoulder.

“It’s just a little normal in your life, isn’t it? It’s not any trouble at all. I’m sure I have a dress that would fit you very well.” Maggie said.

The younger witch looked up at that. “Oh, no! It’s not necessary at all. I was just wondering if there’s any extra dresses around that people forget, maybe from who knows what year. You don’t have to lend me yours. It’s too much—”

“It’s not,” Maggie insisted. “Anyway, the last dress I saw in storage here has crinoline. Do you want to wear crinoline?”

Hermione laughed at that, shaking her head.

“No, not really.”

“Exactly. Now, don’t bother your pretty head about it, I’ll be back with the dress in no time.”

'-

A dress might be a pretty confection of silk and lace, but a dress is also an armour for social occasions.

Ginny had given up trying to impart Hermione any fashion insights beyond the basic highlights. Surprisingly, it was Daphne’s signature bitchiness that made Hermione snap to attention.

(“Please, Granger, you’re a powerful woman. I know that, the fools that have faced your explosive wrath on the battlefield know that, but must you always dress like a cast-off spinster aunt for the Wizengamot?” The blonde Slytherin narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t—”

“You do,” the chorus of agreement had come from one Ginny, too-relieved to have back-up for now, and even, horror of horrors, Luna. Everyone turned to the Ravenclaw in surprise.

“I do have an eclectic taste, but the goddesses celebrate womanhood and sensuality.”

Ginny and Daphne nodded in agreement at that and at Luna’s ersatz-patterned but flattering dress with the low-cut back.

“Yep, still much better than Hermione,” the redhead commented.

“Hey!” Nobody paid attention to the brunette’s annoyance.

 Daphne turned her attention back at Hermione.

“The way you dress right now only makes them underestimates you. I’m sure you can stomp them in no time every time they do that, but don’t you get bloody tired of having to do it again, and again, and again? If they’re not going to learn any time soon, you might as well dress like an empress. That way you’d hit them over the head hard enough with the impression of power that it would give them pause before they try to run another idiotic ploy past you.”

“Are you guaranteeing that this would make them stop being an idiot?”

Daphne nodded. “If nothing changes in two months, you can go back to dressing however you like.”)

Of course, Daphne wasn’t wrong. Apparently, some people are just that dense that they keep judging a book by its cover, even when the damned book had gnawed their arms into stumps. She’d gotten used to what Daphne taught her, though, even developed her own sense of style. It was less of an effort for her to pay attention to her wardrobe these days than it had been before.

This was a social occasion. Ergo, her armour for the occasion would be a dress. She did her best not to over-plan. That would look too desperate. It wasn’t as if they were going to go anywhere with ballroom dancing on the cards. Still, she couldn’t be lax either. It was always better to go in over-prepared when you’re across the table from Tom Riddle than under-prepared.

Nurse Edelstein certainly went above and beyond the call of duty, and Hermione was proud that she could certainly call her a friend now. After checking, there were three dresses that the young witch could easily wear. The first was a daring red dress that called to her, but considering the Gryffindor overtones, she skipped it with a sigh. She was looking for something more neutral.

The second dress was of a muted turquoise colour that was closer to celadon and it was the one she ended up picking. It was also something that can as easily be worn on a nice autumn day as a night out of town. Nothing too formal. Just the perfect level between casual and nice that she was looking for.

'-

Maggie Edelstein has heard of Tom Riddle.

It was the same way she knew about the Abbott twins and the same way she knew about this generation’s members of the Black family. The school was an endless font of gossip if you knew who to ask, and sometimes the students are just too interesting.

Yet for all his high profile, Tom Riddle remains a bit of a mystery. Academically gifted, helpful towards the professors and practically the perfect student…the picture it presented was too flawless, too curated. She knew it was probably just because he was another Slytherin with enough cunning to manage his image, but it didn’t mean that she wasn’t curious about what his true self (or truer self, at any rate,) was like.

“So, what is Riddle actually like in person?” Nurse Edelstein asked as she watched her young charge purse her lips in contemplation about the collar of the dresses. She realised that Hermione Curie’s life was probably filled with tragedy, but must someone so young look so serious all the time?

“He is brilliant,” Hermione started with, her lips curving upwards slightly as she said this. It was clear that she thought it was enough. Maggie sent her a disappointed look. The brunette sighed and continued. “His confidence sometimes slips too easily into arrogance. At some level, I’m sure he’s narcissistic.”

Maggie’s brows furrowed slightly.

“Why does he sound more annoying the more you describe him?”

“Because I know he’s pretty to look at, but I’m not blindly besotted?” The student’s voice was dry. Maggie huffed.

“Hermione darling, you’re taking the fun out of this game!”

The witch had the temerity to chuckle, as usual. “You wish to hear more of his good side, then? Fine, I can do that too. He moves with a purpose. He does not idle or dwell in doubt. You can see ambition powering him and be certain that whatever he wants, he will get. Happy would be the witch that he decides deserve the world.”

“Many Slytherins are ambitious,” the nurse pointed out.

“Maybe,” Hermione nodded in easy agreement. “But I’m sure none had the perfect combination of sheer brilliance, charm and ambition that Tom Riddle has.”

Maggie’s hazel eyes were scrutinised the young patient more intensely than before. She made the statements with the easy certainty of one who knew they were true beyond doubt. Yet it was not the snap-judgment of a shallow crush—Hermione had amply demonstrated her acknowledgment of his flaws earlier. The young witch was confident that she’d had a good measure of Tom Riddle’s character.

How? And just as importantly, why?

“What exactly did you speak with him about?”

She shrugged, her tight brown curls bouncing with the movement. It was actually cute. “Oh, the usual. Books.”

Books?

“Yes. He saw me borrowing your Cook’s Encyclopaedia, you see. So, that was how we started talking about herbs.” She said, almost flippant. Maggie couldn’t believe that Hermione caught all that about Tom Riddle just talking about herbs.

“I think you’re skipping over a few important things there.” The Nurse said through narrowed eyes.

“I might be.”

Hermione,”

The brunette gave a knowing sideways glance from underneath her eyelashes, her lips full with many unsaid secrets akin to her mysterious life before Hogwarts. It was these little things that made her seem older. Maggie thought with not a little fondness that she was going to cut a swathe through young men in the school and not even realise it. “You can find out many things when you’re talking about herbs, you know. Especially when he says, and I quote, ‘You will never be average, Miss Curie.’”

Her brows rose at that, as she couldn’t help but be bemused. “Ah, you’ve managed to impress him.”

Hermione’s smile was impish as she shrugged again. “Oh, I don’t know. I wasn’t even trying.”

Nurse Edelstein picked up one of the crumpled parchments on the bed and threw it at Hermione’s face, ignoring her high-pitched yelp. She had the childish glee of seeing the transfer student finally acting immature.

“Cocky, aren’t you?”

“Well, apparently something worked. Why shouldn’t I just savour the feel of something going right?” The brunette asked.

Maggie immediately spoke up before Hermione could dwell on it too much. She’d taken it as her personal mission to distract the poor girl.

“Does that mean you’re not going to try too hard?”

“Well, it’s not a ball, but it doesn’t mean I won’t do my best to look decent.” Hermione insisted. “I can’t look worse than him. That’s like starting chess with only half the pawns.”

At the very least, she had already known that Hermione was competitive.

“Don’t worry. I’ll hide out in the supply room and then listen to your commentary afterwards.”

'-

“Your books, Miss Curie.”

“Thanks, but I have no idea where to place them.”

He was helpful, she had to give him that. The moment their polite greetings were done, Tom Riddle had assessed the side table and a faint line grew on his brow. Apparently, the side table was dismissed under grounds of inadequacy. He shifted the screen to her right away from her bed, and then placed the spare bed on that side right next to hers. He laid the library books there. With a rather complicated wand movement, the bed was transformed into a short bookshelf. It was just the right height for someone on the bed to use.

“Now you do. You would have to be careful and avoid casting finite anywhere near it, but it will serve.”

“That’s amazing,” it came out breathier than she’d liked. Still, Hermione wasn’t lying—that was some fine spellwork, especially the height adjustment factor. She had a feeling that if the bed was of a different height, the height of the shelves would follow. If she could detect the slightest smugness in his polite smile, she wasn’t going to call him out on it. She was that interested.

“Where did you find the spell?”

“It’ll take a while for me to find the book, but I’m sure I can teach you myself.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Hermione said, ignoring his surprise easily. “Ah, where are my manners! Please, sit and rest for a while after lugging around all those books here. It must be annoying to have to run errands like that.”

She changed her usual visitor’s chair into a wing-back chair while he murmured something polite about how it wasn’t a problem at all. She chose dark green for the new chair’s leather. To his credit, when she gave him a dry, unconvinced look for those pleasantries, he did return it with an amused smile that was more genuine.

Wait, it wasn’t exactly a genuine smile. It was more of a genuine smirk.

“Well, your company, is interesting.”

“Why, thank you.”

He did not hide his appraising glance as the spell finished and he sat down on the chair. Hermione used a modified accio to first pull the food trolley towards her at normal speed across the floor before she manually summoned the tray with tea and cakes there.

They landed on the footed tray over her thighs as light as a feather.

She knew he was watching her wand under hooded eyes, with occasional glimpses sent her way. Spells that require fine control like these were more finesse than brute magical power, and she had dexterity in spades. It wasn’t a problem even for her recovering self.

He took his tea with a spot of milk, and she had begun to memorise it out of habit, the way she did for people she frequently had tea with. Hers was slightly more liberal with the milk and sugar, and she endured the good-natured ribbing about how she was drowning out all the tea’s flavour as she offered him the cakes and took the ones she wanted.

“I have heard all arguments on it before and I stand my ground. This is the perfect way to drink tea. In fact, I think you’re not adventurous enough,” she insisted with mock seriousness. “My drawing room, my rules.”

“As the lady wishes.” His reply was edging between polite and dry.

If she wasn’t used to having Slytherin friends who can use words to wound as easily as a dagger, she wouldn’t notice.

But she did, and Hermione couldn’t help but chuckle. It was probably all those times of being a perfect student in front of Slughorn that sharpened his passive-aggressive edge. Not that she cared if he let it flare once in a while.

“I’m sorry, it’s just… Please tell me when I’m being a dictator. My friends say I’m bossy and they tend to help me rein that side in.”

“You have been the perfect host,” he assured her, but he did not deny her claims. “I just have one question.”

She placed her cup down. “Yes?”

“Who attacked you?”

Her jaws tightened as she looked down. Was she defending the Department of Mysteries, room from room, perhaps with Malina or Luna? No, her gut feeling told her that it wasn’t it. She had not been with both of them. Was she with Ron and Harry on a major raid, like that one where Daphne joined in? No, something still felt slightly off either.

“I’m sorry, if I’m too forward—”

Tom Riddle’s voice cut through the haze of confusion. She met his gaze, her eyes dry, and shook her head. His statement was said out of sheer politeness, she could see that, but Hermione didn’t care whether he actually cared or not. He was already interested in her mystery, she could tell. Knowing his stubbornness and intelligence, she wouldn’t mind if he might somehow find the clues before she could.

“It’s alright. It’s just…my memories. They’re not all there. The attack, for example. I can’t remember how the attack happened. Is it a straight-on fight? Is it an ambush? Was I kidnapped from my bed in the middle of the night? There’s no memory. No gut feeling or emotional reaction to one idea or the other. How many people did I leave behind? How many people I might fail to save?” She could feel her voice rising and she stopped before she started yelling at the budding dark lord. Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath, once, twice, before she opened her eyes again.

He didn’t manage to successfully hide the glimmer of his disappointment before he was once more looking appropriately sympathetic.

Hermione couldn’t help it. She tried, truly tried to hold it back. Yet the absurdity of trying to be friends with Tom Riddle, no matter how casually and accidentally, and having tea with a budding dark lord hit her in full right then.

She laughed. It was not an elegant tittering by any means. She didn’t let it go on for long, but she had laughed freely without much cares all the same.

“It’s alright, Mr. Riddle,” she said, before he could say anything, still smiling at him. “I know I wasn’t any useful to you, you don’t need to hide your disappointment at that. I am even more interested than you are to find out how one can apparate into Hogwarts.”

He seemed to have decided to ignore her breach of propriety for now, but there was an increased awareness in his eyes. A hunter concerned that a beast might be unpredictable.

“No one can apparate into Hogwarts. The wards would not allow it.”

“And yet the very first clear memory I have after the attack is waking up at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. My wounds are such that I’m sure I could not have walked all the way there from the entrance, while the ground around me is undisturbed that it could not be the location of a fight. My conclusion? I was dropped there.”

She watched the interest quietly flare back into life in his eyes, the reluctant acknowledgement that he could find no fault in her arguments.

“I’ve also read parts of Hogwarts: A History, and I know it’s not possible to apparate on Hogwarts’ grounds. But the question of my arrival remains. It’s even more ludicrous if we suppose that it was a portkey—it would imply that someone had entered Hogwarts sometime before and left it in the forest, unnoticed.” Hermione sighed.

“If they were someone trying to save you, why leave the portkey in the forest instead of entrusting it to Dumbledore? If it was someone trying to harm you—well, that’s the second most idiotic thing they could do.” Tom concluded.

She nodded, before realizing what he’d said.

“What’s the most idiotic thing they could do?”

“To leave you at St. Mungo’s with a note of apology pinned on your clothes.” He stated flatly.

Hermione let out a surprised chuckle, unexpectedly appreciating his biting sense of humour. She thought she could see glimpses of the same half-wondering expression on his face before he tuned them out, as if he’d never thought her company could be something not moronic.

“So, I would like to be able to track down who did it and make them pay, but unfortunately, I’ve told you most of what I know about it. It’s not much, is it?”

His blue eyes were fixed on hers.

“You will ‘make them pay’? Indulging in vigilantism, is it, Miss Curie?” It sounded like concern, like a patronising almost-advice given to a weak-minded female and probably reflective of the era. Yet his eyes didn’t reflect the words at all, dark and endless. It did not scare her.

It made her smile.

“Well, I’m sure if the Aurors can make them pay, I’ll turn them in.”

If, you say?” He leaned forward.

Hermione poured them both more tea, her more ordered curls slipping over her left shoulder as she did so. She did his tea the way she’d just memorised and did hers to her own preference.

“Oh, you know how it is. Sometimes, some cases slip through the cracks, or the government had cut the law enforcement’s budget again, or, I don’t know, maybe a foreign power has placed a puppet as the head of the government.” The Wizarding Wireless allowed her to listen to European news, and she followed news about her hypothetical origin country Norway with interest. Well, sometimes the news just made her want to rage (Quisling should just go jump off a cliff), but her curiosity got the better of her.

Her smile was still the one perfect for tea parties that Daphne had imparted to her. Her eyes were as unemotional as glass, and just as suited to a high society party as a result.

“Sometimes, the law needs a little helping hand, don’t you think?”

'-

It would be easy to play the dutiful student once more, never neglecting her classes or any of her other responsibilities. She still had a rough memory of how the old Hermione was like, and it was no hardship to become her once more. Yet that young woman that she was once was also painfully naïve, blind in some ways to how the world worked.

She’d had enough secrets already, things she couldn’t tell to anyone else at the risk of being thought crazy.

Hermione didn’t care if one of the people who would see her quirks ended up being Tom Riddle. She really didn’t want to be the good student a lot more often than necessary, and once she was healthy enough to attend classes regularly, she was sure that she wouldn’t hide who she was from the other students as well. His opinion of her had been carefully changing from just ‘unknown stellar student’ into something decidedly stranger throughout their tea, and she was just waiting for him to react.

“The law is there for a reason, Miss Curie.” His reply was kind.

There. There goes his opening salvo. Ever the voice of reason, the good prefect, aren’t you, Mr. Riddle? She hid her smile.

“Of course. The rules are there for a reason, but sometimes they do get in the way of doing what’s right, what’s decent,” she replied nonchalantly. Young Hermione was going to get a heart attack about what she was saying, but well, she’d changed, hadn’t she? What was the use of following the rules in a school run by the Carrows? Would she stay back at the great hall now if she heard that a troll, a basilisk ran loose?

No. Just…no, with extreme prejudice. She’d actually had enough skills to take care of it and she’d certainly set out to do so. She’d really rather get more people to stay alive than stick to an inflexible set of rules.

“I do think that it’s important the we don’t kill people willy-nilly, that it’s bad, and that hurting people is also bad. Those rules are there for a reason. But sometimes, it’s a friend who wants to buy a birthday present for his girlfriend, and maybe he’d really forgotten it until the last minute. What’s the harm in accompanying him to the owlery past curfew to send an owl-order?”

“As a prefect, I’m afraid I’d have to disagree with your decision.”

For all his textbook reply, Tom’s expression as he said this was knowing.

Hermione allowed a small smile to rise. “I know. I’ll be serious in watching out the rule breakers if I was a prefect as well. It would be my responsibility, after all. It would also serve the sloppiest of them to either start getting subtler or stop sneaking out after curfew. Incompetent rule breaking is just embarrassing in its lack of common sense. It’s better that they’re stopped now and that they learn their lesson before they move to something bigger only to fail spectacularly.”

“It would be a public service to teach them, really. Who knows how many people they’ll drag down with them when they go down if they’re not careful?” She insisted.

Like trying to be a mad dark lord. The actions of one just boggles common sense.

She sipped her tea. “So, the general principle would be the same. I wouldn’t be enforcing harshly the sorts of rules that has too many different applications.”

“So, now we know what type of prefect you’d be,” he mused.

“My deepest secrets,” she said sarcastically, one hand laid upon her brow. “I’m afraid my chances would be ruined if you leak them to the head girl. I beg you to keep this to yourself.”

She got a snort out of him and Hermione stared Tom Riddle for another two seconds. That was…she’d managed to make him do something so inelegant. It had to be some sort of weird achievement—probably the sort of thing that would earn her the ire of his admirers.

Hermione paused, considering something.

Well, why not? Why shouldn’t she make him that offer?

“Suppose that the people responsible for attacking me, for attacking my friends and family are found. If it turned out that the law cannot reach them… would you mind terribly accompanying me on a hunt?”

She had gracefully elided on the exact nature of the hunt, but it wasn’t hard to miss for someone as sharp as Riddle.

It was also a convenient test. The secret wasn’t anything significant that she risked losing (as if she even knew who attacked her, or whether they were from this time), yet it allowed her to show him a part of her true nature. She was not harmless, and she’d pursue justice for people she knew even when the legal means have failed. If he’d ever seriously considered going full-on, mad dark lord now, he’d be aware that she’d also be there to go after him.

It doubled as a convenient stealth warning too.

“Vigilantism is not condoned by the Ministry of Magic, Miss Curie.” His tone was mildly disapproving. A careful observation told her that no emotion of any sort touched his dark blue eyes. Hermione solemnly nodded in agreement, even if she couldn’t always control the amused twitch of her lips.

“Of course, Mr. Riddle.”

“With that said, I think any friend of yours would not mind accompanying you on a hunt.”

She nodded. “Thank you for your advice.”

'-

On the second day that Hogwarts’ mysterious transfer student had arrived after she had been mysteriously attacked, Professor Slughorn sought him out.

It was an annoyance, of course, as it required him to take a detour from his day-to-day routine. What Tom Riddle did was to smile at Slughorn at the request, before assuring his Head of House that it would be done and he need not concern himself with it. He wondered whether she was as special as Slughorn seemed to think she was, but what he said was to ask about her academic records, how challenging her previous school was, and the like.

Because Tom Riddle the Responsible Prefect would certainly worry about whether a fellow student would be able to keep up with classes if she was about to be bedridden for a while.

Slughorn, however, did the unexpected thing of drawing him back to his office and invited him over. He started a kettle once he was there to prepare tea. Tom went to one of the cupboards to ready the cups and teapot himself because he already knew where they are, accepting Slughorn's quick thanks easily.

“She’s clever, Tom. So, very clever! The child of British expatriates born in London, she’d already taken the Norwegian equivalent of OWLs and passed with flying colours! She insisted on knowing how bad her wounds are, and it was clear that she’d studied not a little medicine.”

Tom did his best not to let his brows rise far, but apparently Slughorn saw it still the same.

“No, it’s true. She had already guessed that her kidneys were bruised from the dull pain she felt when she arrived, and that it wasn’t much better yet because she can still see blood in her urine.”

Not a squeamish miss, he surmised with a modicum of respect. Perhaps she would not be a complete bore either. Slughorn, however, seemed to have lost his enthusiasm at this point, his gaze distant.

“But then, we have to keep in mind the saddest truth about her, Tom.”

Tom’s brows creased slightly; his confusion wasn’t faked. Slughorn turned to him again.

“The only reason she’d gotten quite a grounding in the medical arts at her age is most probably the same reason that Albus and I had to stabilise her condition when she first came to us. She had been badly attacked by dark magic back then.” He paused, his usually easy expression uncommonly grave.

“I have no doubt that she had been in the middle of a war for a while. I know I might sound preposterous of me, Tom, but please, I need to hear your assurance. It might just be the worry of an old man. Please do your utmost care that she feels comfortable and safe at Hogwarts.”

Tom nodded. The seriousness of the request really allowed for no other socially-acceptable reply.

“Of course, Professor. I’ll be very careful.”

“Thank you. Who knows, she might be more inclined towards Slytherin House to choose it as hers when the time comes! Ha! Especially if she found you so charming!”

Tom ducked in faux-embarrassment because he couldn’t help but smirk as Slughorn’s ambition came to the fore again. There was the Head of Slytherin that he was familiar with. His previous comments on caring and concern was mildly annoying because Tom couldn’t quite fathom the reason why, and this return to his old habits was comfortable. They talked a little more over tea, Slughorn feeling no compunction at all at divulging her scores because he knew Tom would not gossip about it.

“It’s not as if the dear girl had anything to be embarrassed about—a perfect set of scores! Why, if I was her father, I’d shout it to the rafters. In fact, I’ll do it myself once she’s out of the infirmary and we can talk with her over tea. I consider myself a guardian of hers, because did you know that she was orphaned by the war? It’s such terrible shame.’ Slughorn prattled.

Tom’s smile had become a little more fixed at this point. A perfect set of scores? What a pitiful orphan? Such a nice, brilliant girl? Why does that sound familiar?

Why, certainly. Because that is the persona that he wore like a second skin right now.

He truly needed to see her personally and take her measure. He will have to find her idiosyncrasies, her loves, her hates, and weave a web out of them. The more he hears about her that seemed to pile up this image of a nice, brilliant girl who loves to learn with an unfortunate fate hanging over her, the more concerned he was that she was another viper slinking into the nest.

There was only enough space for one, after all.

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Four Photoset

04 A Sorting to Sing to

Hermione was beginning to have the unexpected regret that she was such a good student.

She remembered the outlines of her classes well once she’d read all the syllabi (it was among the rolls of parchment that Tom Riddle brought her, along with the text books). There wasn’t much difference there, though she did notice that several magical advances had yet to make it to the Hogwarts curriculum. Yet all this only made it more apparent that she didn’t even need to read through the books that Slughorn and gotten Tom Riddle to bring to her. The words were so familiar that she only needed to skim to refresh her memory. She went over all five of them lightly, quickly, with the ease of a young girl dancing over stepping stones to cross a river and she was done in no time.

Two days. She still slept a lot, because the potions did their work best that way, but even with the limited number of waking hours that she had, it still only took her two days to find the books stale.

“I need to know what my class assignments are, Nurse Edelstein.”

The nurse stared at her in disbelief.

“I know, I need rest and all, but I am resting. I’m in my bed, see? The farthest I walk is to the loo, as you well know, and you’ve never stopped plying me with food from the kitchens to make sure I have enough energy to recover.” Hermione sighed. “But if I’m going to sit around with nothing to do, I’ll mope. You don’t want to see me mope, do you? It’s the most pathetic thing in the universe.”

She gave Maggie her best, puppy-eyed look. The nurse poked her cheek with a huff, but didn’t deny it.

“I swear, you are the most boring student that I know.”

“Hey!” She pouted.

“How is your beau, anyway? Why aren’t you telling me more about him? You should ask him to visit more often.” Maggie tried a different tack.

Hermione tapped her chin with a careful consideration. “Why, if delivering six books makes him my beau, I should find a man who would lend me his library. Surely that means we should be married!”

The nurse threw her hands up in defeat.

“You are incorrigible.”

“No, I am completely logical,” Hermione said easily. “I am merely following the social implications you’ve set.”

Maggie snorted. “With that cheekiness, I question whose social implications you’ve been following.”

Hermione was unperturbed, her smile positively brimming with innocence.

“Well, if we’re not trying to get me married off to the first man with a library, how do I go about finding what homework are given for my classes?” She asked.

Maggie Edelstein let out a long, exasperated sigh as she sat down on the chair next to Hermione’s bed. It really was a bright morning, what with the sun shining brightly through the windows. If she had to be at Hogwarts again, she longed to be able to sit on the grass beside the lake, enjoying the sun and wind with a cosy book at hand.

“You just don’t give up, do you?” Maggie muttered.

“Well, we can do this for another half an hour, if you want? You know, so you can try valiantly dissuading me from my bookworm ways?” The brunette said, easily.

Try?” Her voice rose up in disbelief.

Hermione shrugged. “Well, I know that you’re not going to succeed, so I believe the operative word here is ‘try’.”

She was being evil, she knew. Hermione squashed down the teeny, tiny amount of guilt with a bite of her lip as she heard the frustrated grumbles coming out of the throat of Maggie Edelstein. But she couldn’t help it. She’d always wished she could let loose, when she was younger, to not hold back all the quips she felt like saying because she was a prefect, and mature, and thus above all that. She knew now that she’d envied Draco when she was a student for being able to let his sharp tongue loose, even if she didn’t envy his foolishness at all.

Well, she’d saved the wizarding world at least once. She was allowed her little indulgences now, surely?

“Oh, alright. But don’t come crying to me if the professors start asking you to turn them in on time.” The nurse finally said in defeat.

“I’m sure I can manage, Nurse Edelstein.”

‘-

“My dear girl, how has this happened?”

Hermione looked up, surprised to see a concerned Slughorn making his way through the rows of beds. The sun was low in the sky, its rays long in the infirmary. He did pause for a moment at the book shelf that Tom Riddle had transfigured from a bed with an interested look on his face before he shook it away and proceeded to make his way to the chair next to hers. She turned the chair into a comfortable couch, the sort that she remembered he’d kept at his office that he loved to sink into. He gave her a fond and admiring look for her spellcraft.

“I’m sorry, Professor, but what do you mean?”

“Madam Edelstein has informed me that you are eager to begin your studies…and then we ran into the issue of determining which homework you would get, based on the classes you follow. But we’ve only realised just now that there are no particular classes that you follow yet, because you’re not even Sorted!”

She blinked. “Um, Nurse Edelstein contacted you? I thought this is the headmaster’s responsibility?”

“She contacted me because I’ve asked her to keep me up to date on your condition, and that she shouldn’t hesitate to contact me if there was anything that you need. Besides, the headmaster is busy enough with his office that I am always happy to assist him in any manner required.” He beamed at her, all helpful productivity and she was struck with the oddest feeling of finding him endearing. Not that she’d doubt his social meddling would annoy her in some way, sooner or later, it was just…something she hadn’t thought she’d feel about him.

Or perhaps she was more than a tad nostalgic for familiar old Hogwarts too.

“Ah, I see. So, I shall be… ‘Sorted’, soon?”

“Oh yes, I’ve brought the issue up today. He did say that perhaps we should wait until you recover, but when I pointed out that you would most likely stay even more behind in your classes if we don’t even know which ones you were supposed to be in, well, that changed the situation.” Slughorn said. “We will bring the Sorting Hat to the infirmary this evening, don’t worry about it.”

His beefy hand patted her shoulder with a delicacy most would not expect out of a man his size. That was foolish, of course, Hermione always knew—he could not have been a great Potion Master without finesse.

“Professor Slughorn? Thank you.”

“It’s no trouble at all!”

“If I don’t end up in your House, Professor, then know that it’s certainly would not be because of you. Even if I were to placed somewhere else, I’m always glad to know you.”

Slughorn’s grin was like a boy given a lollipop the size of his head, oddly enough it didn’t look out of place in a wizard his age. He was buzzing with so much energy that he looked as if he would bounce around the room any time now. Hermione had to smother a grin. In a way, it was nice to interact with him. He was just so predictable that she didn’t need to overthink her reaction.

“Me too, Hermione, me too. Never be afraid to look me up—the doors of my office are always open for you.” He insisted.

‘-

She could hear the infirmary door opening, the hushed voices of the visitor conversing with Nurse Edelstein. The nurse was trying to determine whether the person had any right to disturb Hermione. To this measure, she’d raised the screens around her bed again, though only behind her new bookshelf to remove her from the line of sight from the door. Maggie’s zealousness no longer surprised her after the last time Headmaster Dippet came—he was absentminded enough to drop in after dinner, and Nurse Edelstein was livid with his intrusion into Hermione’s sleeping schedule and firmly ushered him out.

It was entertaining to see the headmaster herded away by the shorter woman, and Hermione was holding back her giggles, but Maggie Edelstein on the warpath wasn’t something you’d want to cross.

Hermione looked up when the footsteps seemed to approach her instead of going out again. A wizard stood before her, his coat respectable under his robes. His face was long, hair a pale dishwater blond and even for all its length, it was tied up neatly in a queue. Add his penchant for dark and sombre clothing actually gave her the impression that he would fit better as a clerk or lawyer at London or Manchester than a wizard.

His bright blue eyes, paler than Dumbledore’s, changed that impression. It was as welcoming as his smile.

“Good evening, Miss Curie.”

“Good evening, um, Professor.”

He nodded, before taking a seat himself. “I’m Professor Orphne—Orpheus, Dexter, I teach Astronomy at Hogwarts and I’m also the Head of Ravenclaw House.”

“Pleased to meet you, Professor.”

“Likewise. I’m glad that you seem to be doing well.”

Hermione’s smile was rueful. “Well, it’s still not as fast as I’d like.”

“Recovery is rarely as fast as we like, Miss Curie. Most unfortunate, I know.”

“True. Um, what brings you here, Professor?”

The approaching sunset washed the room in a warm glow. Unlike Slughorn, Professor Dexter was not a naturally exuberant man, and this was made clear as he chose his words carefully.

“I wish to welcome you to Hogwarts, though I’m aware that I’m far from the first professor to do so as to render it far from a necessity,” he said with self-deprecation. “But as Head of Ravenclaw House, it would be remiss of me to fail to greet someone with such love of knowledge, such zeal for academia. After all, it is the great ideal of my House.”

“There’s no need to trouble yourself,” Hermione started.

“Nonsense. And lose again to Dumbledore and Slughorn? I’m afraid you’ll find that even us teachers can be a little competitive.” His expression was one of slight embarrassment.

“I’m flattered by your interest, Professor.”

“You should also join the duelling club, run by Galatea.” He recommended, quite suddenly.

Hermione tried to figure out who Galatea was and remembered from the various syllabi that she’d been handed with that she was the DADA teacher.

“Professor Merrythought? Pardon me, but why?”

He paused, pale eyes observing her for a while before he seemed to come to a decision.

“Well, I’m sure for someone whose life is under the Aegis of Mars, you would not mind any and all assistance that you can get?” He asked. “We, at Hogwarts, promise to keep you safe while you’re with us. It’s the least we can do, and we sincerely wish for you to know that.”

‘-

Professor Dexter, it would seem, was still more British than Slughorn.

Even as their conversation moved on, it was clear that there was some other topic that he wished to address but had yet to do so. Yet he did not quite reach it even until the end, their time taken by many interesting walks through not only astronomy, but also charms and transfiguration. It was not hard to see why he was in Ravenclaw; his academic interest was such that she was certain he had a good grasp of the foundations of all magical branches. He seemed to be quite widely read on muggle books too, and it was relaxing in a homesick way, as Hermione was having flashbacks to her discussions with her father. Professor Dexter wished her well once more at the end and taken his leave. Yet it was only when she was eating her supper that the impression of his still having words unsaid crossed her mind.

He had not said a word about Ravenclaw House or even tried recommending it to her. That must’ve been the source of his awkward reluctance.

Frustratingly, he hadn’t been too specific about whatever it was he’d read in the stars in relation to her. Other than the first statement about the ‘Aegis of Mars’, he didn’t explain further, only that it’s never fruitful to try to read details into it, because the portents were most effective in the broad brush.

In a way, it was helpful and unhelpful at once. Helpful because it confirmed that yes, her life was certainly tied to one war or the other, and even the stars know it. On the other hand, it was unhelpful as it really didn’t give further information she can work with.

‘-

Hermione had finished supper and Headmaster Dippet had arrived with his entourage so to speak.

“Is all this ceremony really necessary?”

It was Professor Dexter who asked that as he stood not far from one end of Hermione’s bed. Headmaster Dippet was directing Professor Dumbledore to find a stool, and he did so by transfiguring a foot stool he’d found. The headmaster was carefully rearranging the Sorting Hat on the stool.

“Well, you came all the same,” Slughorn said.

“If I hadn’t, you would still be filling Miss Curie’s head with the so-called virtues of Slytherin House.” Dexter sounded resigned but determined.

So-called?” He asked, in mock outrage.

“Personally, I prefer to call them ‘follies’ than ‘virtues’,” a woman whose curves could easily make her the representation of any earth goddess smiled at Hermione, ignoring Slughorn’s protests. “Phyllida Spore, Herbology Professor and Head of Hufflepuff. I’m sorry dear. If the boys weren’t so eager to one-up each other, all four of us could have met you at the same time and then you’d be left to rest afterwards, instead of having to bear their repeated visits and intrusions to your peaceful rest.”

“It’s alright, Professor Spore. The talks with the professors have been…illuminating.” Hermione said, completely unwilling to get in the middle of the Head of Houses easy ribbing at each other.

“And completely in Slytherin and Gryffindor’s favour, I’d wager.” Professor Spore concluded.

“My dear Phyllida, I’m saddened that you’d believe I would try such underhanded tactics,” Dumbledore said this, but his eyes were twinkling. Her reply was almost sweet. Almost.

“I know you won’t, Albus. I’m sure you much preferred being ham-handed, after all.”

There was a snort in the direction of Dexter. Yikes. Dippet seemed to fail to notice that anything unusual had been going on. He merely fake-coughed into his hand a few times to catch their attention, and when some semblance of order had been restored, he started speaking.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we gather here at the most Fortunate Occasion of the Sorting of a new Hogwarts student. Now, we all know that it is customary to sort our students as first-years when they first arrive at Hogwarts, but this certainly does not apply to the occasional transfer student that we have. Since these students are usually older, we have a slightly different protocol for this.”

Dexter was very politely clearing his throat twice, thrice, probably trying to get Dippet to just move on. Dumbledore seemed content to stand at the edge for some reason, eyes bright as if he was privy to some great joke that no one else knew. Slughorn was bouncing on the balls of his feet, at least until Spore placed her hand on his arm to keep him still.

“…there is the tradition for the first-years to absorb the philosophies, the meanings of the houses in the form of the Sorting Hat’s song. Unfortunately, this great tradition is not one that is always available to all transfer students, as not all of them were fortunate enough to be able to begin their schooling at the beginning of the academic year…”

“Oh, for goodness’ sakes,” Dexter muttered under his breath, but loud enough to her ears.

“Wait for it,” Dumbledore said lightly.

“Why are we even here, by the way?” The blond professor asked with some confusion.

Dumbledore’s answering smile was a little unsettling.

Spore was impatient enough to start tapping her foot, and she didn’t bother to stop Slughorn from tapping his hand impatiently over his thigh.

“…but it has always been an important tradition! And we are proud of it, and we will do our best to shepherd each new member of our flock—”

“Who let him binge read King James Bible, again?” Spore hissed to Slughorn.

“—to the best of our ability, for they will not walk alone through the valley of the shadow of death—”

“That’s absolutely the wrong context!” Dexter hissed, appalled. “Does he even know what he’s saying? He’s rambling!”

“Oh, I know.” Dumbledore nodded in agreement.

Hermione had to look down and cover her face in her hands lest she burst into a sudden laughter.

“And so, to that purpose, we will begin the Sorting—”

“Thank Morgana,” Spore muttered a bit too loudly.

Finally.” Dexter agreed.

“—by taking the responsibility for this tradition into our hands. Gentlemen, Lady, let us sing this year’s Sorting Hat song! Albus has kindly transcribed it for us, and we can sing it together!”

Two sets of murderous glares were sent in Dumbledore’s direction as he joyfully distributed the copies of the lyrics he’d written down—where he’d kept them so far, Hermione had no idea. Slughorn just seemed baffled. Dumbledore took his sudden position of chorale head with ease. His wand was held like a conductor’s baton.

“Now, I’ll take a middle voice so everyone can follow, just listen to it. One, two, one, two, three, four—”

Then, the singing started. Hermione’s face must have been quite red, because she was determined to hold back any sign of laughter, something that wasn’t helped by Dumbledore’s eyes, madly twinkling in conspiracy or the surprisingly murderous look from someone as phlegmatic as Dexter. Spore’s expression was already promising retribution. It didn’t help that Dumbledore always stepped in when he felt that people weren’t ‘enthusiastic’ enough, trying to get everyone to express more joy and school spirit.

And that was how Hermione was treated to a private viewing of the Sorting Hat song.

When the Sorting Hat was finally placed on her head, it was almost anticlimactic. The darkness was comfortable instead of worrying, and now she could feel what she supposed was the Hat wandering around the foyer of her mind. It did not feel like the intrusion of a person practising legilimency, because it barely had any will or destination of its own. It did not wish to root out secret; it was content standing on the porch, knocking on the door and asking you out to play.

It wanted a conversation, not an invasion.

Hullo,

Hi, Hermione said. I’m Hermione.

Ooh, we’ve met before, haven’t we? You have the memories right here. What brings you back to Hogwarts, Miss Curie?

I don’t know. Time, I supposed. She replied dryly.

Ah, a brave Gryffindor you’d been. So certain in your knowledge and determined in using them for your crusades. And you have a lot of crusades, don’t you?

I wouldn’t know all of that, Hermione muttered.

The holes in your memories, yes, I see them. They don’t take away from who you are, though. You are still the person you had been, at the heart. Perhaps with less jadedness and tiredness that came with age and the weight of memories. In a way, it is a good thing for your current time, isn’t it? A world of opportunities is open to you once more, no need to let the old regrets hold you down.

But I don’t want to forget the people I know.

Maybe you don’t need to remember what they used to be.

Eh?

They’re coming around again, remember? And they don’t need you to impose memories of people long past over their present self and current future.

Oh. I’ve…I’ve never thought about it that way. It could easily be a baggage, couldn’t it? She mused.

It’s alright. It’s hard to see things that are too close to us, especially when they have profound sentimental value. Have you decided on a House?

Well.

You can be a Gryffindor again, but it will hinder your current efforts significantly.

Hermione frowned. Why?

Gryffindor is just as specific in its alignments as the Slytherins that they tend to turn away certain types of people too. Didn’t you notice?

She shook her head trying to focus on the more pressing question. What current efforts? I don’t even know there’s something I’m doing here.

Oh, there is. You might not quite consciously decide upon it yet, but it has been brewing at the back of your mind now. It is not my place to tell, only to report on its existence.

That’s not helpful, she groused.

The price of self-enlightenment is paid during the search. Its currency is the various self-doubt you have, the Hat graciously replied. Hermione sighed, ignoring the chatter that had started to pick up among the adults in the outside world.

You can flourish in Hufflepuff, the Hat offered.

But? I sense a ‘but’ coming.

But I feel that your journey will often be one you take alone, or at least only with a few people because the skill, the knowledge required is not slight. Yet they are too loyal to let you face the danger alone. You will worry too much about the people around you, though their friendship will be good for your heart.

It’s down to Slytherin or Ravenclaw, then.

Yes. The other two Houses are conveniently more anti-social than Hufflepuff for your purposes. On the other hand, being in Slytherin places challenges to your socialisation efforts as being in Gryffindor does, slightly more so. This is especially true when you are not part of the Sacred 28.

Hermione huffed. Why don’t you just give me Ravenclaw from the beginning, then?

Because you are not a first-year, Miss Hermione. Or are you saying that you do not find our conversation illuminating?

Hermione couldn’t exactly say no there. It wasn’t too bad at all.

Even if I have no specific memory, I still know that it’s been a while since I had a fulfilling conversation.

Alright, it wasn’t too bad. I think the teachers are worried, though.

Let them. They know that the rules state that there are no limits on the time I would take. It is my prerogative to enjoy the rare intelligent conversation when I have them.

She nodded. Alright. Thanks for giving me the rundown about the Hhouses situation right now.

You’re welcome.

Hermione could almost feel the Hat giving her a mental nod in return, before it bellowed its final choice.

“RAVENCLAW!”

‘-

She did not know how she managed to wake up in the morning this once, when the sky outside the window was still dark.

Usually, she was only awake around nine or ten, and she still needed a nap in the afternoon. All in all, she always ended up sleeping for around eighteen hours a day. This change was a welcome one; it gave her hints that her body was on the mend. She decided to have her breakfast early, surprising Nurse Edelstein with her activity when she arrived mid-breakfast.

“You are looking better. This is a good thing!”

“And I still have all those disgusting potions to drink.”

The nurse’s expression was sympathetic, but it didn’t stop her from bringing Hermione the collection of potions that she needed to drink at nine. The brunette witch sighed and placed them in a line by the side table. She knew it was necessary. It didn’t mean that she had to like it. Nurse Edelstein checked her bandages. Hermione was thrilled to find out that the one around her head was declared extraneous and had been removed completely. The ones around her arms had been reduced by a half too.

It was around the time where she knew most of Hogwarts were probably having their breakfast that there was a knock on the infirmary door. Nurse Edelstein sprung across the infirmary like a gazelle, on guard as usual.

She had expected Slughorn or Dumbledore (Dexter didn’t strike her as someone that shameless to intrude on someone at breakfast). What she didn’t expect was to hear Tom Riddle’s voice conversing politely with Maggie. His steps were soon heard approaching her bed, and in no time at all she could see his presence fully as he passed the screen by her side.

“Good morning, Mr. Riddle.”

“Good morning, Ms. Curie.”

The etiquette of the era got to her a little, but she dutifully confirmed that yes, Tom Riddle has had breakfast and thus was not inconveniencing himself when he visited her. He seemed to have sensed how rote her few questions on that front were, as the left side of his smile was starting to curl upward.

“Not that I’m not glad to have you visit, considering that I’m bored out of my wits with nothing to do, but what brought you to my humble ward?”

At the mock-serious clearing of throat from halfway across the infirmary, Hermione grinned in the nurse’s direction before turning back to Riddle.

“Oh, my apologies, Madam Edelstein’s ward. I am also a mere guest here.” The brunette clarified.

“Professor Slughorn voluntarily shared the results of your Sorting with me last night—congratulations on entering Ravenclaw, by the way. He also confirmed your official class placements last night. I have your extraordinarily packed schedule here with me.”

“By ‘voluntarily share’, you mean he ‘accosted you with much fanfare after you finished your prefect rounds’, don’t you? Then he gives you a bag of orders to do the next day without first asking whether you already have your own plans.” She asked shrewdly as she accepted his documents, shelving them casually on the bookshelf next to her—there were still a lot of space there.

“I’m sure I have no idea about what you’re talking about, Miss Curie,” he demurred, all smiles, but the wicked glint in his dark blue eyes told her of something different.

She sighed.

“I know. I’m really glad for all the things he’s done since I’ve arrived, but Professor Slughorn could be more than a little overwhelming. Look, if he’s asking you to go around to all my classes, ask for all the homework, you don’t have to do it, really. I’m sure I can ask Professor Dexter about it and he’ll find a Ravenclaw student that share classes with me—and it’s his responsibility anyway as my Head of House.”

He might seem to be the perfect student, but it didn’t mean he was one. The last thing Hermione wanted was for Tom Riddle to resent her for something as ridiculous as Slughorn’s urge to mollycoddle her.

Tom Riddle gazed at her with those dark, placid eyes that she could not easily read.

“It really is no trouble at all, Miss Curie. If I can help you feel more at home at Hogwarts after everything you’ve been through, it would be my pleasure.” He was all polite kindness.

Was he pretending still? Or was he speaking the truth for once? She felt like pulling her hair out, but it would achieve nothing. She did not care if it was Tom Riddle or just some other Hogwarts students she didn’t know, she did not like forcing people to do things for her, to bind them with no choice. It was probably why the use of house elfs rankled her so much when she first heard about it, at least until she’d investigated further and found out about their odd symbiosis with wizards and witches.

Hermione pulled her covers aside, instead, pulling her legs down from the bed. It seemed to genuinely surprise the Slytherin prefect, who had moved in sync to her left side, too ready to support her if she tried to stand.

“Mr. Riddle, I know I’m peculiar, but I like to think it’s my prerogative for managing not to die after all the crap I’ve faced in my life,” she said casually. “I’d like to ask you to promise me one thing. If Slughorn is inconveniencing you in any way in my name or to my benefit, please be honest with me. I am not completely unable to relieve you from them.”

Hermione calmly looked up at him, focusing only on his eyes and not his cheekbones or lips.

“I promise.”

“That you’ll tell me when Slughorn is inconveniencing you in my name,” she insisted.

He chuckled. It was warm and reminded her too much of dark chocolate. Did he practise it in his room, or what? No one has a casual laughter that perfect.

“Yes. You are stubborn.” He did not hide his curiosity as he said this, or his amusement.

“Well, it’s always good to be specific,” she said. “I’m more surprised that you agreed so easily. You look like you’re too used to being the perfect prefect to admit that any discomfort affects you.”

“You speak of some ideal that is not me. I’m not perfect,” he replied, still with that perfect smile.

“Oh, of course you’re not. I know that. You don’t have any pity,” Hermione said with ease, curls moving with the tilt of her head. She ignored the slightest flicker of the muscles of his jaw, something she wouldn’t see if she hadn’t been watching for it. “I’ll be honest, now. I have a large weakness too. I’m usually a quite forgiving person until people start with the betrayals. I hate it when people go back on their promises and their given word, especially when it ends up with my friends and family getting hurt. Then? Then, I start taking inspirations from Greek tragedies and people start paying in the form of blood rain, for starters.”

Hermione waited, then, to see what he’d take from her casual admittance of what she is (for she knew what she is, a better person would have turned Rita Skeeter to the Aurors. A better person would not execute a plan involving the hunt of centaurs with a smile on her face). She still would not let these sides of her stop her from fighting on the side of good, for trying to make the wizarding world a better place day-by-day.

As she’d said, she had grown up and the world wasn’t such a simple place. Perhaps that was why she had felt that honestly talking to Tom Riddle was a normal thing to do.

He wasn’t Voldemort yet. It had to mean something, right?

“You’ve given me such a terrible weakness,” he commented, apparently deciding to see where she’d take this. “No pity, Miss Curie? ‘The merciless’ sounds like a title fit for a dictator.”

“It doesn’t have to be.” She said, almost as surprised as he was by the answer.

“And I’m sure the damsel in distress would swoon at the idea of a rescue by ‘Matt the Merciless’ instead of being scared to death. Of course.” He was still too polite to be sarcastic, but Hermione could read his disbelief easily.

“It could have easily turned into something like ‘the Just’ or ‘the Fair’. Being without pity also means that you’re not easily swayed by emotional appeals or people trying to manipulate your heartstrings.” 

Was he aware his mask was down? Because he looked incredulous. Yet for all his incredulity his attention was hyper-focused on her. If she’d thought his dark eyes were distracting before, now they were positively mesmerising. She had to look away to be able to speak easily.

“Almost every other human is like that, you know? It’s in the high ninety percent range of the population. I know how important emotions are in human relationships and perhaps up to the village or district level, but when it comes for ordering society on a higher stage, it becomes a distinct weakness. The human mind stumbles at prioritizing the good of 10,000 people over 1,000. It’s why a single tragic death in a newspaper can raise funds faster and to larger quantities than say, a story of a bad building code that affects three blocks and has allowed the quick spread of several diseases through the apartment complexes because of it. People’s heart strings are not tugged by numbers, even when they represent the absolute scale of the tragedy.”

“Yet isn’t the last case far crueller since far more people suffered?” She asked back.

He was listening carefully, his curiosity clear. Perhaps she was merely a butterfly he was observing under his magnifying glass, but she didn’t care. He was paying attention, and that was enough. She lost herself in her thoughts again as she spoke.

“What does it say about human empathy that it didn’t decrease our numbness to the sufferings of the many? That it is too sensitive to the suffering of the few? Even worse, it is noticeable that our first reaction, our gut feeling is always to sympathise more with people who look like us and to care less of those who differ more.”

“Is blind feeling, empathy, pity always such a good thing to lead our decisions with, then?”

The brunette only dared to glance back at him to check, but had to hurriedly look away again because now, he was staring at her like a man who’d seen a fairy princess ride at night. Enthralled and compelled, he suddenly decides that there is nothing worth looking at in the mortal world and single-mindedly seeks her even if it meant crossing half the world and more.

Hermione kept her voice determinedly cheerful.

“Well! Uh, I think I’ve gone on one of my rants again. I’ll just have to warn you right now that I tend to do that—don’t ask me about house elfs if you don’t want to get occupied for at least an hour. And I think you have…classes? Yes. Classes. To go to. I hope I’m not holding you up or anything.”

Hermione looked up, he had moved from her side to standing in front of her, folding a piece of paper in his hand. Origami? It looked like a simple flower. When he slipped it behind her left ear, she caught the fragrant scent of a damask rose, the single petal of vivid pink falling on her lap confirming it. She didn’t even hear the spell being cast; he must have done it silently. The back of his thumb slid for a few seconds too long over her cheek and she stifled a shiver.

When she stared at him in annoyance (she was annoyed more at her own unsettled feeling than anything), his eyes were as fathomless as the wine-dark sea.

“Are you free to receive visitors this afternoon? Perhaps sometime around tea?” He asked. She didn’t know how he could be entirely too normal about this.

“I…yes.”

“I’ll return with the specifics from your classes by then. I will be taking your advice and leave for classes for the time being. Goodbye, Miss Curie.”

He took his leave by casually kissing the back of her hand. It was only the manners that Daphne and Draco helped drill into her that allowed her to come up with a smooth answer in time.

“Goodbye, Mr. Riddle.”

‘-

“So!” Nurse Edelstein had cheerfully returned from her morning routine of checking the inventory. Her hazel eyes widened the moment she saw Hermione.

“Don’t say it!”

“I was only going to admire that beautiful rose you have in your hair.” Maggie said, blinking innocently. “Where did you get it from?”

Hermione sighed. There really was no avoiding it. “Tom Riddle transfigured it from a paper flower.”

The sounds that Maggie made was high enough in pitch to send dogs into hiding, and maybe bats would start bumping into things too if any of them happened to be around. The brunette witch winced.

“And you were so impressed with his skill that you decided to wear it on your hair?” The nurse asked.

Hermione didn’t know whether telling her the truth that he placed it there himself would be worse or not, so she merely smiled awkwardly and said nothing.

“Aww, don’t be shy. There’s nothing wrong about appreciating a wizard’s hard work, especially if the wizard has looks like that one.”

Well, she’d always thought that appreciating a dark lord’s hard work usually involved wearing her dragon leather long coat and refreshing a lot of offensive hexes in her mind. Not that she can say that to Nurse Edelstein.

“I think you’d have that beau all the same, Hermione.” Maggie commented. Hermione made non-committal sounds from the back of her throat as she carefully pulled the blossom out of her hair. It was harder than putting it in, because another petal had fallen. “No, no! Let me. I think that direction is going to make it worse.”

She sighed and let the nurse try to do her best disentangling it.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Well, do you have a spare small bottle? I think I’ll cast a preservation charm and move it inside while I find a more permanent means of preserving it.”

“Aww, you do care!”

She shrugged. “This is the first gift I’ve received since I came to Hogwarts, and I don’t even have much stuff in the first place. I think that’s an important enough milestone on its own to keep.”

Hermione deliberately ignored the look of pity in the nurse’s eyes. One simple trip later and the nurse handed her the small bottle. Preserving the rose and then moving it inside the bottle without going through the neck wasn’t difficult.

“So, is he?”

“Is he what?” Hermione asked.

“Oh, don’t be dense. Is he your beau?”

She scrunched her forehead in thought. “He’s my…friend, I think.”

“Well, that’s a good first step to romance,” Maggie concluded, ignoring any and all sounds of protests coming from Hermione’s direction.

‘-

Chapter Text

05 Wounded Bird in a Gilded Cage

Hermione was having tea with Tom Riddle.

He had arrived at the exact same time as yesterday with a pile of parchments under one arm, his gaze distracted for approximately two seconds when he saw the damask rose in stasis in a glass bottle before he greeted her as if nothing was amiss. She prepared his tea with a spot of milk, and hers with more milk and sugar. The house elfs had brought her fresh baked cookies in tins yesterday, so she could have an assortment of them today. It was her good luck that they both preferred a thick brew, otherwise, the tea would’ve been steeped midway between their preferences out of necessity, which might have been fair but would leave no one happy.

Right now, she was too busy reading the unrolled scroll in front of her that she even forgot she’d been holding a half-bitten chocolate chip cookie.

Hermione didn’t know how Riddle did it, but it was clear that he was a miracle worker.

She had to wonder whether he’d have to be a dark lord in the first place.  With his organisation skills, he could’ve easily taken over the world as Minister of Magic. It had only been a day, and somehow, he’d found out all the homework given in her classes. The information had been compiled on one parchment, written in his elegant handwriting. She didn’t bother hiding her surprise.

“I…this is incredible.”

Was she gushing at the budding dark lord? Yes, she was gushing at the budding dark lord and she didn’t care.

“The references are comprehensive. You’re incredible.” She continued to mutter distractedly.

There were cross-references to books that were only on the recommended reading list and not on the must-read list, and how they might also somehow relate to different assignments. Wait, no, there were some titles that she didn’t recognise to be on any reading list. He was providing a much larger pool of reference.

“You made a bibliography of books that are even the slightest bit related for each class and well-organised by subject and themes. You labelled the major and minor subjects.” He was meticulous to a fault.

She looked up when she thought he’d been quiet for a while.

Tom was sitting on the chair that had been transfigured once more into a wing-back chair, his brows higher than usual. Apparently, he hadn’t expected this sort of reaction from her.

“You’re welcome, Miss Curie.” That trace of bafflement was also in his voice.

“However did you manage all this in a day? This is…you can run the Ministry of Magic on administrative skills of this level.” Hermione said.

When he scanned her face, she could feel that he was looking for something. Since she had no idea, she merely waited until he figured out whatever it was he was searching. Steam rose up from his teacup.

“Delegation is a well-known skill.” He pointed out before sipping his tea.

She felt her cheeks warming. It really should have been obvious to her. He can order people around. Whether the Death Eaters were already there or not, he already had power in Slytherin House and he can certainly wield it if he chooses. Hermione ignored the increased amusement in his expression.

“It doesn’t explain how this scroll came to exist this afternoon. It was…how many inches again? Fifteen? Fifteen inches of collated information in your handwriting.”

“Copy-quills can be trained to write in a facsimile of any handwriting, provided that you have reams of handwriting to train it with.” He replied, with a polite smile that she knew he hid a smirk behind. It confused her more than it illuminates. Not many people even knew that copy-quills could take on one handwriting or another, or what was needed to ensure it does.

Oh, it wasn’t the technique. He was cunning, that was certain. He had the knowledge of how to make people and magic do exactly what he wanted and quickly. What she didn’t understand was what had compelled him to tell her this, to take her backstage and see the wizard. Wouldn’t he wish to keep the audience beguiled? Enthralled to the wonders the magician wrought?

“The dense cross-reference to so many other books?” She asked again.

“It was mine,” he replied, with humility that was tissue-paper thin. “I had to contribute something visible than just being the one who organises the effort.”

She snorted and ignored his raised eyebrow.

No, his part was not such a small undertaking either. Yet clearly, it was no hardship to him, because they were only acquaintances at this stage, and Hermione couldn’t imagine Tom Riddle slaving over an errand for a mere year-mate. It had been easy for him, that was the simplest conclusion she could take. It was at this moment that she couldn’t help but quietly contemplate the rising young wizard in front of her, of his crisp white shirt and tailored blazer, the well-groomed waves of his black hair. His smile could put people at ease and from what little she knew of him now, he could be a fine speaker if he so chooses. She was sure he was a prodigy of his own, with many bright, future paths he could choose at his leisure.

Why then, did he end up taking the most destructive one that ends with his death? What reason for the extended swan song that took out a good chunk of the people of Wizarding Britain with him?

“You are looking at me,” he said softly, “as if I am a mystery.”

“You are.” Hermione confirmed without doubt.

“How so?”

“You are undoubtedly the most brilliant person I know who is close to my age. You have so much potential. And yet…”

“And yet?” He cajoled her.

Hermione shook her head, out of words to describe it and chose to drink her tea to stall, the sweetness calming to her. She was surprised that she felt a loss at the thought that Tom Riddle would die—did die—for Voldemort to rise from his ashes. He certainly could have been someone. She knew that at the very least, he was someone who wouldn’t have burned the world down.

He was someone who can change the world. And he threw it all away.

It was the tragedy akin to someone burning a Renoir out of spite.

“It’s nothing.” She stated.

“It’s not. I can see that for you, it’s not a passing fancy.” He replied, unwavering from the trail of her strange melancholy that he’d caught.

Hermione tilted her head to the side, trying to find a way to explain it. Anything she could say would only sound absurd to him, but she didn’t have anything else. Was this how Luna felt? It would explain so many things if Luna turned out to be able to see the future.

“I see something of you,” she said. “But it’s not important. It is not the present. It’s not real.”

His gaze sharpened and she thought she could see the real Tom Riddle.

“Not the present?”

“We all make our futures day by day, Mr. Riddle,” she replied. Based on the way she could feel magic starting to gather around him, her answer was apparently a little too quick, a little too pat.

“You can see the future.”

“I can see some futures and of some people. No telling which ones are true and which ones are just a passing dream. I’ve gotten used to ignoring them.” Having to face down the Wizengamot for several years really sharpened her ability to speak legalese and to hint things more than explain. It was convenient that he’d latched on to an explanation that did not involve time-travel.

(She couldn’t remember when that happened. She couldn’t remember why she needed to face the Wizengamot for several years. She couldn’t. Why can’t she—)

“Tell me.” He insisted, snapping her out of her hopelessness.

“Why should I?” She replied. She put enough warning in her voice. His tone was too close to commanding and Hermione really disliked people ordering her around without asking.

That was when their gazes lock, enough for a semi-serious legilimency, but the front rooms of her mind were a shifting quicksand of several Dadaist landscapes. She’d always been too staid to be able to manage a strange defence that Luna excelled in, and somehow it had become easier with the ragged edges of her poorly put-together memories and the new, inchoate nightmares. The first layer of her mind was now a desert on the surface of a Klein bottle.

She did not shy away from the opportunity to push back, to see what he had. It was a hostile landscape, the land cracked and harsh and the wind biting with magic that wishes for her to get out. The ground around her was covered with thorny brambles, its spikes stabbing into her sole. She left footsteps of blood as she walked. It reminded her of Mordor.

He broke the contact because he was moving closer, standing beside her bed now.

“Who are you, Miss Curie?” His even voice should have been non-threatening, but his magic churned around him chaotically with the potential for violence, most certainly urging him to lift his wand against her and cast something. Hermione rubbed her forehead stave off an impending migraine.

“Do not attack me, Tom Marvolo Riddle. We can talk. You can ask your questions and I might even answer them for you, but hex me, harm me, and you are no longer a possible friend but a potential enemy. It would cost you dearly to be my enemy.”

Hermione looked up at him, unconcerned about their height difference. She knew he would have remembered that he never gave her his middle name.

“You would easily declare me as your potential enemy?” He asked, not quite believing that she dared.

She knew what he was looking at. A pale girl still recovering from a serious illness bandaged in many places. She was lying on a hospital bed, her curls wild around her head. It was possibly the most unthreatening thing she could be apart from kittens.

“You were the serpent that consumed the world. You might say that you took over it to be king of all you survey. I’ll say that you destroyed it, and I destroyed you for that. For when one earns the vorpal sword, why not slay the Jabberwock?” Hermione said, with the same ease she’d told him of what cookies they had today. “I assure you that I have been a dragonslayer. Will be, well, this thing about knowing futures can be a touch confusing.”

She watched the non-existent flinch (he controls himself so well that sometimes she really can’t tell).

“Of course, many people I know had died too. It’s not a nice world.” She said, in a quieter voice.

(It rang with truth, with loss, painfully in her breast. For that fleeting moment, Hermione does not want to know about her missing memories and missing griefs).

“I’d rather we not go there, if it’s all the same to you.”

“And if I kill you now and lose myself of my murderer?” He asked, curious. This time, his eyes were obsidian black, the perfect surgical blade to stab into her soul.

Hermione laughed. I do not fear death, she thought, relishing the freedom that the realisation had given her, continue to give her.

“Then I hope you enjoy living your life before you crash and burn and die. And you won’t even know what mistakes you’ve made to lead to that death—perhaps you’ll dance the exact steps I’ve seen. It will be the ultimate irony.” She gave him an enigmatic smile and she knew she had him then.

“Besides, did you think that I single-handedly killed you? But of course, it really didn’t have to be me,” she said easily, enjoying playing the oracle more than she thought she would as she fashioned the words into something deadlier than the truth: fear.

“Did you know what actually killed you? Madness.”

She spat the word out as if it was something too rotten to taste.

Some part of her felt guilt, knowing that she deliberately used his fears of a loss of control against him. (Oh, she knew he was a control freak. No one who wasn’t would have their handwriting stop at exactly two centimetres to the right and left edges of the parchment, and ensured it was consistent all the way down). She could see his jaws tightening but his expression remained the cold and commanding one he’d had before.

Hermione stared him down, challenging him to look into her eyes. “Go on. I can show you of that monster you’ve become. I can’t even recognise you the first time I meet you, you know? Because that monster? I think…I think he is no longer you in the most important ways.”

His fist was clenched too tight and he was gathering so much magic but not channelling it into any spell that she was feeling slightly suffocated. Beads of sweat gathered over her temples, her breath coming in short gasps. She reached out to his wand hand just to break him out of it.

“But you’re not him.” She said, firmly.

“You do not even believe that.” He remarked, his eyes darker than the thunderclouds. She closed her eyes, holding herself against the turbulence of his magic.

“You’re not him. Not yet. It was merely the most probable. You always have a gamut of futures to choose from, Riddle. We all do.”

“Tom,” he corrected her, to her surprise.

“Pardon?”

“If we might have tried to kill each other in some future, we can dispense with the formalities.” He said, dryly. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have asked for permission before throwing the killing curse.”

She laughed. The way he viewed the world was probably very alien to her, but sometimes his observations were very incisive. Her laughter amused him, and she could feel the magical pressure front easing away with his smirk. It was certainly a lot easier on her chest.

There,” she declared, triumphantly. He furrowed his brows.

“Excuse me?”

“That knowing, annoying grin. That’s you, the real you, not the perfect prefect and student that you project to the whole world.” She would bet that she had a similarly annoying grin on her face—a know-it-all grin that Young Hermione had always sported after she answered questions in class with explanations that was sourced from two books at the very least.

“It’s the type of grin that can drive people bonkers because they’d keep wondering ‘what does this man know that I don’t?’” She finished. “And you’ll keep it on you even as you stab them in the gut.”

“And yet for all the apparent terribleness of the expression, you seem unusually pleased with yourself.” Tom said, not quite comprehending the reason for her joy.

“I definitely am,” she nodded, all certainty.

“I’ve been trying to get you to drop your façade from the beginning. It really is rather annoying to deal with a simulation of a person than the real thing.” Hermione said.

He raised a single, elegant eyebrow. “I threatened to kill you.”

Her answer was as straightforward as her smile. “Threatened is the operative word here, threatened. If you actually tried to kill me, one of us isn’t leaving this room alive.”

The brunette witch noticed that his eyes were still on her, completely dedicated to tracking her minute details as if he wasn’t sure she’d still be here if he took his eyes off. Colouring all that was some strain of disbelief. She was feeling rather like a rare creature caught on camera for National Geographic and he the obsessed photographer.

“I certainly would live, whatever happens in this room.” He stated.

“Ah, your first immortality clause.” She said with ease, ignoring the way he tensed.

This was her, who’d picked up enough field medicine to recognise when people was hurting, see their tender spots. She’d found his. Hermione smiled at him, all warm brown eyes and girl-next-door charm.

“Let me tell you a little secret. It’s not death I’m afraid of, it’s senility. I’d hate to live immortally as someone who’d lost her mind, someone who doesn’t even remember who she’d been.”

This was her, pushing her hands into the cavity of his chest because she saw it was cracking and then tearing it open. When one can heal better, one can also kill better. She let him think it through, let him try to breathe through suffocation of the mental blow she’d just delivered.

She leaned forward, her voice was soft, so soft.

“I’d rather die. Don’t you?”

Hermione wouldn’t even have thought of doing this if he was not one Tom Marvolo Riddle.

At first, it would seem that he was merely patiently waiting. It wasn’t unusual and Hermione simply took the opportunity to refill their cups. The next time she’d turned to him, he was still lost in thoughts. She didn’t break him, did she? She hoped she didn’t. It was discomfiting enough that she felt any sort of guilt for some incarnation of Voldemort. His dark blue eyes as distant as the sea once more. She envied him his long, coal-black eyelashes that contrasted against his pale skin.

They were nose to nose now.

“Tom?”

He blinked, and suddenly those dark eyes were alive again instead of merely holes on the physical shell. Now, he was looking at her. She leaned back against the piles of plumped pillows.

“It would seem that we have many conversations ahead of us, Hermione.”

“I’d talk to you only if there are no attempted homicide on me. No attacks,” she warned.

“As you’ve put it yourself, mere threats against life and limb don’t really count.” His reply was dry.

Hermione chuckled again, and oddly enough finding herself sharing a smile with him. A part of her thought it was ridiculous, that he already had a horcrux, possibly from killing his father. Some part of her thought that he’d walk that path of darkness all the same. Her easiest path would be to escape, to find a way home. This did not need to be her fight anymore. She’d done her part. She knew she’d done more than that, even with only her partial memories at hand. Let her past self and her past friends tear him apart in the future, decades from now.

(Time travel, she found, was hell on tenses).

Another part of her believes in free will, in choices freely made in light of new knowledge, new information. This part always shone brighter.

“Tom?”

“Yes, Hermione?”

“I don’t like the idea of euthanising you. Please don’t make me euthanise you.” The ease with which she said it belied the other side of the coin of her statement. But I will. If I have to, I will. If I can’t manage, I’m sure I can find someone else capable of finishing the task.

“I share your sentiments. It would seem that our interests converge.”

‘-

“I almost stepped out,” Nurse Edelstein said. Her copper bun gleamed with warmth under the light of the setting sun.

Hermione cocked her head, frowning. “Almost? What do you mean ‘almost’?”

“I heard you raising your voice, Hermione. If that prat tries anything, I’d be hexing him right out the door.” Nurse Edelstein was also polishing a kidney tray in a threatening manner. From the perplexed expression on her face, it was clear that Hermione has no idea how that is managed. From the way she kept staring, it was clear that she was fascinated and impressed.

The brunette student had a bemused smile now. “He’s a prat now, is he? I thought you were convinced he was my beau.”

“That was before he started distressing you. I don’t take kindly to people who trouble my patients.”

“That is so sweet. And scary. But thank you all the same.” Hermione said drolly.

“You don’t seem distressed at all.”

The young patient dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Oh, you know. What’s a few threats of murder among friends?”

Hermione,” Maggie’s warning tone was obvious. “I know you’re not serious, but please tell me what’s actually going on. I heard you raising your voice but I also heard you laughing often.”

Hermione only grinned. Nurse Edelstein knew that the younger witch didn’t lie—she was agonisingly bad at it. That was why if she could sit there calmly and not react after making that statement, there was enough of the truth than Maggie cared about in what she’d said. It meant that actual threats were involved. There weren’t many things that worried Maggie Edelstein about Hermione Curie, but…

Melusine,” Maggie breathed out, eyes wide. “You’re making this up to worry me.”

“Why would I want to do that when the truth would suffice just fine?” Hermione replied without an ounce of self-consciousness. She belatedly remembered that they did have to increase her painkillers slightly. Maggie had followed the mediwitch’s recommendation that they now try a heavier regiment of potions now that they’re certain Hermione’s kidneys were in a better shape. It would explain why her patient was decidedly chipper.

“Well, then I’d say that you have a questionable taste in men,” Maggie insisted.

To her surprise, Hermione laughed, as if she’d just remembered something. When she looked back, there was that maturity that Maggie glimpsed on occasion from the young witch, no doubt it was why they’ve gotten along with each other so easily.

“Oh, Maggie dearest, that’s nothing new. I always knew that I have questionable taste in men.”

“This is all just a misunderstanding, right? Tell me it’s all just a misunderstanding.”

“It’s all just a misunderstanding,” she parroted back, earning her a well-deserved black look.

“It’s fine. Look, he’s just unsettled that I can pull apart his mask quickly, you know? Pity the poor guy too. I just get so tired of speaking to the perfect student. I know he’s more than that. It is no surprise that he lashed out. Don’t worry, I lashed out too and stuck my metaphorical knife even deeper. We’re even, and what do you know?”

Hermione beamed, hands clasped together. “We’re really friends now!”

“How does that even happen?”

Maggie’s voice was not shrewish. No, she was positively sure. She was just…worried. Yes, that’s it, worried. Hermione was twirling her wand with uncommon deftness that was either innocent, or had a subtext of intimidation. Nurse Edelstein can’t quite decide which.

“Well, he starts with that subtle menacing aura—probably an instinctive reaction that came out without much thought. It was an atavistic drawing of magic in the face of possible threat, e.g., me. Of course, I don’t back down and laid out the ways of how he’s going to be in a worse position than I am. When I take calculated risks without flinching, it shows that my threats aren’t empty either. Actual talks can then proceed from that point.”

The brunette explained all this happily, as if she was merely describing the life cycle of a mushroom she observed on a walk one fine morning as opposed to her sudden and unpleasant introduction to the underbelly of Hogwarts social life. She seemed to consider that the exchange of threats was a necessary and perfectly acceptable phase to pass before one becomes friends—the laughter the nurse had overheard hadn’t been fake at all, this she knew.

Maggie thought about it all with a dawning sense of dread.

Hermione furrowed her brows, completely oblivious to the nurse’s thoughts. She tapped her chin and her voice was contemplative when she spoke up again.

“Do you know that any competitive interaction always comes down to a chicken game with a good chunk of the Slytherins? Yes, I was surprised too when I figured it out—I thought as a house that values cunning, they’d have more finesse, and maybe less of a thug-like mentality.”

The brunette shrugged, visibly shelving her curiosity for some later time.

“I supposed it doesn’t matter for now. I only state what I see, though. If that’s what I get from them, that’s how I’ll work them.”

A cute, whip-smart young woman with no sense of danger, Nurse Edelstein thought in despair. Merlin help the boys of Hogwarts, because Hermione Curie was going to drive them off a cliff. Probably because they were following her there in the first place.

‘-

Professor Dexter arrived an hour before supper time to check on her.

“I had heard that you were eager to start on your assignments if you cannot attend classes yet. I’ll say, that’s a wonderful dedication to your studies, and I’d be glad to assist you in that direction.” The blond wizard said.

Hermione wondered if there was any way to put this in delicately.

“Thank you, Professor. I didn’t think that you need to help me personally with this, but I’m touched that you do. Professor Slughorn had assigned a Slytherin prefect to compile the assignments from all my classes, though, and so I’m completely updated with my classes.”

“That quickly?” He asked. She thought she heard something close to ‘damn you, Horace’ muttered under his breath too, but she couldn’t be sure. “Who was the prefect?”

“Tom Riddle.”

He sighed in his seat. “If it was anyone but him… never mind. Highly efficient, that one. He would have made a good Ravenclaw too.”

There was a wistfulness to his expression that Hermione thought was a bit unwarranted considering they were talking about Tom Riddle, but she let the man dream.

“Perhaps you can sign my Hogsmeade permission slip? I know it requires a guardian, but I… well…”

“Oh, of course, Miss Curie! It’s no hardship at all.”

Well, that was one thing she had well in hand for now. Not bad.

“Now that you’ve begun to read our textbooks and you have your syllabi at hand, what do you think of your classes?”

Professor Dexter was a wealth of institutional knowledge that was not always obvious in the texts. The advanced classes like the ones Hermione was taking almost always has a flexible curriculum. What the class focuses on changes subtly depending on the Houses of the majority of the students taking it. The first half of any class usually laid some advanced groundwork, but the second half had more practical applications.

Advanced Ancient Runes was a good example. Ravenclaws tend to be more interested in studying and erecting wards with those runes, while Gryffindors and Slytherins tend to pull the class towards curse-breaking and ward-breaking.

(“Of course, nobody calls it ward-breaking, because it sounds so criminal. The Board might get their knickers in a twist, and where would we be?” Professor Dexter dryly noted. “It’s probably under the heading of ‘safety protocols of ancient ruin exploration’ or something similar. No need to worry about the professor—Honoria is quite well-rounded in her field. I’m confident that she can guide you in any personal projects.”)

The Hufflepuff was more of a mix bag, but it’s usually not hard to predict where they’d fall either, at least according to him. (“What departments are expanding in the Ministry of Magic? Is Gringotts recruiting this year or next year? What about other notable exploration companies? What skills they’re looking for? That’s usually where the ‘Puffs go. Very grounded, the ‘Puffs.” There was even sincere admiration in his tone.)

Advanced Herbology was another one that the Head of the Ravenclaw House had strong opinions on.

(“The class always ends up as an auxiliary class to Advanced Potions when many Slytherins are taking it. Always. It would be about how matching the plant’s seasonal pattern makes it easier to find its almost-perfect ingredient substitutes in a potion. Or when is the best time in a plant’s life cycle to pick it to ensure the most potent potion. It’s probably because most of the House had aspirations to being a serial poisoner. What better way to clear up a spot for promotion?” He commented idly.)

The Gryffindors are the ones that are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to Herbology, because they usually take it out of personal interest and those are varied. It was the same with the Ravenclaws. Hufflepuff, however, was always practical and useful.

(“It’s usually an encyclopaedic overview of the herbs and plants native to Britain and their distribution, along with the usual focus on efficacy, uses and all that. Sometimes they do it by region. It does free you from relying overly-much on store-bought herbs.” The professor’s pale eyes lit up in remembrance and longing. “Oh, and there’s usually also recipes! Phyllida has a wealth of them. Personally, I always enjoy the herb breads that the students start baking from the middle of the second half of the class.”)

She made a mental note to herself to remember that Dexter seemed to like herb breads.

(“We’ve had a new professor for Charms since two years ago. A good fellow, Filius, he’s also a fellow Ravenclaw, so he’s very understanding of students wanting to ask him things in his office that are further afield than the material in the class. He might not look like it, but he’s also a champion dueller—in fact, he went straight into the duelling circuit out of Hogwarts. Now that he’s here, he and Galatea are always trying to one-up each other.”)

Hermione was struck with the strange realisation that Flitwick was young. It answered the question why he wasn’t the head of Ravenclaw in 1942. She wondered when Dexter was going to resign from Hogwarts and for what reason.

She hoped he wasn’t a casualty of the wizarding war. She shook off the disagreeable reminder of her more violent past (future).

It was a pleasant surprise to Hermione that the head of her House was truly providing valuable advice, that he was being helpful. She tried to remember how it was like the last time she was in Hogwarts and in fifth year…and then she remembered the whole mess that was Umbridge taking over the school and mentally shuddered. She was too busy with the DA to be truly creative in class or explore new things. McGonagall was…hmm. McGonagall was probably too busy trying to manage the school and make sure that Umbridge’s meddling would not harm the school or the students in the long run.

Hermione bid the professor a warm goodbye at the end of his visit, musing if she should expect the other shoe to drop any time now because wonder of wonders, she was enjoying this. She knew her class schedule was rigorous (crazy). The only way she managed it was because she had special dispensation for almost all her classes to only attend a third of the time (four-fifths of her classes conflict with each other), if and only if she can keep the quality of her assignments up and her contributions in class, with maybe a few extra assignments thrown in here and there. Otherwise she’d have to start dropping some classes.

Headmaster Dippet actually made a useful compromise with the entire Hogwarts faculty for her.

Come to think of it, why exactly did Dumbledore think that it was worth lending a time-turner to a student, just so she can attend all her classes at once? Wasn’t that overkill?

The more she thought about it, though, the more it stayed as a persistent itch at the back of her brain. 

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Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Six Photoset

06 Cessation of Hostilities

Daphne had always told Hermione that the point of learning etiquette is not about memorising empty words or gestures; it is to acquire grace under pressure. No matter how unexpected or unusual the situation, one can glide through it instead of making a scene.

The Slytherin witch must have managed to beat something into her head, more than Hermione can remember, because the next time Tom Riddle visited, she didn’t say ‘I was serious when I said you’ll die maddened by dark magic if you don’t let up’. That had been the foremost thing in her mind. What she said was simply,

“Good afternoon, Tom.”

“Good afternoon, Hermione.”

Tom Riddle greeted her before he sat at the green wing-backed chair that she’d transfigured the available visitor’s chair to. Their gazes locked for three seconds—he did not seem overly concerned about her predictions of his death right now, so she decided not to be too concerned about his threats against her life. The house elfs had kindly prepared the tea trolley again, and she performed as the hostess once more with an unflappable calm that any pureblood etiquette mistress would approve.

(She has no exact memory associated with it, but her gut instinct told her that Daphne probably cajoled her to become good at it, with who knows what combination of blackmail and bribes. It amused her a little that she didn’t have that many memories of Daphne yet there was a gut feeling of rightness about her devious methods—Draco was an amateur compared to her.)

The Slytherin laid his book bag and took several scrolls out without much thought.

“What are those?”

“Since Slughorn asked me to assist you with the classes you’re currently missing, these are copies of my notes.” He answered. For all that he was a budding dark lord, it would seem that he was also a consummate professional in his responsibilities.

“What class do you think I should go through first?” She asked.

“I suggest Advanced Potions, while it’s still fresh in my mind.”

They happened to share many classes, which was not surprising considering her recorded OWL scores and what she knew of his academic reputation. She nodded in agreement.

Tom skimmed his notes quickly and started explaining the basics of ingredients selection for advanced potionmaking that Slughorn had just covered this week. Hermione made the occasional sound of understanding to show that she’d been listening or asked him to skip parts that she’d already mastered, courtesy of the potionmaking side of the research she did in the Department of Mysteries. Mostly, she treated it as a refresher than to learn things from scratch. It was why she picked it up again quickly.

If Tom was surprised at the speed of her comprehension, he didn’t show it.

Soon, they fell into an intense discussion of how, if the phases of the moon affected the potency and particular effects of various potion ingredients, then why not try to account for other celestial objects? After all, astronomy (in the wizarding sense) is a method of augury by reading the skies about what will happen on earth, that the connection exists in the first place must hint at something.

Tom, however, was not convinced of the relevance of something as distant as Jupiter or Saturn on the life cycle of plants and animals. At the very least, the moon affects the tides as well as exerting its own force for being so near, but the same cannot be said of other objects.

“If we were talking about the most influential celestial object, why, we’ve taken account of it by the turning of the seasons—some plants are only available in autumn, others during spring or summer. The seasons are the changes in the earth’s position from the sun is, after all.” He said.

Hermione agreed with the point that the sun and the moon are certainly the most significant celestial objects to affect earth. However, she did not think that passing meteor showers can be ignored.

“The physical effects may be ignored easily as the bombardment of earth with small-sized space rocks and dust barely disturbs anything. The magical effect is a different matter, isn’t it? Because it is not often that earth accepts foreign objects into itself—literally extra-terrestrial in this case. So, potions that needs to rely on that empathic principle, on the acceptance of a foreign body into a host, might possibly work better with components whose growth or potency peaked during meteor showers.”

He could not deny her point and he didn’t try. She wasn’t sure if the time he took thinking before clearly accepting her point was merely to mull over it or also time that he needed to accept that she was a serious student of various subjects. On the other hand, she did grudgingly admit that she couldn’t imagine Pluto being capable of affecting anything on earth, as it was so small and distant. She also had no idea of the strength of Neptune and Uranus’ possible influence and she wasn’t optimistic on that front either.

An hour passed quicker than either of them expected. Hermione wasn’t the only one who stared at Tom in surprise after he checked out the time with a quick Tempus, she could see the slightly puzzled expression on his face too. They’d been too engrossed in arguing the finer points of the idea.

“I suppose you have other things to do,” Hermione said.

“Yes, a prefect meeting.” He might be polite, but he certainly wasn’t enthusiastic about his own answer.

“Ah.”

He did not rush in tidying up, picking each scroll and rolling them up manually before tying up with a ribbon. When he bid her goodbye and left, it did not take her long to regret it. At least when he was around, she had someone to talk to. Now, she was already getting bored. Again. 

The only person who found their whole conversation off-putting and incomprehensible was oddly enough, Nurse Edelstein. She had been puttering in the background and doing some boring administrative stuff while the two students had talked, and the nurse made her opinion known when Tom had left the infirmary.

“You said that he threatened you with violence yesterday,” Maggie cut straight to the point.

“And I threatened him with visions of his death.” Hermione answered easily, summoning the tea trolley over. The Nurse had already reached her side to take the tea tray from her and return it to the trolley. “Thank you, Nurse Edelstein. I came up with some very good visions, you know?”

The nurse was still concerned.

“Why are you doing this? Is he forcing you to accept his company?”

“Of course not. Being able to chat is certainly a lot less boring than just reading books all day. At least I get to pick his brain—he does know his subjects, I’ll give him that.” She said, leaning back on her pile of pillows. Maggie was still staring uncertainly at her and Hermione felt the urge to clarify.

“No, really. He’s interesting.”

“Interesting,” she echoed.

“Yes.”

“Because he threatened you?” Now the nurse sounded even more weirded out. Hermione almost chuckled before she decided that it would give the impression that she became unhinged due to all her trauma.

“You didn’t miss the fact that I threatened him back, right? We’re at a more-or-less equal position right now.”

“You can’t even go to the toilet without tiring.”

Her reply was glib. “Good thing that he’s understanding enough to approach me at my bedside then even when he’s threatening me. I don’t even need to move to listen to him. See? What a nice young man.”

Hermione.

“Maggie, please, don’t worry about me.” She said it carelessly with a wave of her hand.

‘-

“Hello?”

Hermione was still in the grey robes of the Unspeakable. Something drew her to this side alley of Diagon when she was on the way home. She waited even when it seemed that there was nothing of interest to her other than abandoned crates and pieces of garbage.

A frightened meow came from one of the destroyed crates. Crouching down, Hermione tried to find some kitty kibble from her bag. With care, she made a trail towards her.

“Are you lost, little guy?” She kept her voice soft, non-threatening.

She could do a decent imitation of friendly meows too, and she did that from time to time. Never too much to be noisy to intimidate or annoy the cat, but just enough for the cat to know that she wasn’t leaving but also wasn’t aggressive. Her patience paid off after some time. The shaggy black cat stepped out slowly, eating the closest kibble while keeping a wary eye at her before moving on to the next one. He had no collar and was somewhere between a kitten and an adult cat—five months old would be her guess. Half way down the trail, he seemed to finally believe that she wasn’t a danger and ate at a faster pace.

She tried stroking him when he was close enough. Oh, she didn’t dare to use a hand, not yet. It began with one finger, just the lightest touch at his forehead. When he didn’t seem to notice, she stroked him slightly longer. Then, she lingered and added another finger. It was with this sort of glacial pace that she’d finally managed to stroke it.

The cat had a thicker tail than usual—it wasn’t simply fur due to its long hair. When it didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned when she pulled out her wand, leaving a light trail of sparks as she cast, she guessed it was more of a kneazle than a cat. He purred when she scratched his chin and even lifted his head so she could reach farther. She smiled and carefully picked him up; his long and thick fur made her feel as if she’d just picked up a particularly fluffy rug.

Hermione sneezed when his long tail swished upwards and too close to her nose. Well, perhaps a dusty rug in need of a washing would be more accurate.

“Alright, let’s get you home.”

When she apparated to her house with the cat, Malina—roommate and co-worker—stared at her in disbelief.

“That’s why you’re late by one hour?”

“Oh, has it been that long?” She was genuinely surprised. Malina raised one dark eyebrow.

“Don’t tell me you’re keeping this one too.”

“Well, why not? You don’t see me complaining about your half-jarveys, or the birds, or the—”

“Okay, you have a point.” The Scottish witch sighed before Hermione listed all her pets.

There was a good reason why they ended up sharing a house with each other than anyone else—they both had a tendency to pick up strays. Malina was even more broad-ranging when it comes to the species of her rescues, compared to Hermione’s kneazle-cats.

‘-

Hermione woke up with her right hand stroking her sheets instead of a new pet, the infirmary still dark and the sky outside still studded with stars.

That’s the time I first met Othello.

She sighed as she remembered the rest of her cats (well, cats, kneazles, and everything in between). It didn’t sound like a bad idea to find the opportunity to visit the Diagon Alley shelter and adopt a cat-kneazle hybrid that would bond with her now.

Wait, is it already there now?

Even if there wasn’t, she was sure she could wander around the alleys for a while and find a stray kitty or two to adopt. She turned around, pulled the blanket higher and slept again.

She hoped her next dream was just as peaceful as the last one.

‘-

If there was something Hermione appreciated about the past, it was the fact that the male Hogwarts uniform was still a three-piece suit. Tom might be a would-be megalomaniac, but his waistcoat fitted him like a glove, flattering his lean form. It was a good thing that Nurse Edelstein lent her dresses, or else she was hopelessly outmatched in the charm offensive. She stared him two seconds longer than was polite before her gaze returned to the teapot. Even if he’d noticed that, he’d thankfully said nothing.

She served the tea, too glad that her muscle memory carried her all the way. His touch was so light that the porcelain cup and saucer didn’t even make a sound when he picked it up—a part of her envied his effortless grace.

Hermione asked the question that had been in her mind for a while

“You do realise that I’ve foretold your method of death two days ago, right?”

“Does it have one hundred percent probability of passing?” He asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then it’s still possible to avoid it.” He answered, before going back to read through a scroll of his Advanced Transfigurations notes. She couldn’t help but gape at the ease he got over his shock.

“That’s it?”

He seemed vaguely amused and she couldn’t help but feel irritated at his equanimity. His next question did have some sense.

“You’d rather I start with the death threats again?”

“Well, no, a thousand times no. I just thought you’d find it more interesting than the…” she read the upside-down title of his scroll. “…foundations of transfiguration.”

Tom rolled the scroll up, his dark gaze fixed on her. There was not the slightest pretence of kindness there. It was how she knew she wasn’t seeing the dutiful prefect or the perfect student anymore. This was his true self, all driving ambition and ruthlessness.

“If I kill you, then I won’t even find out what are the things I need to avoid to prevent that death.”

“Of course.” She nodded.

“Then obviously, I can’t kill you yet, then.” He concluded this easily, clearly showing no particular preference to whether she lived or died. Hermione bristled, affronted, until she wondered just why she was affronted. A few moments of thought allowed her to find that it was due to the ease of his declaration, as if she’d die that easily once he decided to kill her. It was rather weird to realise that she didn’t actually give a tuppence about the death threat (she can vaguely recall that she’d gotten more than her share of it during the war as well as after that—the Gryffindor Three had been too involved).

“You talk about killing people so easily,” she said.

“It’s a bit late for you to pretend you don’t, isn’t it?” His smile was a shade too sinister even if it was still compelling. It was one well-suited for the Heir of Slytherin.

“I don’t kill people at will.”

“You can.” He pointed out easily. “Particularly, if you think they’re dark lords. Isn’t that right, Miss Vigilante?”

Hermione couldn’t even deny that outright.

“Dark lords aren’t exactly most people, is it?” The witch shot back.

“I suppose not. But the fact that there are types of people that you can kill with no compunctions outside of simple reasons such as anger or revenge…well. That’s already one trait that you share with me that most of the Hogwarts populace don’t.”

She did not need to be a legilimens to recognise the truth when he spoke it. Hermione did not survive years past Voldemort’s fall and through the rise and fall of new threats by denying reality.

Her fingertip traced the rim of her teacup.

“So, have you ever read that article about how visualising platonic ideals is the first step in transfiguring objects into their more ‘perfect’ form? The one that is almost without any flaws?”

The smile on Tom’s face did not falter in the slightest, but he allowed her to change the subject and followed the new direction of their discussion.

“Has anyone actually ever managed to get that to work to improve artworks, or at the very least, decorative pieces?” Tom asked.

“Hmm, never heard of it, but you’ve raised an interesting possibility…”

‘-

Hermione realised later on what had surprised her about how he answered her probing question. It was his resilience. Tom certainly considered her vision of his future to be a threat, but he seemed to be less obsessed by it than she vaguely remembered Voldemort to be about Harry’s prophecy. Hermione frowned for a while, trying to figure out the oddest thing she felt throughout their chats.

Ah, he sounded sane. Yes, that was it. She had some doubts about Voldemort’s sanity when she was fighting him in the middle of the War.

I wonder where that line was? Where his sanity was frayed past the point where he could return?

When did it happen? She mused.

When did the dashing prefect who cut a fine figure in his suit jacket was replaced with the shouting madman?

‘-

She was gripping a wizard’s hand hard, her eyesight blurring through the tears. He was still forcing himself to smile even after he took that hex that was meant for her.

“I can’t do much, but at least I can do this for you.” His breath was raspy, not there.

“Shut up. Save your breath.” She pressed her ear against his chest, checking.

“Live, Hermione. Live.

“I said, shut up!” Her voice was breaking. How dare he ask her that when he’s fucking drifting out, and maybe, probably, (definitely) not going to—

Hermione woke up and cursed out loud. She couldn’t even see who it was or even knew what happened. It was still night again. Her sleep was getting restless but she dared not to ask for potion of dreamless sleep. She knew the risks it carried too well as someone who’d studied the healing arts, and she had a feeling she already had to drank more of it than she wished for medical purposes throughout her distinctly not peaceful life. She simply sighed and laid down, staring at the spots on the ceiling as she tried to sleep again.

‘-

The white cat sank its teeth into her hand before running away to the corner. She winced as she watched blood seep out but barely reacted.

“Ouch,” Malina commented from the door.

“It’s not his fault,” Hermione said, “he’s still afraid.”

“Oh, I can see that. I’m just saying that you’d need to clean your hand and then seal the wound quickly if you want to look presentable for your date.”

“My date?”

The dark-haired witch stared at her oddly. “Uh, yes? Date? I thought you said something on Tuesday about how Ginny Weasley said she had a friend she wanted you to meet?”

Hermione yelped as she stood up, the memory coming belatedly. She hadn’t taken a bath, her hair was a mess, and she didn’t know what to wear. “I have a date!”

“Yeah, that was what I said.”

“But…” the brunette crouched back down so her profile wouldn’t present a threat to the newly taken-in stray. “He’s still not comfortable here, yet.”

“I’ll handle it.”

“Malina—”

Malina was still in her dressing gown, which was normal for a Saturday afternoon. She shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “You took care of Helen and Paris when I couldn’t, it’s the least I could do.”

They were her hybrid of African Grey Parrots and a magical bird species called the Grey Mimics. Most people considered them to be a handful as pets because they were highly intelligent and could open cages and some locks with no problem. Hermione ended up diverting them with games like thimblerig, where she hid a pea under one of three cups, or training their memory by challenging them to find matching cards among a table surface filled with face-down picture cards.

“Thank you.”

‘-

When she ate breakfast, she realised that she remembered Helen and Paris even if she couldn’t come up with a fixed number for her age. Most of her memories gave her the imprecise feeling of early twenties, even if there were a few others that seemed to contradict that. Yet she remembered what the Sorting Hat said and simply gave up for now. It would either come back to her, or it wouldn’t. There was nothing she could do about it.

She could recall the feeling of soft feathers Helen and Paris butting their heads against her hands repeatedly whenever they were bored and wanted her to play a game with them.

Play card game!” Helen would squawk.

No! Play cup game!

Card game!

Cup game!

Hermione usually left Malina to mediate the birds squabbling like toddlers. That was, if some of her cats wasn’t running around her legs, asking to play hunt or chase. She could recall the scratches she’d had to heal whenever she was trying to domesticate yet another scared feral cat.

For all of her friends’ complaints that she was turning into a crazy cat lady, they resigned themselves to being used as perches and pillows by her cats whenever there was a meeting held at her house. She had to hold back from laughing the first time she walked into her living room and saw Harry contentedly stroking Othello in his lap—the black kneazle was so big he was practically functioning as a purring blanket. Draco, on the other chair, was running his hands to groom Snowflake’s long and pristine white fur. His thinking face looked too similar to the frown of a judgemental pureblood; add the white cat’s expression of similar disdain and he looked positively like a Bond villain. The reddish-coloured Miss Havisham lounged over the headrest of the couch Daphne was sitting in, looking so much like a fur trim on the collar of her fashionable coat. Their position was of mutual ignorance and it worked well for them.

That was another thing that suddenly struck her. She was well and truly alone now. There’d be no discussions on the best spell combinations with Harry, no tinkering with a project she took home with Luna or Malina. There would be no people watching with Daphne or Ginny, and no arguments on Wizengamot Acts with Draco or disputes on strategy with Ron. She wouldn’t be able to randomly drop in on Neville and garden with him.

Never again. Even if they were to be born once more, they would be slightly different people here who did not share many histories with her.

She missed them all so much.

Hermione didn’t even notice the tears dropping on her breakfast tray.

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It was just after she asked him what the class was working on in Advanced Charms and he said that it was mostly the beginning of the history of charms and several basic ways to create one. If she had been the one to outright ask him about what he thought of her portents of death, this time, he was the one to break their illusion of normalcy. He timed it well, only speaking when they’ve gotten into the rhythm of their charms conversation and discussion.

“You’re not going to tell me anything even if I threaten you with death, would you?” He asked, testing the waters.

Hermione knew immediately what he meant. She laughed. It was one of her real laughters, not the polite titters ladies make during tea. He had that unreadable blank face again, which she was beginning to recognise as the natural expression he’d make whenever she confounded him.

“Really, why would I care about death threats?” She asked back.

“Because you’d be dead?”

Come, come thou bleak December wind,
And blow the dry leaves from the tree!
Flash, like a Love-thought, thro’ me, Death
And take a Life that wearies me.”

The brunette witch did not remember many poems. Yet this errant piece, this fragment of Coleridge’s found lonely and alone, without context or title, had stuck with her when she first read it. It only took her a few more readings for it to stay in her memory. He had not expected that, she saw. As a result, he was observing her quietly with an intensity that he did not often show, one that was becoming familiar to her.

“It’s not that I wish for death, really. It’s just that I don’t see the need to fuss or fear it.”

The brunette witch saw that hers was not a position he could understand easily, and she could see why. He was filled with purpose, he was galvanised into activity. There were probably a hundred and one things he wished to do before breakfast. Glimpses of this particular character of his were visible in the various appointments that pulled him away from her bedside, even if she could see his reluctance more than once in the speed that he left. At least she knew she wasn’t the only one who had unwittingly enjoyed their discussion.

“Why?” Tom asked.

“Why what?”

“You could be anything you wish. Those words would be truer for you than for most Hogwarts students. You are not,” he paused in thought, as if the next word had personally offended him, “ordinary.”

“I’ve seen what someone grasping for the whole world gained—destruction. Doesn’t seem exactly worth all that effort just to live in a world ending in fire.” She said, dryly.

“If you’ve seen where the pitfalls are, that only meant you could do it better.”

It was her turn to be amused. “Are you trying to get me to compete with you?”

He chuckled at her question as he realised what his exhortations to her sounded like.

“Oh, by all means, stand aside. I couldn’t be happier if you do.”

She shook her head slowly, so as to not trigger a new wave of migraine. Hermione never stared at her own hands for long, for their paleness still unsettled her.

“Ah, unfortunately, that is not possible.”

“Whyever not?”

“For bad men to achieve their ends, they require not more than good men seeing them and doing nothing.”

He was staring at her longer than was polite, more intent than was proper, with a distant, detached focus of a pathologist making a Y-incision on a chest. She bore it well, the same way she had borne a barrage of curses and jinxes supporting Harry in whatever field he needed her to be. Without too much thought she picked up a fruit tart from the table.

“I think you do have a purpose in life, even if you’d deny it,” he finally said, lightly. Her eyebrows rose in curiosity.

“Really? Do tell.”

“To be as vexatious as possible to anyone with the slightest bit of ambition.”

Hermione smiled a little. “Ah, but a life too smooth is so dreadfully boring. People get careless if everything comes too easily to them—a challenge or two keeps you alert. You can consider me doing you a favour this way.”

She could see the slight twitch at the corner of his eyes and a cold and unamused expression that would’ve intimidated most people. What he gained was a small laugh from her.

‘-

There was a row of hospital beds filled with too-young Aurors.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have sent them out yet,” Hermione said, her voice was wavering. Harry shook his head.

“They’re already more prepared than the intake before them, or the one before that. We can’t coop them up forever.”

“But—”

He sighed. His voice sounded older than their years.

“We don’t have enough people in the field otherwise, Hermione.”

“Right.” She did her best not to say it through gritted teeth. She walked out because she couldn’t bear seeing them for too long and feeling that she was somewhat responsible for them being there—

Hermione woke up, the faint dots in the distance slowly focusing as her eyes adjusted properly. The spots had some sort of vague clustering to it. Ceiling. I’m staring at the ceiling.

The brunette witch sat up slowly with a sigh, rubbing her forehead. I’m still at the Hogwarts infirmary.

After ten minutes awake, the rest of the dream’s details melted away (she’d only known that Harry was in it because no one else she knew back then chose to stick with their glasses). Every time she closed her eyes she could see young Aurors on hospital beds, some looking deathly pale, others with even worse spell damage.

She hated that she didn’t even know the why or how.

‘-

Hermione was in a funk, but she suspected that her dreams would always leave her in a bad mood if she let it, so she tried to push it out of her mind the whole day. Tom arrived with his usual punctuality and his Astronomy sketches drew her attention. She had never before considered that staring at the features of the red planet could be calming.

She flipped through the planetary sketches he’d made for Advanced Astronomy class. It was hard to not be impressed by the accuracy of the details, as well as a certain fluidity in the artist’s hand. In the midst of one of their more sedate conversations, he brought forth an unrelated question.

“Would you tell me how to avoid that future if I torture you?” He asked, curious.

There wasn’t a hint of guilt or reluctance in his dark blue eyes, his tone was exactly the same as when he’d asked her whether she wanted more cake. She had the odd realisation that he was as beautiful as a fae prince and as inhuman as one.

Hermione forced herself to stay calm. She met his gaze easily.

“Didn’t we have this conversation before? About how I’m not going to take it lying down if you try to harm me?” She warned him.

Tom waved it away with a confident expression. “Ah, but you were open to a few threats or so, didn’t you say that yourself?”

Hermione had to roll her eyes. Yes, she did say that, but most people wouldn’t have taken that literally, or take it as an opening to exploit.

“Why on earth would torturing me gain you anything? Of course not. That’s such a…” no, he did not care for being nice. Think like a Slytherin, Hermione. Come on, you’ve practised this often enough with Daphne and Draco. She found a different word.

“It’s such an impolite way of asking when you’re the one who needs a favour, isn’t it?”

“Yet I have a feeling that you’re not open to being bribed,” he said with a sigh, as if she was being such a great difficulty by not being morally flexible, and that it was really her fault that he was resorting to torture.

“Have you tried asking politely?” She asked sardonically.

Hermione was getting used to ignoring his vexed looks and his cold glances by now. This was how she poured his tea and added a spot of milk with ease. She could almost hear Daphne’s voice again. Very good, Hermione. See? I was right. Nothing’s too hard for you if you set your mind to it.

“Would you please tell me how to avoid the misfortune that you’ve seen?”

For all his exasperation, his tone was perfectly polite.

“I don’t know,” she pretended to think hard about it, ignoring his sceptical expression. “Would you tell me why Professor Dexter was determined to get the class to sketch Mars?”

“I…excuse me?

Hermione ignored his bafflement and continued. “Why Mars, out of any other planet? Why not, say, the easier one such as the surface of the moon? Or maybe even the sun and its sunspots—”

He’d stilled for a moment before he cut her off.

“If this is your idea of a joke, I would say—”

Tom,” her voice was level. She spoke slowly, like an explorer accidentally cornering predator in the jungle. “Is answering my questions about any subject, is us studying together for everything even after I’m out of the infirmary, really too expensive a price to pay for you to find out more about how to avoid treading the same path that lead to that future?”

His eyes were as dark as a moonless night and hid as much danger as one, for the nights of the new moon were a perfect cover for smugglers to make their way ashore and for highwaymen to ply their trade. She could see the twitch of his jaw as he restrained himself from expressing his disbelief. Hermione only placed her cup gently on the tray and folded her hands on her lap to ensure that they were visible to him, and then she waited.

“You’re serious.” He finally said when she didn’t budge.

“Very serious,” she answered him, never wavering, never expressing doubt. It was not hard because she had no doubt about this and it was truly the best path she could see at the spur of the moment.

“This is…”

She could see him glancing at her again, trying to gauge her reasoning and failing as he lost any grasp he’d had on her logic. If he had less self-control, he would be wearing a hole on the infirmary floor by pacing. But all she had was his occasional frustrated glare and she said nothing else, biting back further words to let the silence add a subtle pressure for him to reply.

He was shaking his head. “I’ll think about it.”

Dammit. Apparently, Tom knew enough to withdraw when the field became unfavourable than to charge ahead carelessly.

Unlike his usual habit of carefully tidying up his notes, he pulled them all into his bag with a wordless flick of his wand. Some sort of mass Accio, she thought. He walked out without even closing his bag at all.

Usually, he’d spend one or one-and-a-half hour in her company before he left. Yet they’d only passed the half hour mark just now. She let out a sigh.

“That went well.”

Actually, she’d gladly help him out of her volition to stay away from Voldemort’s path, no questions asked. But as one of her non-magical friends she’d encountered at Oxford said (Howard was a marketing major), people don’t always appreciate what they get for free compared to something that they paid for. Ergo, she could not provide assistance to him without asking for something in return, especially when he didn’t know her very well yet at the moment.

Whatever his faults are, Tom Riddle was still an observant student and a conscientious scholar—she did feel that he helped her catch up with her classes faster than if she were to do it on her own. His notes were even more systematic than one of her longer-lasting study partners in Hogwarts, Terry Boot, and Terry was pretty OCD even for a Ravenclaw. So, why not make him promise to study with her? It was also a good reason as any to keep in touch with him and monitor him at a closer, more personal range. She thought she’d found a good solution.

Three birds, one stone.

Hermione sighed again and rubbed her forehead.

Yet as she thought over it now, she supposed it would seem a highly unbalanced transaction to him; interpretation of future visions exchanged for homework assist. It unnerved him because he probably couldn’t come up with any idea about what else she gained from it, and why she thought mere studying together was enough. It probably seemed too good to be true. But then, that was the best she came up with on the spot in response to his question.

Never mind, she assured herself. He can think for as long as he wants, but he’ll still be back. She still had to stay in the infirmary for a while and Slughorn had asked him to help her with classes.

‘-

Tom did come again the next day. Not a hair was out of place, as if there had been nothing different between them and he even brought fresh flowers for the vase at the side table—a refreshing burst of blue consisting of irises and bittersweet. She didn’t let his even expression fool her.

Hermione did not fall back to the simple interaction they had when they were studying. She needed him off guard until he answered.

“Have you come to a decision?” She asked directly in lieu of a greeting.

To be so short and to insist talking about Business was definitely not in line with pureblood etiquette, but it wasn’t as if either of them cared right now.

“There will not be a time limit to your aid.” He stated.

She shrugged as if she couldn’t care less, even though his wishes fitted her interest very well. The movement drew attention to her shoulders and the scoop-collared dress she was wearing—her bruises had faded enough that she can show a little more skin without looking like exhibit number one for battered women.

“You keep your end of the agreement, and I’ll keep mine. You have my word.”

He stared her down, but she remained undeterred. Her voice was almost cheerful when she spoke, realising that he couldn’t come up with any objections to her idea himself.

“Thank you for the flowers. Would you like some tea?”

The part of her that spoke with Daphne’s voice had suggested that she wore something green today. Nurse Edelstein had gifted her one dress—this one. She changed the colour to Slytherin green solely for today.

“Yes, please.” He replied casually, as if he’d only ever intended to drop in for a social visit.

Tom Riddle sat in the chair she’d always transformed into a leather wing-backed one whenever he came to visit the infirmary.

‘-

For some reason, the copies of his notes that he passed to her doubled in length, in two separate scrolls. She realised that one was the more mundane class notes with some addition, while the second was some sort of summary of his independent study that was certainly beyond most class material. If he thought that it would deter her, then he didn’t know her at all.

If it was a test, well, Hermione was always game trying to pass one.

Oddly enough, after they’ve reached that odd agreement, he didn’t bring up anything more esoteric than, say, old charms from the era of Roman Britain that had fallen out of use and the plausible reasons as to why they were no longer popular. She saw no reason to start talking about his plans (or lack thereof) to become a mad dark lord. The next time they argued about one of the uses of dragon blood, everything was mundane and normal again.

She almost believed that they were merely two highly-driven students who happened to be studying partners.

‘-

They were currently on the first floor of a run-down mansion, chasing down a small cult. Some of the cult members seemed to have been lying in wait, though it was haphazard rather than threatening. It still ended with the three of them hunkering down in a room for a while. Harry’s team was going to come blazing in some time, and even if not immediately, he’d be distracting them with his team’s frontal assault.

There was a rather large gash from Ron’s left shoulder down to his torso, going down at an angle. The witch didn’t like the way his breath was short as he leaned back against the wall. Draco was about to cast a healing spell by reflex before Hermione placed her hand over his wrist, shaking her head.

“You’re going to cast Episkey?” Hermione asked.

“What else? It needs to be closed.”

“Find one that slows blood flow instead.”

If they were at her apartment, he would’ve argued and asked for an explanation. Since she was clearly the healer here, he didn’t. Which was a good thing. After Harry lost his eye and she studied field healing, she was a lot more aware of the intricacies of curses and hexes. Closing this one immediately meant leaving the curse in.

“Right. I’ve got to clean your wound first, Ron, and this is going to hurt a lot. No painkillers for you because I need you conscious.” And she didn’t carry her full complement of potions this time.

He groaned. “Your bedside manner needs working on.”

Even as he complained, he had pulled his clothes open. Her only concern was to see the length of the cut and how deep it had gone. She hoped it didn’t reach any bone, because what little she’d started to read on dark curses lodging in bone did not fill her with optimism.

Draco passed him a flask of whisky which he accepted gratefully.

Draco was limping beside her. She couldn’t see how bad the wound was, on account of his robes and all.

“Draco?”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. Sit down and open your trousers.”

He laughed, “well, this is not exactly how it happened in my dreams.”

Her blush was late to follow and she rolled her eyes. “You either open it yourself and let me check out your thigh, or you’ll have another dress trousers shredded. Not that I care, but you do keep on whining about it whenever you lose another one.”

“Why wouldn’t I protest their loss? Formal dinners shouldn’t end up with assassination attempts, dammit! I demand a different entertainment!”

At least the wound couldn’t have been that bad if he could still joke and complain.

Hermione jerked awake, the unnamed archipelagos of age-old water stains greeted her on the ceiling yet again, inviting her to trace imaginary trade routes between them. A faint sterile smell met her and she knew she was in the Hogwarts infirmary still. Another old memory, she thought sourly. It wasn’t the memories that she disliked, it was because they wouldn’t even stay beyond a fleeting image or two and the uncomfortable emotions she felt inside it.

Almost all of them would leave a shade of worry or fear to hang over her.

The details of the dream faded quickly from her mind, no matter how desperately she grasped them…

A sigh escaped her. It seemed that she wouldn’t manage to remember this one either, except for the part where she had to clean Ron’s wound before she’d even think of using Episkey, or the dressing she did for Draco’s wound since she didn’t want to close any rot in an unknown hex inside his flesh. The hospital beds to her right and those in the row across hers made her antsy now, their emptiness closer to a gaping hole of presence that was supposed to be there.

(Holes left by dead people.)

Her throat felt too tight, the images would not leave. She had to get out of there.

A downward glance told her that she was still in her pyjamas. There was still the faint echo of weakness in her limbs, but wasn’t she supposed to be well enough to return to her classes in a few days? Monday, to be precise. Well, that meant she was strong enough to take a little walk today, right? The trolley was nearby. All she had to do was get it over here and ring the small bell left there so the house elf would bring her food (breakfast). Right. That’s it.

It was not long after she finished breakfast when she heard the infirmary door open. A familiar figure strode through.

“What brings you here so early?”

From the flicker of surprise in Tom’s expression, he hadn’t quite expected it either. She was far from the well-turned-out and calm invalid he’d seen in the last week and more. Well, this is quite a pickle.

“In case you didn’t notice, this is Saturday.” He answered.

Oh, of course. She still didn’t think he had any particular reason to suddenly visit in the morning as opposed to his usual afternoon schedule.

“If it’s inconvenient—”

“Could you hand me—”

They both paused after speaking at the same time. Hermione tilted her head in the direction of a tray filled with potions on a rather distant tray. He picked it up before she even needed to say anything and laid it on the side table. That was perceptive of him.

“Ah, thank you.”

“Your medications?”

She nodded and started emptying the bottles one by one. Some had a refreshing taste, while for others, the faster she could pour it down her gullet, the better. She’d even developed a particular order by now—she drank them from the most disgusting tasting to the more pleasant.

“Is Madam Edelstein in her office right now?” She asked. Tom glanced over to the infirmary office, listening.

“I don’t think so, but I can check if you’d like.”

Please. Please do.”

From the way his eyes found her again, contemplating, she knew she hadn’t successfully covered the desperation in her voice. Tom didn’t ask any questions as she expected him to and only proceeded to do just as he’d suggested. She pulled the bed covers down and threw her legs over the side, still sitting. At least she was wearing proper pyjamas instead of those hospital robes that gapes at the back. It was also a good thing that Dippet was kind enough to provide and advance of her school funds so Maggie could drop in at Diagon Alley and procure some basic essentials quickly.

Standing up carefully, she walked to the bedside table. It was more like a side cabinet, with a little cupboard space beneath its two drawers. She took some clothes out and laid them on the bed, unbuttoning several buttons of the top without bothering to do it for all the buttons. She’d picked a blouse and a long, flaring skirt that wartime Britain would’ve seen as a luxury item. Hermione couldn’t help her snort.

Even with all their ‘fabric shortages’ the wizarding world still had far more than the non-magical one.

“She’s not at the office.” Tom had returned.

Hermione nodded, unsurprised. Nurse Edelstein used mornings to do work that would require her to go out of the infirmary or run errands, unless there was a first year flying class scheduled. It was the quietest hours of the infirmary, barring the night. She came up with the plan in a moment. Her hands had been flying down the buttons of her pyjama top in no time, pulling it off quickly as she had a camisole underneath.

She pulled the blouse over her head quickly and did the buttons. It was only when she met Tom’s gaze that she noticed there was colour high over his cheekbones regardless of how calm he seemed. Something about the depth of his gaze in the moments before he made himself look away warmed her skin. She couldn’t help but look down inside her blouse to make sure she was wearing a simple cotton camisole instead of somehow magically procuring some lingerie for herself.

Why…oh.

“I had expected that you’d at least ask me to turn around.” His tone was wry.

Heat rose to her cheeks and she was rather annoyed that she couldn’t help feel self-conscious now when she noticed it. Hermione felt like slapping her forehead.

Dammit. This is the 1940s, Hermione! Not the 21st century!

The young witch almost wished she could pretend that she didn’t care, but embarrassment was a contagious state that her sensibilities tried to get over very, very quickly, in the best tradition of British avoidance and understatement. At least she wasn’t actually a young Hermione—she’d have been mortified speechless that a wizard had been stupefied because he thought she was about to outright strip in front of him.

“I don’t have time to be missish when I need to check an open wound and treat it,” she said quickly, by way of explanation as she pulled the skirt over her pyjama bottoms. “The other way around also applies. Articles of clothing sometimes need to be opened and taken off because I have a wound that has to be treated immediately. I have wizards as friends and not just witches. So…”

Hermione trailed away. He realised what she was about to do quickly and did her the rather belated courtesy of giving his back to her. She pulled her pyjama trousers down quickly. The pyjamas were folded haphazardly on the corner of the bed, left to be picked up by whoever the house elf on duty was. A quick tap of her wand at her hair was enough to smooth it down a little and she tied it at the nape of her neck with a ribbon.

She cut a piece of scroll with a flick of her wand and wrote a short message on it.

Out for a walk. There. At least Nurse Edelstein wouldn’t start sending search teams after her.

“So!” She said with a forced cheerfulness as she fervently wished her blush to disappear as she stood next to him. “Why don’t you give me a brief tour of the castle on this fine morning.”

He offered her his arm. She stared at two seconds before she figured out what he’d expected her to do and took it. Alright, this is odd.

“And I presume that Madam Edelstein is not privy to this plan of yours?”

“I’ll be discharged soon, preferably tomorrow, and a little walk the day before that isn’t going to kill me.”

“I noticed that you haven’t answered my question.”

“I noticed that we’re still heading towards the door.”

“Yes, but when a man is pulled to be an accessory to a crime, it is natural to wonder what exactly he’s getting into.”

“It’s not a crime to take a walk around the castle, and maybe a little stroll on the grounds. Last time I checked, this isn’t the Tower of London.”

“I’d rather not have Madam Edelstein blaming me if you fall down.”

She snorted as Tom opened the infirmary door for her. It was too easy to forget that gentlemanly behaviour was still expected in this time.

“I won’t fall down. Don’t pretend that I can’t see you’re not the slightest bit concerned. You can always say that I was too stubborn for you to stop, short of knocking me down unconscious, and that you finally accompanied me because you’re worried.”

He pretended to mull over her suggestions. “Knocking you unconscious does have a certain appeal.”

“No, it doesn’t, not now. I don’t think you want to be seen carrying an unconscious witch in the Hogwarts corridors, do you?” She smiled, sweet and unconvincingly nonthreatening.

“I’ll just say she’d recently fainted.”

“And I’ll be very cross with you that I’ll keep our conversations on school subjects for a while.”

They were at an impasse. For all his protestations, she knew that he had no problem at all with accompanying her on this little jaunt. He was merely concerned if it was going to land him in hot water with Nurse Edelstein. What she needed to do was to find a way to push his doubts back.

They’d gone down several levels and he was showing her the way to the Potions class and labs. She was not embarrassed to admit that she did lean on him significantly several times. If he was here as her guide and crutch, she might as well use him for support—her ego was not so fragile that she couldn’t even admit that she was still recovering.

“You know what a bad plan is?” She asked.

Hermione could say with confidence that he was stronger than he looked, since even when he was supporting more than half of her body weight, his steps didn’t falter.

His eyes flicked to her quickly, but otherwise, there was no change in his expression.

“What?”

“When it requires you to make a plan to be resurrected.”

“Wouldn’t that be a brilliant plan if you can manage it? To be able to live again?”

Hermione shook her head. “No, because it involved dying in the first place. So, no. Not a good idea. A better one would be to strengthen yourself to be less prone to a sudden case of death.”

Tom made a non-committal sound, but she knew he was laying down the pieces of the puzzle she’d just given him carefully in his mind.

“Oh dear, maybe I misjudged my strength after all. If you were to knock me out now and drag me back to the infirmary, I absolutely don’t mind.” She said with mock despair. Though the tone of his voice was even, the side glance he gave her was sceptical.

“Yet you wouldn’t know how to get to the library, would you?”

She brightened at the prospect. Even if she already knew how to get there, she needed to find a way to explain how she gained the knowledge. This was really convenient for her purpose.

“You’re right, I almost forgot! Let’s go to the library.”

It was only as they slowly made their way there that she realised he had begun to gain an understanding of her character the same way she’d picked and unravelled his habits and particularities in her mind. She couldn’t decide whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Seven Photoset

07 Agreements: Trust or Lack Thereof I

Once they reached the library, Hermione had carried several books with her and Tom took one or two for his own perusal too. He saw her lean against a bookshelf once, and she’d even hung onto him a few times when she felt her limbs weakening. He did not complain, even if she would swear that he regarded her with the same attention to detail that Charles Darwin gave to a new finch species—right up to the point where he might even be considering to preserve her carcass as an interesting specimen, complete with an ankle tag.

She ignored it since it wasn’t as if he meant to act upon it.

Frankly, she had gotten really good at ignoring anything short of outright physical or mental attacks after she constructed and cast the howler screening charm at her apartment and office.

Where an actual concerned prefect would’ve asked her if she wanted to go back, and perhaps ask her if she wasn’t too tired already, he had simply watched her struggles with an even composure.

There was not an inch of sympathy in it. Surprisingly, it suited Hermione just fine.

She was tired of constantly being asked about how she was doing whenever one of the professors happened to drop in, or even from Nurse Edelstein herself. The discussions she entered with them were nice, goodness knows she’d go spare from the boredom otherwise, but she could do without the almost-smothering concerned looks.

For all the holes in her memories, her gut feeling told her that she’d survived worse.

This was how they found themselves in one of the private study carrels in the library, sitting at right angles to each other. Hermione lowered the book she was reading to give Tom a flat stare.

“Would you please stop that?”

“Stop what?”

He had the gall to seem mildly befuddled.

“You’ve been staring at me for a while whenever you think I’m not looking. Don’t say you don’t, since I know what I see. Since I’d rather cut to the chase, you can just ask me whatever’s on your mind right now. Go on.”

Hermione might’ve taken the bait if she was less experienced—like, say, her exposure to the wizarding world had only been the idealistic Hogwarts. She had found out that the real world was filled with people with murky motivations and accepting things at face value did not serve her well.

(“Whoever told you that you could learn politics from a book needs to get Avada-ed. Yes, this applies to office politics too, Granger.” Draco said it in exasperation. Another flash of memory that she could not place. She recognised the harried look in his face and hers from the reflection at Florean Fortescue’s window—they’d both had only entered the Ministry recently, both of them still overworked junior peons.)

His curiosity was clearly larger than the consideration to act normal.

“You’ve expressed your interest in assisting me.” He said.

“You didn’t suddenly forget the deal we agreed to, did you?” She raised one eyebrow.

“Just like that.”

It was a simple statement, but a hundred questions lurked behind it. His eyes as fathomless and cold as the polar seas and he had a predatory stillness to him that most people could only aspire to. He did not fidget or tap his foot. A snake in the grass, she thought. How fitting.

“Well, I chose so. Why shouldn’t I?” She asked.

“It seems too easy.”

“It’s the last thing from easy,” she disagreed. “Any agreement that lasts beyond a single goal or a simple task is one that is constantly renegotiated whether implicitly or explicitly, simply because the future is never that predictable.”

“True,” he conceded, “and yet you still play me as a fool.”

“Oh, trust me, you’re one of the very few people I take utterly seriously here. Really, what is your problem?” She had almost thrown her hands in the air at this point. Curse the Slytherins and their paranoia to the depths of Moria.

“If you would swear fealty to me—”

“I am not one of your underlings, Tom, and I’ll never be one.” She warned.

“Bold words for a half-dead witch.” He pointed out.

“Oh, I don’t care about death. What do I actually have to lose if I fight you? I can kill you and remove a potential dark lord early if I’m lucky, and if I’m not, perhaps I’ll finally see my family and friends from home again if I died. Who knows? The way I see it, I win either way.” She smiled, the way her cats bared their canines at overly-confident rodents trying to sneak into the kitchen and steal food.

“Wouldn’t you have failed if I lived, then?” He asked. To his credit, she could barely discern his tension in his perfectly-even voice.

She shrugged. “Oh, no, it’s just a delay. You heard what I’ve said, didn’t you? You’ll get mad and it would make an unexpectedly high number of people to band together and take you out. Sooner or later, you’d die an ignoble death all the same if you keep in your current path. Right now, your death and fall is just a matter of when, not if.”

“If I were to bind you with blood, we would have already dispensed with these tiring arguments,” he murmured.

Most would think he was only referring to blood oaths, but her memories provided a darker meaning; the use of blood magic to subjugate her will under his. It was less powerful than an Imperius as you could only define the terms at the beginning and it could not be too general, yet it was harder to detect.

One of the often-confiscated heirloom by the Aurors that get handed off to the Unspeakables is the wedding ring that binds the wearer under anyone who wore the other ring. Some of those rings have teeth on the inside.

Their gazes locked against each other, appraising each other—his, calmly observant while hers was a stern warning, telling him that she knew exactly what he was referring to.

The only reason peace was kept was because they could see each other’s hands on the table.

For now.

She was frank with her answer. “As if I would ever agree to enchain myself to someone else. Are you going to fight me now? If you are, it would be to the death.”

Hermione herself had doubts about her ability to kill in cold blood, but he didn’t need to know. There was also a good chance that her survival instinct would win out once he started sending dark curses and hexes in her direction.

His lips curved upwards without a concern.

She smiled back just as easily even if it didn’t reach her eyes.

There was a reason that Harry (and her, and a couple of others) signed an open letter to be circulated in their office—under no reason should any of the people who signed it should be given a surprise birthday party, or a surprise event anything. Ron had blown a poor delivery boy through his apartment door and down the hall once because his then-girlfriend was foolish enough to send him a surprise gift by giving the deliverer access to his apartment. Was it a surprise that he thought it was an intruder?

(And I thought he couldn’t have done worse than Lavender, a mature voice mused in her head, a rapidly-vanishing figment.)

She could feel magic gathering around him as the intent to cast was probably at the forefront of his mind right now. She didn’t blink or look away but merely did the same, her fingertips sliding against her wand point. Several spells that would work in closed areas came to mind—she had to take a moment to come up with them since she’d specialised with wide-area spells whenever she supported Harry or Ron’s Aurors in the field.

The witch didn’t know what convinced him to hold back for now, whether it was how she held up under pressure, or if it was something else she had no idea of. When he didn’t act rashly in the next minute Hermione huffed, out of both boredom and annoyance.

“Damn it, Riddle! If you want to back out, just say so, and I’ll go my own way.”

“And then you’ll leave me alone?”

“Who said anything about leaving you alone? I’ll keep watch—I can’t stand actual people-killing and people-torturing dark lords, remember? But I won’t interfere in your life otherwise.” She made a long exhale yet again before pushing the book she’d been reading forward as she drew back.

“Sheesh, the one time I try to help someone and it blows up completely. Why do I even bother? Really, maybe I should just…”

The brunette witch was murmuring mostly to herself as she stood up, but Tom had stood up just as quickly and barred her path. She only folded her arms in front of her chest and gave him a jaded look.

“Don’t leave.”

“Is that an order or a request? Because I won’t listen to the first, and if it’s the second, you’re missing a magic word.”

“Please.”

It was said with completely insincere flatness, but she supposed he never did get enough practice at saying it for real instead of faking it.

“Alright. Talk.”

“You can swear an oath not to reveal my secrets.”

She didn’t hold back from the urge to slap her forehead. “And who would decide what is a ‘secret’ and what is not? Good grief, Tom! What do I get from agreeing to an oath that binding? You’re not gifting me the bloody British Library to be able to ask that much of me! Could you, I don’t know, start actually negotiating instead of just demanding things?”

“I can bind all the people under me with an oath to never make an attempt at your life.”

“Isn’t that something that most people in a civilised society take for granted? You know, to not have people suddenly trying to kill them?” Hermione asked, incredulous. Not to mention that he’d conveniently exempted himself from such an oath so he could still try to kill her if the mood struck him.

She sat back down once it seemed that the Slytherin was actually going to try to talk to her for a while. Well, she wasn’t too eager to test the limits of her current endurance either, so there’s also that. Tom returned to his previous seat as well.

“An oath of loyalty for an oath of protection against anyone from the continent trying to kill you.” Tom said.

He was getting better at this—at least it started to sound like a deal than a one-sided command. She shook her head. “First, Hogwarts has fantastic, dense weave of wards that’s been layered by more than one generation, as Hogwarts: A History has kindly informed me. Secondly, I can defend myself just fine, and if that’s not enough, I can always go to ground.”

Compared to most wizards, she does know how to live in the muggle world and lay low.

She raised a hand to stop him from speaking up just yet.

“Lastly, I don’t give an oath of loyalty to anyone. Not even if it was to, say, a hypothetical someone who happened to be both my best friend and hero of the wizarding world. I protect my family because I love them. I’ll stand by my friends for the same reason, and because I respect the people that they are. If that respect is ever lost, if…”

Her throat felt dry. Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes for a moment as she pulled herself together.

“If any one of them suddenly became a dark lord or dark lady, trust me, I’ll be the first to go after them.”

At the very least, I need to hear the explanation from their own lips. And she wanted to see their apparent evil and destruction personally, to allow no room for her doubt or love to drag her feet.

She saw curiosity flaring up in his eyes, his attention completely on her.

“Even if they’re your friends?”

She bit her lip. “I hope it never comes to that, but yes.”

Harry was the one who’d asked her about it, actually. She wasn’t actually surprised that the memory was seared into her mind stronger than other details about her own life.

(“If there’s ever a dark artefact that takes over the soul and turns me into some sort of a monster, promise me that you’ll take me out, Hermione.

"You’re the only one who I know can do it and would actually do it.”)

“This would be simpler if I were to just kill you,” Tom broke the silence. His slight sigh passed for other people’s irritated looks.

She chuckled with relief, because she didn’t want to even try to remember what made Harry said that. Something ominous hung in the back of her mind; a burning night sky, grass the colour of blood. Even if she couldn’t remember a thing about it beyond the weird flashes of images and Harry’s words, there was a sense of uneasiness blanketing everything associated with that event.

Tom had just given her a convenient distraction.

“Well, it would also be easier if I choose to just to kill you and act on it. Yet a life worth living isn’t made of easy choices.”

It was the strangest thing; Hermione felt more drained by the conversation than the walk to the library. “Look, if you decide that you can’t trust me enough to let me advise you and be your friend, then walk away.”

“We’re not done yet.” His tone brooked no disagreement.

“Then make up your damned mind!”

His wand was against her throat in a flash, but hers was pointed right over his heart in a blink. Really, she’d gotten very good with the CPR spell—it came to her mind’s eye in a second. It is very unadvised to add an additional electric current to a heart that’s already working normally. One might just cause the cardiac muscles to seize up, after all.

And the Living Heart Spell was just one of many she had already come up with in the two seconds.

“Well, this is awkward,” Tom said, the smoothness of his voice at odds with his own words.

“No, this is just…what would a pureblood etiquette instructor call it? Ah, inconvenient. This is only a little inconvenience.” The chipper tone that she used was one she learned from Daphne whenever she had to herd stubborn wizards.

Tom seemed completely unconcerned by the threat she posed. Hermione was still slightly numbed by what little memory she could still recall and by the loss of a world that she feared she’d left behind permanently that she couldn’t care less about it. She hadn’t lied to him—she was still rather apathetic towards life and death right now, though she hoped it would improve with time.

“You have to understand my position. You’re a threat, Hermione.” He trailed his wand very delicately down her jugular, towards her clavicle. She cleared her throat. There was something unnerving about it to her, and not in the mortal danger sense.

“I’m not a threat to you, unless you make me.”

“Ah, but you’re a force of good, didn’t you say that? I’m sure you’d easily mark someone like me as not good, isn’t it? And then where would we be?” He sounded so reasonable. If only he wasn’t tapping the tip if his wand lightly against her collarbone.

He’d be a fantastic jazz singer, a completely random thought crossed her mind. That voice was made to croon.

“Yet what is good, what is evil?” She asked, quickly pulling herself from that brain glitch.

Tom was staring at her with mild disbelief.

“Are we truly going to delve into ontology, right now?

“I don’t have that much patience for most philosophy either,” she answered, slowly shifting the arithmancy book on the table to support her right hand—she was going to cramp after five minutes if she had to keep her wand up all the time. It was still pressed right over his heart. “But you think I’m a threat precisely because you have an idea of what ‘good’ is like, and you feel you don’t fit them, and therefore I’d be opposed to you. Yet you didn’t even consider that my definition of ‘good’ might not actually be that similar with what you think ‘good’ is.”

“You did mention your aversion to killing and torturing.”

“Well, are you going to collect some number of young people to kill in a blood sacrifice to give you more power?” She bluntly asked. He actually thought over her question.

“Hmm, I don’t think I’ve read of any such rituals that don’t have a questionable success rate or side effects, so not yet, unfortunately.”

Hermione glared at him for baiting her, but said nothing. The innocence in his answering smile could shame a seraph, dark blue eyes glittering with humour. His wand was still at the base of her neck.

“Truly, Tom, if you want power, you're not someone who would even need to risk their souls, their very selves, with dodgy rituals.”

“But magic is such a potent source of power.” He idly mused.

“Not all risks are worth their rewards—there are other, less dangerous paths for someone of your intelligence. You could be king of all wizarding world for all I care as long as you don’t start with the senseless killing, torturing and what have you.” She let out an annoyed sigh. “Look, can we just both bring our wands down? We can do it slowly if you like, but I’m getting a cramp.”

She didn’t have a cramp yet, but it was a pre-emptive move as she wasn’t looking to having one. He nodded, and Hermione lifted her wand slowly, moving it downwards. He followed suit. Both of their wands were on the table now. It probably only made for a second or two of difference if either of them decided to hex the other and started a fight right then and there, but it was certainly more comfortable.

“Yet we have a Minister of Magic, Hermione, unlike say, one of the magical German kingdoms, or one of the under-kingdoms of Italy.”

It was odd to remember that the sovereign borders in the magical world and the non-magical one did not always match until very recently, as the borders of nation states stabilised and the long arm of state bureaucracy reached everywhere, even the magical nations.

“A king in power does not always have to be a king in name,” was her answer to him.

“A king…really?”

His gaze was dark, mesmerising and she met him head on. Hermione didn’t even care if he picked up slightly more than her surface thoughts, because her thoughts on it was that she really didn’t care. She was sure that her friends thought the same. What she wanted was for the Aurors to have the budget they needed to keep themselves in fighting fit and be able to take on the people aspiring to be dark lords (unlike say, Fudge’s gutting of the corps). She wanted the Wizengamot to be monitored enough to ensure there it could not be sabotaged and used to act as a kangaroo court like in Sirius’ case. She wanted the Unspeakables to not be ignored whenever they issued a warning about some esoteric branch of magic or some strange artefact. She wanted people’s complaints and dissatisfaction in the wizarding world to be heard and responded to by the Ministry…

Everything else after that was mostly details.

Your priorities change when you’ve been hunting wannabe dark lords for a while and see the sort of chaos they sow in society. She just wanted peace.

“A King, a Prime Minister, a Minister of Magic—all positions have their limits, and all that goes up can go down.” Hermione said this with ease.

She had walked in on Harry and Ron in the Potter family home once, wargaming a scenario where their teams actually had to take down a Minister of Magic that had become a dark lord’s puppet, along with a few other people they trusted from the Auror corps. She didn’t even blink when they froze up at her arrival, only asking them all what everyone wanted for lunch because she might as well order for everyone while she was at it. The only sign that she heard the relieved sighs going around the room was the slight upward quirk of her lips.

He did not reply to her immediately, only observing her for a while with that unreadable stare.

“Ah I see. You wanted to be a kingmaker.”

Hermione rubbed her face with her left hand, holding back a groan of frustration. Speaking of the one-track mind of many Slytherins about ambition… She lifted her head—she was about to say that she couldn’t care less about whether she had any position or not when she saw his expression was more thoughtful instead of the confident one she’d seen before. He might’ve made that erroneous conclusion some moments ago, but he could read the emotions clearly on her face and had revised his opinion immediately.

“You are a puzzle, Hermione.” He mused, his right hand lightly tapping the hilt of his wand. “And I don’t like riddles.”

His reply had more than one layer to it. She cracked a small grin at that.

“I’m really not. I’m just very different from most people you know that you need to adjust your assumptions—I assume most of the people around you are very ambitious Slytherins.”

“It would be a lie if you said that you have no ambition. You are driven in your foolishness.”

She nodded, acceding his point about her stubbornness, even if she knew that they had very different opinions as to what constitutes foolishness or not. He might think her having and maintaining her conscience is one, while she considered his splitting his soul to be just that.

“And so are you. Yet I don’t believe in destroying my rivals to get ahead or unnecessary violence.”

He tilted his head slightly to the left. “You believe that some violence is necessary.”

It was hard not to grimace at the ease he read between her lines, and she was sure that he noticed even the aborted twitch of her face. She sighed.

“If only it wasn’t so, but the world isn’t as nice as I wish it to be.”

The tension and wariness between them was not as high as it had been during their first confrontation, but she could feel that they hadn’t exactly bypassed the possibility of a fight yet. Their apparent ease right now was simply the canniness of two experienced predators, constantly watching each other for weaknesses, just in case the other decided to go for the jugular.

“I still don’t know you enough. You would not swear an oath to me, which would easily remove any doubt that I may have. You believe in the meddling force of Good, from which I’ve actually seen little good from.”

Hermione had to suppress the reflex to defend that just because he didn’t have a good experience with Dumbledore meant he had to paint everyone else who wanted to preserve what goodness still exist in the world with the same brush. She had to admit that at least they were still talking instead of fighting.

“If you’d let me peel back your surface appearance with judicious use of pain, so I can see who you are underneath the shell of civilisation, I would’ve trusted you more.”

She sniffed. “Well I think it’s an overly expensive price for me to pay for something with a shoddy return policy.”

“Do you know just how much more sensitive the hands are compared to most other surface of the body? I’ve just read about how many nerve endings they have, the reason why our sense of touch there is very acute. It’s interesting. No wonder there are so many methods of torture that applies to the hands. It’s hard not to appreciate the elegance of whoever came up with driving needles under the nails—such exquisite pain. Of course, the downside of such physical torture is that you are also destroying the body as you do it, possibly also destroying the nerves and making it hurt less the next time you try it again.”

The young witch didn’t bother hiding her wince, or the glare she sent him. She had a feeling that she was going to regret telling him that mere threats were nothing as long as neither of them actually tried to kill the other. Hermione was starting to sympathise with the criminal psychologists whose books she’d read, especially those who had to interview more than one psychopath in maximum security prisons again and again to build their set of criminal profiles.

“Ha, ha. You’re currently not very amusing at all, Tom.”

“Are you withdrawing your offer to assist me?” He leaned forward slightly. The grace in his movements, the efficiency of his actions didn’t change. He reminded her of a lounging panther.

“If you do accept my offer in good faith—and none of this talk of oaths to you or paying a blood price—I’d do it. Right now.” Hermione answered. She’d known that doing the right thing would not always be easy. “It doesn’t mean I won’t just walk away for the moment if you’re being an annoying arse like you currently are.”

“I’ve been customising the Cruciatus Curse to create a version that can localise the pain to select areas so as to not burn out and numb the nerves too fast.” He said, as remorseless and relentless as the rising tide. He was raising her hackles and she snapped back before she could think about it.

“You could try casting that at me, and I’ll show you just how many medical spells can easily inflict harm as they can heal. You wouldn’t want me to cut out a section of your colon from the rest and leave it inside to rot you from the gut out.” That was a spell to take out a damaged section while automatically reconnecting the remaining ones together. She just skipped the logical next step of casting another spell to take the cut piece out of the body. Hermione regretted the threat the moment she’d said it because it was a nasty and painful way to die, and she’d never wish that on anyone.

Pieces of memories pass by her mind in seconds. (The black kneazle Othello gave a warning growl to the new white cat that had just scratched her.)

Even with the too-sharp gaze that never left her, the threat actually earned her an impromptu smile from him, while the magic they’ve both gathered churned the air with volatile crackles as they buffeted each other.

“Ah, and here I was wondering whether you’d been underestimating me or not.”

Another memory fluttered by like an old photograph flying in a snowstorm. (Snowflake bared his canines at her and hissed, even when she was approaching him with a bowl of food. Othello was giving the new cat a dead-eyed stare, disliking this unwanted interloper to his mistress’ domain.)

“I could never underestimate you, burner of cities,” her answer was filled with exasperation. He was…satisfied? It boggled her mind. Why on earth should he be satisfied with what she said?

“Yet you’re still reckless in your lack of fear that I can’t help but think that a lesson or three in pain might not be amiss.”

Other people might say it like a threat. To Tom Riddle, it was merely an observation of the same tone as ‘excuse me, your shoelaces are untied’.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to decline the offer,” she replied sarcastically.

“If you would not show me what makes your mind tick, I’ll have to take you apart myself.” He warned.

The threat of violence roiled the invisible nimbus of magic that had gathered around himself, and she was almost tempted to strike first just to dissipate the discomfiting charge that had built up around both of them. Perhaps they’d get their duel after all and it would finally end this uncomfortable détente.

“You could always walk away.” She said this as calm as she could manage when she had to push out the words between gritted teeth.

“Only a fool leaves their back open to a strike by a known threat.”

(Snowflake bit her hand when she placed the food bowl a little too close to him before he ran away. He growled at her from a safe distance.)

“I’m not going to backstab you for no good reason! I’ve told you that already.” She snapped, annoyed both at him and her glitching memories.

“As they say in Slytherin, it costs nothing to speak with a forked tongue.”

Hermione was beginning to think that she’d needed a break to also sort through the annoying images she kept seeing of Snowflake, of all things, that would not quit when a flash of insight illuminated her mind. Tom’s words had been the last piece of the puzzle. Her brown eyes widened.

Fear.

It was very easy to channel fear to aggression. It would ease your own fears to attack first instead of waiting warily for an attack that may or may not come. It was also one of the oldest reason that groups of humans warred against each other—the apparent threat the other poses, regardless of whether or not that threat was real or merely imagined. Fear was an extraordinary spur that can drive species to migrate, for mothers to fight back ferociously against predators to as they fear the death of their young. There were good odds that it was one of the oldest emotions from the first creature that swam in the oceans, as it was the foundation of any species’ survival.

(Snowflake’s fur was half-standing the first time she entered his cage at the shelter, all-too-ready to fight).

He had more in common with her ex-feral cats than she’d realised, and her subconscious had been trying to tell her something. She unsettled him—she was not an average Hogwarts student who would either accept his charms at face value or buckle under his intimidation, and he knew that her skills were far from mediocre that he couldn’t ignore her. Tom bared his fangs at her because he considered her a threat. Hermione had the weirdest urge to extend an open palm slowly in his direction to show that she meant no harm, and oh-so-gently pat his cheek.

“Oh my God,” she blurted out, “I can’t believe some part of you is cute.”

She clapped her hands to her mouth. Hermione turned beet red at the verbal vomit she just did, intensely mortified. The gathering magic between the two of them collapsed immediately between her embarrassment and his bafflement. She was sure that none of the people in his house had seen him at such loss for words. Instead of mortal peril, there was this weird awkwardness rising and she was desperately wishing that the threats against her life was back.

Yes, really, she would like to duel him right there, right now, even with a partially-recovered body that might mean there’s larger odds than winning a coin toss that she’d be the one dead—

“Did you just say—”

“I mean, I can’t believe your fans, um, admirers would think you’re cute. They’d have been very disappointed if they can see you for who you are right now!” She spoke rapidly.

From the way he was still staring at her with the uncertainty of a man who just saw a flying unicorn stop right in front of him in broad daylight, she had her doubts on how much he bought her insistence that he didn’t hear what he thought he heard.

“My…admirers.” He said, slowly. To her eternal regret, he’d suddenly recovered his common sense and was clearly unwilling to fulfil her strongest wish to fight right there and then.

“Yes. Your admirers.” Hermione firmly insisted.

“How would you even know I have any? You haven’t even attended any classes.”

She bit her lip before she answered with, ‘I’m sick, not blind.’

“Witches have a sixth sense about these things, don’t you know?” she said instead, hoping to hell and back that her know-it-all tone would’ve stopped any argument short. He only nodded slowly instead.

“Of course,” he replied, and she didn’t miss his disbelief.

“I need some fresh air. It’s too easy to deplete the oxygen levels in closed spaces like this.” Hermione said all this at the same time that she stood up. Tom stood up at the same time.

“And I’m sure that none of the Founders could even come up with a decent Circulation Charm to cast here. Such a terrible shame. Would someone please think of the fainting ladies.” his reply was droll. She pretended not to notice his sarcasm at all.

“Do you think Professor Slughorn wouldn’t mind if I asked him for two of his potion bottles? I promised Nurse Edelstein that I’d show her how a thermos works. It’s a good idea to help preserve potions that would keep better at certain temperatures without having to carry a list of a hundred warming and cooling charms and constantly checking which ones react badly to certain ingredients in the potions.”

He offered her his arm again the moment she was about to walk out. She stared blankly for a few moments before shaking her head and taking it.

They walked out arm-in-arm, the very picture of amiability and courtesy to any student.

Tom let her prattle on about thermoses, vacuum, and the transference of heat (energy) through radiation and how it was much slower than conduction or convection. They made their way out of the carrel and into the library while she had fully entered into her lecture mode that usually earned familiar groans from her friends. From the side-glances he kept sending her when he thought she wasn’t looking, both pondering and perplexed, she knew that he hadn’t forgotten about her careless comment in the slightest.

She just hoped it wouldn’t come back and bit her in the backside later.

‘-

Tom did not only escort her all the way to the Potions labs once more, he actually told Slughorn about just why exactly Hermione needed two potion bottles of different sizes and commended her on her brilliant idea of how to preserve certain potions at close to their optimum temperature without resorting to possibly-contaminating magic. The Slytherin easily ignored the confused and suspicious look she was sending him at his inadvertent promotion and compliment.

Slughorn turned his bright eyes on Hermione, giddy with excitement.

“Truly, Hermione? This is fascinating! Are you sure the muggles actually managed to make this work?”

“Hermione can tell you about the details.” Tom said, putting her under the spotlight immediately as he turned to the witch next. “I’m sure you can take the time to recover your strength while you delve into the philosophy of radiation?”

The words ‘recover your strength’ sent Slughorn on a fit of excessive worry and concern as he ushered her to the plushest armchair he had in his office, sprinted off to retrieve a cosy quilted blanket and a pile of pillows before he started barking orders for ‘tea and biccies’ to Tom—the prefect had already seen it coming and had put the kettle on the moment Slughorn sprang into action and was now laying out the potion master’s china tea set (he’d been here so often he knew the location of many things in the cupboard). All of this made her blush and sent annoyed glares in his direction.

Tom, of course, was unrepentant.

“Really, half an hour or so of sitting would not affect your plans for the day, much, isn’t it? Besides, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid actually fainting. Nurse Edelstein is going to hang me otherwise.”

“Yes, yes. Very prudent of you, Tom.” Slughorn agreed.

There was no way Hermione could get out from his quarters sooner than half an hour now. Seeing the potion master’s concern, she finally relented to staying put with an explosive sigh. It didn’t stop her from sending vexed looks in the prefect’s direction that clearly said ‘this is all your fault’.

Tom acted as if he hadn’t noticed that at all while inwardly smirking. It was not long before the kettle boiled and he carried a full tea tray to the table.

“Only two cups, Tom?” Slughorn asked.

“I’ve just remembered that there’s the Advanced Charms study group that I need to at least drop in for a while today. It wouldn’t take me long, Professor. I’ll be back before you know it to escort Hermione around once more.”

“But you’ll miss my explanation,” Hermione started.

He shook his head. “I’m sure you’ll demonstrate exactly the same thing with Madam Edelstein, wouldn’t you? I can listen to you just then. I do have other things to manage.”

She grumped, but knew that she couldn’t exactly argue against all the points he had made even if she hadn’t stopped with her suspicious looks. With that, Tom left them both to it.

He had an entire board to set up.

‘-

A little rummaging into his bag gave Tom an old letter-opener with the Nott family crest embossed on the hilt. He used it as the link in the sympathetic locator spell to find its last owner.

‘-

Melchior Nott was sitting at one of the library’s reading and studying areas when his liege lord in all but name found him. Melchior might not have known it, but he was doing more-or-less what Tom had predicted him to do—he was working on his Advanced Charms essay when the other Slytherin had arrived.

Like the titans of literature, the Alexanders Pushkin and Dumas (father and son), Melchior could trace a part of his ancestry to the children of the African continent—in his case, it was mostly the progeny of Witch-Kings who experienced such strong wanderlust to explore Europe and ended up marrying into the magical families there when they settled down. It gave him a warm and lively complexion even after spending all these years under the clouded Scottish skies, unlike the ghostly pallor of day-old squid that some of his peers had—the Malfoy heir came to mind, as did the even more unfortunate scion of the Pendleton family.

“Melchior. Just the person I was looking for.”

He looked up in surprise at the unexpected visit. “Morning, Tom. I thought you had other plans for today?”

“I do. I merely happen to have some time to chat, that’s all.”

Melchior did not express further disbelief that Tom happened to meet him in his spare time today, and simply waited for some sort of command or request that he knew was coming.

“Well, do take a seat and stay around for as long as you wish.” Tom would have stayed regardless of what he said, but really, he was a pureblood. Politeness made the gentleman.

“Thank you.”

He turned his chair slightly towards Tom. “So, what brings you my humble presence?”

Tom placed several trinkets on the table. Melchior recognised all of them—a key with the insignia of the Malfoy family on its head, a small measuring beaker with the Starkey family crest embossed on the side, Gallus Rosier’s favourite fountain pen, a finicky technological marvel (well, before Tom asked for it), as well as several others. These were the personal items of many of the Walpurgis Knights.

“Locate as many of them as you can, but no less than two. Borrow the librarian’s fireplace to floo to the Slytherin dorms, and if they’re not there, use a locator spell to find them. You have ten minutes.”

Melchior would’ve asked what this emergency meeting was about if he didn’t know that Tom was completely serious when he said that he only had ten minutes. He was not an ignorant greenhorn anymore and he wasn’t looking forward to finding out what will happen if he failed. Melchior simply swept the trinkets into his bag and nodded.

“Of course.”

‘-

“Tom!”

When Tom returned to the Potion Master’s quarters (right next to the potion labs), Hermione gave him a look that was equal parts annoyed and relieved. It was as inexplicable as it was amusing, and he didn’t bother to hide his thoughts on it even if it meant that her glare was getting more pointed.

“Yes, Hermione?” He asked.

“Weren’t you about to show me the rest of Hogwarts?

“But surely, there’s no need to rush,” Slughorn cajoled, and Hermione’s smile was turning increasingly plastic on her face as she started to make her excuses. Tom assisted her this time, simply because it served his interests too.

“Ah, but the sooner we’re done, the sooner she can return to the infirmary. I’m afraid that despite seeming to the contrary, she’s not fully recovered yet.” The Slytherin prefect said.

“Then a little more rest wouldn’t be amiss, don’t you think?” The professor wondered with not a little concern in his tone. His bushy eyebrows were lowered in thought.

It has to be said that Slughorn’s consideration and care was actually rather genuine, and not just by Slytherin standards. On the other hand, it made extricating themselves from his hospitality to require their combined efforts as the conversation continued for a while. At one point, Hermione outright offered her hand in his direction, a wordless request that Tom answered by pulling her up easily even when she leaned her weight against his arm for support.

“Really, I’ve taken too much of your time, Professor. I’m sure there are other students you’d wish to see, articles and books you want to read…” Hermione started.

It seemed that she’d decided to just make her getaway while fast-talking Slughorn than be stuck here for yet another half an hour.

Hermione stumbled against him and he had stopped himself from stiffening, forcing himself to relax. She was still frail and certainly not a risk to him, but the contact felt alien (a part of him still reflexively categorised it as threat). He’d never voluntarily let people touch him before. It was not as if he was unaware that he would need to habituate himself to personal contact now—not impossible, merely inconvenient. She glanced up with a puzzled look on her face that he ignored in favour of facing Slughorn.

“Thank you for your time, Professor. I hope you have a good day.”

‘-

Even if he had not known much about Hermione Curie, Tom can conclude that she did face the terrible dangers that her current injury only alluded to, and it was more than a few rare times.

For all that she’d said she saw his future self as a dark lord, she did not seem to display any sort of wariness towards him. Courtesy dictates that he lent her his arm and always try to support her, but there was really no need for her to frankly accept it within a second and keep relying on him like some overly-trusting Hufflepuff. Tom might just decide to throw her over the bannisters near a stair’s landing, for one, or use his left arm to restrain her while his right cast something deadly. Not that he intended to do so (why? What could he possibly gain from doing that?), yet the possibility still stands.

It was only the speed that she’d pointed her wand at his heart in the library that convinced him that she was not careless. The witch simply had that much trust in her own reflexes and had gone through enough similar situations that she did not regard her current situation to be in any way extraordinary. Hence her current ease in walking arm-in-arm with a probable dark lord.

A part of him was vexed that she could even consider him safe to some degree.

“What was the future like, if you’ve seen it?”

“You have to be more specific,” she replied. “I’ve seen it too often that I’ve taken for granted things that might have been extraordinary to others.”

“Have we gone 20,000 leagues under the sea?”

She chuckled. There was unexpected joy in it that surprised him. “I can’t imagine you ever agreeing to be ‘Captain Nobody’. You would’ve taken a more bombastic pseudonym if you could help it. Well, let’s see… Mariana Trench is the deepest place on earth at around eleven thousand metres. Even if we assume that one league is one kilometres—and I know it’s at least twice than that—that’s barely eleven leagues.”

“Not as fantastic as it sounds, then.” He mused.

“Oh, it is fantastic. The sort of life that evolves under immense pressures there is practically alien to us surface-dwellers—if bones are only going to get pulverised under hundreds of tonnes of water, why bother with hard and brittle bones at all? That’s one evolutionary path that many creatures take. Others make their bones light, only to serve as the framework for their organs.”

Her brown eyes sparkled with excitement as she spoke, her left hand becoming animated as she described the strange dwellers of the bottom of the sea beyond even the abyssal depths.

“It’s so dark, the food scarce and the fishes sparse that in several species of anglerfish, the male and female fused together after they first met! All because the odds are low that they’d see other fish from the same species and the opposite gender throughout their lifetime. His skin dissolved and his veins and circulatory system truly linked up to hers and he can even take food and pass his waste products. The female now hunts for both of them while the male is practically her boytoy. Get this, in some species, the females even collect males. It makes sense if you know that in these species, the she’s several times larger than he is.”

If she had expected him to be stunned, she was mistaken. The sexual life of other people (or other species, in this case) was something he barely batted an eyelash at. On the other hand, he had to admit that it was morbidly fascinating.

“That explains the clinginess of one of Abraxas’ ex-girlfriends. Uncertain of her future mating prospects in the abyssal backwardness of her family’s country estate, she’d rather fuse with him.” He added wryly.

It startled her into a laugh.

“Well, aren’t you wondering about whether we’ve reached the centre of the earth or managed flying machines?” Hermione asked back.

“Have we?”

Hermione snorted, apparently unconcerned that it was a markedly inelegant move. “Unfortunately, once you dig beyond the earth’s crust and you’re immediately faced with the magma of the earth’s mantle. Airplanes can carry up to a thousand or so passengers for intercontinental travel, and hundreds of them criss-cross the globe at an average day. The personal flying machine is still nowhere in sight—the magical world is still ahead of the non-magical one in this case.”

“How mundane.”

“Well, at least there are no Martian invaders either.” She finished, noticing that his lips quirked as she said that.

“How about the less fantastic things, then. Let’s see…was there a surprisingly competent and politically savvy Minister of Magic?”

“In your dreams.” She said, not missing a beat. “And only if you were actually high on hallucinogens.”

He nodded sagely. “The perpetuity of death, taxes and incompetent politicians.”

“Or perhaps it needs actual interference to change.” Hermione answered, betraying her convictions and intent in that one sentence.

He noted it down carefully. He had yet to see where her ambition is directed to (he can scarcely believe a young witch, one as accomplished as she was, did not have any), but it occurred to him just now that she might be the type to champion causes.

“Is there a rise of Britain’s wizarding world as a beacon of progress to Europe?” He asked.

“Ha! As if. Men would land on the moon first.” She replied. She did not even notice his sceptical expression as realisation washed through her. “Oh my, I almost forgot the moon landing! Damn. If only I can remember the precise time. I think it was around the sixties, though I’m sure it’s not too early. I think I’ll watch the rockets take off from Cape Canaveral—hmm, it was Cape Canaveral, wasn’t it? Never mind, I don't think it would be that hard to check…”

Tom almost blurted out that it was impossible, but he saw that she wouldn’t have cared the slightest. Lost in her own musings and future events that had yet to come to pass, this was not an act that she was putting up for him. She truly was planning on being at the critical places for the moon landing she could apparently see, one that she seemed certain was a non-magical effort than a magical one.

The implication galled him. Yet it was one of the most disarming things about her; she did not tailor her opinions to his preference, and he suspected she did not do it for anyone else either.

“Surely if you’ve managed to remove an immensely influential and powerful dark lord, it meant that you have managed to unify an astounding number of people and power?”

This time, her grin was stained with bitterness and self-mockery.

“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Oddly enough, it wasn’t even aimed at him, it was more for herself. “War takes its toll, Tom, especially in a society as small as the wizarding world—do you really not know how many non-magicals are out there? Never mind that for now, I’ll need to check out the exact numbers first, anyway.”

He heard her take a deep breath 

“It’s not just the deaths that are the most visible costs, even less visible is the progress, the ideas that those dead people could have contributed. How much change could they have made, how many new things built, if they were not dead?” 

He half-expected her to be in tears, but her eyes were dry. The bone-deep tiredness in her words were unmistakable, though. Perhaps the only reason why she did not break down was because she’d thought over it for too often and now she had no more tears to spend.

“The last great war in Europe made people speak of ‘the lost generation’. Well, I’ll tell you right now that that’s what my generation looked like in that future. Scores of classmates gone: the cunning ones would’ve ditched England altogether the moment everything went to hell, the unlucky ones got stuck in the middle of the conflict and ended up dead. Now, the idealistic ones—the best, the brightest—are the first into the meat grinder. We were that lost generation. Even once the mad version of you was dead, well…”

Her laughter was hollow.

“Victory? What victory? It was all rather pyrrhic from what I can see.”

She smiled at him. He would not admit even under pain of torture that there was something unsettling about it.

“And you know what? That was a better outcome, where ‘good’ won. At least we’re not outright burning things down like the madman that you could become. I suspect the world wouldn’t even last in that particular possible future.”

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Eight Photoset

08 Agreements: Trust or Lack Thereof II

There was something rather bizarre in having Tom Riddle escort her around Hogwarts.

It was particularly pronounced when he steered her towards the quidditch benches (he had just given her a brief tour of the quidditch pitch), not that either of them cared about which house or houses were currently using the pitch to practice. They weren’t sitting among empty benches to make it obvious that they weren’t there to watch, and therefore instantly gaining the curiosity of everyone else (like those two seventh-years shamelessly making out). Yet they were not close enough to the rowdy crowd of (mostly) wizards watching that Tom had to introduce her to anyone either. She had to admire his social finesse—he gauged the right distance perfectly.

From the green-and-silver scarves, she figured that it was the Slytherin team that had the pitch right now. The rowdiness and the yells about scores so far didn’t sound as if they were talking about the Slytherin team’s practice at all, though—it sounded as if they were talking about an actual, proper game that was ongoing somewhere.

Somebody probably carried a Wizarding Wireless, she thought.

Tom took a moment off somewhere. When he returned, he came with two waffle-bowls with a square of banded ice cream cake and handed it to her. He didn’t say a word on just how he procured them.

“Eat.”

“Um, what?”

“I saw you ate ice cream more than once in the infirmary, so I’m certain you’re not averse to it.”

“Well, no, but…”

His reply was blunt. “You were starting to mope again. It’s rather tiring.”

“I wasn’t moping!” She insisted, but she did start spooning the ice cream with another wedge of ingeniously-shaped waffle that functioned as edible spoon.

“I don’t need to start worrying that you’d be tempted jumping from balconies and open windows once we start going around the towers.”

“How nice of you to worry!” Hermione jabbed back, all saccharine sweetness and annoyance.

“If you wish to do that, do it when I’m far away from you,” he said easily. “That way I won’t be on the list of suspects.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. She should’ve guessed.

The vanilla, chocolate, pistachio and cherry flavoured ice creams were delicious. The colourful stripes were also cheery to see, improving her mood slightly.

“Ha, ha. I’m not suicidal, Riddle,” she grumped even as she spooned more ice cream. “Just morose.”

The brunette mused that she really shouldn’t be surprised that the wizarding world was more cosmopolitan than the non-magical one. When continental travel is just a matter of throwing green powder into the fireplace and stepping in, migration becomes that much easier too. Some enterprising wizard or witch from Italy had probably started spreading the classic Neapolitan ice cream to Britain. The occasional surprised and happy noises she made was enough to make him send the occasional weird look, which she couldn’t care less about. He was right, ice cream was a good idea.

Tom had asked about more mundane things that she’d ‘seen’ in the future, and their conversation was a lot more casual from that point.

(“Did the wizarding world ever become less fanatical about this stupid broom sport?”
Hermione grinned. “Quidditch? Guess again. You should see the international attendance for the last World Cup I remember.”
“Oh for Merlin’s sake.” He cursed and she snorted a laughter at his annoyance, but it was good-natured. She could sympathise, really.)

She supposed it was only natural to be curious about the future, but he didn’t even start asking about how she fought his mad future self. It was rather unnerving as she couldn’t help wonder where all these questions were leading to. Did he really needed to know of all the shops she’d seen in Diagon Alley? Or if the Ministry of Magic was still located in the same place? It was only that her curiosity overpowered her vexation that she followed all his seemingly unrelated questions.

There was a reason to his randomness, she was sure. It’s just that she couldn’t see it yet.

The wind that blew still had vestigial summer warmth, but she shivered all the same. Hermione chalked it up to her reduced constitution, but even the knowledge didn’t affect her body’s drive to keep warm as she rubbed her elbows.

What she hadn’t expected was the casual way he draped his jacket over her shoulders. It was still warm from his body heat—the satin lining sliding smoothly over her skin, the shadow of an embrace. She caught a hint of oak with the faint traces of his cologne. The next thing Hermione did was to pinch the bridge of her nose before she started taking a deeper breath trying to identify the scents (and was that really the only thing she was doing?)

The other thing she wanted to prevent was the urge to bang her head on the nearest bench because she wasn’t prepared for a second puberty and the distraction (headache, definitely headache) that it would bring. At all.

When the brunette turned to him, she was still rubbing her forehead.

“What’s this for?” She shrugged awkwardly to refer to the article of clothing currently on her.

“You need it more than I do.”

Her glare only amused him. It wasn’t the answer she was looking for and she had a feeling that he was too good at giving answers that were not. She was not childish enough to toss it back in his direction in a fit of pique—she wouldn’t even pretend she was in the best of health yet. She really should’ve remembered to wear the serge jacket Nurse Edelstein found in the lost and found section and had refitted for her, given that a tour of the entire Hogwarts couldn’t possibly stay completely indoors. Hermione couldn’t tell whether the heat on her face was embarrassment or irritation.

Probably both.

Her unamused expression met his. They might have stayed like that for a while if there hadn’t been a ruckus among the quidditch audience not far from them. Voices were being raised. Hermione saw the way heads turned in the crowd, the movement focused in a particular direction—some unwanted visitors, she suspected. Some had started to break away. A few others, she saw, headed in their direction. Tom sighed as he stood up.

“Excuse me for a while. If I don’t see to them right now, they’d disturb our peace unnecessarily.”

“Of course.” She nodded.

What else would she say? It wasn’t as if she was looking forward to having the rest of Hogwarts intrude on her when she was still recovering. Staying low suited her right now.

The brunette witch was unsurprised by the way the wizards seemed glad to see Tom as he met them halfway. Two had started speaking over each other. The third shushed them after a while and took over the telling what their problem was. She might not be able to hear their words at this distance, but she could see their body language. All of them looked up at him, the tableau reminiscent of petitioners before their king in medieval paintings. Each was hanging on to his reply.

When Tom walked in the direction of the commotion, they all unconsciously fell in line behind him.

She did not have much time to muse on just what sort of influence he had when she heard footsteps approaching her from the other direction. The wizard didn’t falter when he saw her staring, he only nodded and quickened his steps. Even for a young man, he seemed rather gaunt. Add his solemn expression on top of that and he could easily pass as someone older. His Ravenclaw scarf told her of his House affiliation.

“Hello.” Hermione randomly greeted him.

He introduced himself at a rather hurried pace after he gave an obligatory apology for intruding. His name was Jan Verrault and he was a sixth-year prefect. He had guessed that she was the new transfer student, even if he hadn’t known her exact name until she told him.

“We don’t have enough time,” he said, voice heavy with portents. “We can talk further someplace else, but it’s more important to leave right now.”

“I’m sorry?” She blurted.

He sat some distance away from her and leaned forward.

“Come with me. The wizard you’re with is not who he seems.”

Hermione snorted, but managed to bite her lip before she said anything too incriminating. No shit, Sherlock. She decided to ignore the weird invitation and focus on the second part. “You’re talking about Tom Riddle, right?”

Yes.” He had a most forbidding frown, especially when it didn’t seem like she was going to budge anytime soon. Add his rather beak-like nose, and he gave the impression of a disagreeable vulture.

“I’ll be fine. I know more about him than most people.” She replied.

That only seemed to frustrate the other prefect further as he sent furtive glances in the direction of the large group of Slytherins not far from them, which seemed to still be in the middle of some sort of argument. His prefect pin gleamed under the sun from the lapels of his jacket.

“He’s not—he fools everyone with how he looks. Don’t get taken by his charm.” His words were tinged with frustration.

Hermione sighed. “Tom Riddle is not exactly the nicest person around. I know that. It doesn’t mean he’s not competent—believe me, I was surprised about that too.”

Jan Verrault relented when she shook her head yet again at his offer to take her away from here. He started to speak up.

“I first found traces of his crimes when he was in his first year and I have not given up trying to find enough evidence to bring him to task to the headmaster. If only you’ve heard about the things he’d done…he should’ve been expelled. But he’s always been one step ahead of me.”

Well, that was a rather unusual degree of dedication, she thought.

“Sooner or later he’ll harm you.” Verrault said.

She couldn’t help but chuckle even as she slipped her arms into Tom’s jacket to wear it properly. She might as well. “Oh, that’s merely one possibility out of many, Mr. Verrault. I did tell him that if he ever truly tries to kill me, I’ll kill him. I can take him out even if it would cost me my own life, and I know he’s starting to get a feel for the extent of my abilities to understand this. He loves living more than I do, so it’s not as if he’d try that out anytime soon.”

“As you can see, I’m as safe as anyone can be in these times of war.” Hermione finished with an upbeat note.

Whatever he had thought she would say, it was clear that it was not that. He’d started a sentence only halfway before abandoning it altogether, and then settling back to staring at her yet again.

“He threatened to kill you?” He asked, frowning. “We’ll have to report this to the headmaster.”

She shook her head. “That wouldn’t do. I threatened to kill him too, so we’re actually even right now.”

“You’re only defending yourself—”

Hermione couldn’t help her bark of laughter. Did he just skipped over the part of where she was sure she could take Tom out at the cost of her own life? “And he’s also only defending himself. It’s a chicken and egg problem. If you see a threat, would you stand by and let it loom over you, or would you move first and try to confront it before it did? Wouldn’t that also be self-defence, in a way?”

Her question confounded him because he hadn’t expected it. Hermione’s wand was in her hand with the lightest flick. She tapped his neck with it in a second and smiled, before slipping it back to its holster.

“There. As you can see, I could’ve blasted you apart in that moment. Not that I will, just that I can. Tom can’t understand my restraint at the beginning, so all he could see is a threat.”

She had a feeling that Verrault might have expected to find a damsel in distress only to find a tiger.

“We’re currently working to an understanding, Tom and I.” Hermione said. “Thank you for the warning, but you truly don’t need to worry about me.”

Verrault still seemed dissatisfied.

“He’s not a good man.”

“I don’t need him to be good. I just need him to not be evil.” She replied, pragmatic.

“You don’t know what he’s done. You can’t possibly be thinking of joining his side—”

“I am my own side.” Hermione snapped.

Whatever his reply was, she never heard it, because a smooth voice pulled both of their attention away.

“Now, now, Verrault, what did you say to bother the lady so?”

She saw Verrault tensing, his entire body preparing for a confrontation. Tom had walked back unnoticed in the middle of their intense exchange. He dropped himself to sit on Hermione’s left, all solicitousness when he turned to her.

“Are you alright?”

“I was just telling him that I’m fine. We’re fine.”

We’re fine?”

Hermione shrugged. “Oh, you know. You’ve threatened my life and I’ve threatened yours. We’re even. It’s really no big deal at this point. Verrault is too worried about nothing.”

Amusement lit his eyes as he gazed at Verrault and then back at her again with interest.

“You were correcting his mistaken assumptions, I assume?” Tom asked.

“Of course, since he misunderstood the situation.” The brunette said this while meeting the eyes of the other Ravenclaw, who was now clenching his jaw because he had to tolerate the presence of someone he probably considered as an outright blackguard. Hermione couldn’t even blame his discomfort because it wasn’t as if she thought he was wrong.

She sighed. “Would it help if I assure you that I’m always ready to hear any of your concerns later? You can find me and we can talk about it and I’ll listen and assuage your worries the best I can.”

He was still entirely too serious and wary that one might suspect that she’d just informed him of some death in the family than actually trying to make him feel better. Verrault shook his head.

“It would not really matter. You would have fallen under his influence by then.”

Hermione huffed and gazed heavenward. And here she thought that the only ‘good’ person she needed to worry about was Dumbledore! “I am my own side.”

“Perhaps we need to clarify something.” Tom suddenly spoke up.

She hadn’t managed to reply in response to that when she saw that his wand had dropped into his hand, his gaze gleaming with intent. Hermione didn’t even need to think before hers was in her grasp. In the next second, he’d pointed his wand at her abdomen while hers was at his throat.

“As you can see, Verrault, she is not the slightest bit unaware. I think we’re both agreed that Hermione doesn’t need to be saved from anything, don’t you think? She can make up her own mind about keeping my company.”

Hermione turned her head slightly to be able to see the other Ravenclaw, but not so much that she lost sight of Tom—not when he had a wand out and aimed at her. The Slytherin did more or less the same thing. Verrault, she found, had only managed to procure his own wand some three seconds later than either of them, his eyes wide. Tom pulled his wand away and slipped it back down his sleeve (and into what she suspected was the holster there). Hermione did the same a moment later.

When Tom offered his hand at her, a charming smile on his face, Hermione couldn’t help but stare with a strange sense of displacement, as if she had woken up and found herself in an alien world.

In a way, that was true. She ended up placing her hand in his all the same after that incongruous moment, reminding herself that this was a different time and place. She’d given all the explanations she could give to the Ravenclaw prefect, hadn’t she? What else could be said for now?

“If you’ll excuse us, Hermione still has several other places to see, as I am currently her guide to Hogwarts. See you later, Verrault.” He bid the other prefect goodbye with a friendly greeting. She would not be surprised if he did it on purpose, for it only caused the other prefect’s expression to harden, as if carved from granite. Verrault’s reply was gruff.

“Riddle.”

“See you later, Verrault.” Hermione said, more restrained since she had things on her mind to distract her.

“You too, Curie.”

It was only some distance away, when they’ve both returned to the corridors of Hogwarts that she wasn’t so deep in thought anymore.

“You’re not worried?” She asked him. Indeed, he seemed to be in good humour.

“Of what?”

“That I actually told him about how things stand between us?”

“Not at all. That was actually wonderful. Who would believe it if he told anyone? Threats of murder, really? They would’ve thought him to be overstating the problem. Most would take it to mean that we’ve had our disagreements and we’ve worked on it.”

“Which is not even wrong, in a way,” her reply was dry. “Though I think the phrase ‘we’re working on it’ is more accurate.”

Hermione thought she’d glimpsed a smile from Tom out of all things, but perhaps she was imagining things. His expression was as calm and level as ever, even if his lightened mood is clear.

“Who is he, anyway?” She couldn’t help but ask.

“A wizard of a very suspicious nature, who had been skulking in my shadow since I was in first year. I could mention it when he was around, I suppose, but I’m considerate enough not to embarrass him in front of someone he was trying to befriend.” Tom said.

She couldn’t help but look at him askance. “You? Considerate?

“Oh, believe me, I was being nice. Back when I was a first-year, he declared loudly that I’ve killed someone based on just his own suspicion—there wasn’t even a dead body. He seems to think that we live in a gothic novel.”

Hermione let out a short, surprised laughter that discomfited her. “Oh, that’s not nice.”

Tom smirked. “Yet I’m not the one laughing at him just now. Admittedly, he does not let his imagination run away with him to that extent these days.”

She could feel her cheeks colouring and had no words to reply except to swat his arm at that.

They made the rounds to several corridors and classes. The brunette had no idea how he always knew a sitting place nearby whenever he thought she was starting to noticeably slow down (and she didn’t even notice her own fatigue that much). He could always find a place to sit, whether from the repurposed landing of some old servant stairway, an unoccupied and unlocked classroom, an open balcony with wooden seats or even the single rare and unexpected sitting room. His only answer was that it always pays to explore Hogwarts in your spare time.

One of these rarely-explored nooks even had a pretty rococo sofa whose pink-and-gold upholstery seems as bright as if they’d just been changed yesterday. She chalked it up to very regular application of preservation charms and dropped onto its plush surface with a contented sigh. Hermione leaned back without much thought of how messy her curls would be if there were trapped between the sofa’s back and her head. Tom sat next to her—not close enough to crowd her, and not farther enough for her to easily ignore his presence.

She suspected that the latter was more of her problem than his, to be honest.

“I was surprised that you didn’t befriend Verrault immediately.” He said.

“I would have liked that. As you can see, the one who had a problem with that is him, not me.”

She could feel his gaze on her but she didn’t turn around, content to stare on the large painting of a hunt across the hallway. The people were drawn at a distance and were small because of that, but she could almost hear the faint baying of the dogs that the people were trying to restrain even now.

“He could be a useful ally to you,” Tom made a casual comment.

“Really?” She was doubtful on that point.

“I don’t think I know anyone else from any house that is as determined to find evidence of my misconduct than him. He might be able to tell you about things I would be reluctant to tell.”

Hermione did turn to him then. Tom was down to his shirt now, since she was wearing his jacket. She couldn’t recall when was the last time she saw someone out of their Hogwarts uniform and wearing a tie when they weren’t preparing for a job interview. Yet it still suited him just fine. She remembered just now that even Jan Verrault wore a jacket that matched his trousers when he was out of his Hogwarts uniform. It’s a different time, Hermione.

“If I wanted to know you better, I’m sure you could tell me about anything I wanted to know better than someone else.”

“You do realise that my account would put myself in the best light, don’t you?” His question was wry. She was surprised that he had that much self-awareness.

It still disturbed her that there were noticeable differences between him and Voldemort.

Hermione shrugged after she’d gotten over her surprise. “We all think the best of ourselves—it’s only human to do so. That’s just something I need to keep in mind at all times and adjust for.”

Quietness fell over them; it was surprisingly not awkward and no one felt the urge to fill it with excessive words. If either of them noticed that it had none of the tension of their earlier argument in the library, neither said anything until Hermione felt she was ready to move again. Tom promptly stood up at her slightest movement to help her up.

(That she felt very flattered about it told her that, even if she can’t remember any of them, none of her boyfriends were ever this attentive).

'-

Hermione would be the first to say of how her years in Hogwarts taught her that all but the largest of the school’s corridors and stairways shifted according to the castle’s whim. That was why the more inquisitive Ravenclaws had devised a chart that determined where any corridor or stairs were according to the phases of the moon and other weird details, and these notes had been passed down to generations, with modifications and errata added as necessary*.

(*one such example can be found on the notes for the Northeast Spiral Stairs; changes follow schedule except on night with blue moon. Then, it would be close to where the Central Stairway is located**
**Except if it looks like it’s blue and made of Gorgonzola cheese. Use the position farthest from its predicted one in this case).

Predictably, most of the Gryffindors and a good half of the Hufflepuffs never considered it necessary to know the movements in such detail. As long as you know four ways to get to any particular place, you’ll get there. You just have to adjust according to which corridors and stairs were near to you at any given time.

Hermione would admit that even then, she didn’t expect to turn around a corner and find herself in a rather good simulation of a jungle. The muggy and warm air wrapped her face like a wet towel. The sound of insects filled the air while trees with creepers and vines could be seen to their right and left. The hair at the back of her neck stood.

“Um.” She said. She closed her mouth before she said how she expected this corridor to lead to the transfiguration classes’ corridor and it certainly doesn’t have indoor trees.

Tom tackled her down and rolled them to the side; instead of stone floor, her back fell against soft earth. The spot that they’ve been standing on before sprung upwards, and Hermione saw a net closing up. It wasn’t easy to spot with all the grass and fallen leaves covering it. When projectiles seem to come from her right, she rolled them over yet again and sent two Blasting Curse in retaliation, the explosive fireballs singed trees and burned leaves where it passes.

The brunette yelped and ducked when the first fireball swallowed an oncoming projectile and exploded. It didn’t take long for her to notice that it only splattered paint all over them as she sat up, and when some of it had dripped into her mouth, she noticed it was jam.

“Why cranberry?” She asked no one in particular, though Tom was looking at her peculiarly, even as he sat up. “Why not raspberry? I like raspberries.”

“Not that I mind where we are, but are we truly going to have this conversation here?”

His left hand was holding her elbow, but she merely raised an eyebrow at him. Hermione didn’t think that one spot in the jungle corridor was going to be any different than any other until she heard footsteps approaching them. Her wand arm whipped out against the new threat—Tom leaned back fast enough to avoid getting jabbed in the eye with her wand.

A redheaded wizard lifted both of his hands to show that he was unarmed, his eyebrows high on his forehead.

“Peace, lady! You’ve proven yourself well enough with the speed of your defence.”

“Hullo, Riddle.” Another redhead walked up few steps behind the first while looking around at their jam-spattered surroundings. “If we could trouble you to move from your very comfortable position, could you tell us how you noticed the net? We’ve gotten four people before you already—you’re the first we’ve missed.”

She noticed that they were twins as the stepped closer, their clothes identical even up to their bright red waistcoats. It was the brothers’ highly interested looks sent in their direction that made her realise she’d been sitting on Tom’s lap for a while, or that even if his expression was as placid as ever, he was not entirely unaffected. Hermione stood up as fast as she could without making it seem that she was hurriedly scrambling away. Tom stood up at a more leisurely pace and she made a point of not meeting his side glance.

“Ah, good morning Prewett, and Prewett.” He nodded to both of them in turn. “Allow me to introduce Hermione Curie, fifth-year transfer to Hogwarts and Ravenclaw. Hermione, this is Paul and Peter Prewett, sixth-year Gryffindors.”

The first twin (Paul?) accepted her proffered hand. To her surprise, he bowed over it instead of shaking it, a chagrined expression on his face. His brother followed suit quickly.

“Just when we found someone good at duelling and you’re not in Gryffindor!”

“Ah, sorry.” She rubbed the back of her neck only to wince when her left hand came out with more jam. Tom cast a cleaning charm over her that she noticed wasn’t Scourgify—it was something more obscure. On the plus side, it didn’t dry her hair excessively and cause it to frizz.

“Never mind my brother. We’re simply too glad that at least someone’s going to pull the standards of practical Defence class up.” Peter added.

He shot a look at Tom as he said this. Tom, for his part, looked too innocent to be true.

“I have no idea what you mean.” The Slytherin said.

“The first and only time you got caught in one of our obstacle courses, you didn’t even get hit!” The other twin (Paul?) complained.

“The fact that I have to clean jam off my robes spoke differently.”

“Merely excess splatter,” he dismissed Tom’s statement as his attention returned to Hermione in mock whisper. “Imagine our disappointment when we heard from Merrythought that he never duelled seriously in class. Never.

“Riddle? A mere dilettante? Say it ain’t so!” Peter looked appropriately horrified.

Paul shook his head sombrely. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, brother, but ‘tis true. Even our famously serious and scholarly student sought not to show the mediocre what superior spellwork and situational awareness in Defence Arts look like!”

His twin sighed. “As always, it comes down to us again to enlighten the masses, doesn’t it?”

“But we will prevail!”

As Paul raised one fist with determination into the air, like a man challenging the gods with his determination, Tom cleared his throat before Hermione could think about doing the same. And here she was wondering if she could slowly back away…

“Now, if you defence fanatics are done with the histrionics, we’ll just be on our way.” Tom said dryly.

Paul stood up straight and nodded to them as if he hadn’t just pulled weird faces a moment ago.

“Very well. It’s good to meet you, Curie.”

“Um, likewise?” Hermione answered, still slightly confused.

“Oh, and make sure you get him to fight you! And then tell us how it goes! Nobody has challenged Riddle enough for him to take it seriously that we don’t have enough records on his abilities.”

A quick glance in Tom’s direction and the supreme blandness of his gaze told her that he clearly preferred it that way.

The other twin cleared his throat. “Now, about that net trap, Riddle…”

“Your jam bombs fired too soon.” Tom answered.

“Too soon?”

“I could hear it launching from your mini-trebuchets. I was avoiding that, not the net itself.” He clarified as he finished cleaning himself and then offering his arm to Hermione once more. She took it gingerly, still staring at the twins in thought as Peter cursed and had already gone back to the net (to lower it back down, she suspected, and perhaps adjust whatever needed to be adjusted at the mini-trebuchets to stop launching too soon).

“Isn’t the caretaker going to complain about your…” she vaguely gestured to the impromptu jungle in the middle of the corridor.

“Castle improvements?” Peter asked as he brightened, cheeks ruddy with good health perhaps a little too much vim.

Mess.” Tom answered.

“Then it’s a good thing that we got Iggy to play distraction on the other side of the castle, isn’t it?” He said this with a wide grin promising such mischief that anyone who loved order and regularity would run and duck for cover at this point.

“That must be some favour,” Tom mused.

“Indeed.” His blue eyes twinkled but he said nothing more.

“See you, Prewett.”

“Why don’t you join our duelling club, Curie?” Peter asked even as she walked away.

“I don’t think Hermione has that much free time with nine advanced classes on schedule.” Tom replied without looking back.

“I’ll just see how my class schedule goes for now.” Hermione hollered as she waved at him.

As Tom followed a particular path among the bushes and undergrowth, avoiding traps that she didn’t always notice, she could hear Peter’s complaints in the background of how nine classes weren’t humanly possible to follow, what with the schedule only allowing five or six at the maximum. They both ducked as a swinging log made its way over their head.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Hermione murmured as Tom helped her up, ignoring his flat look at that statement. “Are your year mates always this weird?”

His reply was discreet. “The Prewett twins? They are always, hmm, so dedicated in improving the duelling skills of their peers by providing unexpected challenges.”

“They enjoy trapping unsuspecting passers-by, you mean?” She asked dryly.

“Hermione, I find it hard to believe that you would think so ill of such civic-minded and volunteering wizards!” He reproached.

She stared at him for three full seconds before bursting into laughter. His increasingly fake-sounding coughs that followed didn’t fool her the least.

It was with this odd camaraderie that they continued the last leg of the tour, albeit still faintly smelling of cranberries.

“You pushed me out of the way.” Tom noted as he’d finished showing her the transfiguration classrooms, particularly the one they’d be using this year.

“Excuse me?”

“When one of the Prewetts’ jam bombs came. You pushed me out of the way.”

“You did it first.” Hermione shrugged, before she realised what it meant and stared at him oddly. “Anyway, is it so odd for you? That’s what having a friend and partner is about, you know? To have someone watch your back for you as you watch theirs.”

She had been wandering around, familiarising herself with this place that was familiar and at the same time not, that she hadn’t noticed that Tom had stood still.

“A friend and a partner, is it?”

Hermione rolled her eyes as her hands trailed over desks whose surfaces have been worn smooth by countless hands through the centuries. “I did say that before, didn’t I? I’m not taking it back, in case that’s what you’re worried about.”

The next time she placed her hand in his, he kissed the back of it first before placing it over his arm and he ignored the exasperated sound she made at it.

'-

Melchior Nott has a good instinct for when discretion is the better part of valour. It was why when Tom sent him to find some of his peers, he knew that avoiding Abraxas Malfoy’s exuberant joy or Vespasian Starkey’s loud determination might be preferred. He found Gallus Rosier (whose preferred spot in the face of any conflict or battle can be described succinctly as ‘right behind that elephant-sized boulder’), and the pale and reserved Pendleton.

This was why when Tom had just finished eating lunch with Hermione in the infirmary, the three of them were waiting for him in the library’s studying area once again. The Slytherins may be out of their Hogwarts uniform right now, but under their robes, they were still immaculately dressed in suit jackets and ties. They stood up the moment he entered, and only sat down again after they’d exchanged vague greetings and Tom had taken his seat.

He stared at the Nott heir for a few seconds, watching Melchior’s fingers unconsciously tapping on the table as they waited. Tom allowed them to see his small smile.

“Good work, gentlemen.”

Melchior let out a relieved sigh while Gallus dropped his face into his hands, chuckling as the tension flowed out of him. Pendleton blinked slowly before he nodded his thanks.

“The Prewetts were booby-trapping the corridor leading to the transfigurations classrooms, then?” Gallus asked first. He disliked pressure the most among the Knights.

“You know they are. I would have given you a different answer if you had been wrong about the location of their current ambush area.” Tom replied. Gallus cleared his throat at that and lowered his head even as he fidgeted in his seat.

“I hope Verrault didn’t give you enough trouble…” Pendleton said. His concern was warranted, as he was the one who made sure he was overheard when he was talking about Tom’s plans today near one of Verrault’s friends.

“No, not at all. You know that I consider him a nuisance at most.” Tom answered.

“He’s still not someone I want to take up my time during weekends,” Melchior said. He nodded to acknowledge the other Slytherin’s point.

“Yes. Yet his presence is still, shall we say, necessary.”

This time, even the contentedly neutral Pendleton gave him a disbelieving look. It was Tom’s turn to chuckle.

“No, really. You know what they say, don’t you? A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

None of the Walpurgis Knights’ seemed to have any idea what Tom was about. Of course, Gallus had long resigned himself to hearing things that went completely over his head when he was in Tom’s vicinity. Melchior was clearly biting back his own questions with barely held-back frustration and impatience. Pendleton was as accepting of his liege lord’s quirks as usual.

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out sooner or later if you have but half a mind put to it.” Tom added. He was being truthful as he said this, because he had not hidden the fact that he spent more than half the day with Hermione Curie.

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Nine Photoset

09 The Lazy Days of Summer

“I can finally attend classes!

Hermione had finally, finally been discharged from the infirmary. She was beginning to get the idea that she was a bad patient from all her fidgeting and constantly asking the nurse about how she was doing. She had declared at the eighth day that her urine had been clear of blood for three days now and surely it meant she could get out. Maggie threatened to tie her down on the bed if she doesn’t get back there right now, and Hermione returned there to sulk.

It was also the height of weirdness to hear Tom Riddle fully agreeing with the Head Nurse when he visited her that day. (“I’ll make sure she doesn’t tire herself, Madam Edelstein.”)

Then again, he probably just wanted to get back at her for unnerving him. He so disliked to be put off his poise.

The brunette stretched her arms to either side in relief, feeling the cool breeze on her skin. It was nice to feel the wind ruffling her hair, even if she did have a lot of hair to ruffle. The crisp scent of grasses, oak and willow hit her. Whatever happens, Hermione was determined that she was going to enjoy walking on the Hogwarts grounds first. Footsteps came up from behind her.

“I don’t think the classes are that exciting,” the beautiful blonde that now stood next to her commented. There was only the slightest trace of accent in her voice. Her scarf, like Hermione’s, was banded with the blue and bronze of Ravenclaw. Somehow, the colours still managed to compliment her periwinkle blue dress.

“When you’ve been stuck in the infirmary for two weeks, Eugenie, you can tell me that classes are boring. Otherwise, you have no idea.” Hermione insisted.

“I think it’s the fresh air that you miss more,” the other witch said.

“Not really. I know I’ve wanted to go to the Hogwarts library since the day I was awake, and I can easily spend a week there without going outdoors.” Hermione said. Which was completely true.

“Bookworm,” Eugenie said fondly.

“That, I am,” Hermione replied carelessly. “And you care about what people say too much.”

At the reddening of the blonde’s cheeks, Hermione winced. She didn’t want to be that nice, helpful girl that Hermione Granger was in her Hogwarts days, so nice that people keep expecting her to pick up their work too. She might not want to try so hard at being nice that she held back on so many things that she wanted to say, but she never wanted to be callous either.

“I mean, you’re smart, you’re beautiful and that makes people insecure. Add the fact that one of the guys those other girls like might actually prefer to look at you than them, and it’s a textbook case of envy all over again.” Hermione explained, turning back at the Ravenclaw prefect with an outstretched hand. “Come on, Eugenie. You’re better than most of them, why worry about what they think of you? Let’s go down and picnic by the lake!”

“Um,”

“I know you don’t have classes. And look, I already have the picnic basket handy here!”

Hermione lifted the picnic basket from where she had placed it on the ground with a flourish. She could see that Eugenie was weakening and would succumb to the temptation. She might as well get the most out of today, because once class started, her focus on them might well be monomaniacal. She’d even taken the effort of asking the house elfs for the blonde’s favourite foods, and to prepare them exactly for this outing.

“Let’s just enjoy the last days of summer days lazing around.” Hermione coaxed.

“Hermione, this is October, which means we’re practically in autumn.” The blonde witch corrected.

“Autumn, summer, who cares? It still feels like late summer and I’m certainly not going to miss out on the summer experience.” The brunette said.

Her house mate was still staring at her doubtfully.

“I checked the temperatures. I think the Hogwarts grounds have some weird ward effects on them that helped them retain heat longer, or something similar to it, because it is still rather warm for autumn. Come on, Eugenie, I have your favourite foods.” Hermione said as she wiggled the picnic basket and watched the other witch’s resolve starting to succumb to the inevitability. The brunette witch was counting on it.

Wait for it, wait for it…

Her thoughts drifted as she waited.

It had been two weeks since she arrived at Hogwarts.

Tom Riddle came to visit almost every day in the infirmary, though she had no idea why he bothered to do it that often when Nurse Edelstein watched him with the suspicion of a bulldog whenever she happened to be around. Maggie was nearby often enough when he visited, and they generally ended up only talking about classes when the nurse was close enough to eavesdrop. He did not even let up when a suspicious Maggie occasionally took up his time to talk and ‘get to know him’.

(“You don’t need to interrogate him, Maggie. I can take care of myself,” Hermione huffed.
Maggie disagreed. “I very much need to. I need to know his intentions.”
“We’re just study partners!”
My study partners never brought me flowers.” The Nurse countered.
“Well, you’ve never spent two weeks hospitalised either, have you?”)

On the fifth day of her confinement, Professor Dexter visited again and saw her working on a different homework with a different set of library books with her. When he asked her how she managed to get all those things, her simple answer of ‘Tom, of course’, made him mutter under his breath ‘poaching from your neighbours now, Horace? Really?’ and other, more unprintable curses from boils in unmentionable places to bunions (though Hermione took notes of his creativity) before he informed her that he will assign her a Ravenclaw prefect to help her acclimatise to Hogwarts.

Well, that, and because ‘the Slytherins are shameless’, but he didn’t mean to say it out loud within her hearing.

This was how she was introduced by Professor Dexter to Eugenie Delacour the next day.

She was a member of the extensive Delacour clan (Hermione easily pronounced her name the French way). Her parents were vigilant enough of the tensions in the continent to have transferred her to Hogwarts by her third year. Her hair was the colour of flax falling straight down her back like a waterfall and her eyes the blue of forget-me-not blossoms. She moved like a fairy tale princess and smiles like one too. That slight, very slight shimmer of unreality around her told Hermione that she was probably also part-veela.

The Ravenclaw prefect visited Hermione every other day. The schedule of her visit never did coincide with Tom Riddle’s except once (Eugenie tended to take her lunch with Hermione, most of the time Tom preferred to visit when classes were over). On that one day the conversation was more formal than usual.

(She guessed that Tom and Eugenie didn’t really know each other very well other than for prefect business).

Other than that particular time, Hermione didn’t have any problem talking to Eugenie and asking questions about the Ravenclaw Tower.

To be honest, Hermione didn’t really care about how the blonde drew the eyes of most guys when they walk together (like now, as they walk arm-in-arm towards the edge of the lake, talking about stuff). She’d never thought of herself as a great beauty and thus suffer no disappointment on that front. Besides, it only meant that those guys have no mental fortitude.

Hermione snorted when she saw a Gryffindor boy fall into the lake when he saw Hermione and Eugenie bending over to spread picnic blankets on the ground.

“Hermione?”

“There’s another fool around ten metres away behind you.” Hermione said.

The boy swimming to the simple raft and his friends were toying with. The others were clearly laughing at him. When Eugenie turned around, he gave an overly enthusiastic wave that ended up elbowing another friend in the gut and send him into the waters. The blonde blushed while Hermione laughed.

“Well, at least they knew how to have fun,” the brunette said pragmatically.

“But the poor boy…”

Hermione took a deep breath. “Eugenie, if the rest of his friends managed to stay on board while he fell over, then he was just the most careless of them. See, he’s not the only one looking at you with interest. I do hope they don’t end up toppling the raft, though. I can’t imagine the caretaker would be pleased when they leave four sets of waterlogged trails into Hogwarts”

The Ravenclaw prefect quickly turned away from the boys’ unsubtle fawning, her cheeks still coloured as she buried her face in her hands.

“This is all so embarrassing.”

That surprised Hermione. She had no idea that there were shy veelas. With their beauty and glamour, she’d thought that they were mostly confident or aloof. “Uh, well, do you want to move?”

The blonde stared at Hermione with surprise.

“Move?” she squeaked. God, she’s so adorable. How is she so adorable?

“You don’t seem to be comfortable anymore. It’s not much of a picnic if you can’t relax, right?” Hermione said, patting her hand comfortingly. “Let’s go somewhere there’s no boys around.”

“You don’t mind?”

“You’re my friend, Eugenie. Why would I mind?”

The brunette witch didn’t think they were best friends yet, but somehow the smile that Eugenie gave her was blinding. It struck her then that like the old Hermione Granger, Eugenie Delacour was not one to make female friends easily, for entirely different reasons. Add her blonde hair and elf-like grace, and she reminded the time-stuck witch of Luna.

Hermione’s smile was a touch nostalgic as she stood up and packed bowls and plates back into the basket.

“Come on, let’s find a better spot.”

Arm-in-arm once more, the two girls walked away, oblivious (or uncaring) about the disappointed boys on the raft over Hogwarts’ lake.

Based on what Hermione knew, the blonde was probably going to be more comfortable with older gentlemen than those their age.

It was just a matter of effort, really. She knew from first-hand experience that Harry took the effort of building up his resistance to a veela’s natural glamour, so it wasn’t impossible nor was it too hard. Parts of it was something like meditating. Many ladies of veela descent were genuinely interested in him as he’d managed to not only speak with them normally, he could also keep prolonged eye contact. He did not somehow end up speaking to their breasts.

Most teenagers don’t have that sort of strength of mind yet—add in the hormone bomb that was puberty, it was really hard for boys to keep their wits in the face of even a part-veela.

“Ooh, did you see that tree, Eugenie?”

C’est magnifique,” Eugenie murmured with a breathless sort of awe.

“Yes, I agree. We’re definitely going to go there.”

They spread the picnic blanket under a tree that was draped in with the fiery blooms of an uncommon, late-blooming honeysuckle. The fragrance drew Hermione in and Eugenie loved the beauty of the spot. It was not too far from the first of the Herbology greenhouses, which meant that they were quite far from anywhere else. At the very least, there would be no more foolish boys to unnerve the blonde witch.

Hermione unloaded the wealth of fruit dessert that summer brings, smiling as Eugenie’s eyes also lit up at the sight of some of her favourites. These would be airy meringues with strawberry slices and light lemon cakes that melt in your mouth. They were crispy almond thins and fluffy raspberry-blackberry soufflé. Hermione was crazy for anything with oranges; there was the orange, rose and mint cake, there was the orange marmalade she spread liberally over slices of sourdough and orange pie. There was also the candied orange peel dipped in chocolate that Ravenclaw witches liberally snacked on. The orange blossoms that adorned the caps of the marmalade jars were refreshing in their fragrance.

She’d carefully unwound them from the caps, piling them to the side. They were too pretty and too sweet-smelling that she was loathe to discard them.

There were two chilled pitchers of drinks too; one was lemonade and the other was mint tea. She and Eugenie toasted each other about everything and nothing in particular as they simply soaked everything. The cool wind and the scent of the flowers and trees infused them with the feel of summer while the light buzz of insects called on the sunset that was still several hours away.

She wished she could take a picture of today and keep it forever. On that note, I wonder who owns a camera at Hogwarts these days? It was something to find out tomorrow.

It was upon this idyllic scene that Tom Riddle walked into.

He had walked in a straight line towards them, which told Hermione that he knew how to find them, his hair as impeccable as his suit and tie with his bag in hand. The thought creased her brows, as she was sure no one knew where they were—they themselves didn’t even plan to be here. She could see Eugenie straightening up at the edge of her sight, a slight tension returning to her shoulders. At first Hermione thought she somehow feared Tom. Now, she’d figured out that the blonde was shy; Eugenie just hid her discomfort very well from other people most of the time.

“Good afternoon, Ladies.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Riddle.”

“How did you find us?” Hermione asked.

She almost rolled her eyes at his raised eyebrow. “Yes, yes. Good afternoon to you too, Tom. It’s just that we didn’t tell anyone we’re here and yet, here you are. Pardon me if I find that more interesting than just going over banal greetings.”

“Locator spells have not been lost to the sea floor with Atlantis, Hermione.”

Her lips curved up at his dry tone. “And I did my best to make myself directly unfindable because I was looking forward to a day of peace with a friend.”

As if she hadn’t expected any of the teachers to look for her (*cough*Slughorn*cough*).

He brought up several pieces of parchments with her handwriting on it. It was her library book requests. Hermione winced.

“Ah, locator spells operating on sympathetic principles. Yes, that is hard to avoid.”

“If I were truly intruding on you, I will take my leave,” he said with an understanding smile. “I would hate to get between friends.”

It made Eugenie shake her head vigorously.

“No, no! Not at all. You’re free to join us anytime.”

His gaze moved towards Hermione. She rubbed her face. He was leaving the ball in her court, and she was aware that he would keep his word and leave if she said so. Because that was what Tom the Prefect would do.

“Well, if you were to start and tell us what exactly brought you here, maybe we can decide whether we need to run you off or not.”

Eugenie was aghast. “Hermione!”

“It’s just a joke, Eugenie. See? Tom’s still as cool as a cucumber because he knows I don’t hold back on what I’m thinking.” She pointed out. True enough, Tom Riddle chose one point of the blanket closest to Hermione and right across Eugenie. He pulled a bottle out of his bag.

“Is that wine?” She asked.

Her friend shook her head. “No, the labels are different. That’s…sparkling grape juice I believe.”

“Well, today is a day of celebration, so I brought this,” Tom said, opening it with a flick of his hand and offering it to the ladies. Hermione gladly tapped her wand to the side of her glass to clean it before raising her glass to try it out. The blonde witch followed a few moments later. “I was looking for you at the infirmary, but apparently you decided to discharge yourself earlier and left no information of where you were going.”

He almost looked disapproving. Hermione shrugged without guilt.

“I was bored and you found me all the same, so what does it matter?”

For a split second, the annoyance in his blue eyes were clear before it disappeared again as if it was never there. The sparkling grape juice was excellent.

“Mmm, this is very good, Tom. I never thought juice could be this good.” Hermione commented. He nodded, accepting the compliment with grace, before he turned to the other Ravenclaw.

“I’m glad it’s to your taste. Miss Delacour, is it to your preference?”

“Oh, it’s fine! It really is fine, just like Hermione says.” Eugenie was drawing back to her shell slightly. Hermione felt like coaxing her out again, but really, why bother now? Tom Riddle was hell on her nerves, and she was pretty battle-hardened, she didn’t want to know how it feels like for the blonde Ravenclaw.

“I’m glad,” Tom smiled and Eugenie’s cheeks coloured slightly. This was when Hermione thought she wanted to groan for a completely different reason.

“I almost forgot. Here, congratulations.”

There was a tube that Tom had taken out of his bag and suddenly in front of Hermione’s presence was a small white bouquet. It consisted mostly of lily-of-the-valley with jasmine thrown in. Underneath it was a box of Honeydukes’ assorted chocolate truffles that made Hermione’s mouth water just looking at it.

“Chocolates for a get-well celebration?” Hermione asked, askance. Wasn’t this a tad too romantic?

“I heard Madam Edelstein complaining that you keep pilfering on the ones sent to her by her beau.” Tom replied, his perfect smile was actually edging into a sly smirk. It was something she thought of as one of his real ones. “I thought I’d provide relief for the poor woman by delivering you a new target.”

Oh. Now that was rather embarrassing. When did he even hear that, anyway? On the other hand, he had been visiting the infirmary rather often; he was unintimidated from any of what Nurse Edelstein would say her attempts at conversation and what Hermione would say interrogation.

He pulled it back slightly with nonchalance. “Or, if you’d rather not, well, I’m sure I’d earn her eternal gratitude with this box of chocolate to replace the one—”

“No! I mean, it’s fine, I can take it.” Hermione yelped, “thank you, Tom.”

Her brain was already taunting her with pictures of the little treasures, resplendent in their individual seats. She was certain that he wasn’t a poisoner, certainly not something so extravagant that can be easily traced to him. If he really wanted to kill her, he’d just Avada her in the forest and hide her body. She took the lily-of-the-valley bouquet and the box of chocolate truffles.

“You keep giving me gifts, though, and I haven’t given you any.” She commented.

Or, in Slytherin parlance, the balance-of-favours was tilting heavily in his direction, as Draco and Daphne had managed to impress the importance of that to her.

“It’s really not necessary. I enjoy giving you gifts.”

Hermione had to look up at those words, right to his dark blue eyes that seemed to be filled with laughter. Was he in his bullshitting mode or was he honest? She couldn’t tell. Probably bullshitting, because there’s Eugenie around to amaze, and Hermione didn’t doubt that he enjoyed confusing the odd new student. To her consternation, the blonde Ravenclaw really did seem like she was taking it all in with eyes filled with admiration.

“Hmm, yes, but it’s not really fair to you, though. How did you know I like jasmine?” Hermione asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t, but you did say that you like fragrant flowers better than the showy ones that have no scent.”

The brunette nodded. It was true. It was probably one of their conversations about Herbology that had them talking about flowers. She was probably ranting about how she hated plant domestication that was either grotesque (why do you need bottle-shaped fruits, why?) or stripped the plants of critical function that they needed to survive.

Like scent.

“What do you think, Miss Delacour? Do you consider it a sad thing for flowers to be of infinite colours but no scent?” Tom asked. He was doing better as a host than Hermione, drawing Eugenie into the conversation.

The blonde shook her head. “I also think that’s sad. I would rather choose a simple wild rose.”

Hermione remembered that part of her rant. When flowers are obsessively bred to be bigger and more colourful, with hundreds of petals, they start to lose their scent at some point. Yet certain species of insect pollinators are called to their respective flowers by their scent. Then, when such extreme breeding happened, the flowers can no longer breed without human interference.

“Hermione?” He asked.

“Wait a moment, I’m trying to come up with something.”

Her eyes landed on the white sprigs of orange blossoms she’d saved, whose scent she loved. She could use one, she mused, tapping her wand over the thin branch, murmuring a few words. The white blossoms grew larger as she transformed them—Seville orange blossoms, she knew, were larger and smelled sweeter. Another tap made all the buds blossom. She also stood up for a moment to take a few bunches of honeysuckle before she sat down; all bright yellow blooms with splashes of claret. The resulting bouquet was barely larger than her palm, but she was thinking of making something more in line of the single damask rose he’d first given her. She took one of the black ribbons in her pocket she’d used to tie a scroll together and tied the flowers to one.

“Here.”

She didn’t know why he looked so surprised. Were girls not supposed to give flowers to boys? Urgh, the sexism in this era keeps throwing her off because she was never quite sure where they were going to pop up and trip her next. She’ll just have to ask about it later and…do something to fix it somehow.

“It’s just a token of my thanks for all you’ve done while I was tied to the bed. You really didn’t have to get me all those books and you did, and the homework, and the everything else. It would’ve been a real torture if you and Eugenie hadn’t been there and…” did she just threw Tom Riddle off his usual unaffected expression? In the presence of a third-party that would usually make him put his best performance up? Wow, she did. Why was he staring at her like that? What? Why was Eugenie growing redder and redder?

“This is just like the damask rose you gave me the first time, alright?” She asked, puzzled.

“Thank you.”

His voice was oddly grave as he accepted the flowers, his gaze unwavering from hers. What surprised her was Eugenie suddenly standing up with an expression of a deer in the headlights.

“Oh dear! I almost forgot that I have a prefect meeting—a Ravenclaw prefect meeting! Yes, I’m late, very late, and I need to go now. Goodbye, Riddle, Hermione! I’ll—I’ll see you sometime later!” Eugenie stammered out.

It was very rushed and suspiciously high-pitched. Hermione had scarcely managed to give her own goodbyes before the girl had marched away. It was clear that if politeness had not been necessary, she might have thought of sprinting. It was hard not to gape. She recognised Tom’s expression as the one he put on when he was presenting a front of perfect calmness and ease.

Which meant that something was wrong.

“What on earth is going on?” Hermione asked in frustration, to no one in particular.

With that, to her utmost surprise, Tom Riddle laughed.

'-

It was one of the weirdest things in the world. She never expected to hear him laugh—at least not with clear humour and unrestrained ease. It was something completely human and had the additional inconvenience of making her see him as someone she could truly be friends with. Not as a dark-lord-in-training, not someone who was potentially Voldemort, but just as Tom Riddle; wizard, orphan, a clever and cunning wizard who just happened to be one of the Slytherin prefects of Hogwarts. She wished he had an awkward or weird-sounding laughter.

Unfortunately, it was a beautiful sound.

Riddle.”

“Oh, so I’m back to Riddle now, am I?” He said, between chuckles as he drew a deep breath to settle himself.

“Well, you would be if you’re not telling me why you’re laughing at me.” She wasn’t pouting. She was frowning, with a severe expression. Yes. Yes, she is, though she didn’t know why every time he saw her face, he was pulled into a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“I’m not laughing at you.” His reply was firm and without doubt, and she knew he wasn’t making an excuse. “It is merely everything else in my life that has become so unbelievable.”

She frowned. “What is?”

“You asked me to promise you to always inform you if Slughorn is giving me requests to your benefit that inconveniences me. With the same good faith, I ask you for a small promise,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Don’t give orange blossoms and honeysuckles to anyone other than me, Hermione.”

He was still smiling, and laughter was still near the surface of his voice, but she also knew that he was serious. It might be something in his eyes, unmoving as the night with only the slightest hint of starlight to lessen the darkness.

“On that note, perhaps I should ask you to promise not to give flowers to any other man.” He corrected himself.

“Hey! That’s overly broad! Not to mention that you are being too forward by assuming you have any say in how I might try to court other men—which, newsflash, you don’t.”

His lips curved upwards slightly.

“You’re a menace, Hermione.”

She paused. Was that fondness in his voice? Yes, it was. It was starting to weird her out as she accepted his offer to pour her more grape juice without thinking.

“I’m not. A menace, that is. I follow the rules in general and I fight evil, such as the wizards who follow Grindelwald, for example.”

He cleared his throat. “And yet between the two of us, I am not the one who was recommending vigilantism.”

She gave him the stink-eye. He was unperturbed.

“I don’t. It’s just that dark lords are an extreme exception.”

“Now, shall we continue with the celebratory meal?” he asked. “It’s unfortunate that Miss Delacour has other engagements to attend, but I’m sure we can make the best of this.”

He observed the food spread in front of them with something close to obsession. Some sort of enlightenment seemed to have reached him as his eyebrows rise, but he didn’t share the insight (if any) with Hermione.

“You do like orange, don’t you?”

“Yes, and I did feel like celebrating, so I requested beforehand for the kitchen to prepare any dessert recipes they have that has orange in it, as well as anything that Eugenie likes. This ends up being closer to an indulgence of desserts than a proper meal.”

“That’s even better, then,” he said with aplomb. There was a slice of the orange, rose and mint cake in his hand. “We have all of the sweetness and none of the plainness and boredom. We have the honeymoon phase instead of the entire ups and downs of marriage.”

She frowned as she picked up the orange pie. Mmmm, pie.

“Why are we even talking about marriage?”

He smiled. It was one of his real smiles, the one with the potential to scare little old ladies into crossing the street when they gaze upon it and convince thugs to find a different mark and leave him alone. Unfortunately for her, it was also still devastatingly handsome, just infinitely more dangerous.

“Well, it is rather apt, isn’t it, seeing as you’ve practically proposed to me.”

Hermione choked on her pie crust.

'-

Tom Riddle had unceremoniously dumped the contents of one of his potion bottles on the ground, ignoring Hermione’s surprise (not that she was capable of saying anything while she was trying to cough that pie crust out). He cleaned it with a good use of Aguamenti before drying it. After he enlarged it, he moved the small orange-blossom-and-honeysuckle bouquet she made inside it, presumably after casting some preservation charm on them and charmed the glass to be unbreakable.

He’d dropped the bottle, now larger, back into his bag while Hermione was busy drinking mint tea and soothing her throat.

Marriage proposal?” She hissed.

“Now, now, don’t say that you’ve regretted it already. Is your intention as fickle as the weather?” Tom Riddle, at this point, was definitely not being a mature prefect that is above rubbing salt on the wound when they were raw.

Hermione snorted. “Please. I didn’t even mention marriage.”

“Well, give me your promise about the flowers and I’ll tell you.”

Tom,” she warned.

“You can give me your promise, or I can just walk away.” He casually said. “It’s just flowers, really, Hermione.”

His smile was too innocent to be true.

She sighed. It really wasn’t something that important. She can afford to do it, really. Even before she was unexpectedly returned to Hogwarts again, when was the last time she gave any man flowers? Not even on Ron’s birthday, not even on the date they first got together. There were no flowers on any other day they got together too, or Valentine.

That was…huh, that wasn’t exactly a bright memory, was it?

“Alright, I promise.” She finally said.

“And what exactly do you promise?”

“I won’t give any other guys flowers except for you.” Hermione conceded. “And never give anyone else the bouquet I just handed you.”

He nodded. “Thank you. Now, if you were studying Victorian flower language—which I recommend that you do because most purebloods are fluent in it—” 

“Get on with it, Tom.” She murmured under her breath.

“—orange blossoms meant marriage, the fruitfulness of the marriage bed and related marital festivities.”

Hermione groaned and buried her face in her hands.

“It’s alright, I completely understand,” Tom continued, glib. If she looked up now, he was probably smirking. “I have been reliable informed that I am irresistible. I place no blame on you for having succumbed to the temptation—”

That’s it. She uprooted a bunch of grass from behind her, stepped to the side and threw it to his face before running off.

Tom should be up and chasing her, wand at hand any time soon. That was great, because when she was this pissed off, she was in the mood to beat someone down too. She ran in a zig-zag pattern, not really something comfortable to do, but she could manage it in burst. At one point, she ducked into a roll and turn back to cast one hex and two jinxes, her hair almost alive with the rising static as she drew magic to her.

He dodged (of course), but it gave her time to start chaining four spells at once, the first of which was even silent. Tom sent a percussive curse she did not even want to let hit a shield and Hermione ducked as he raised a shield against the rest of her attacks. He held the shield in front of him, it centre point seems to be his wand. She probably couldn’t breach it, but he couldn’t attack either.

Understanding what he was trying to do, she casted the same variation of the Protego Charm.

“Is this a duel?” He asked.

“It’s a fight,” Hermione corrected. “How long are we going to do this?”

“First blood?” Tom seemed a little too casual at agreeing to the opportunity to hack and slash at each other, but then again most of the veteran Aurors that Hermione knew were the same. They wouldn’t turn down an excellent opportunity to sharpen their skills.

“Well, some of us have just been recently sick. I don’t think I’d have the stamina for even ten minutes.” She said.

To her surprise, he removed his shield and shook his head. And… Was that concern? Wow, that was real concern, she noted with surprise.

“You’re right. We should go back.”

What?

“You are not going to return to the infirmary on the same day that you leave it. Not on my watch.” His voice was firm when he said this, his mien implacable. It was probably one of the few times when Tom the Prefect was the real Tom Riddle.

Hermione was glaring at him while he politely offered her his arm like a proper gentleman.

“But we’re just starting.”

“Miss Curie,” he was just there, waiting. Hermione let out an explosive huff.

“Oh, alright. But promise me we’ll do this some other time.” She took his arm, feeling distinctly like playing a role in a period movie while she did so.

“Certainly.”

They strolled back, arm-in-arm, and Hermione’s curiosity reminded her that there were still things she hadn’t found out about.

“What does honeysuckle mean, then?”

“Generous affection, devotion.” She could hear the smirk in his voice. Hermione let out a pained sound from the back of her throat.

“I can’t believe that!”

“You’re welcome to check any reference you can find,” he said, idly.

Surprisingly, Tom wasn’t someone who tends to grip the arm of their date possessively that they were attached at the hip (she dated someone like that once—Hermione didn’t let him get past the second date). His arm wasn’t a limp and annoying dead weight either. He adjusted quickly to any changes in terrain, even holding her once when the ground was slippery and her damned mary-janes weren’t giving her enough traction. As she’d almost fallen, he had to grip her waist to stop her from slipping. She could feel his shoulder warm and solid against her back, his breath light against her neck. He let go and moved back once he was sure she was steady on her feet, returning his arm back with hers without needing to be prompted.

That’s it, I’m finding a nice, comfortable pair of boots sometime soon, Hermione thought, trying to ignore how warm her face seems to be or the way his arms felt around her.

She was all for following uniform regulations, but not if it was going to get her killed. Slipping while trying to cast a counter-hex sounded like one of those situations.

“What about lily-of-the-valley or jasmine?” Hermione asked to distract herself. The blanket was visible now on the other side of the picnic tree.

“Lily-of-the-valley is ‘return to happiness’ and jasmine is ‘amiability’.” She didn’t imagine his smug tone as he explained.

“Oh, that is so not fair,” she groused. “How did you happen to find sweet-scented flowers that are somehow also completely friend-appropriate flowers? I just like the way orange blossoms and honeysuckles smell!”

“Those who are prepared create their own luck.”

Hermione harrumphed in dissatisfaction but didn’t retort back. There was no doubt that the git was prepared. That was when Hermione remembered that Eugenie was right there when she gave Tom the flowers before she pulled her vanishing act. Well, it explained why the blonde witch’s face was beet-red now, doesn’t it?

“Dammit,” Hermione cursed. “I’ve got to find Eugenie tonight and explain.”

Tom was unconcerned. “If she was indeed assigned to assist you on Professor Dexter’s behest, then I’m sure you’re given the same dorm.”

The witch chanced a look at his side profile. It reminded her of the outline of a Greek statue. He would not look out of place wearing a chiton on the Parthenon, or maybe, placed among some statues of philosophers. (Why the hell should she be thinking of her last holiday in Greece right now?)

“You don’t seem to be worried.” She said.

“Miss Delacour does not have the unsavoury habit of spreading rumours about her housemates.”

Hermione’s eyebrows rose. “Well, I get the feeling that she won’t betray her friends. Yet isn’t still possible that she’d say that she was worried that her friends were moving too fast in a relationship? That she wished to ask for advice about it from others? News still end up going out that way, and it can still feed the gossip network. That’s still concerning, isn’t it?”

He mused on it for about three seconds. “She would still not have said anything within the first day, as she is not extremely social. Really, Hermione, there is nothing for you to worry unduly about.”

Tom had the gall to pat the hand she had slipped into his arm as if they were the dearest of friends. It would’ve been condescending if his smile did not have that fox-like hint to it. He knew exactly how much it was annoying her. That, in turn, made her more determined not to be baited.

The picnic tree stood amongst several others in the clump some distance away. The breeze ran its hands through her hair and the hint of honeysuckle in the air lifted her mood.

Hermione huffed yet again and stepped closer to him instead, his arm was now pressed against her. He stiffened for a moment before he relaxed again, letting her pin his arm between her own and her torso—he’d started it and she knew it meant that he wasn’t going to be the one who’d back down. She gave herself a silent congratulation; he’d kept very precise distance between himself and any other person. It was not hard to guess from there that he was not a fan of casual bodily contact. Oddly enough, that meant it was one of the few ways that she knew she can disconcert him.

She’d resigned herself to address Eugenie’s misunderstanding later.

“So, Eugenie might be weirded out but fine, then?”

“She might find it unsettling, yes, but nothing that will prompt her to be anything than discreet.”

It was not hard to give credit to Tom’s opinion, as he should know the various people here better than she did. He’d been in Hogwarts for years, after all. Besides, she couldn’t really do anything about it until she was back at the Ravenclaw Tower. Hermione sighed and settled for getting back to the picnic blanket.

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Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Ten Photoset

10 To the Ravenclaw Tower

They were back to sitting on the picnic blanket again, and the honeysuckle vines gladly dropped its flowers into her hair every now and then. She didn’t brush them off, only collected them together and figured out how to chain them into one. Wait, she was sure that Luna had told her about a more elegant solution to this before…

“Oh well,” Hermione mused as she cast around for longer branch. “I suppose we can tidy all this up now and go back to the castle.”

She didn’t know why Tom was raising his eyebrow at her.

“Well, Eugenie’s already gone back, and I’m sure you have other things to do. I haven’t settled back at the Ravenclaw Tower either…”

“Perhaps you’d like to just enjoy the day for a while?” He finally asked.

Hermione was standing up again, wand in hand, cutting some of the younger twigs of the honeysuckle for her idea; strong enough to provide structure and yet flexible enough to be wound into a circle. Perfect. She looked back to see his eyes intent on her form. It wasn’t the first time since they walked back—his gaze sometimes flickered to her entire self than stay on her face. No, it was not a leer (or anything in the neighbouring range of one). It was more clinical and it was systematic.

Tom was checking up on her.

“I’m fine.” She insisted the moment she figured out what he was doing.

He met her gaze for three seconds and she was aware that he was politely holding back his disbelief.

“That’s good to hear,” he said. Wait, she hadn’t expected that answer. “I’m afraid I’d like to rest for a while after the exertions we’ve gone through. You won’t mind terribly if we delay our return for a while, would you?”

His smile was deceptively innocent.

For someone whose statement was obviously a load of crap, he was too calm. She had a feeling that he was prepared for her to either accept his request or to challenge it, but the unhurried way he’d started picking a lemon cake told her that he was prepared for either answer.

If she insisted on walking back right now, she had the suspicion that he’d call attention to her less-than-perfect health in a more embarrassing way than this polite fiction of his supposed tiredness. So, she resigned herself to keeping the détente.

Hermione huffed and settled back to weaving the twigs into a crown. Carefully making small diagonal slices to the bark with her wand past the cambium, she inserted the fallen buds carefully to each cut. She held them there, healed the cut with a spell of regeneration and then cast another spell of growth. The wound and the flower stem joined as if they had always been one. Neville taught her that one. It always helped his grafted branches to set in a day. The application, however, was pure Luna.

“What are you making?” He asked.

“A flower crown,” Hermione answered. “Obviously.”

A flower crown always makes you feel better on a bad day, Luna had told her once, right after she gifted Hermione with a crown of roses at lunch (how she got her hands on a rose plant during the day, when they were both working at the Ministry was the type of question she’d stopped asking around Luna). Her friend was on to something there, because it was pleasant to have the sweet fragrances follow you around all day. Luna charmed them to release their fragrance in waves and then hold back and merely collect them at other times, so we won’t get desensitised to the scent, of course.

Of course.

It also made her feel better at that miserable day at the office, and she was an Unspeakable. On the degree of strangeness that they see at the office every day, a flower crown barely made anyone blink. The witches she met in the hallways actually complimented her on it and asked how she made it.

“You’re not using a sticking charm for the flowers,” he noted, curious.

“Well, that would be an ordinary flower crown. I’m going for an extraordinary one—a living flower crown, if you will. If I grafted all the loose flowers to one branch, all the elements would end up being one organism, one plant. It can live for days, no, weeks on a glass of water. Well, I’d add nutrients to the water to be sure, but that’s trivial.” She replied with a shrug. The highly interested look on his face told otherwise and she couldn’t help a small grin.

“It really isn’t that hard. Well, the exactly two spells required isn’t. The important part is actually knowing how the dicots are structured—you need a plant that arrange their vascular network in a series of neat, concentric circles.”

She went back to slicing just the right distance past the phloem, cambium and xylem. She checked the flower stems critically before sticking the flowers into the cuts and then muttering first the healing spell, and secondly, the regeneration spell.

“These vessels, these mini pipes that carry minerals from the roots upwards and the ones that carry nutrients generated by the leaves? In dicots, they’re arranged in a series of concentric circles. The phloem vessels are at the outermost, the cambium lies in between and after that you have the xylem vessels. Once you know how they’re arranged, you can join the corresponding vessels from any two branches, from any two plants, to become one.” 

She paused for a moment.

“Well, they have to be closely related, of course, you can’t try it with magnolias and oranges, for one. But still, imagine the possibilities once you knew that! A master herbologist can theoretically create a bower the shape of gazebo made of entirely of rose plants and ensure that when it blooms, it blooms with a hundred type of roses.”

The master herbologist that she knew here was certainly Neville, and the result was certainly not theoretical. He had made that for his wife. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful, though not as much as his look of utter adoration she could see in his face at the happiness in hers.

“It takes patience and effort, but unlike the muggle world, we certainly didn’t need to wait for the plant to heal and recover. That’s only a minute or so away in the hands of a master.”

(Pity the gazebo didn’t quite survive the Insurrection unscathed.)

Wait, what?

(It could still be regrown, though. It was only damaged, not dead. This is unlike what happened to—)

Shit. Not again. Hermione ignored the blanks with effort. Or how she had more than one memory of how the rose bower looked like. And blurred pictures of Neville standing with someone. The witch in them didn’t seem to be the same one either. What on earth? I can’t have two memories of the same time!

Her mouth, fortunately, was able to keep going and her pause was not too long to raise questions.

“In monocots, however, they’re spread at random. That’s why you won’t ever be able to do it for monocots because they don’t have it. No grafting for the banana or the coconut tree.”

Hermione looked up from her continuous effort to graft all the flame-coloured honeysuckle flowers on one branch because he was being surprisingly quiet. She narrowed her eyes.

“You don’t understand most of what I’m saying, do you?”

“Not all of it yet, but I’m sure you won’t leave me hanging.”

“Well, just ask about anything you wish me to clarify.”

And off they went. She had to explain what monocots and dicots were (“unlike monocots, dicots are not monophyletic.” “I’m sorry?” “Oh, never mind. I’m rambling towards excessive and unnecessary detail. Ignore that.”) She munched as she worked, and before she even extended her hand at one food item or another, Tom was already there and offering it to her. He even made the sourdough sandwiches with marmalade.

Hermione had not considered the possibility that a conscientious Tom Riddle that was finely aware of her physical condition could be annoying, in a way. His manners had always been flawless and it was flattering to be the subject of so much care. Yet the intensity of his gaze was almost a physical caress over her skin—frankly, it was distracting. She’d never wished she was healthy as much as she did now. On the other hand, his singular attention on her magical grafting impressed her (most people would’ve given up and stopped asking for more details when they figured out just how extensive and technical her knowledge could be).

At one point, he picked up the remaining sprigs of orange blossoms she had set aside from the top of the marmalade jars.

“Add these in too?”

She gave him a suspicious look. “They’re not even from the same family. Grafting them is beyond me.”

He shook his head. “I wasn’t speaking of attaching them to the honeysuckle, but to intertwine was a second layer to the crown.”

“They’re only short sprigs!”

He raised an eyebrow. “You can join them into one long vine with that regeneration charm, can’t you?”

Tom was right, damn him. His mind certainly worked fast with the knowledge she’d just imparted. With careful application of said charm (don’t overpower it, Hermione. Slowly and steady does it), she managed to make the orange sprigs grow and lengthen. She grafted them, joined them, into a single vine to expedite the growing process. Soon she had enough length to braid with the honeysuckle twine. Not enough blossoms, though.

She tried to recall that there was a spell to increase blossoms, it was just at the tip of her tongue.

“Multiflora? No, pretty sure it wasn’t that. Flora maximus? No, not that. Urgh, I can’t remember.” Hermione complained.

Tom had taken the orange vine from her hand and stuck the cut end to the loose soil. He called aguamenti to water it and cast a spell she didn’t recognise on the ground.

Coalesco.” Then, he pointed his wand at the vine.

Florescentia.

As called, a profusion of white blossoms flowered all along the vine where previously they had only been young buds. Their fragrant scents filled the air.

“That’s…not what I was thinking of, but it works. Wait, as far as I can remember, Florescentia only induces flowers to bloom on plants, not cuttings.” She was excited and baffled at the same time.

“You’ve just told me that the difference between a cutting and a plant is that the first haven’t regrown its roots.” Tom answered her calmly as he pulled the vine’s cut end from the ground. True enough, wispy, spidery roots have extended from that end, courtesy of the first spell he cast on it. “I merely applied that knowledge.”

He applied it within a few minutes of knowing it, she realised. That took an insane level of insight.

He took the honeysuckle vine from her as she stared at him in surprise and entwined it with the orange branch filled with white blossoms in his hand. He worked with precise movements, careful enough not to dislodge the more delicate flowers in the process, more careful than Hermione would have been. He placed it back into her hands when he was done.

It was, indeed, a crown of flowers.

“Perhaps you’d like to change the type of orange blossoms?”

“Why?”

“You did say that you liked another type better because they were more fragrant.”

Ah, the Seville orange blossoms she’d changed his orange blossoms into. Well, she could do that again. It wasn’t that hard. To make the change permanent, though, takes more knowledge of plants than is obvious at first sight. She could do it, of course. The white flowers grew slightly bigger, their scent carrying slightly more zest. Hermione added that last charm Luna recommend, so the flowers would hold back their scent most of the time, releasing them only in waves. Then, she was done.

She’d made her own flower crown.

Tom searched his pockets and came out with an extra scroll ribbon of his own. He lengthened it and changed its colours to a metallic bronze and offered it to her. Hermione shrugged and accepted it.

Well, why not? She was a Ravenclaw, this time around. The more’s the merrier. She wove it around the vines before tying the two ends together into a bow.

“Well, it looks perfect now.” Tom commented.

He looked completely serious when he said that, to her surprise. She hadn’t realised until she was comfortable in her own skin as an Unspeakable that she had envied Luna’s ease in Hogwarts. They both attracted people who would gossip and belittle them for different reasons, but only Luna was completely content with who she was. Hermione has unconsciously wished she had everybody’s approval, as ridiculous as that sounds when she said it out loud to herself years and years later.

Now? Now she wasn’t going to ask for anyone’s approval. Teenage peer pressure can go screw themselves.

“Why, thank you. I think I’m done with the crown.” With that, Hermione picked her crown and placed it carefully on her head. It was a little lopsided at first, but it was hard to adjust it once it snagged on her hair. She sighed. She forgot her thick curls.

“Here, let me.”

Before she knew it, he was already behind her and had released her hair from its single tie. After that he was…doing stuff with her hair. The occasional strokes as he released a knotted strand or several were weirdly soothing. Instead of retying her hair, he braided it. The crown did seem to sit securely once he was done.

“Right. Thanks.”

She closed her eyes took a deep breath and was met with the scent of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. Perfect.

“Pass me the berry soufflé, Tom, and the mint tea too.”

“Of course, Hermione.”

A corner of his lips was twitching upwards in amusement, but Hermione ignored it because she knew he wasn’t laughing at her.

It must have been more than ten minutes when not only her heartrate had gone down again, all the adrenaline in her system returned to a normal level. That was when the slight feeling of weakness in her legs became apparent, as was the passing dizziness. She felt the effects of the Rejuvenating Charm cast upon her in the form of a warm breeze. She tensed.

When she looked up, Tom had his wand out and his expression was unapologetic.

Well, she’d grudgingly admit that his reaction had been spot on. It didn’t mean she was going to thank him for it. She could feel the static charge of magic building up along her nerves and the thunder hex that was at the tip of her tongue.

“I’d have to inform you not to do that when I’m tense, Riddle.”

Her seriousness came across well with her tone and he replied in kind. “To do what?”

“Cast any spell on me without my knowledge. I’m liable to retaliate before I’m conscious of it and I would hate to count you among my collateral damage.” Hermione replied with the harsh truth as she discreetly grounded the hilt of her wand into the ground—the excess magic was conveniently dissipated. She was not a child grown in a time of peace, her reflexes were not pretty to admit. There was a reason that whenever Harry or Ron embedded her in a frontline unit, she would always be working with others who’d survived at least two dark lords.

He took it in a stride as he smiled. “Ah, you’d miss me already, Hermione?”

“If I really have to inflict mortal harm on someone, I prefer the people to actually deserve it.” The witch rolled her eyes. How did all that ego even fit inside his head?

“If you somehow managed to kill me that carelessly, I’d have well deserved it.”

Hermione groaned. She should have known. How did she not guess that that would be his answer?

“You’re a prick, Tom.” She stated.

“And yet you prefer me this way.”

That was…hmm, she couldn’t even argue about it. Hermione closed her mouth again as she realised that, ignoring his amused look. She would rather chat with him, all annoyingly excessive confidence and belligerent intelligence that he didn’t somehow hold back rather than chat with the nice, polite prefect he’d first been that was as interesting and readable as a blank wall. She didn’t need anyone to be someone they weren’t with her. It’s not as if she was going to break with the first use of sarcasm.

After all, it gave her the perfect excuse to slice back with biting wit.

“I have been told on good authority that I have questionable tastes in men.” Hermione replied.

Tom’s surprised chuckle was just as real.

'-

Tom had insisted on carrying the picnic basket. She still couldn’t decide whether it was convenient or vexing. His company was easy, though, and Hermione had only realised then that she would be bored if she’d gone back alone. Of course, she saw no reason to inform him of that little factoid. It was unnerving to note how easily he’d slipped himself into her routine.

As they walked the hallways of Hogwarts and Hermione saw more than one student turn their eyes in her direction. That was when she remembered that she was wearing her flower crown—she’d almost forgotten about it when the crown wasn’t releasing its fragrance every few minutes because Tom had acted normally all the time. He truly did not think twice about it. Other students, it would seem, was a completely different issue.

“Wow, Hogwarts must have been very boring,” Hermione said, making sure her voice carried.

“Why do you say that?” Tom asked, matching her volume.

“You’d think they’d never seen flowers before. I mean, flowers, Tom! What do you do to the students here? Lock everyone up indoors for months?”

Some students turned red when they realised they’d been staring. Others just upped their disdain, which Hermione ignored with ease. Of course, there were always the dense ones, but she’d written those off as a loss early on.

“Well, one has to admit that such an enchanting view is not commonly found here.” She saw that he was smiling when he said this.

Hermione snorted, because the alternative would be to laugh. That would have been a good effort at a compliment if she didn’t know that he was playing it up. Always charming, that Tom Riddle. She was not going to blush demurely or embarrassedly try to change the conversation.

“Please, Mr. Riddle, I’m sure you don’t mean to say that. The ladies of Hogwarts would be heartbroken to hear it.”

“They seem to be quite lively from where I’m standing. I’m sure they’ll survive.”

She followed his gaze and this time Hermione had to cover her mouth to stop the laughter. Several Gryffindor girls were positively livid at the sight of Tom Riddle carrying a picnic basket and her with a flower crown. Hermione couldn’t help grinning just to rile them up—it wasn’t her fault they were jumping, no, skydiving into conclusions.

“Oh Tom, you take me to the most interesting places. The local courting customs is absolutely fascinating. Do the ladies hunt in packs or do they hunt separately?” Hermione said this in an overly saccharine coo. She took distinct pleasure in hearing him suppress a bark of laughter and turned it into a series of unconvincing light coughs.

“Do their prey retain veto rights?” She asked again.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you are asking about, Hermione.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.”

'-

She let Tom take the lead, which certainly wasn’t a hard thing to do with the degree of consideration he was giving her. When they reached the bottom of Ravenclaw tower, what she hadn’t expected was for there to be a student holding the door open. She was as beautiful as the evening, her large, kohl-rimmed eyes was liable to make any man’s heart to stutter when she shoots them with her amber gaze. Her lustrous black hair hung to her waist, and her perfume was a subtle mix of jasmine and magnolias with a touch of Rose of Damascus.

“Hermione Curie, I presume.” Her accent was the King’s English, her expression was halfway from boredom. She didn’t even seem to make any note of her crown of honeysuckle and orange blossom.

Hermione smiled. “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

That earned her a peal of laughter from the girl as Hermione’s grin turned wider. Tom’s even expression disguised his confusion quite well.

“I’ve heard that you’re not unread; I’m glad to have actual proof of it. Mr. Riddle, it’s good to see you too.”

Tom politely stepped in. “If I may, Miss Chakravarty?”

“Please do, Mr. Riddle.”

“Hermione Curie, this is Lakshmi Chakravarty, fifth year Ravenclaw. Miss Chakravarty, this is Hermione Curie, the transfer student that had been confined to the infirmary all this time due to unfortunate illness.”

Hermione shook Lakshmi’s hands. Her nails were painted coral and beautifully decorated with pictures of the tiniest flowers.

“It’s nice to know you. I’m curious. I don’t suppose you make it a habit of hanging around the doorway to the dorms on summer afternoons, do you?” Hermione asked, all innocence and wide eyes.

The fact that she was there to open the door for them when they arrive could hardly be a coincidence. Again, Hermione was sure she didn’t broadcast her movements.

Lakshmi smiled. “You’re not a milquetoast or a pushover either. Good, you’ll need that here. Come on in, both of you. I haven’t had this much fun in ages. I bet the other girls would love to get to know you, Curie.”

The way she said it didn’t make it sound as if it was something pleasant.

She opened the door wide for them and strolled in with all the ease of a panther in her den. Lakshmi sat on one of the single chairs available, one rather separated from the cluster of others, even. Her eyes adjusted a little to the brightness—all the sunlight shining down from the windows at all the tower’s sides reminded Hermione that this was indeed the Rookery of the Ravens, while what little walls were there between the windows were covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It was almost romantic.

This was when Hermione noticed that there were groups of girls in the common room. Ostensibly, they were studying. Of course, considering that she saw one group had a girl opening an arithmancy text book, another opened a potions book and yet another was of charms, she sincerely doubted that.

“Oh, who’s this?”

Blond, busty and with not-quite a pleasant expression on her face and a lipstick too red for school, the student stood up and stared Hermione up and down. And found her wanting, she supposed. Lakshmi answered to the whole room.

“Everyone, this is Hermione Curie. She’s the new fifth-year transfer student to our house. Hermione Curie, the Ravenclaw girls. The one closest to you is Olive Hornby.”

“Have you been to Diagon Alley? We can show you where the best dressmakers are and they can tell you what’s truly in fashion right now.” The blonde—Olive—said sweetly. Young Hermione might have mistaken it for friendship. Now, she knew the insult to her fashion sense as it is. It’s not as if it was unwarranted, as Hermione did pick a dress from among the infirmary’s lost-and-found stack.

“It’s certainly not forest chic,” one of her cheap imitators said, which Hermione soundly ignored. She was only addressing Olive.

“Thank you for your offer, but I think…” Hermione allowed her words to trail away as she gave her own visible appraisal over what the blonde wore and clearly broadcasted in her expression that she found it lacking. “I think I’ll stick to practically any other stores, even second-hand stores. My tastes don’t run too…unique, unfortunately.”

Hermione didn’t miss the way the girl’s eyes narrowed at her.

“But Olive is really the height of fashion,” one of her stooges, oh, sorry, friends, chimed in to support her dear leader.

“Yes, quite avant-garde, isn’t she?” Hermione smiled in a way that was both sweet and vicious. “Well, I don’t tend to use my clothes as political statements, so I’m afraid I can’t quite understand where she’s from.”

“Political statements?” A plainer girl asked.

That poor, poor girl, Hermione shook her head internally as she saw Olive and the other girls giving her various looks of warning. She just gave Hermione the opening she needed.

“Oh, you know, Fashion Statements against Good Taste and Dignity. I mean, good for you for having the courage to go boldly against the system! I’m just not that brave or experimental, I suppose. I’ll stick to timeless elegance.” She answered cheerfully.

That had Olive flaming red. Hermione made a show of turning around, as if she didn’t really care enough about the cluster of girls to turn her back on them.

“Tom, thank you for escorting me, I’m sure I can find my way up the tower on my own.”

“You’re welcome, Hermione. Do watch your health; we’ve only just now allowed the pleasure of your company. It would be a shame if it were to be cut short again.”

She didn’t manage to completely push the exasperation out of her voice as she extended her hand to take the picnic basket from him. He handed it over after reapplying the lightweight charm to it.

“Yes, yes I will. Goodbye, Tom.”

“Goodbye, Hermione.”

He walked out and Hermione turned back to see the girls still standing there and staring at her. Right, Tom Riddle is the Perfect Prefect, Stellar Student and a gentleman. She almost forgot about his reputation. “If anyone is actually interested in talking to Tom, I’m sure he’s at the Slytherin common room if you want to look for him. I, however, need to get to my dorms. I don’t even know where they are yet.”

Lakshmi Chakravarty stood up from her chair with the expression of the cat that had emptied a dozen of cages of canaries and was still promised a pet shop. She had been watching all this time and the remnants of complete enjoyment were still visible on her face.

“No worries, Curie. It’s just up this way. We’re sharing dorms, darling.”

Hermione walked over to her, ignoring the other girls once more. She asked in a lower voice. “You sound much too happy for someone who gets yet another person to fight for bathroom in the morning. Why is that, Chakravarty?”

“Well, the Tower gets so boring sometimes. Your presence promises to liven things up and I’ve run out of easy ways to do so. And please, just call me Lakshmi.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “Have you ever tried to ‘liven things up’ before?”

“Well, this one time, there were the snakes. They were non-venomous, really, it was a harmless bit of fun. There were many screaming and crying, but Lucretia made me promise not to do that again. And just when I managed to get her to laugh too!” She pouted, her plump lips begging to be kissed. It was a perfectly tender expression of slight melancholy. Hermione could easily envision her draped in jewels and rich fabrics where a desperate king would promise to build her the Taj Mahal if only he could get her to stop being sad.

“You’re the kind of person who would burn the world down because they’re bored, aren’t you?” She asked suspiciously. It struck her that Lakshmi was a dangerous sort of beauty—the kind that can start wars.

Lakshmi laughed at that and patted her arm. “Nooo. Of course not. You’re funny, Hermione. Why, how would I live in comfortable wealth if I burn the world down? Where would I get reliable domestic help? That’s such a silly question.”

“Right, sure. I’m sorry that your preference for the mental anguish of your housemates made me wonder whether you’d even mind burning the world down. I’m sure there’s no relation to be had there.” The brunette witch said with a roll of her eyes.

Their distance made her notice that it wasn’t precisely perfume that Lakshmi was wearing, she just seemed to comb scented oils into her thick hair. It was as subtle as it was enthralling.

“Don’t frown, Hermione, you’ll add wrinkles too early. Now, there’s also no need for sarcasm because I’m sure you’re capable of doing much better than that.”

“Why were you at the doorway?” Hermione asked.

“You’re still on to that?” She looked askance at the brunette. “Why, I was waiting for you to arrive, of course. When I saw poor Eugenie rushing in, red-faced and without wanting to give any explanation to anyone, I knew I have to see you work your magic. So, I had one house elf to wait on the hallway and inform me if she saw you arriving. As such, my timing is perfect.”

Hermione groaned. “Right. Eugenie. I still owe her an explanation.”

Lakshmi’s smile was mischievous. “Well, what did she see? Did you happen to be straddling and molesting Mr. Riddle in a mutually enjoyable manner when she came upon you? Was it a clothing optional activity?”

“Goodness, you’re nuts.” Hermione muttered into her hand.

“We’re all mad here, Hermione. At least the interesting ones are.”

It was hard to stay mad at her when it was clear that she was being so entertaining, not to mention that she read muggle books. This time, it was Lewis Carroll too—the witch had good taste.

“I was just giving him flowers as a thank you gift for helping me stay ahead of my classes. Eugenie happened to find my gift…excessive and misunderstands.” She said. She didn’t mind explaining because the other witch didn’t strike her as someone who’d easily believe rumours.

Lakshmi pursed her lips to a moue of disappointment.

“That’s boring.” She declared, “My imagination is much better than reality.”

“Well, if you’ve figured out how to live the lives of our fondest wishes, do tell me. I’ll be first in line for that.” Hermione’s reply was drier than dust.

'-

There were velvet curtains of deep sapphire blue and five beds—the symmetry was maintained because the location of the entrance door took over the floor space for one more bed. Of course, they were four-poster beds fit for the noblest scions of great wizarding houses here. The entrance to the bathroom was discreetly tucked away to the side with the help of some folding screens to hide the entrance, while on the other side, the folding screens merely hide the linen closet. There was enough space for a chest at the bottom of each bed and the walk-in corner with the largest windows were lined with desks. Thick Persian carpets covered floor, richly patterned. And there were…paintings? Pastoral paintings (thank goodness, wizarding portrait annoyed her sometimes), but they were still quite beautiful. The brunette witch blinked several times at the view, as she was sure that her Gryffindor dorms weren’t ever this richly furnished.

There was even enough space in the middle of the room for a tea table set with six chairs. Right. Definitely not the average dorm here.

“So, how is this room arranged?” Hermione asked.

“Eugenie is the bed closest to the door. Obviously, that’s because she’s the prefect. Always has to wake up earliest most of the time and end up latest. I’m the one that’s the farthest from the window after that.”

“Why would you choose that?”

“Because I don’t like getting the sun in my eyes.” She met Hermione’s incredulous gaze with a shrug. “I’m not a morning person.”

“You’re not even a noon person, Lakshmi.” Another voice added.

Hermione turned around to see another dark-haired beauty with waist-length hair, this one tall and elegant and moved with the bearing of a queen. It was a good thing that Hermione had really come to a point where she didn’t care about her physical beauty (or possible lack thereof), because otherwise, she’d be a weepy, insecure mess on the floor.

“That, I am not,” Lakshmi admitted with ease. “Back so soon, Lucretia?”

“Walburga is being unreasonable.” Lucretia replied, turning her gaze to Hermione.

“Ah, Lucretia, this is Hermione Curie, our fifth-year transfer student. Hermione, this is Lucretia Black, seventh year and the unofficial head of our dorm.”

She nodded her head regally. “I’m pleased to meet you, Hermione. You can call me Lucretia.”

“I’m pleased to meet you too, Lucretia.”

She could easily imagine that this was a dorm that not many female students would choose, because with Eugenie, Lakshmi and apparently Lucretia here, any random fourth person chosen to fill the spot would just look dowdy and plain compared to them. Also, Black? Lucretia Black? If she was in the same generation as Walburga, that would mean that she was Sirius’ aunt.

“Also, hmm, the unofficial head of our dorm? How does that work?” Hermione asked.

“Technically, this is her dorm and we are all here on her sufferance,” Lakshmi answered.

“Lakshmi, that’s not true.”

The other witch sniffed elegantly, giving Lucretia a half-lidded gaze. “Oh, it’s absolutely true. This has been Lucretia’s dorm since she came as a first-year, and it would be hers until her last year. Her father had been guaranteed that she’d have no roommates to clutter her life unless she so chooses. It’s completely fine, darling, I have no idea why you try to play that down. You are the jewel of Hogwarts in your generation and you should own it.”

“Well, the other girls of my year have been assigned their own dorms and they’re afraid to move in when I asked them as a first-year.” Lucretia explained.

“And then she has me, who has only moved to Britain a year or so before she enrolled at Hogwarts that when the dorm arrangements and rearrangements came to, the other girls were confused where to exile me to.” The British Indian witch said this with her usual patina of boredom coating her words. One listening to hear might make the mistake that she had no personal attachment to the story.

“It was just a misfortune of numbers. There were twenty-one Ravenclaw girls at the beginning of your year. One person was always going to be the odd one out.” Lucretia said. She was unexpectedly nicer than her pureblood princess persona would suggest.

“Well, I certainly didn’t mistake the second and third years complaining that they’d had to take an odd-one-out first-year in.”

“Their dorms were quite full already,” Lucretia added.

“Then-third-year Lucretia kindly offered me a spot in her marvellously empty dorm, so I accepted.” Lakshmi explained easily and even made a show of observing her fingernails. “Why would I even say no? Please.”

“Some of the girls didn’t give you an easy time about it.”

“Well, you can’t help with the stupid, not even in Ravenclaw” Lakshmi said pragmatically. “I’ve figured out early on that you weren’t asking out of politeness and that you meant it. Anyway, I did promise to pay you back for the favour. Eugenie transferred in at our third-year and now we have you, Hermione. Other than our great lady here—”

“—Lakshmi, please—”

“—we are all exiles of various sorts. So, as Lucretia had taken you under her glossy black wing, make yourself at home.”

Oddly enough, Hermione thought she just might.

“Thank you.”

“It’s no problem at all,” Lucretia Black insisted.

“Now, you can choose between the two remaining beds over here…” Lakshmi directed her away from the bed at the door.

'-

Lucretia had other social engagements, and thus had to apologise for not being able to help Hermione settle in. The brunette witch assured her that it was completely fine, and besides, she had Lakshmi. Not that Hermione even had that much to begin with, even after she went with Professor Merrythought to get measured for uniforms yesterday afternoon. Those had just arrived today, along with a smattering of dresses Hermione had chosen out of a catalogue (with expressions of regret from the seamstress and tailors about possible fabric scarcity or shortage that was still nowhere near the levels she’d seen in non-magical WWII history books), basic school supplies and school books.

She had unpacked the picnic basket and remembered Tom’s lily-of-the-valley bouquet and her box of chocolate truffles (Mmm, chocolate truffles). The bouquet had been unexpectedly preserved—Tom must have cast a stasis charm on it as he helped her pack. She resolved to think about what to do with the bouquet later. Maybe she’d ask for another small bottle for the infirmary and just keep a small part of it? Yes, that would work.

Now, Hermione had carefully eased the crown out of her hair after casting some unsticking charms. She laid some spare books to support it on her bedside table, and then placed the crown on top.

“You’re not tossing that out?” Lakshmi asked.

“No! I put the effort to make sure this whole wreath consists of only two vines. Throwing it away defeats the whole purpose of ensuring that they’re still alive.” She said. She dipped the trailing ends of the crown that were the cut ends into a spare glass she’d picked up from the supplies closet in the bathroom, now filled with water. She added some minerals into the glass to be sure.

Lakshmi gave a theatrical sigh “You made it yourself? How tedious. I thought Riddle had made it for you, for sure. Foiled by the boring real world yet again!”

Hermione shrugged. “Well, he did help me with some charms when I was stuck to remember some of them. It had been a while, you see. But it’s mostly my work.”

She observed it critically, casting another sticking charm to make sure the glass wouldn’t be knocked over. When she was satisfied, she dropped herself on her bed. The bed covers and linens on both unoccupied bed had been fresh, as the house elfs had been informed that she was discharged today.

The black-haired witch turned to her with gleaming amber eyes from her own bed. The expression really reminded Hermione of a cat on the prowl.

“You know, you should tell everyone that he did made it for you. Considering that he actually went on a picnic with you, I’m sure he doesn’t mind. All the girls’ jealousy would be such fun.”

Hermione’s warning look was a jaded one. She even made a point of fiddling with her wand.

“Do I look that naïve? They’ll form into mobs to kill me. In their perspective, it would also be completely justified. Who is this new girl, anyway? Where did she come from? And now, apparently Tom Riddle just publicly proposed to her. It’s got to be Amortentia.”

Lakshmi pouted.

“Damn, you know British flower language? That is so not fun.”

“Well, not for you it isn’t. It’s fun enough for me.” She replied sardonically, absolutely not admitting that she wouldn’t have the faintest clue about what the flowers mean if Tom hadn’t told her.

Hermione reminded herself to find a book on it in the library quickly.

“Anyway, they won’t kill you, Hermione. They’re not that stupid. I imagine that it wouldn’t really last that long, what with Riddle most probably clarifying things to keep public order. It’s not going to be that bad” She said.

The brunette witch snorted. “You try that yourself if you want it so much.”

“I’m afraid I’m not that brave,” Lakshmi demurred from under lowered eyelids. It would have been bashful had Hermione not known that she wouldn’t be afraid of something that pitiful.

“Stealing my words now, are you?”

“Well, I’m certainly not the one who wore a crown of orange blossoms and honeysuckle by Tom Riddle’s side while crossing the whole school. Considering that this is you, I would also bet this month’s allowance that you have an expression of sheer ‘I don’t give a damn’ plastered on your face while you did that, which would give credence to the thought that, yes, you are that shameless to have stolen Tom Riddle from under the noses of the entire Hogwarts female populace.” The other witch stated.

“At least that’s how they see it. I’m sure you won’t be surprised about the number of people like me who really don’t give a damn—except maybe for pure schadenfreude.”

“Oh, bloody buggering hell.”

Hermione allowed herself the luxury of letting loose to curse. A lot. She ended up using up most of the vocabulary she picked up from Ron but rarely used because she had to set an example to the younger Aurors and Unspeakables (in the office, anyway). Well, there were no such concerns here.

Lakshmi didn’t even blink, though her grin did grow wider.

“You provide the most interesting entertainment in years, Darling. You have my sincere gratitude.”

“Do the students really have nothing else to do? Like, homework? Preparation for OWLS? NEWTS?” Hermione hissed. “Maybe trying to figure out how we’ll all survive and win this bloody war? Grindelwald is still out there and he’s certainly not just having tea with the King!”

The dark-haired witch blinked her thick eyelashes, curiously regarding Hermione. There was an almost apologetic cast to her mien.

“Dearest Hermione, do you really want me to answer that question?”

Hermione’s answer came in the form of an extended, frustrated scream, muffled by the pillow that she buried her face into.

'-

Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Eleven Photoset

11 Uncomfortable Truths

Hermione’s stubbornness and remembrance of Luna had made her pick up her flower crown and wore it when she went out again, all the way through the afternoon. It didn’t matter if she was casually reading in the common room or was presently meandering back to the library.

The blatant stares were starting to get on her nerves, though. Her mood had only improved slightly when she met Professor Merrythought, a woman with a warm smile and a shock of white hair. The Defence professor beamed the moment she saw the intertwining red-yellow and white blossoms, admiring her taste in accessories. The older witch only recommended adding a spell or two for resilience, to ensure that the flowers won’t fall easily, and Hermione did just that after she thanked the teacher for that good idea. After that, they simply set off to Diagon Alley for another round of shopping (she still didn’t have any combat-worthy boots).

Yet Hermione had only been back for ten minutes before she stumbled upon one of those Hogwarts idiots, outright gaping at her. The experience soured her from the idea of dining in the Great Hall tonight. Perhaps she’ll have an impromptu picnic yet again, if only for herself. She’ll pack some food from the kitchen and then make her way to one of the astronomy classes in astronomy tower.

Hermione had been going out of the Ravenclaw tower with Lakshmi when the other witch noted that she wasn’t going in the direction of the Great Hall.

“Once more to the library, eh?” Lakshmi asked.

“No, not really. I’ll just walk around. Maybe drop in at the astronomy tower.”

“You’re not having dinner?”

“Oh, I plan on getting some food from the kitchen. It’s just…” the brunette sighed, rubbing her forehead. Her dormmate waited for her to collect her thoughts together with unexpected patience. “I’m just not in the mood to encounter the more foolish and dense denizens of Hogwarts. I’m sure most of the people here are great, really. But some are simply…”

The brunette faltered, ending her statement with a soundless shrug. Lakshmi must have recognised her agitation in the way her fists occasionally clench, or how her shoulders sometimes stiffened, for she replied with ease.

“Sure. Just make sure you don’t get back too late. We do have curfew you know?”

“I know, Lakshmi, I know.” It was on the list of regulations that Tom had handed to her on their first few meetings.

“And there’s no guarantee that the prefect you might stumble upon on your way back would be Riddle, who would certainly let you off scot-free.” Lakshmi said with a slight grin.

Hermione snorted, unamused. “Right. Say hi to the others for me at dinner.”

“I will.” She waved Hermione off.

It was only after she made her way to the kitchen that Hermione realised Lakshmi hadn’t even blinked at the fact that she had been wandering around Hogwarts with a crown of flowers on her head. Hermione would’ve forgotten that she’d been wearing it if the scent of honeysuckle and orange blossoms didn’t delicately wreathe her from time to time. Lakshmi has a higher tolerance for the weird than she seemed.

She didn’t dwell on it for too long once she reached the kitchen. Hermione had greeted the elfs cheerfully, surprising them with her second effort to remember the names of any elfs she’d forgotten. She made an effort to memorise all their names, even if she did say that she probably wouldn’t be able to remember all of them at once. It was rather sad to see that they were excited for something so simple.

Her supper was certainly packed in no time because of it.

After that, she was left to wander and find an unused astronomy class for her purposes.

Not all Hogwarts students realised that the castle actually had more than one astronomy classroom—though arguably, most who thought that way noticeably lack common sense. Technically, there was only one tower, but a little jiggering of space ensures that the windows and retractable ceiling of a class on any floor show the vistas from the top of the tower, ensuring that all classes have the best view for observation.

The technical proof on how this is managed is much longer than the margins of Hermione’s essays can contain. Suffice to say that she had enough of an understanding about it to know that if she wanted some time to herself and enjoy viewing the stars on her own, she could pick any unused class in the astronomy tower and it would serve her as well as the ones most often used by the astronomy professor.

The doors of one opened easily with a slight push—like all astronomy classes, all the walls except for the one that covered the winding stairs were the tower’s outside walls, and all the outer walls were covered with French windows to allow a full 360 degrees view. A step out in any direction would lead to the balcony (observation deck) that ringed the tower in a continuous circle. There was only the lightest of dusts over the tables, which showed just how zealous the house elfs of Hogwarts are at fulfilling their tasks. She cast Lumos and then tapped her wand over several lighting fixtures to light them—she didn’t need that much light, just enough to see her way to the windows without tripping over chairs or stools.

The wind was refreshingly cool on her face. She wryly thought that she did remember to bring her jacket this time.

She placed the basket on top of the bannister and then climbed up to sit on it.

Hermione didn’t know how long she spent sitting on the balcony, her legs dangling down in the air, the treetops far below her as she ate sandwiches and pies in turn with only the barest acknowledgement of their flavours. She entertained herself by watching the sun setting slowly at some time after five, admiring the bright pinks and peach glows of the sky that slowly flowed into rich purples. She tried to find the Venus once the sun was down and its glare no longer obscuring the paler celestial objects, and yet she failed because the planet had set faster than the sun.

That implied that it probably rose faster than the sun too and would be visible right before dawn. Hmm. She supposed it was being the morning star more than it was the evening star right now.

The calming breeze and the wide, wide sky made it easy for Hermione to lose herself in observations and thought just then.

'-

“Hermione.”

She pulled away from watching the stars come out and fill the sky with their innumerable lights. He stepped forward from the darkened doorway, the warm glow of the lanterns flattered his pale skin better than she imagined harsh electric lights would, making him seem more human. He was dressed for dinner, with a dark green waistcoat that she suspected was made of silk.

“Tom. How did you get here?”

“By the stairs.” When she kept staring at him for a little while, unamused, he gave slightly more information. “Your dormmate told me of where you were going.”

Well, she knew he was diligent for the things he cared about. Even if she had no idea why, it was obvious that finding her this evening was in his interest. The part of her that was taught by Daphne bemoaned her rather simple dress of celadon that she’d worn to the picnic that would definitely lose in elegance to his current suit. She was too aware that her curls weren’t tied up in any form and had fallen wildly down her back. A savvier part of her insisted that she managed to pull off looking ‘unearthly’ rather well, what with the flower crown she still wore.

Hermione huffed inwardly, still not quite convinced. She probably looked like a deranged dryad right now.

“Watching the stars?” He asked.

She nodded, looking up again. “At first, I came to watch the sunset, after that I stayed for the stars.” It was difficult for her not to feel pensive and she sighed.

“It was just like the old times. Luna used to pull me to the rooftops or the nearest available tower to see the stars whenever she thinks I need distracting or if I was thinking myself into circles. We’d start from the brightest constellations, if we were in the city, though we can find the fainter constellations if we were in the countryside. The stars are also comfortably familiar—wherever you are, however much your surroundings change, they stay the same.”

Perhaps that was the reason why she was being maudlin. If she didn’t look down and see that she was in a different Hogwarts, she might even convince herself that she was here with Harry and Ron. Or maybe she was at the roof of the house she shared with Malina, with Malina and Luna—each of them doing it for fun as well as their own respective projects. She heard his steps approaching, stopping at some point behind her, but it did not concern much. Tom placed his left hand next to hers on the balcony but leaned no further into her space.

Pieces of pastry fell from her hand and she watched the paper-thin pieces twist and turn in the air as they fall before the darkness swallowed them. She scattered several more pieces on purpose, just to see the fragments dance in the wind again.

“Why don’t we get down and have a proper dinner in the Great Hall?” He asked, to her left.

“I’m already somewhat full from all the food the elfs packed for me.”

“I heard that you were avoiding the hall for a particular reason.”

She huffed. Must Lakshmi tell Tom everything? Then again, she probably thought that there was no harm about it, and Hermione couldn’t exactly argue with that. There was no harm about it.

“I don’t want to be someone else but me, and if I see one more idiot I today, I might blow my top.”

“We can go anywhere else but the Great Hall if that’s what you wish.”

Hermione glanced to the side. Why was he suddenly being so solicitous? “I don’t know. I don’t think I want to be anywhere but here.”

Here, she could almost convince herself that her friends were merely out of sight, not gone.

As if to make her point, she stood up from her sitting position—not by setting her feet on the ground, but by standing on the edge of the balustrade. A small remaining piece of peach pie was on her hand, and she deftly stepped over his hand and walked several steps away. To her left were the tree tops of the Forbidden Forest that brushed against the castle on this side, hemming the grey stones like prickly waves of a churning cove. The darkened grounds also hid just how high the tower stood from ground level, else she might’ve been suddenly gained altophobia.

But at this height, she could also see the sea of green spread far and wide, with a distant twinkling of lights that she suspected was Hogsmeade. She understood in that moment why Harry loved flying. It was the prospect of freedom under the open sky and no boundaries or limits to hold you back—

Hermione.”

Tom’s voice pulled her back from her musings. “What?”

“Please get down.”

He sounded like he meant it, which surprised her enough to turn around.

Her foot met empty air instead of stone and Hermione slipped.

She swung out her left hand, scrambling to catch the balcony’s edge. Her wand was in her right hand, and even as she fell down, she could cast flame whip fast enough to catch the edge of the railings. The way her right shoulder yanked was a comforting sensation that told her that the flame whip had managed to grip something. It was only getting up that was going to be a problem. Hermione couldn’t easily cast any other spell without releasing the flame whip. If she did, then she would need to start considering what she could do to make her fall hurt less, or not hurt at all…

Fortunately for Hermione, Tom cast a Summoning Spell on her. The first jerk was uncomfortable, but it was rather smooth sailing right until she crashed right into him and they both toppled down on the floor.

“If you really want to die, couldn’t you at least have the grace to do so when I wanted to kill you?” She had never heard him sound so sarcastic. His hand firmly gripped her shoulder.

“I don’t want to die!” Hermione countered.

“Right, and any sane person would have sat on the balcony’s edge.”

“I was fine. I could use Wingardium Leviosa to slow my fall—it worked on a falling quidditch player.”

“And a quidditch pitch already has a hundred and one charms to slow down fall and buffer the impact! You can guarantee that the grounds here wouldn’t have any.”

Her face heated up because she knew he was right. They were sitting almost face-to face on the floor now, one of her leg sprawled over his, while Tom’s expression was dark. His next words held a coldness she didn’t expect, but it was the words themselves that was a direct hit.

“I should’ve known. You’re as selfish as anyone else.”

Hermione gaped. “What the hell?

“Does it amuse you, Curie, to overturn someone’s future completely and walk away? Laugh at the wreckage you’ve carelessly left behind?”

“I do not do that.” She hissed. She had grabbed his lapels without thinking.

“It’s your current plan, isn’t it? For all your promises, you’d leave me without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“I’m still here and right in front of you!”

“Not for long. Only until you chose death. Your memories hold more sway with you than the living—your dead friends hold more sway with you, so much that I suspect, you’d rather choose to be with them than be here.”

She drew a sharp intake of breath.

“You are suicidal, Hermione.”

He could have struck her physically right there and then and cut her less. Hermione stood up quickly, her cheeks red with rage while he pulled himself up with no less speed.

“I am not! I know a hundred and one spells that would allow me to fall safely from a great height. Since I’ve already managed to hang on with the flame whip, I have more than enough time to come up with a good solution. In fact, I can demonstrate that to you right now!”

No.

“Ha! You’re afraid to be proven wrong?”

“You’re only proving me right.” He snapped.

Hermione’s had gripped the bannister with one hand, fully prepared to pull herself up to it once more, but Tom had grabbed hold of her and wasn’t letting go. He wasn’t easy to dislodge, and soon she’d realise that it would require a full-blown grapple to escape.

“What are you doing?” She hissed.

“Apparently, stopping you from doing something stupid.” His expression was the distaste of someone whose friends had abandoned him to shovel manure.

“And I’ve heard enough of your insults that I’m going to prove them false right now.” Her arms had been pressing outwards against his for some time, always varying her position and trying to find a weak spot. Yet his restraint was more resilient than she thought as he changed his own hold whenever she changed hers.

“And I was only pointing out something you’re too blind to see.”

Hermione dropped her knees and let herself fall to the ground, surprising him with the sudden change in their centres of gravity while her hands grabbed his arms. Tom didn’t adapt fast enough and fell forward as she went down; she deftly used his forward motion to throw him back over her shoulders. Her sensei would be proud.

(All thanks to Harry’s insistence on getting martial arts instructors for the Auror corps).

Hermione stood up. She had only climbed half way up the balcony before she was tackled down again. Her breath was knocked out of her lungs as her back hit the floor and she could feel his weight over her. A distant part of her was dryly remarking that this seemed to be turning into a new habit of his.

“Let go!”

“Only if you promise to stay away from the balcony.” He bit out.

“You accused me of lying to you and you won’t even let me prove you wrong?” She was incredulous. “You jerkass.”

Something in what she said irritated Tom even more and he cursed.

“Oh, for the love of—”

And then his mouth crashed over hers, a culmination of the frustration and edge he felt. Hermione was only surprised for a second before her outrage rose up again and she met him move for move, for the aggravation that she felt was certainly no less than his. She was all too aware of the feeling that they’d been dancing on the brink—it was there from the moment they exchanged words with the precision of knife throwers letting their daggers fly. This was a debate in nips and tongues, of heat generated by anger.

Channelling all that physically towards each other was inarguably cathartic for both of them. It was probably why when he pulled away soon enough, gazing down at her, his voice was more composed even if there was still colour high on his cheeks.

“Are you going to actually listen now?”

Hermione gingerly retracted her left hand from the nape of his neck (how did it get there?), slowly catching her breath. His eyes were dark, the pupils fully dilated. She closed her eyes for a second to regain her composure and focus, to not automatically stare at his lips.

(It’s all just the emotions running high in the moment.)

“It depends whether you’re going to keep accusing me.” She said.

He rolled his eyes and she thought she heard him sigh as he sat up.

“Let me tell you a story, then.”

When she opened her eyes again, she could see him offering his hand. She took it, the movement felt more natural in that moment than it had ever been. He pulled her up and didn’t release that hand afterwards.

“Alright.”

“A friend of mine had a father who was an Auror.” Tom began the tale. Hermione leaned back against the bannisters, the leg farthest from him pulled up against her chest. “The man joined the force for his love of the hunt, of finding and catching a challenging prey—for he was bright and bored and he scarcely needed to enter profession to earn a living, considering how prosperous his family’s estate was. One day, a family member of one of his prey decided to pay him back for his favour and kidnapped his wife and child. It was a tight chase. He was in suspense for weeks during the process—something that you needn’t be, as I can tell you the ending easily right now.”

His neutral tone made it difficult to discern the fates of the unfortunates in the story, so she asked despite her own misgivings.

“What happened?”

“Pain, blood, death, in that particular order. I’m sure you’re not too interested in the gory details even if I can provide it to you.” Tom said calmly, and he was right about her preference too. She did not delight in suffering; she had no need to know the exact way it was inflicted on the man’s family. “Afterwards, people say that he was so brave, to be able to move on from such tragedy. He threw himself into his work, caught the guilty people and went on to catch even more criminals from that point on. All in all, he seemed fine.”

Hermione nodded slowly, following the story but unsure of where he was going to take this.

“If there was a dangerous dark wizard or witch that needed to be questioned or apprehended, he was always the first to volunteer. He didn’t care if the situation was dangerous or if the risks were high. He’d been hospitalised more a few times after that, and always he returned to the field whenever he recovered.”

He paused, dark eyes staring at her, and she had to force herself to breathe after she realised she was unconsciously holding her breath.

“And?”

“How long do you think he had until the hunt claimed him?”

“I don’t understand…”

Tom’s gaze didn’t waver from her, his tone still dulcet even if every point he made had the precision of a scalpel cutting out the heart away from the lungs.

“He might insist that he was not suicidal, but I don’t see how his carelessness over his life was a significant improvement over it. He courted death. He practically danced with his own demise with every close shave, every near-impossible case that he took on himself.” He leaned forward now and took her closest hand in his.

“Now, Hermione, tell me. Is that what you’re going to do? Or can you give me your promise that you would not be reckless with your life while I still live?”

'-

It was to Tom’s credit that he didn’t push her for an answer this time, content to simply stare at her hand that he was holding. She did not know what thoughts occupied his mind even as his thumb idly traced patterns at the back of her palm, particularly over the parts skinned when she tried to grasp the outer walls of the tower. The witch had the weirdest idea that he was going to continue holding her hand hostage until she came up with some sort of answer.

“I really did come here to look at the stars.” Hermione said. He glanced up at her and said nothing. “And I was being impatient with some of the foolishness the other students display.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t.” Tom said.

“I know. I still needed to say it.” She said.

His reply was a wordless hum.

“And I’m not suicidal.” That earned her a sceptical, though silent, look. “It’s true! I’m not. I’m just…sad, I guess. I miss them.”

She was lost in her own thoughts. He gave her time. When Tom spoke up next, his voice was soft.

“Tell me, then, would you regret being able to meet your dead friends sooner than you expected?”

She hadn’t even realised that she’d looked away until she felt a light tap on her cheek and she turned back to him. Hermione supposed she could say ‘no’, but she would be lying. And she so disliked saying untruths about something so essential to herself, lest she inadvertently believed the lie and became blinded to her own nature.

“It’s as I thought. They’re more important to you than this castle full of strangers, isn’t it?”

He didn’t need to say that she valued her memories more than him or her newer acquaintances as he turned away from her. She wanted to say that it wasn’t strictly true—if she was too lost in her memories, the thought of changing his future wouldn’t have even occurred to her.

Hermione sighed.

“Luna always said that I need to live in the moment more. That I need to appreciate what I have and not spend all my time mourning my losses or tirelessly reaching into the vision I have of the future.”

He might be mostly looking ahead, but she knew he was listening in the slight tilt of his head.

“If she could see me now, she would’ve told me that I can always make new friends.” Hermione admitted.

A few moments passed before he turned back to her and spoke up.

“And?”

“I can make that promise to you, that I won’t be careless with my life, but I’ll have you know that it’s the sort of promise you can only make to your real friend.” She said.

His brows creased at her statement, and she realised she had to clarify it for him. He was perhaps one of the few people who didn’t immediately see the implications of her statement.

“If I’m going to be your friend, Tom, you also have to be mine.” She said.

“I think I did fine on that part. I’ve just prevented your accidental suicide, didn’t I?” He asked dryly.

“I’m not suicidal!”

She glared and he smirked, probably because he’d successfully baited her, yet she did understand the point he was trying to make. Hermione would’ve been more pissed off at him for all their previous shouting and his accusations if she hadn’t managed to recognise by now what his fear-driven anger looked like. She couldn’t even be angry at him right now even when she wanted to.

“You know what? You absolutely suck at showing concern, Tom. You should practice more.” She said sardonically. “It’s excellent for your first try, though. Thanks for caring.”

The incredulous expression on his face was priceless, and Hermione couldn’t hold back her laughter at that. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him without his polished façade before—and she wasn’t talking about his dark lord side either.

“I don’t care.”

“Yeah, sure.” She managed to choke out between chuckles.

“I don’t.” He insisted as she picked herself up. Tom followed suit at that. “If you were to die, I’d still be on that road to death you saw before. Currently I’m no better than a traveller without a roadmap and who knows how many dead ends I’ll have to go through before finding the path I’m looking for. That’s not including the probability of fatal paths that exist and—are you even listening?

She turned back at the door, waiting for him. This time, their arms linked with barely a thought.

“Oh, I understand completely. I’m Miss Map to you, right?”

“Precisely.”

Her innocuous smile still earned her the occasional flat look from his direction, but she didn’t change it at all. If he can push her buttons, the good news was that she knew what pushed his buttons as well.

They walked out of the astronomy tower, picnic basket included. By some wordless agreement, they talked of nothing much beyond the lessons and classes.

'-

They supped in one of the greenhouses.

How Tom managed to get the keys to one, she had no idea (his only answer was a mysterious smile, and she wasn’t about to feed his ego by actually asking). Yet she certainly wasn’t turning down the opportunity to sit among some jasmine bushes. What she did know, was that he listened to her statement that she was not up to meeting the crowds at the Great Hall again (or to use Tom’s terminology, apparently ‘not fit for company’), and he adjusted accordingly by finding a different but suitable place. Their supper was thus a humble affair that suited her.

Well, the fragrance tropical flowers, the single lantern lighting the place and the innumerable bright stars wove the illusion that of the secret garden of some sultan straight out of a thousand and one nights, where a princess enchanted into a bird by daylight was imprisoned. She shook her head before her imagination ran away with her.

The meal was mostly cold meats and pies, though there was enough variety in bread, cheese, meat, condiments, sauces and several vegetables for her to construct almost any kind of sandwich she wanted. There were some bottles of butterbeer. The kitchen elfs had outdone themselves yet again. A few years (as she remembered) of living either alone or with a friend meant she was too used to surviving on her own haphazard cooking—she was more aware of the blessed cornucopia that is Hogwarts’ kitchen now than she had been when she was younger and had nothing to compare it to.

From the ease that Tom sliced bread loaves, cut meat and spread dressing (not a drop spilt, and she envied the evenness of his slices), while focusing completely on her conversation, he probably had no idea what this competence in making his own meal told her. His first reflex wasn’t even that of most purebloods like Draco’s, which was to wait for the hostess to prepare the food, even in a picnic. He even took one loaf away from her with an appalled glance after he saw how she had roughly cut the first slice away.

“Are you trying to bludgeon the bread to submission?” She didn’t understand why he had to look dismayed. It was just bread, for goodness’ sakes.

“No! I just need another slice—”

“Oh no you don’t, Hermione. Stop. It’s not firewood, so don’t hack.” Tom criticised.

“My bread is fine.”

“It’s lopsided and the thicker part looks torn through than cut. It’s as appetising as a random kitchen sponge you’ve just picked up from the cleaning bucket.” His reply was downright acerbic.

He was even looking down on her poor bread! She folded her arms defensively.

“Oh, fine! Show me how it’s done, then.”

Even as she harrumphed in disagreement, she did let him show her how to cut properly. It started with choosing the right knife instead of just picking the first average-looking one that drew her attention (“there is a reason the serrated knife is used”). She didn’t know that making sure it was at least a third longer than the width of the loaf was even necessary, or that if the bread was soft it would be better if the knife was longer.

“Oh. And here I was wondering why the kitchen elfs gave us so many knives.” She mused.

She could hear him huff. “Obviously. Have you been raised by wolves all this time?”

Tom easily ignored the fact that she was trying to burn him on the spot with the force of her glare.

They only started to talk about other subjects once he was done casting aspersions on her barbarous sandwich-making skills. It wasn’t her fault that modern supermarkets provided cut loaves! He was the one who was being as exacting about domestic skills as her mother.

The way that Tom actually looked like he enjoyed his simple meal made her suspect that his own basis of comparison was no less stark than hers, if not more so. It struck her that his orphanage probably experienced the full bore of wartime rationing. Compared to that, any meal out of Hogwarts’ kitchen were feasts fit for a king. His skill convinced her that he had his share of chores to do when he was in the orphanage too, which probably included preparing food for the younger kids.

Hermione had to look down and focus on her own sandwich as she replied to some issue of transfiguration. Even if the Ravenclaw managed to keep her tone normal, she didn’t know if she would manage to successfully hide all hints of pity from her expression, and so it was better if he didn’t see her face at all until she managed to compose herself in a moment or two. From what she’d known of him so far, she thought he’d hate it rather than welcome it.

As reluctant as she was to acknowledge it, she had to admit that Tom was actually excellent company, especially with the breadth of conversation topics and the full extent of his courteousness—that is, when he was not being sarcastic. Even then, he was still amusing, and it wasn’t as if she didn’t have her own scathing wit when she was annoyed enough to stop being nice or polite.

Hermione had to keep reminding herself that he was most certainly a practitioner of several branches of dark arts at this point.

'-

“I can find my way back to the Ravenclaw Tower on my own.” Hermione said.

“I’m sure you can.”

It did not stop him from escorting her there. She knew that staring him down wouldn’t make him go way—she’d done that several times to no effect.

Tom,

“Does it occur to you that I might actually have other affairs of my own to settle at the Ravenclaw Tower?” His tone was mild as he said this.

She had to admit that it was entirely plausible and she said so, but follow-up questions about what exactly his business was had not been answered satisfactorily.

When he asked Hermione to find ‘Misses Delacour and Chakravarty to join us’, she was curious but did went off to her dorm to look for them. If Olive Hornby and her posse gave her the stink eye the moment she stepped into the common room, especially once they noticed that Tom was casually waiting outside, the brunette couldn’t care less.

She found Eugenie and Lakshmi alright. Eugenie was surprised that Tom might be looking for her, while Lakshmi was undoubtedly intrigued. The minor mystery deepened when he asked them for their patience and a little of their time to find a slightly more private surrounding before he’ll clarify his intention.

One corridor later and the four of them found themselves in one of the many unused classrooms that was prevalent in Hogwarts.

“Thank you for coming at such a short notice.” He said.

“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” Eugenie assured him. Lakshmi mostly only shrugged.

“It’s fine.”

“Ladies, I’m afraid I would have to ask a favour,” Tom said. Hermione was about to ask why she even needed to be there if that was the case, if his gaze didn’t imply that there would be answers coming. He was back to being the respectable prefect right now.

“Which is?” Lakshmi asked.

“Please be Hermione’s friends.”

Hermione closed her mouth before she started imitating a goldfish. It was the last thing she expected him to say.

“It’s always been my pleasure to be Hermione’s friend,” Eugenie assured him with a warm smile. Lakshmi seemed to be having more fun from staring back and forth between Hermione’s disbelief and Tom’s apparent seriousness and sincerity.

“What. The. Hell?” Hermione blurted.

“You did say that you miss your friends and you don’t have any here.” He answered, as if his solution was anywhere in the vicinity of normal.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you get to be ham-handed and—” She stopped herself and took a deep breath before she started yelling at the bloody interfering wizard. “I can make friends on my own, you…you lummox.”

She thought she could see his slight smile growing when she became so irritated that she ran out of words.

“There was no guarantee that it would be fast enough to counteract your recklessness.” Tom answered. He dodged the swipe she’d just aimed at his shoulder.

“Recklessness?” Eugenie asked, confused.

“Oh, yes. You should’ve seen what she was doing when I found her this even—”

“I was star watching! In the astronomy tower!” She yelped, lunging at him. He might be fast enough to avoid her grasp, but she managed to cover his mouth with her hand. He was more amused than affronted since he wasn’t trying that hard to get her hand off. In fact, she could swear that he was silently laughing.

Of course, that was when Hermione turned around and saw that both Eugenie and Lakshmi had eyebrows that rose up to their hairlines. Eugenie herself was covering her mouth with both hands, while Lakshmi was sitting at the edge of the teacher’s table with a wide grin on her face.

“Well, Riddle, I know we’re not exactly friends, but I swear I’ve never seen you get so cosy with anyone before.” She drawled.

“Um, this isn’t what it looks like?” Hermione sheepishly said, even as she slowly stopped yanking his tie.

“Why not? It looks like you’re good friends.” The blonde Ravenclaw answered innocently.

Lakshmi bit her lip and waggled her eyebrows at that, clearly holding back her laughter even as she answered. “Yes. Very…good…friends.”

Hermione couldn’t have pulled her hands faster if it was burnt.

Unfortunately, she forgot that it meant Tom was free to speak.

“She was lonely this evening. I don’t think I can be of much use since we’re not even in the same house, so you see, I’m worried for her.” His words sounded so genuine and caring. Eugenie was already nodding fervently at his request.

The tone was so alien to what she knew him to be that it gave her goose bumps.

“Cut out that fake smile! You’re making me want to hurl.” Hermione hissed as she glared sideways, sure that neither Lakshmi nor Eugenie could hear her.

He had the audacity to grin, and he still used that oh-so-concerned tone even as he spoke softly only for her ears. “But I do care so much about your well-being, Hermione.” 

“And pigs may fly.”

Tom shrugged, his tone turning more neutral. “Consider them as my insurance, then.”

Their gaze met, and she knew that even if he hadn’t said anything about the main causes of their argument this evening, it was still at the forefront of his mind. She tightened her jaw, realising that she couldn’t exactly laid his accusations to rest easily or prove him false. He’d surprisingly managed to find a blind spot of hers at so short an acquaintance. Then again, their conversations had blasted through small talk, whirled past mundane concerns, and right into life-and-death territory. She’d stared into the abyss of his soul unflinching and the abyss had stared back into hers.

They had a brutal honesty with each other that most people don’t even have after years of friendship.

Lakshmi cleared her throat and raised her voice.

“You know, if the two of you want to look into each other’s eyes the whole night and whisper sweet nothings to each other, you really don’t need us as an audience.”  She waved one finely manicured hand carelessly at them, her amber eyes half-lidded. “Not that I mind, to be honest. Go on. Pretend we’re not even here. I haven’t had this much entertainment in ages.”

Eugenie blushed and looked away while it only made Hermione stare at the ceiling in despair.

“Merlin’s underpants, Lakshmi! Your imagination doesn’t so much as run away from you as win the Olympics!”

The brunette dearly wanted to wipe off the smug smile from Tom’s face.

Lakshmi smirked. “Well, it’s not just my imagination if you’ve laid your hands on him in front of us all this time, is it?”

Hermione let out a frustrated growl, threw her hands in the air, and then stalked out of the class without further ado. Tom turned back to the two remaining Ravenclaw witches, as courteous as ever.

“I hope my request isn’t too much trouble for you, then, Delacour? Chakravarty?”

“It has never been any trouble at all. I’d be happy to.” Eugenie insisted.

“I’m intrigued enough for now to accept, Riddle.” Lakshmi said. “Though now that Hermione isn’t here…what is this recklessness that you mention?”

She was not a Ravenclaw for nothing, and she was always perceptive at the prospect of new information. Tom leaned back against the table nearest to him and think, picking parts of it, considering whether it was to his liking and discarding those that was not.

He carefully began his tale. “As you are aware, I was looking for Hermione earlier this evening when I met you, and you informed me of her plans…”

'-

René Descartes might have posited way back in the Age of Reason that mental processes can exist outside the body, and that the body without the mind cannot think, but the scientific progress of subsequent eras would batter the position of such extreme dualism until only a shadow of it remained.

Hermione’s education on wizarding healing as well as anatomy and physiology has provided her with plenty of cases that spoke of the reverse. If the mind is separate from the body, why do people who have experienced damage to the Broca’s area of their brain have difficulty expressing themselves through language that they’ve used without any problem before? Or witness the famous case of Phineas Gage, who somehow improbably survived an accident that destroyed a good chunk of his left frontal lobe and was afterwards reported by his friends and family to be a different man than he was before.

It is not difficult to acknowledge that the mind—and even the self—emerges from the structure and chemistry of the brain, even as one acknowledges that life experience and learning constantly alters it as well.

Why Hermione thought it prudent to run through these old memories as she made her way back to the Ravenclaw Tower reflected her effort to calm herself—she hadn’t completely recovered her equilibrium after all that happened this evening. She did not think her temper was volatile, nor did she think that she was impatient. At the very least, she didn’t think she was after her Hogwarts years were passed.

Yet she clearly had exchanged harsh words with Tom before and acted rashly, and she could not even blame him for this. He’d been unexpectedly reasonable before he also blew his top. Hadn’t she also walked out of her companions just now without giving them much explanation? Caught in a snit of her own?

She groaned. Her cheeks coloured as she covered her face with her hands.

Hermione found that even if she knew all these things about how the mind emerged from the brain, she hadn’t exactly understood what it meant. Whatever neural architecture that her brain has that reflected the memories and skills she’d kept, no matter the structural similarity or dissimilarity between her current brain and her brain before the accident that landed her here and damaged it, she could not deny that she’d missed a change that was just as significant.

Her body was one that fitted perfectly for fifth-year Hermione, not Unspeakable Hermione who’d started to settle to her position and feel comfortable in her occupation a few years after she entered the Ministry.

Of course, the largest chunk of her memories and her sense of self was that of an ambitious and industrious witch a few years out of Hogwarts. That was beyond doubt. For any problem she might encounter as a Hogwarts student, she can come up with more alternative solutions and actions to it just due to a few more years of experience than other student of her physical age. Not to mention all the skills she possessed (of which not all she could account for, nor remember how exactly she acquired them). She would never be as foolish or desperate as an actual Romeo or Juliet—wherein faking your death and not informing your impulsive lover of the subterfuge sounded like an excellent idea.

Yet her brain was part and parcel of her current body; it was a continuous part of it, not something separate or disconnected. Adolescence was a period where you’re constantly bombarded by a cocktail of hormones, along with the accompanying mood swings that come with it. She had no doubt that she was experiencing more-or-less the same thing that other people of similar age to her body experienced. Many hormones can easily traverse the blood brain barrier with impunity, not to mention that there are also parts of the brain without normal blood brain barrier that would allow hormones with larger molecules to pass (see: circumventricular organs). Many brain cells are also hormonally active. Her brain was practically bathed in adolescent hormones.

Simply put, instead of cogito ergo sum, she had to conclude that corporeo ergo sum. ‘I am embodied, therefore I am’. Her emotions and their intensity were also the product of the youth of her body, not just the rational musings of her mind.

My body is that of a teenager, therefore, my emotional reactions are approximately close to one too.

'-

The next time Lakshmi and Eugenie caught Hermione was when she was reading in the Ravenclaw common room—there was no one else who wore a flower crown on her head without the slightest care in the world.

The brunette witch had all the appearance of being absorbed in her reading, or at other times, whatever it was that she was seriously writing on a scroll. Lakshmi would wager that she was not as oblivious to her surroundings as she seemed from the way she still replied Olive Hornby’s occasional question sent in her direction with aplomb. Eugenie would rather the other blonde stop, but since Hermione seems to have it all under control, she only huffed at Hornby and then walked up to their room.

Lakshmi found a nice, unobtrusive spot to keep watching (of course). Sure enough, it was not long before Hornby spoke up again.

“Curie is such a great reader, I’m sure, because how else would anyone explain her amazing scores?” Hornby said.

“The mastery of magic requires as much practise as it does theory, Hornby. But I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that, right?” Hermione absently replied. She hadn’t taken her eyes off her book.

“Did you have a good day, Curie?” Hornby asked sweetly.

“I did.”

“It’s hard to have a bad day when the company is so pleasant, isn’t it?”

She’s only glanced up from her book once before she returned to it easily.

“I admit that Tom is very good company.”

Hermione’s remark sounded careless, but the slight twitch of her lips as Hornby fell into appalled silence at the implied familiarity of her words assured Lakshmi that the transfer student was fully aware of what she said.

“Don’t you think it terrible when people impose themselves on your company just because you’re being unfailingly polite?”

“Oh, very terrible indeed.”

I wouldn’t even dream of using a familiar form of address with a gentleman merely based on a few weeks of acquaintance.” Hornby stated.

I wouldn’t dream of stopping the gentleman’s pleasure of using my first name.” Hermione replied. “Nor would I be so unkind to give the impression that I am ungrateful about his considerate attention by not reciprocating his pleasure.”

Lakshmi covered her mouth to stop from laughing at that last hit. Hermione had clearly checkmated Hornby there, as the only way she could defeat the brunette’s position was by proving that the other witch’s claims of familiarity was false, or showing that the blonde could claim the greater familiarity with the aforementioned gentleman. Obviously, Hornby could claim neither.

It also needed to be said that the innuendo was sublime. Lakshmi loved innuendo. It’s always nice to find out that there’s another sharp-tongued student she can sharpen her wits against.

To no one’s surprise, Olive Hornby beat a hasty retreat after that. Of course, she merely looked as if paying attention to Hermione was beyond her, and that Hermione should feel sorry that she was not invited to her circle. But to any observer with a functioning brain, it was clear who the winner of the last repartee was.

'-

“Do you want to talk about it?” Eugenie asked softly.

Hermione had just changed into her pyjamas and dropped herself on the bed when she heard the question from her dorm mate. She raised her head and saw that Eugenie, Lakshmi and even Lucretia was looking at her with varying states of concern. She sighed and sat up again.

“Talk about what?”

“I don’t know. Anything? Tom said you were lonely. Well, he also said how he you were so lost in thought that he had to catch you from slipping a few times on the astronomy tower stairs. It was why he was concerned.” The blonde Ravenclaw said.

Hermione winced. She had to commend Tom on his discretion and creativity—instead of telling her dormmates of their complicated argument, he came up with a similar case that was milder still. Her expression, of course, only affirmed to both Eugenie and Lakshmi that Tom was telling the truth.

I suppose his story is still in the neighbourhood of truth, she conceded. Apparently, he had better common sense than she thought. It was certainly much better sense than Voldemort.

“What else did he say?”

“That he wished you would not be so alone.”

The strongest urge that she felt right then was to ask the password from Eugenie, march all the way to the Slytherin common room, and find Tom to tell him to mind his own business. The less hasty part of her had to admit that his observations was rather accurate, if overblown in the conclusion (she wasn’t suicidal. She just wasn’t). She was still surprised at the ‘solution’ he came up with, because she’d half expected that he’d follow her everywhere to assure himself that she wasn’t going to jump out of some random window.

“He didn’t say much of what happened between the two of you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Lakshmi shrewdly noted.

“Nothing happened!” Hermione insisted.

The other Ravenclaw snorted. “Right, and two people could be as close as you both are in such a short time when they’re only talking about the weather all the while. I noticed that he told us about what happened as you leave the astronomy tower but not what your meeting there was about.”

“I don’t think we’re very close.” The brunette denied.

“He’s oddly informal with you and allows you such familiarity. I’ve never seen him giving anyone else that privilege all this time.”

“What, and you’ve been watching him all these years?” Hermione was sceptical.

Eugenie was nodding at Lakshmi’s answer. “That’s true. He was careful enough never to be asked to escort any witches around anywhere before or stand right next to them. I wouldn’t have realised it if you didn’t say that.”

“Exactly, Eugenie. Anyway, he is rather striking and conspicuous that I always notice what he’s doing or who he’s with whenever I see him around. Look, Hermione, I don’t really care about the details, but it’s obvious that he’s concerned. So, I’ll just cut to the chase and ask if there’s anything wrong with you.”

Hermione only shrugged.

“Oh, nice put down of Hornby, by the way. She does grate on the nerves at times.”

“I know it was probably evil of me, but it was fun,” Hermione admitted, as Eugenie was a little surprised though Lakshmi only smiled wider. Lucretia seemed content to be the observer among them.

“Yes, her overactive imagination is very convenient, isn’t it?” Lakshmi said, knowing. The brunette couldn’t even hide her slight grin even if she tried.

“Alright! So, considering that we don’t know each other that much yet, why don’t you tell us of how your day went as well as all the people you’ve met so far? We’ll give you a sketch of most of Hogwarts’ denizens and we get to get to know you better. A slumber party isn’t such a bad idea, right?” Lakshmi had walked into the tea table in the middle of the room and rung the service bell. A house elf instantly appeared.

It was Lucretia who stepped forward and Lucretia whom the elf addressed. She seemed to be asking for…refreshments? Hot chocolate as well as some snacks.

“But we have classes tomorrow,” Eugenie answered, confused.

“Oh, come on, Eugenie. What’s a little lost sleep compared to getting to know our newest dormmate?”

Hermione didn’t think she can say no to Lakshmi’s winning smile. Moreover, she knew that she does need to care about her current life. And what better way than gaining some new friends?

“Alright,” Hermione agreed. “But you’re going to have to spill on some of your embarrassing secrets too.”

“There’s a good number of that if you’re interested,” Lucretia spoke up, her expression knowing. “Trust me.”

The brunette smiled as Lakshmi tried to persuade Lucretia to stay away from a particular second-year incident of hers, while Eugenie looked almost too afraid to ask about what exactly Lucretia knew about her. For all of Lucretia’s appearance of calm respectability, there was a worrying glimmer of wicked humour in her eyes.

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Chapter Text

Strange Attractors Chapter Twelve Photoset

12 Hermione’s First Day of Classes

If one were to ask Hermione back in the future (pick a date, Hermione thought, any date past the War), and asked her what she thought the risks of being stuck in time in the 1940s was, she’d have thought it would be in dodging or facing the rising Tom Riddle and his would-be followers, probably already accreting into some semi-solid block around him, like planets coming into their final form around their star.

Because nearly half a century later, that was what Harry had to face, and she had unconsciously projected that into the past without first checking what it was actually like. After all, the past, as they say, is a foreign country. She would do well to scout the terrain first before waging her battles there. But she was only human; we all take mental shortcuts because they help us think faster and this one was Hermione’s. This particular shortcut merely happened to be wrong.

Therefore, Hermione was blindsided. She would not in a thousand years come up with the answer of ‘Hogwarts’ rumour mill’, or even the more general and broad-brush ‘the archaic and stagnant social strata of the wizarding world’. This was the uncomfortable reality that she would be forced to face a week from now, after she’d truly lived and breathe in the past. The worst had yet to come.

Right now, whatever inconveniences she was facing was actually still minor (not that she knew that).

The wizarding world was just the wizarding world, wasn’t it? That was what she’d always thought before now. It was simply there. It was the backdrop to all the action taking place and it doesn’t get in the way (well, except in the very physical method of getting in the way, such as a prison wall you need to tear down to escape). She had come to it at such a young age that she grew into it, taking its limits and strictures for granted instead of the question and wonder that would come if she were to first experience it with a mind less childish.

In a way, that was what she was doing now.

She knew her wizarding world, took its shape and customs for granted, but she did not know this wizarding world. It was once again new to her, fresh in form and unfamiliar in character. It was the cousin of a friend, instead of that beloved person themselves, and the flaws that had seemed endearing in a close friend was now harsh and grating when presented in a stranger’s face.

Of course, it raises many interesting questions now. As in, were the flaws ever endearing in the first place, or was it merely a matter of her getting too used to it, that she began to tune it out, like some annoying background noise? Now that her attention is called to it once more, was it merely a bad habit, a verbal tic, or was it something that can alter a person’s morality?

Hermione had arrived early to her Advanced Ancient Runes class because she liked to be prepared. Of course, she hadn’t counted on the fact that coming early meant that she would be open to conversations.

“You’re Hermione Curie, right? The new student?”

“Yes, what’s the matter?”

“I’m Annette Bartleby, and I heard you were wearing such a lovely flower crown yesterday,” Annette said. Hermione stared at the girl. Alright, she gets points for politeness, especially considering that she was actually a Gryffindor than any other House, but this level of attention was getting absurd. Hermione opted to stay oblivious.

“Why, yes, I did. Why? Do you want me to teach you how to make it?” The brunette readily offered.

“No, not really—wait, you made it yourself?” Annette sounded surprised.

Hermione nodded. “Of course. My friends taught me how, back home. It’s a special flower crown, you see, because it’s still a living plant. It’s not dead. I like smelling fresh flowers the whole day and I felt like celebrating the day I get out of the infirmary, you know?”

“Oh.” She looked sorely disappointed. Hermione had to hold back not to roll her eyes. “I…maybe next time? I’m just not sure how to free up my schedule right now.”

“You can take all the time you need,” the brunette insisted.

It was probably never, but who knows? The Gryffindor returned to her seat and Hermione can sigh in relief that the first (of probably many) inconveniences were over. Tom Riddle entered the class some five minutes before the bell actually rang. His gaze caught hers and she raised her hand in an easy greeting and he did the same. They sat in their respective seats.

Some people thought they were being subtle as they eyeballed Hermione and Tom in turn, sometimes even rapidly back and forth like the rapidly bobbing head of a mandarin duck. She pretended they didn’t exist.

Just because she and Tom knew each other didn’t mean that they absolutely had to sit side-by-side. They can both function quite well on their own. You know, like regular, productive human beings instead of being the awkward one half of a Siamese twin that needs to coordinate their movement so they don’t trip over each other’s legs? Yes. That.

Seriously, why was the budding dark lord one of the saner people in Hogwarts at this time? That feeling of weirdness in the wizarding world began to accumulate in her gut again.

Luckily for her, Professor Honoria Gildenstern swept in not long after and had thus unknowingly put a stop to any further stupid behaviour. Dark braided hair and with an appearance that unsurprisingly reminded Hermione of a librarian, albeit perhaps one with punk tendencies, considering the field-worthiness of her boots and the glimmer of defensive runes carved into her leather waistcoat. The Ancient Runes professor had seen Hermione’s presence in class at the first sweep and merely nodded to her. The Ravenclaw student nodded back in return and that was that, the lecture started.

Hermione was only too glad that Professor Gildenstern wasn’t one of those overly-friendly professors who felt that they need to introduce the new kid right in front of the whole class first. The class was thankfully uneventful and there was nothing unexpected in the material of the lecture. She’d read (refreshed) the books, including the supplementary ones, and next week she might even manage to start on those tangentially-related books that Tom bothered to put in one the list he’d made for her. And continue with the thermos/vacuum flask idea she’d begun halfway during the weekend.

Once she covered the required reading for all her classes this week, she was sure she’d be able to free up enough material to read up about time travel by next week.

It was a pleasant plan with many things to look forward to.

‘-

Eugenie caught up with her outside the Advanced Ancient Runes class.

“Hermione! Hermione.” Her blonde hair was flying behind her, robes flapping, and Hermione found it almost funny that a prefect was running in the corridors. Eugenie was probably lucky there were no other prefects who’d seen her and can complain about it—they might even deduct some house points to go along with that.

“Take it easy. There’s, no need to run.”

“I’m sorry, I just forgot. I should’ve accompanied you to your classes because you wouldn’t know where they are.” Eugenie said. “You know that the corridors and stairs move in Hogwarts, right?”

Hermione shook her head. “Oh, I can find them just fine. Really, you don’t need to worry about me.”

“Really?” The blonde was sceptical.

“Oh, yes, really. Let me show you something.”

Hermione shoved her hand into her book bag and started rummaging for the various syllabi that Tom had collected and given on the first day of their acquaintance. She took one out and cast an object-based locator spell, using the syllabus as the anchor. Balancing her wand between her thumb and index finger, the stick pivoted around the fulcrum in the ways of a primitive compass—she’d managed to get Tom to teach her this particular locator spell.

“See? This is the syllabus for…Advanced Arithmancy Class. The wand points to where it is and I just follow it.”

Eugenie’s blue eyes widened. “Does it really work?”

“Well, if the professor spends way more time at their office and doesn’t like their class, it would lead to their office rather than their class. Yet even then, I can just try knocking and then go to class with them.”

“Or, they might have already gone on ahead before you got lost in that direction,” Eugenie pointed out.

Hermione shrugged. “All methods have their weaknesses. The trick is to plan ahead and cover those beforehand.”

The blonde witch still looked slightly doubtful.

“I think I’ll feel much better if I’ve accompanied you to your next class.”

“And that is my cue to step in.”

Hermione and Eugenie looked up at the same time; Tom Riddle had just stepped out of the classroom and was now a few steps away from them. She thought he’d probably had a few questions to ask to the teacher. Eugenie’s cheeks unexpectedly turned rosier as she held Hermione’s non-wand hand firmly.

“I didn’t—I didn’t know! Hermione, I’m sorry!”

“Um, what? I’m fine. What are you apologising for?” Hermione asked, perplexed.

“It would be no trouble at all if I were to show you to your next class. After all, it also happens to be the same as mine,” Tom said. Was there a spell to do the Windsor knot? Because Hermione was sure that her tie wasn’t as perfect as his. Just how much time did he spent in front of the mirror to perfect that? Tom Riddle was all friendly smiles, as usual. Right, that’s his public persona. She almost forgot.

“Ah, good morning, Miss Delacour.”

“G-G-Good morning, Mr. Riddle.” Eugenie managed. “I’ll j-just be off now, Hermione. Bye everyone!”

Hermione watched her sprinting form recede in the distance with a puzzled frown on her face. “She was in such a hurry to arrive and now she’s leaving again? I just don’t get her sometimes.”

Tom chuckled. “Well, I suppose she has other things to attend to that she’d just remembered?”

“You don’t sound so sure yourself.”

“Miss Curie, I don’t presume to know the affairs of witches and I don’t pretend otherwise.” His tone was wry, and a small smile grew involuntarily on Hermione’s face.

“Wise man.”

“Of course. Shall we?”

This time, it only took her two seconds to realise what his offered hand meant and she linked their arms together once understanding dawned on her. She did notice as they walk that they were far from the only male-female pair to walk arm-in-arm, and some of them really did just look like friends. This was a time when men still pull out a chair for a lady to sit.

Hermione supposed she had all the time in the world to get used to the habits of this time.

“So, where are we going now?” She asked. He was oddly quiet for a moment, but his next question told her what had taken him aback.

“You don’t know?”

“I haven’t exactly opened my schedule before Eugenie dropped in.”

His eyebrows rose slightly. She understood why he did that—Teenage Hermione would certainly have memorised her schedule to hell and back as well as the alternative routes around Hogwarts. It was just the sort of thing her conscientious, overachieving younger self would do. Current Hermione thought that she already knew where all the classes are (she could certainly use his last tour of Hogwarts as an excuse), and Hogwarts was safe.

“Then you came and I decided that it was a moot point, anyway. I could just ask you.” She shrugged. “It’s not really a big deal, is it?”

“You might get lost,” he replied.

“And what’s the worst that could happen? I have to go through five corridors to get to my next class instead of one? Go up several flights of stairs? I’ll live.” Her answer was dry.

Nobody would get bitten by an annoyed griffin if they took the wrong turn in Hogwarts, and no one has any pets (*ahem* experiments) that try to fondle you if you get stupidly baited to approach their tanks—and she could still thread her way past the hazards of Department of Mystery with a hangover on most mornings. You can navigate Hogwarts while sleepwalking.

(She had a passing memory of rolling her eyes at her housemate about the other witch’s newest project. “No, Malina, I don’t think a guard octopus is a good idea—how many people even have pools in their front yard to keep the poor thing in?”)

Hermione blinked slowly when she realised that her standards for passable corridors were getting skewed from all the times she had to deal with routine escapees from the experiments of her co-workers…

She knew she missed his last sentence or two, as she had been so lost in thought.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, I wouldn’t recommend being late for your first Advanced Transfigurations.” Tom said. There was something beyond his offhand tone. If she hadn’t been feeling more-or-less the same, she would’ve missed it.

Hermione met his gaze and in the span of that moment, she could not help but recall the time when Dumbledore’s visit to the infirmary happened to coincide with Tom’s, a few days before the picnic…

‘-

“Good afternoon, Hermione.”

The young witch glanced up towards the greeting from her bed, meeting friendly blue eyes. Her smile was hurried and unprepared; the gleam of long auburn hair had flashed her eyes as he entered the infirmary.

“Ah, um, afternoon Professor…”

Said pair of eyes turned from hers, to meet another of similar hue. Yet where his was sky-bright and light, these were as deep as the ocean was blue.

“Tom,” a polite pause. “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon, Professor Dumbledore,” he replied.

It was enunciated with care, his accent clear and true. Tom’s bow accorded him formal respect, beyond what a professor was due. A blooming flower of frost could not be more perfect, and just as frozen too.

Dumbledore recognised that Tom Riddle did not put great care into his manners for just anyone. The least he could do was acknowledged it with as much delicacy.

Tom spoke up again.

“If you have things to settle with Hermione, I wouldn’t dare to be in your way.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” the witch answered quickly. “You’re welcome to stay.”

Both wizards turned to her and saw raw earnestness untrained. Yet she wavered not under the observation, or let her mind changed.

Dumbledore conceded to her. “Only if you’re sure, Hermione.”

“Oh, I’m pretty certain. After all, if we’re talking about class, Professor, Tom told me many interesting things today.”

She did not know why exactly she insisted, only that she was not blind. Hermione knew her history well, and wondered, what a conversation with both would find.

The professor took the new maroon chair. Tom asked him for his opinion on a topic, drawing him in with meticulous care. Their dialogue flowed fluently, well-practised actors in a play. She found to her chagrin that, at times, she was the one with no lines to say.

'-

Hermione was more than aware of the wariness between Tom and Dumbledore; she had expected to have to play mediator sooner or later. Yet she had to commend them on their conversational skills as the topic turned easily into magical theory and interesting things about non-naïve transfiguration. Her interference was not required. If she did not know any better, she’d have thought that they had a pretty good rapport with each other.

Of course, their exchange on some topics were simply rather…telling.

“I had never considered the transfiguration of animals much,” the brunette commented.

“Yet small wooden blocks are changed into mice with regularity in transfiguration classes,” Dumbledore pointed out.

“Oh, but that is temporary. The mouse is not a real mouse. At the end of the day, it would return into a block of wood once again. I’m sure Tom wasn’t referring to that either, were you?”

She glanced farther to the left. An odd half-smile flitted upon his face as the Slytherin shook his head lightly.

“No, I wasn’t. I was considering what it takes to turn a mouse into a rat.”

“So simple a change. So similar too that someone might comment that it’s wholly an unnecessary action to try,” Dumbledore said. Hermione knew better than to take his words to represent his opinion, since she’d experienced Dumbledore prodding her arguments to get her to defend them properly, regardless of his own position.

“But it’s a useful first step to try before one begins to consider the change required to, say, begin with a lion and end with a manticore, isn’t that right, Professor?” Tom answered.

There was a quiet second or two, with an undercurrent she could not quite glean.

Hermione frowned, considering the technical requirements. “If you were considering changing a lion to a manticore, I don’t think you can rely on transfiguration alone.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of that,” Tom’s answer was mild and he added nothing else. His attention was still trained on Dumbledore, who was thinking carefully.

It took Hermione another second to realise that if you can transform a lion into a manticore, you’re also another step closer to trying to change a man into a manticore. There was no time to dwell on it further as Gryffindor’s Head of House had spoken.

“You’re looking for permanent change, I presume?” The professor asked again.

“Why would anyone wish for impermanent change if they can achieve otherwise?” His tone was still that preternaturally calm one.

“To push so hard and so alien a change, one might think you were trying to bend the laws of nature.” Dumbledore stated.

“To find the loopholes in natural laws…one can say that it is the entire principle behind magic itself. What would a muggle say to the ease that we can defy gravity?”

Tom was still perfectly polite. Hermione, on the other hand, wondered if he was not a little too stark about his intentions to Dumbledore. The transfigurations professor took a long, careful breath.

“The last time an entire society agreed with you, they were the vanguards of old Atlantis.”

He did not need to be more detailed in his answer—any student of magical history knew of it. They not only brought their nation down, they have managed to erase it from this plane of existence as well. So great was their hubris that their mistakes had torn their fair isle from reality.

There was a reason why no one has managed to find the archaeological remains of Atlantis.

The island did not exist anymore.

“So,” Hermione said casually, “can anyone enlighten me as to why we still cook our food instead of transfiguring them from their base ingredients?”

If the conversation from that moment on was less rigorous in its academic topic and more frivolous, Hermione was all-too-glad that it was not as freighted with second meanings either.

‘-

“You do not trust him.”

There was no doubt in her words, as light and steadfast as the sun rising in the morning. Hermione let him guide her towards their transfigurations class. Tom only afforded her a glance at that.

“Why would you think so?”

The witch huffed. “Please, there’s a little too many…pauses in the only conversation I had with both you and Dumbledore. It’s clear that you have a history with each other.”

“Academic differences are a fact of life between scholars.”

“It went deeper than that.” She disagreed.

“Entire careers have been made and broken on competing theories no matter the field.” He replied glibly. “These differences are certainly Very Important Things, Hermione.”

Tom.”

Hermione knew he could feel the tug on his arm as she came to a standstill on the corridor, and his easy dismissal about the tension between him and Dumbledore was getting to her nerves. She knew she wouldn’t be able to reach him if all his walls were up, because even as he answered her questions randomly, he was able to sidestep her concerns with ease. His quicksilver tongue was a little too smooth for her to be fully comfortable with.

“Can we find a quieter corridor and talk?”

“We don’t seem to be having any problems talking right now.”

“Don’t we? You’re avoiding the truth right now and it makes me feel like I’m only imagining things when I thought that we’d be working together with a common goal.” There was more than a touch of asperity in her voice. “You’re losing me right now, Tom.”

Tom gave her his full attention at that, though she had yet to really understand what that particular tilt of his head meant. He set off again at an angle, and they were soon down one of the less-populated side corridors. It almost certainly meant a longer trip, but the Founders were considerate enough of first-years perpetually getting lost between classes that she knew they still had ample time to reach transfigurations even with the detour.

“Please don’t hide or avoid the truth with me. It’s the easiest way to lose my trust.”

“Disagreements are a natural factor in critical discussions, Hermione. As agreeable as he is, I even have them with Slughorn. It’s not a wonder if I’m not always of the same mind with Dumbledore.”

She dropped her arm from his, turning back. He caught her wrist in the next moment but didn’t pull her by the arm; he let her lead instead and a passer-by would have the impression that he was following her.

“You’re upset.”

Wonderful statement of the obvious.”

Hermione.”

Hermione could feel him tugging her hand behind her. With a sigh, she slowed her pace and turned around, steadying her breath and counting to ten as she tried to order her thoughts together. To his credit, he did wait for her to gather her words instead of forcing her to talk immediately. Otherwise, she’d be snapping straight back at him.

“Let’s start this again. I was there during your talk in the infirmary, and I can see there are some issues between the two of you. Even if I didn’t know that, I could have tried mapping the British wizarding world in an arithmantic model and generate a future projection from it. Dumbledore isn’t someone you want to have working actively against you.”

“Are you telling me you’ve actually performed arithmancy on Dumbledore’s future while you were in the infirmary?”

It was a reasonable disbelief. She, however, already figured out the answer for just this sort of occasion since several days ago.

“Of course not. Some future of myself did.”

Why would you need to do that for Dumbledore?”

His voice was a little too level for someone who’d just heard such an outrageous claim, but his steady gaze on her was a clear sign of his complete attention.

“Not Dumbledore in particular, of course. I didn’t speak wrongly earlier—I was calculating for the entire wizarding world.”

Impossible.” His hands were clasped behind his back at this point, his eyes dark. Probably because he was holding back the urge to…what, throw his hands in the air? Would he draw his wand against her and demand that she starts speaking something with sense?

“Why not?”

“You’d be doing the calculations for how many hundreds, thousands of people in the wizarding world? And you will also need to factor and calculate all the possible relationships and influences between them.” He paused and she met his gaze squarely, without concern or doubt. She had the feeling that there were a multitude of sentences and disagreements that he was holding back just then before he settled on a final one.

“It would take years.”

Tom was right, in a way. The traditional arithmantic approach began as a method of personal divination—to find out how the future of one person would develop. If you were trying to see how the future of two people together, it’s only marginally more complicated. The calculations for ten would start being pretty crazy, and the first time she casually asked that to her arithmancy teacher, the dry answer was to rely on astronomy altogether—it might be vaguer, but it was certainly made for a larger scale of augury than old-school arithmancy.

“You’re correct—if you were to use the methods of arithmancy available this year, yes. Give a few more decades and one can begin charting the flow of history.” She answered.

“If you were to calculate the turbulence of a river, you do it by modelling the river itself, along with its large rocks and obstacles. You don’t try to calculate every single water molecule in a typical flow.”

Even when she purposefully looked away, she could feel the pressure of his gaze at her back, where his initial reflex to deny the possibility of what she was saying warred with his curiosity and greed. Arithmancy had experienced a minor renaissance from the 1980s, led by muggleborn witches and wizards who’d went to the muggle world to study higher mathematics in graduate school and then returned to the wizarding world with new ideas and innovations.

There was a reason she ended up writing a proposal to the higher ups in the Department of Mysteries, asking them to send her to Trinity College. It wasn’t a surprise that they agreed; half of said muggleborn experts disappeared or died during Voldemort’s reign. A part of her knew even without enough memories that she had become one of the best.

(It takes not just mere years. A soft voice inside her whispered).

Hermione took a deep breath and turned it down with ease, refusing to wonder yet again how old she was exactly. By now, the sorrow of her lost memories was a familiar old ache to her instead of a fresh pain.

She did not stop Tom from taking her hand, or from slowly linking their arms again as they made their way down the side corridor.

“You talk of many impossible things.” He commented. “Of the moon to fly to, a fine future to forecast far.”

His alliteration reminded her of something else.

“Of shoes, ships and sealing wax,” Hermione murmured.

“Of kingmakers and kings.” Tom continued, the quirk of his lips the only sign that he noticed her surprise at his deliberate (but apt) misquote. “Is it truly possible, Hermione?”

“You would not say it was impossible if you see the field equations I’ll use, if you can see how I’ll calculate the forecast for the entire wizarding world based on it. I can still see it clearly in my mind.”

“Do you know that actual seers never quite remember the real prophecies they’ve made?” His voice was deceptively gentle.

“I know,” she answered without concern. “I didn’t say I was one, did I?”

“Then what are you, Hermione?”

She could hear the weight of his inquiry. The Slytherin had paused in his steps and turned to fully face her. Her smile was the broken fragment of one, and her answer was the most honest she’d given him about her past (future).

“I don’t know.”

Hermione shook her head slowly as she could see objections flickering past his mind even if he had yet to voice them.

“I can’t give you a full explanation Tom, not with my memories as they are. Perhaps you’ll never have any. Perhaps I’m just a madwoman after all.” She sighed. She knew he didn’t really believe that either, not when she was perfectly capable of debating against him on a variety of topics. “I will never force you to trust me, but now you do have to choose. Would you trust me with the truth? Otherwise, this agreement of ours is never going to work.”

“Yet truth always depends on who is telling it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, we can both read Rashomon and debate the relativity of human experience until the cows come home. Yet I’m not trying to find the answer to the meaning of life, the unified theory of the universe or everything. Some measuring weights are more accurate than others; some truths are closer to the real world than most. A picture built from a hundred perspective is usually more representative of the object than a picture relying on just one viewpoint.”

Hermione needed to take a deep breath to collect her thoughts, to reach her conclusion.

“I guess in the end, it comes to this: would you trust my perspective on the future more than a random student picked out of the blue? If you say no, then this is where we part, isn’t it?”

She would not let him redirect her easily into some other topic, to distract her with interesting issues to discuss. The answer she was waiting for was simple now—yes or no.

His smile had an unsettling edge to it now. Like any predator, she knew that Tom disliked being pushed into a corner. It was too bad because she wasn’t budging either.

“What are you looking for?”

“We never did formalise our agreement, did we?” She asked back. “Time to state our terms properly. I wish for your truth. It’s not enough to have the absence of lies. I wish for no hiding, no avoidance of it.”

She did not know what he was searching for when he simply stared for a moment. Hermione pushed back the urge to find a reflective surface and see whether she had something on her face.

“Would you return the favour?” Tom asked.

“On anything you ask me to assist you? As long as you’re not asking me to help you hurt or kill someone? Yes. The only promise of truth I can’t make is regarding myself.” She was apologetic, but his mind was quick to see the answer.

“Because you don’t even know your own truth.”

“Yes.”

She couldn’t help sounding slightly bitter, hated that it was a gap in her armour that she couldn’t hide from him, even if her primary concern of saying so was not disclosing that she came from a future. He must have catalogued every tic of her expression right now, since he had scarcely looked elsewhere, but to her surprise he didn’t mention it at all.

“If you ask for truth, then I’ll ask for trust.” He raised a hand before she managed to express her scepticism. “I’ll ask you to not jump to conclusions easily.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen one very probable future when you’ve killed a lot of the people I know, my friends, and yet I’m still your friend right now, aren’t I? Who’s the La Belle Dame Sans Merci in this equation? Certainly not me—”

“I don’t know,” he murmured. “You certainly destroyed my dreams with spectres of death. You killed me once in a future. Lady Death. It’s quite a fitting title, I think.”

Hermione gave him a look. He gave her his most innocent smile and pushed an errant curl behind her ear. His fingertips brushed past the shell of her ear and she could feel the tingles down her neck.

“Well?” He asked.

She bit her lower lip as she made up her mind, looking away from his dark eyes.

“Alright. I’ll do my very best not to. So, you’ll give me your friendship, then?”

Nothing she’d said earlier surprised him as much as what she’d just asked.

Friendship?” He finally managed to say.

“That’s what friendship is about, you know? Mutual trust and assistance?” Her thousand-yard stare almost dared him to disagree with her, or to express an opinion on her naivete that she believed in such things as having friends.

I stayed my hand, Tom Marvolo Riddle. I knew what you are and the worst you could be and I still stayed my hand. If that’s not me stopping myself from jumping to conclusions, of proof of my tentative trust, I don’t know what is.” She enunciated his name clearly, carefully.

He tilted his head to the side, and she thought she’d seen the same behaviour once in a wild wolf. Observation: he was trying to decide whether taking the leftovers from the camp was going to kill him.

“You would offer me your friendship for my truth and a little self-restraint?”

“Yes. My friendship for yours.”

She stopped herself from commenting that she didn’t believe it would take just a little self-restraint. The reducing-violence front was probably going to be a work in progress for a while.

“What do you gain?” He thought out loud.

“Are you telling me that your friendship comes cheaply and easily? That it’s barely worth anything compared to mine?” She raised an eyebrow in challenge. She thought she saw a ghost of a smile, just before it vanished all-too-quickly.

“My friendship, is it?” His voice was soft.

A nod. “Yes.”

“I suppose if you were my friend, you would know that I’d kill anyone who’d tried to kill you.” He mused. “It would show that I take threats against people around me seriously, and it would be a nice deterrence against future fools who thought they've found a flaw.”

She had opened her mouth to protest when she realised that he was waiting for her to disagree. It was there in his half-smirk, the knowing look in his eyes. Hermione remembered then that the Aurors were not always the full-fledged police force that she knew them to be. A century ago, wizards and witches still settled family feuds and disagreements with duels, sometimes leading to death.

“We can’t always help acts of self-defence.” Hermione finally said. “As for the rest, we can talk about it later.”

If his expression was a touch too confident, she tried not to see it. He might believe he could make her forget about it, but she knew her own mind. Still, it was no use borrowing trouble for now when it seems like they’ve finally managed to hammer out the basics of their working relationship. Not that she’d believe that he’d immediately refrain from pointing his wand at her—she wasn’t that naïve.

There was still that gleam in his eyes that spoke of some particular knowledge, though, and it caused her eyebrows to draw down.

“What?”

“You could kill.” He stated, an interested smile growing on his face.

“Well, otherwise I wouldn’t be prepared to face any dark lord—”

“No, no. I know of your avenging tendencies. You’re such a perfect student that even I sometimes forget that you’re not the angel the teachers are half-convinced you are,” he stopped her from denying that she was nowhere near perfect with a gentle tap at her lips. “Yet Hermione, your wings aren’t quite pristine white anymore, are they? Not when you could accept someone else’s death for your self-defence.”

“Because I know you won’t be slinging spells in moderation,” she was quick to find a reply, but Tom only chuckled as he took a step closer. She stepped back without thought.

“Your feathers are spattered with red. You have blood on your hands already, don’t you? Hermione?”

The brunette witch closed her mouth and sent him a dark look, but she could not deny him outright.

“I don’t know where you get this angel idea from. A bit cliched, isn’t it?” It was a weak reply by her standards and Tom clearly realised that too.

His smile was genuine now, intriguing, even if that glimpse of teeth was as cool and comforting as the flash of a knife’s blade.

Tom had found a scrap of parchment one of his pockets and with one hand folded it into another paper rose. When he slipped it into her hair, it had turned into yet another real flower. This time, it was dark purple, the closest colour to black as she’d ever seen on a rose. There was a hint of spice in its perfume. She supposed he was making a witty allusion to her being Lady Death, but she was too busy thinking.

Tom was right.

Hermione could kill.

It was not something she ever advertised even in her old life. She did her best not to, as whenever Harry brought her what he thought were new movements, new groups involved in some attack or another, she analysed whether they were dealing with desperate youths or the darker, more brainwashed fanatics that would not think twice before they take innocent people down with them. She would kill in an emergency or to save people, but she really didn’t want to start considering it as the first thing she could do. It would be too easy to consider it as the fastest way to solve problems.

She was stubbornly staying on the side of the light here, striving to stay there even if she had to grip that slippery edge in a death-grip with all her available hands and toes.

“We shall certainly be friends, shall we not?” His drawl was dark and smooth.

“So? You do accept?” She asked quickly, pulling herself to focus.

“As long as you won’t be careless with your life while I still live.” He answered, and it was clear that he remembered their last argument. “It would be useless agreeing to have you as an advisor if you were to die too quickly.”

That one was easy. “Agreed.”

He raised a hand to her face, a hair’s breadth above her skin and only the shadow of a touch. If she were to go off and catch a falling star, she’ll get two neutron stars, darkened and faint but no less capable of burning the night away. And they would look exactly the same like his eyes now.

Alive.

“I accept all of it, Hermione.” He said.

Tom sealed the deal with a kiss over her lips. It was not the furious rush of last night, of a verbal argument turned flesh. This was the novel sweetness of the first fruits of harvest.

The enticing taste of a promise.

His hand was warm over her cheek and the other was snug around her waist. It was soft and it was solemn, with a touch of genuine longing at the edges that made her breath catch and she just wanted to stay there for just a moment more. For forever and a day. He tilted his head slightly and somehow, they fit together better with it. She melted into his touch even as she pulled him closer. One of her hands were in his silky hair while the other was appreciating the fine lines of his shoulders properly, clutching him to her. His lips parted and she followed suit, and as they slipped deeper suddenly they were both caught by the unexpected undertow of their mutual thirst. Neither could stop drinking any more kisses, impulsively taking yet another sip. Hermione lost track of the future (the past) and the ever-extending present as her awareness crystallised in one single moment.

'-

Hermione blinked. She was trying to gather her thoughts together and figure out how she ended up pushing a budding dark lord against the wall to kiss the life out of him. Not that he was complaining, or that she wasn’t enjoying herself. His chest was as solid as it looked; she’d know, she’d been held against him for a while. For a wizard who wasn’t a muscle-bound hulk of a man, he wasn’t reed thin either. There were definitely more muscles there than was obvious, as her wandering hand could attest.

Pesky teenage hormones, really. This was just a momentary distraction, she reasoned, and she was sticking to that explanation.

The delicate way his fingers trailed up and down her back raised goosebumps and shivers. Currently, he was more interested in planting distracting kisses along the line of her jaw. Considering that she found the line of his neck mesmerising, so much that she was stroking her thumb along its length and tugging his collar aside, she supposed she was just as occupied as he was. She used her right hand to tap the top of his shoulder blade.

“Tom.”

“Yes, Hermione?”

His reply was soft, but it didn’t need to be loud said next to her ear. She closed her eyes at the most diverting sensation as his mouth found her skin again.

“We have…a class to go to. Advanced Transfigurations?”

“I don’t suppose you feel like retiring from it and make your way back to the infirmary later?” He asked. She pulled back and narrowed her eyes.

“And miss what, another three days of classes? No thanks.”

“Well, I thought I’d ask all the same.” He straightened up with an ease she envied as she stepped away from him. His collar was slightly lopsided, and as she worked to correct that, he smoothed down her hair and adjusted the new rose in it. His touch was light at her temple.

“Right. We should—”

“Go together,” he finished, extending his arm to her yet again. She was a little too confused to think straight right now. She could only blink a few times while staring at his hand before managing to ask something.

“Why?”

“We are friends, are we not? Then we’ll go together. Present a united front and all that rot.”

She found herself mildly sceptical of his claims. It did not stop her from taking his arm. “A united front? Really? Against what, the gossiping hens of Hogwarts? The nosey parkers choosing for an Outstanding in rumours rather than NEWTS?”

“You are not a Gryffindor,” he pointed out.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“And you are an anomaly that most does not understand. When it comes to Albus Dumbledore, I find that those factors inform any interaction with him very well.”

There was that coldness to his tone that she didn’t hear often and it took her by surprise.

No, she wanted to insist. She would always save Hogwarts and fight any current dark lord. It was just something that she did by now (she, Harry, Ron, Luna, Neville…). She was the last thing that Dumbledore ever needed to worry about. But the words, in any form or explanation that can be understood in this time, could not come out. For the first time in her life, she felt doubt. It was not about her Headmaster’s younger incarnation as she was sure he was undoubtedly also a force of good when he was younger, but more about how this Dumbledore saw her. She sighed in defeat, at least for now.

Hermione Curie (Granger) understood that trust is one of the most expensive things in the world.

'-

Chapter Text

13 Advanced Transfiguration, Lunch, and a Spot of Scandal

Transfiguration was…nice. It was probably because the class simply proceeded like a class.

Dumbledore had been a good orator, his speeches intense, and it translated well to his teaching in front of the class. As for his grasp of transfiguration, Hermione never had any doubt that it was excellent. The harder part of any of Hogwarts’ advanced classes was in the depths of the theory that they have to start covering; it was no longer just about the practical side of magic.

With a teacher of such extreme talent, Hermione was quite excited that she hadn’t missed the point where the lecture started to hit the spectrum of spells, from charm to true transfiguration. Oh, the extreme end of being able to transfigure lead into gold was more hypothetical than anything, but the middle of the spectrum was where wizards and witches can truly play.

“I ask you all this, is permanent transfiguration possible?”

Dumbledore’s blue eyes glimmered in challenge. “Yes, Mr. Zabini? You seem to have something to share with us.”

“It is not possible, as I’m sure we’ve all been warned to never transfigure something into food and eat it with the expectation that it will satiate us. At the very least, it would be harmless but still leave you hungry, while if you had picked a terrible object, you would be poisoned.” Some progenitor of Blaise Zabini had answered.

“A solid beginning, five points to Slytherin.”

Hermione ignored the girl with the green-and-silver tie not far from her that hissed under her breath. “five points, really? He should’ve gotten a ten!

No, Hermione thought decisively to herself, really, he shouldn’t. It was not the complete answer. She had raised her hand before she’d realised it. A glance to the table at her left showed Tom trying to hide a small grin at her excitement, but she ignored him. Dumbledore glanced around the entire classroom. He had noted her, gave her the slightest nod, but had drifted away to latch on to someone else.

She thought she’d seen that guy this morning in the Ravenclaw common room.

“Mr. Shafiq, you seem to have a question you dearly wish to ask. Go ahead.”

“Professor, you said that Caspar made a solid beginning but far from enough. I can understand that, since there is the use of the Philosopher’s Stone that is capable of doing that and he’d failed to mention it.” Hermione didn’t miss Zabini flinch at that realisation. Shafiq continued on. “Yet that’s a mere addendum in transfiguration since it’s the exception that proves the rule. You make it sound like he’d missed far more.”

Dumbledore raised both of his eyebrows, to prompt the frustrated boy.

“What are we missing?” the Ravenclaw—Shafiq, Hermione tried to remember—finally asked.

Hermione’s hand was still in the air. The professor was smiling one of his mysterious smiles again.

“Let’s see, shall we? Miss Curie, I’m glad to see that you’ve finally recovered enough to join us.” Dumbledore said.

“It’s my pleasure, Professor. I was claustrophobic enough to miss class.” She could feel the heads turning as the students finally received confirmation of who the mysterious new student was.

“I presume that you have something to add?”

The brunette witch nodded.

“I think you’re being unfair to the others, Professor. You asked a leading question.”

She could see the expressions of confusion rising around her. Tom had his smile, though it was distinctly more amused than before. Dumbledore’s blue eyes seemed to be filled with laughter too.

“Oh, I did, did I? Would you like to explain, then?”

“You asked us whether permanent transfiguration is possible. The definition is too confining and it causes people to close their mind the first time they hear it. It is better to first start with a different question.”

Hermione thought she was better than the know-it-all she’d been. She wasn’t just spouting lines she’d memorised from a book, for one, regardless of how many people could actually parse her answer. This time, she’d carefully lead the class from where they were thinking at to where she was. It would seem that Dumbledore could see what she was doing too, because there was a definite appreciation in his smile.

“And what would that question be?”

Is it possible to use magic to affect permanent change in the world?

Hermione took a careful breath, letting the question sink into the minds of her classmates. She could see Shafiq’s and Zabini’s expression already changing into a more contemplative one as she said that, though there were still no lack of confused ones. She glanced at Dumbledore before pausing her gaze somewhere at the bridge of his glasses.

“If I may continue, Professor?”

“Certainly. Take your time, Miss Curie.”

“I’d like to start my argument by illustrating that there are spells that affect the world permanently. Consider Confringo, Flagrate or even Fiendfyre.”

She ignored the single gasp that mentioning fiendfyre invoked.

“These spells explode and burn. Do they effect a permanent change on the world even after the caster stopped and walked away? Yes. Yes, they do. We can even extend our consideration to hexes, jinxes and curses. Does the victim’s body change? Yes. And a finite does not always remove them.”

“And yet they are not transfiguration spells, Miss Curie,” Dumbledore said.

“But what are transfiguration spells but very specific ways of inducing change?” She asked back. “For example, if I am given four blocks of wood, I can change the first into ash, the second into coal, the third into soil and the fourth I can decay it slightly and grow mushrooms on them.”

“These changes, these transfigurations would not change or revert back into a block of wood whether you’d wait for a year or a hundred and perhaps even more.”  Hermione said. “Would anyone say that the transfigurations are not permanent, now?”

Dumbledore seemed happy enough, but he picked Zabini again.

“Yes, Mr. Zabini?”

Zabini nodded to the transfiguration professor. “Yet ash is what we get from just burning wood straight away. The mushrooms and the decay is a natural progress. It’s nothing like changing the block of wood into gold.”

Dumbledore raised a hand to hold Hermione from jabbing a reply back at Zabini. She huffed and folded her arms as she continued to sit at her table.

“But Ms. Curie had made her point, Mr. Zabini. I asked, ‘is permanent transfiguration possible?’ She had just proven that it is.”

“She still can’t change wood into gold.” He insisted.

Surprisingly to Hermione, Dumbledore turned to her and then moved his gaze a little further.

“Mr. Riddle, if you please. I see that you have something you wish to clarify.”

“Thank you, Professor. I think the critical point is that you’ve never asked us whether all possible transfigurations can be permanent. You were only asking of whether a permanent transfiguration is even possible in the first place. Hermione has soundly demonstrated that yes, it’s very possible.” Tom stated.

“It is not necessary for her to prove that every single possible transfiguration can be made permanent, such as the wood-block-to-gold transfiguration.”

Dumbledore nodded in understanding as he let the class digest that, walking his way back to the front of the class. Two girls turned their head sharply at Tom’s direction, though Hermione had no idea what it was about.  He’d made the perfect concluding remark. (She half-wished Dumbledore had called her so that she could be the one to do it, thought she supposed hers wouldn’t be as pithy as his).

“Thank you very much, Mr. Riddle, Mr. Zabini, and especially to you, Ms. Curie. Another five points to Slytherin goes to Mr. Riddle and fifteen points for Ravenclaw.”

He waved his hand and the blackboard was suddenly filled with his handwriting. It was clear that it had been written beforehand, and Dumbledore was only now removing the spell he’d applied to hide them.

“Permanent transfiguration is possible.” He stated this firmly, his voice carrying weight across the entire transfigurations classroom.

Hermione couldn’t help but preen at the pleasant feeling of being vindicated.

“As Miss Curie had shown, creating permanent change with magic is possible—otherwise, how does wizard duels end in death if magic is but an illusion? We can easily call up elemental powers in our hands. Now, permanent transfiguration is merely another step from that level, concerning more with fine control rather than brute force. How to do it is a different kettle of fish altogether. Keep in mind that naïve transfiguration is what you are all taught in early classes, because it is enough for most common purposes.” He paused for a moment.

“In naïve transfiguration, to impose a new form onto an object, you imagine its new shape and keep that in mind as the words and wand movements of the spell bring it forth into the world. You don’t need to know what the object’s material is and how it relates to the material of the new form. Ignorance is not a handicap. Your will is absolute and you reject the original shape without so much as a by-your-leave. This imposition strains reality, of course, as all objects remember their essence, of what they truly are. The world remembers. Once your magic is no longer grasping the object firmly, nothing holds them back any more and they revert.”

Many quills were hurriedly scratching lines across parchments. Tom made only the occasional note here and there. Hermione herself had changed her note-taking habits. She would just note down the primary ideas, along with the occasional detail. Then, she’d try to reconstruct the argument herself using textbooks as her sources later.

It made for a more comprehensive understanding.

“Now, permanent or real transfiguration manages to affect actual change by not ignoring the state of the world and the state of things. You have to understand the material you are working with and the material you wish to change it to. You have to know and understand the natural processes that can create such change, because this is what you’re replicating. You have to know how many steps it would take to get there and coax it slowly, making sure that its entire being mutates every step of the way.”

He sighed. “Impatience and rushing through it will only change the spell into naïve transfiguration once more, where you impose your will on reality regardless of its plausibility. The object will certainly revert back to its initial state after some time had passed.”

Dumbledore paused and looked around each and every one of them carefully.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a good reason why the grounding theory of transfiguration is such a significant component of this class.”

“Ignorance is a handicap here.”

'-

“Miss Curie, can I speak with you for a moment?”

Hermione had already picked up her bag. Tom Riddle was at the door, his attention fixed on her. “Of course, Professor, I don’t mind. I’ll just tell Tom about it for a bit so he doesn’t wait.”

They walked to just outside the transfigurations classroom.

“Seems like Professor Dumbledore wanted to talk about some things with me. Maybe you should head off to lunch right now before you miss it.”

“What’s the matter?”

His tone was only slightly wondering, but Hermione had gotten used to reading the relative coldness of his eyes. This one was back to being rather chilly.

“I don’t think it’s anything important—it’s probably just because I showed a very good understanding of lasting transfiguration. Really, there’s nothing to worry about.” She patted his arm without thinking and turned back to the class. She could still feel the weight of his concerned gaze on her. It was weird, but Hermione decided not to give it too much thought. Tom’s hackles just seemed to be triggered by anything related to Dumbledore, as if they were two rival seekers moving in the same field, always keenly aware of the other’s presence and what they were doing and always considering any approach as a threat.

(Yes, Ron, I understand and can use quidditch analogies too, the random thought/memory popped into her head).

The professor was rereading his notes on his table.

“Professor Dumbledore? You were saying?”

“Ah, Miss Curie, please, take a seat. I know that you’ve expressed your love of transfigurations, but the thoroughness of your understanding of basic principles still astounds me.” Dumbledore said.

She took a seat in front of the teacher’s desk.

“I’m glad that you think so too, but I have to admit that I have an unfair edge. When one grows up with an awareness and love of science, figuring out how the world works is merely the extension of that. The foundations required for true transfigurations? Well, physics and chemistry are actually even more detailed than natural philosophy.”

Dumbledore’s smile was one of genuine pride.

“You’re not embarrassed at all by having a muggle upbringing?”

“I think both worlds have something to offer, Professor Dumbledore. Everyone should be given the opportunity to walk in both. I find many benefits of being able to walk both sides.” She said diplomatically. She can be diplomatic too (don’t roll your eyes, Daphne). It’s just that she remembered that she had no idea whether she was a muggle-born or a halfblood in the documents that had mysteriously backed her entrance to Hogwarts in this time.

“You have no problems at all in following the class, then?”

“Your explanations are very good, Sir, and they’re always accompanied with vivid examples. I just regret that I’d probably only be attending your class slightly more than half the time at best, because I’d have to balance all the classes I’m taking.”

His gaze was sympathetic. “Advanced Arithmancy, was it?”

“Yes, some of the schedules clashed, unfortunately.”

“I’m amazed that you did not consider simply taking some of the classes next year.”

Hermione’s smile was slightly bitter. “Well, none of us ever know how much time we have left in this life, do we? Besides, I know I can handle this, at least for this year. The material is the one leading to OWLS, right? And I’ve taken the test very similar to it in Norway. I would need to study the differences, but for most of the material, I’m merely reminding myself of what I know and refreshing the fundamentals.”

Why did Dumbledore invite me in for this? This is Head-of-House sort of chat, and I’m not Gryffindor this time.

“Well, I can see that you have a high awareness of your own limits and capabilities.”

Hermione nodded. “Thank you.”

“I’m sure you would thrive in Hogwarts.”

“I hope you’re right.” Hermione didn’t quite do the whole bashfully-accept-compliment-while-downplaying-too-high-praise dance this time. She could only hope her smile wasn’t strained, but she was running out of patience with all these questions whose endgame she couldn’t see.

“I see that you’ve found a good friend in Mr. Riddle.”

Ah. And there we are.

“I don’t know about the good friend yet. I don’t want to impose too much on him, it wouldn’t be fair because I know that Tom’s a prefect and I’m sure he has many things to do,” she said, easily avoiding the ‘good friends’ label Dumbledore brought up and just leave it up in the air. “But he has been extremely helpful while I was in the infirmary—him and Eugenie, really. They visited often and helped me keep up to pace with what’s happening in my classes and brought library books. It’s just unfortunate for Eugenie and I that we don’t share many classes together.”

But she knew that he knew that already, didn’t she?

Her smile was neutral and probably a bit on the lacklustre edge, but it was the best she could do at a moment’s notice. The other alternative had her pinching her nose and going ‘just spit out the questions that I’m sure you have about Tom Riddle, Professor Dumbledore, Sir. Let’s begin about your suspicions that he’s going to be a dark lord in the future.

Which would not go down very well, if at all.

“Is Mr. Riddle aware of your muggle connections, Miss Curie?”

“Even if he didn’t know, it would be highly hypocritical of him considering that he lives in a muggle orphanage, isn’t it? And I may not know much about the British wizarding world, but I’m quite sure that the last name Riddle is not part of the Sacred 28.”

Her tone may be bland as she said this, but she savoured the fleeting look of surprise on Dumbledore’s face before she idly looked away and pushed some errant locks back behind her ear, brushing past the rose that was in her hair by accident. It was mildly entertaining to be able to outmanoeuvre great strategists on the scale of Dumbledore. Oh, she was just lucky that he thought she was a normal transfer student. She knew that.

She just wanted him to know that she wasn’t entering the situation blind here.

“He has told you of his background?” Dumbledore didn’t hide the slight surprise from his voice.

She glanced up. “Not quite like that. I just have a way of drawing these things out, Sir. You would be surprised what you can get with an understanding and sympathetic ear. Sometimes, people just need someone who would listen and not judge.”

Alright, Hermione had to stop there, bite her lip and shut up. She looked down on to her hands, demurely laid on her lap. She was laying it rather thick there, wasn’t she? If she didn’t hold herself back, she was going to blow up into laughter. No, she didn’t really believe that Tom Riddle became a dark lord just because no one understands him (God, he could’ve just made a band instead of going on a killing spree—that’s what every other British guy with an identity crisis did. He could’ve made it big as an international star along the same wave that carried the Beatles. Merlin knows he already has the cheekbones and the smouldering gaze).

She did, however, think that Dumbledore was mistaken for writing him off too soon. She thought he could’ve done more, at least, before giving up.

“And do you listen, Miss Curie?”

“Oh, often,” she glibly replied. “The trick, you see, is to pull him out of that perfect student persona in the first place. If you can’t get past that, you won’t get anywhere since you’re not seeing the real Tom yet.”

“His perfect student persona?” Dumbledore asked curiously.

“Well, for people like Tom…people like us, we don’t feel that people would appreciate us if we can’t show that we’re useful. So, we put all our self into it, 200% if necessary. We become hyper-achieving people. In the grand scheme of things, we’re simply what, extras? Bonus? Cast-offs? We’re not heirs to some prestigious family, or one with an extensive pedigree. We don’t have insane amount of wealth to help give us a leg up in the world. One gets the feeling that we’ll never get anything done unless we reach the very top first so that people would listen to us.”

“It’s just…I wanted to tell him that he didn’t need to do that performance with me, no matter what. Because I get that. I really do.”

Dumbledore had a different opinion, she knew, and for all her respect for him, she couldn’t help but disagree. Treat people like an outcast, provide them with no support network, and the only path they can see open to them would be to become that outlaw everyone already thought they were. Add the dated pureblood hierarchy into the mix, closing up opportunities for people from unconventional backgrounds to climb up socially, well…you have a toxic cocktail waiting to blow up.

She snorted in remembrance, “Well, his real self might still turn out to be an annoying arse, pardon my language. Clearly, he thinks that he’s the bee’s knees just because he’s so clever. Yet I think we can work it out between the two of us by sitting down and talking about it whenever one of us annoys the other too much—you know, like real friends, real people?”

The mood in the room was pensive.

(Hermione could almost remember the numbers she was scribbling as she was charting the flow of history. She had to the oddest realisation that she’d done some of the calculations for the shape of events in the 1940s—to try to understand Grindelwald’s rise and fall, perhaps. It required calculating where the attractors are in that particular locale of the decade’s phase space and she soon noticed which ones are the largest as it would affect the most variables. One force that came up again and again in various calculations was the dated social structure of the wizarding world. It was everywhere and it affected everything. It was the miasma that everyone breathed.

It was a strong force that influenced events and people in the direction of the attractor (cultural trap, the civilisation quicksand) that she’d labelled Rise of Voldemort.

She had a feeling that she was still missing something, though, that even Voldemort himself may be a symptom instead of a cause. It occurred to her that now that she was in the 1940s, here was her opportunity to dig deeper.

No wonder all these things feel so easy to realise, she mused. It was already there in her memories. Future her probably already did some preliminary calculations, and even if she cannot recall when and how she did so, Hermione still had a vague notion of what the results were.)

“You are happy to be his friend, then, Miss Curie?” Dumbledore finally asked again.

She couldn’t quite understand his tone. It was a little strange.

“Yes, I think I do. As much as I’m happy with my friendship with Eugenie, or maybe even Lakshmi, as weird as she is.” Not that she can throw a lot of stones on the weirdness front, really.

Dumbledore’s gaze seemed to be lost in some distant place. Possibly not even the present.

“Uh, Professor?”

“Oh, I'm sorry, dear. I’ve simply gotten caught up with my memories.”

Yes, she knew how it was. It was why her expression of sympathy wasn’t fake at all. She could also see the point where Dumbledore realised he was talking to a war orphan and she looked away. Hermione often felt bad at getting cheap sympathy from her fake background.

“Now, what are your plans for your independent study?” Albus Dumbledore asked.

Hermione almost groaned, but she persevered. She might have several ideas—ideas that had never seen the light of day when she was in Hogwarts because she’d been too busy staying alive. If she wasn’t doing it for herself, she was helping Harry and Ron do so. Anyway, the point is, there had been lots of distractions. Luna’s method of creating a living flower crown (or garland) was interesting, but she had a feeling that it would probably fit Herbology better.

Transfigurations, transfigurations…she scoured her mind for her old school memories.

'-

Sometime later, they began to wrap everything up.

“Very well. I’m happy to know you’ve settled in. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time for now, Miss Curie. In any case, don’t forget that my door is always open to you; I feel that you have a bright future in this field.”

Dumbledore finished writing whatever it was that he was scribbling and handed it over to her. It was an explanation, a hall pass, just in case she was late for the next class from lunch because they’d been talking.

“Thank you, Professor Dumbledore.” She wasn’t even lying about it as the pass made it so much more convenient.

‘-

The brunette witch was shoving a book into her book bag while walking (it was the second that had been shoved in now). Lending her hard-to-find books from his personal library covereth a multitude of sin in Hermione Granger’s books. Yet even when Dumbledore did just that after they were speaking about the possible directions of her personal project, every other third question was always related to Tom somehow. Hermione had only been able to suss out the hidden side to these questions after five minutes because of how very vaguely connected they could be.

It was annoying. It was a pain in the rear. It was fraying her nerves and patience. If she heard another question about the books she’d happened to want to discuss with Tom, or whether ‘any of her friends’ had told her of their plans for next Hogsmeade weekend, or what varieties of roses that she liked and how she came to like oranges, she was going to scream.

“Don’t tell me you waited for me.” Hermione flat-out said the moment she walked out of the class.

She’d noticed one Tom Riddle had been leaning against the wall across the door, looking at ease and as if he was exactly where he wanted. She knew that Dumbledore was probably eyeing Tom curiously if he’d glimpsed him at all from class—the professor had assured her that she can go off first as he still had things to tidy up.

“I visited the kitchen and enjoyed some snack. I ran an errand or two and I thought I’d see whether you will come out within three minutes or so of my arrival. It would seem I was right.”

“But you haven’t been waiting outside the door all this time, right?” Hermione asked.

“No, I haven’t. You seem…insistent on that.” He gave her a sideways glance.

“I don’t like the idea of anyone waiting for me for half an hour or more—I don’t even know how long I’d been there talking.”

“I would have been bored within ten minutes of doing nothing,” he replied. Hermione snorted at that, yet she ended up smiling all the same.

“I see. No need to worry, then?”

“Precisely.”

‘-

When Tom offered her his arm again once she had her book bag under control, she sighed.

“No offence, Tom, but even with Dumbledore’s hall pass, I might still lose time from the next class and I’m not looking forward to that. We can’t exactly walk at marching speed when we’re arm-in-arm.”

“There’s a shortcut to the Great Hall.” He assured her.

She stared at him in disbelief, but he didn’t back down or even change his expression the slightest.

“Do you have one that would take us there in five minutes?” She asked, incredulous.

He seemed to weigh several known shortcuts in his mind. “There’s one if you don’t mind going down a stone slide.”

Hermione slid her arm into his and let him lead the way.

“At this rate, I’d slide down a basilisk.” She said.

“You’re exaggerating,” he noted, but with that lighter tone that she knew meant he was amused.

“No, really. Find me a basilisk that can get me to the Great Hall in a minute right now and I’ll ride it.”

“Even if it takes other students for snacks?”

She knew that he did not always noticed the difference where she was annoyed and joking about maiming people or annoyed and serious about maiming people. This time, she was too hungry to care, her mind was running a mile a minute, and she wanted to release the aggravation she felt at Dumbledore’s roundabout conversation somehow.

Besides, she’d make sure it was all too outlandish to be true.

“You know those groups of students that act like the hallways is their common room, blocks it with the hive mind of a ball of snot and has the collective speed of a paraplegic slug? If the basilisk can get all of them in that single trip, I’ll consider it. I’ll even consider giving it a trophy cup.”

“This hypothetical basilisk has to get them all at once? It can’t just take, say, half of them?”

“Well, the remaining human mucus balls would undergo mitosis and split themselves up to bring the colony back to its full number. And then where would I be? Still walking behind slow, self-important, gossiping students while you’ve raised the alarm for them and is probably on the run from the DMLE. And that would just be sad. No, if the basilisk can’t pull of miracles, it’s better if it just keeps a low profile.”

“No killing the people?” He asked, idly. She nodded.

“No killing the people.”

Not ten metres from where they’d been walking, there was an obscenely ugly gargoyle that Hermione was sure was the door to the stone slide. Well, at the very least she could be sure that it couldn’t have been kept for its artistic value. It had a lewd leer that would make satyrs blush, lolling tongue included. It was also priapic to the extreme degree of being able to stab passing people accidentally with its stone member and make it hurt too.

“Well, is this the ideal dating spot if you were angling to get punched?” She couldn’t help asking.

“Pardon?” Tom was more pre-occupied in checking the bricks behind the alcove. Some pulling, a tap with his wand and muttering made the gargoyle walked aside. It had a disgusting swagger too. Why on earth would anyone want to think that level of detail for this, this…thing?

“The gargoyle. I doubt that any girl is flattered by statuary that looks as if it wants to molest you.”

“The less you know about the artistic aspirations of Romulus Rowle, the happier you’ll be,” he muttered. “He wanted to make a set of statues based on Dante’s Inferno, and yet all seven of them seem to represent different aspects of Lust than any other sin, with the last one ending in an orgy of demons. I understand the need for consistency, but why does every sculpture have his face, even the succubae? I assure you, that is actually scarier than an inferi. The other six in the series is stuffed away Merlin-knows-where in Hogwarts. This is the only one that’s been declared fit to be displayed.”

She scoffed. “They declared this fit to be displayed?”

“The second most decent one after this has an animation movement that includes vigorous thrusting.” He deadpanned.

Hermione burst into a partly-hysterical laughter at the absurdity of it before she saw that his expression was completely serious.

 “You know all this? You’ve read about the guy who made this and actually know the details of his ‘masterpieces’—are you actually masochistic?”

He took her hand and lead her to the slide but didn’t exactly meet her eye.

“When someone asks you whether you wish to know all the secrets of Hogwarts, try not to say yes immediately and skim the book first. If someone insists that you have to read every page to know the hidden message, it is a good idea to rip through his mind first and see whether he’d already found said hidden message already. If you can’t manage that, then aggressively persuading him to agree to give said hidden message is also plausible.”

“Ah, the good old ‘code-breaking by blunt objects’ method.” Hermione said. “So, you were conned into reading the book.”

“In my defence, I was thirteen.”

She sat down next to him and they slid down together.

'-

They were fashionably late to lunch.

This means that they looked great striding in with their robes billowing behind them, especially when they had the audience to gawk. (She figured out now why Snape seemed to enjoy doing it so much). The downside to that was they were late. Almost everyone was on their respective tables and noticed them and they took the idea that Hermione was intentionally making a Statement.

The problem being of course that everyone had their own idea of what that Statement is, and now each of them was intently spreading what they believe was truer than anyone else’s version to their neighbour.

“Would you like to join me at the Slytherin table?” Tom asked.

She gave him a look that sat between ‘are you serious?’ and ‘do you want to bathe in scorpion venom?’ A split second later she remembered that Tom Riddle would feel comfortable among the maddened crowd of the Coliseum as they cheer for the beasts to eat some prisoners. He wouldn’t think that there was anything unusual with the Hogwarts dining room crowd today. Asking him a question that relied on sparing anyone (even himself) from the baying of the hungry crowd was beyond the capability of his non-existent conscience or mercy.

“Maybe later,” she replied instead, and he displayed his good manners by escorting her right up to Eugenie on the Ravenclaw table.

The blonde witch shrank a little, implicitly wishing that the earth would open up and eat her right now as practically all the heads in the hall turned with almost zombie-like precision in her direction.

“Hermione,” Tom said with a nod. Hermione returned it just as briefly.

“Tom.”

The empty spot was apparently between Eugenie and Lakshmi. Lucretia was…nowhere to be seen? Hmm. The dark-haired Ravenclaw fifth-year, however, was lounging like a sultana with nary a concern on her face.

“Ah, Hermione. Welcome! We were worried you lost yourself on the way here.”

“As you can see, I’m fine. I had a perfectly capable guide.” Hermione eased herself between them. She pretended that the other conversations hadn’t suddenly gone softer to better eavesdrop on hers, or that her words made several girls send her suspicious glances.

Lakshmi turned her head towards the Slytherin table with an appreciative smile as she watched Tom take a seat.

“It is precisely because you have such a talented guide that I thought you might as well use the opportunity to ask him to take you to see the heights.” She said, turning back to Hermione. There were a few more red faces on the table than there’d been before. Perhaps the tea was too hot.

“Take a personal tour of Hogwarts?” The brunette witch asked innocently.

“Yes. Do take a personal tour of Hogwarts. Make sure you memorise all your favourite spots—after all, you might want to…revisit them later. Of course, if you’ve studied the route properly, you’ll find that you can get there faster and with less stumbling over a wrong turn. You can hit more highlights in one trip.” 

There were suddenly more choking sounds on the table. But of course, it might just be completely unrelated. They might have found pieces of bone in their beef, no matter how perfectly easy to chew and swallow it had been all this time. She thought she recognised that tall wizard that suddenly turned towards her and looking incredulous. Oops, I think that’s Verrault.

If Lakshmi’s smile was full of meaning, Hermione’s grin was just wide and bright. She was doing her best not to laugh by pinching her own thigh. Repeatedly.

“Mmm, my favourite spots, you say? Well, I’m quite sure I’ve found one of his secret spots today.”

Several people down the line from them, a seventh-year sprayed apple juice all over his complaining friend. Galleons changed hands for at least three different people that Hermione could see. There was actually an outraged shriek somewhere from around the Gryffindor Table that was closest to them. Not that either of them really cared to turn around to check.

Eugenie was whimpering in her spot as she buried her face in her hands, murmuring something about how she couldn’t take her friends anywhere, not even their own House’s table. Hermione saw that Lakshmi herself had started to bite her own lip to hold back her own laughter.

“You did? That’s good for you!” The dark-haired witch congratulated with an almost insulting amount of cheer.

“Well, I know it’s good for him. I mean, the poor man certainly needs to release the tension and I was there.” Hermione paused to drink some water, ignoring the coughing seventh-year witch staring at her scandalously (a prefect, she suspected). “Merlin knows he’s been holding back his opinion on that awful statue for a while.”

“Oh, which one?” Her friend continued without missing a beat.

“Romulus Rowle’s gargoyle,” Hermione said. “A most terrible excuse for a lack of artistic vision. That spot has a great shortcut for going down, but awful cover.”

“What are we talking about, again?” A Ravenclaw third-year asked out loud, looking confused. Hermione gazed at him with an amused look. Almost everyone around him shushing and glaring at him.

“Hogwarts’s abundance of secret shortcuts,” Eugenie answered with a perfect deadpan. “Apparently, Riddle knows one and now Hermione knows it too.”

Lakshmi and Hermione turned to her in surprise. The blonde lifted her shoulders in a Gallic shrug. “What? I do pay attention, you know, even if I sometimes choose not to play.”

The dark-haired witch leaned across Hermione’s lap and grinned, trailing a finger down Eugenie’s cheek. Hermione huffed as she leaned back slightly because Lakshmi’s bust simply took up space.

“But darling, it’s so much more interesting when you do.” She purred, her kohl-rimmed eyes half-lidded.

Eugenie blushed to the roots of her hair, and several boys have poured juice to their lap instead of their glasses. Or have juice poured over their head by their annoyed girlfriends. Hermione grinned.

“Oh, relax, Lakshmi. We can always persuade her properly later.” She winked at her roommates.

At least one sixth-year student had to pinch his nose due to a nosebleed as he desperately asked his friend to do something about it. His friend handed him a napkin.

“You know, I’m beginning to miss the peace and quiet I get when I don’t understand you at all.” Eugenie commented dryly, even with the colour still high on her cheeks. Her roommate laughed as she went returned to sitting normally.

“What peace and quiet? You just didn’t notice all the fun and riot going on around you back then!”

'-

Chapter Text

14 Lunchtime Socialisations and Advanced Potions

Hermione found it rather satisfying that her back-and-forth with Lakshmi seemed to have either confounded some of the overly-inquisitive people on the Ravenclaw table into a confused silence, or at the very least, prompt them to stop talking as if she wasn’t there to hear it. Of course, she hadn’t considered the sheer insulation of one seventh-year that seemed to be the queen of her little clique.

“But really, I thought she’d have better sense for…you know, someone with her unfortunate background. I know I would.” She said it to her little group of personal echoes, who nodded and parroted her opinion back and generally agreed with her.

“Who’s that?” Hermione asked under her breath.

“Stephanie Selwyn, sixth year,” Eugenie said. Hermione thought she could see the blonde’s knuckles whitening when she gripped her knife too tightly.

“I mean, there’s leaving yourself open to opportunities and there’s offering yourself up desperately, you know?” The witch was pretty, but somehow shrewish-looking. Her voice wasn’t subdued enough to be ignored and just at the right pitch to be grating. “She would be ruining both of their futures that way and it’s such a shame for Riddle if she did that, isn’t it?”

“She has delusions of grandeur—she believes her little pocket of sycophants is actually the entire Ravenclaw sixth and fifth years.” Lakshmi said with an affronted huff.

“Someone needs to tell Riddle he’s making a mistake. The perfect wife to support him to the top is certainly a pureblood witch, and he can join her family.” Stephanie went on to a chorus of nods. A few Ravenclaw wizards was either rolling their eyes or putting on a most exasperated look. This included that Ravenclaw that was in Hermione’s Advanced Transfiguration whose name escaped her right now. It started with S. Sid? Shawn? Siddiq?

Hermione was patting Eugenie’s hand. “I’m sure I can find something to shock her beyond talking some time. I’m fine, really, no need to worry about me.”

“But Stephanie isn’t exactly wrong, Hermione,” the blonde softly said.

She turned to her friend curiously. “What do you mean by not wrong?”

“Her idea of any possible permanent ties between you and Riddle as a mésalliance.” She pronounced the last word the French way. Lakshmi continued for her when she fell into silence once more while passing some pudding to both of her dormmates.

“Neither of you, after all, have the family to back up his hypothetical career in politics. His path would be a hundred times faster with the right witch at his side.”

“Why do you think he’d enter politics?” Hermione’s question was more curious than serious.

Lakshmi waved it away with a sniff. “Please. He’s the rising star of Slytherin. What else is he going to be, a shopkeeper?”

Hermione snorted at the irony. She wondered what Lakshmi would think if she knew that Tom Riddle did end up as a shopkeeper once, in the future she knew.

“On the other hand, I think she’s severely underestimating your capabilities as well as Riddle’s. No one who hasn’t been walking with their hands over their ears and yelling loudly would miss that he’s managed to spin himself some influence in Slytherin.” Lakshmi finished. “Of course, describing Dear Stephanie as anything other than ignorant is wishful thinking. But if you should know, she might be ignorant, but she’s not the worst out there. She still wishes to give you helpful advice to you and Riddle’s advantage, in case you didn’t notice. Most pureblood who hadn’t been paying attention to the two of you would even agree with her conclusion.”

“That you shouldn’t marry each other.” Eugenie helpfully clarified.

“I find it extremely bizarre that the student body finds that deciding on my marriage is the most important issue they need to decide on. And on the first day I join it too,” came Hermione’s dry reply.

“Welcome to what it means to be the idle rich, Hermione,” was Lakshmi’s bemused reply, “and the reality that pureblood alliance-making starts early.”

“As fascinating as it seems to find that I have my own Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I still don’t understand why they need to interfere so much and why I should even care.”

Lakshmi’s amber eyes narrowed as she lowered her voice.

“Well, perhaps you should care, Hermione, if you wish to make your way through the British wizarding world. Reputation is the foundation for connections and social progression. Without it, your post-Hogwarts life would be exceedingly difficult, to say the least. Or, it would be embarrassingly plebeian.”

Eugenie’s brows furrowed. “Who’s this de Bourgh person?”

The tension between them was broken as Hermione bemoaned the lack of that can people understand her literary references. Lakshmi’s chuckle was good-natured.

All of a sudden, she missed Harry.

At the very least, Harry been an unexpectedly avid reader too (he even read Dickens, to her surprise, and had gone a few chapters into War and Peace even as he sheepishly insisted that he was just really, really bored at the time). He knew her references and was known to unconsciously slip a few of his own, to Ron’s chagrin and Draco’s disbelief. Being without access to television during the summer meant Harry had actually gone through the local library collection at a startling speed. He was merely less obsessed than Hermione when it came to school work.

Her other dormmate’s voice was almost kind as she spoke up to Eugenie.

“I’ll lend you my copy of Pride and Prejudice, dear.”

'-

Orion Black was neat as a pin except for his hair, whose thick waves can only be half-tamed had made at least one witch swoon and declare it as either Byronic or Heathcliff-like. He had his father’s aptitude for politics and was a near-identical clone of Arcturus in cold calculation that most forget he was still a fourth-year. His grey eyes were dispassionate when they met Tom Riddle’s.

“Good afternoon, Tom.”

“Good afternoon, Orion,” he greeted back with polite ease and nodded to the rest of Orion’s entourage. “Gentlemen.”

An assorted murmur of “Good afternoon, Tom,” rose from around him. A few may be grudging, but the rest has the good sense not to. The prefect took the seat right across the Slytherin fourth-year. He did not blink as Fintan Gambol and Humbert Jape scrambled to move aside (and elbow people to their respective left and right to ‘move and make space, you slow berks’) to give him room to sit down. He barely even noted that the fourth-year muscles of Orion Black were taller than him already.

“I had thought you weren’t going to come to lunch at all.”

“I had to settle some of my affairs first.” He said as an empty plate appeared where he was sitting. The house elfs were certainly diligent. Gambol and Jape passed him plates of food without needing him to ask, sometimes their solicitousness was only prompted by the slightest of glances. If only Abraxas could be so discerning with his choice of minions, Tom thought.

“I see that you have been escorting an interesting lady.” Orion observed.

“I’ll be the first to say that the rumours can never do justice to her intelligence or capability.”

The two student exchanged glances that seemed to convey more than several lines at once before they continued to focus on their food. It was a contrast to the hubbub that was currently rising and falling somewhere in the vicinity of the Ravenclaw table, presumably around the end where most of the fifth-years were clustered at.

I’m sure we’d like to know about her capabilities.” Someone muttered.

Gambol and Jape froze. Flavius Flint and Brock Bulstrode who sat to Orion’s sides kept their calm better. It was expected of people with the smarts to be his right-hand and left-hand, but there was no mistaking the slight tension in their frames. The Black heir’s look towards Tom eloquently conveyed ‘do you see the fools I have to work with?’ Tom allowed a smile to slowly spread across his face as he tried to recall the name of the lantern-jawed idiot of a fourth-year.

“Do you, Knatchbull?” He asked. “Would you really like to know?”

Iago Knatchbull sullenly looked up to his right. Fintan Gambol was quietly pulling himself back so that he was not between Tom Riddle and his target.

“Well, if she was brassy enough to prance around in daylight like that with you, it makes sense that she has the skills to be proud of, if you know what I mean.”

A few low laughter broke out spontaneously before they were stifled. But the smirks and knowing glances some of the boys were exchanging were clues enough. Tom Riddle found himself growing colder at the sheer gall they were displaying. His anger had been explosive when he was younger, but as he’d learned since then, emotional outbursts gets you nowhere when you’re a no-name nobody’s child. A well-planned and well-executed vengeance, however, is a most satisfactory dish.

Best served chilled, naturally.

“I'm sorry, I’m afraid I have no idea what you mean, Mr. Knatchbull.” Tom pleasantly replied as he met the other student’s gaze. Iago lowered his voice.

“Well, you know. She certainly has a lithe-looking figure, eh? Pretty too.”

If Gambol leaned back any further, he’d fall off his seat. Orion was enjoying this afternoon’s show from the way he lifted his glass to Flavius’ direction to get him to refill it without taking his eyes from Iago or Tom.

“What would you know of that, Mr. Knatchbull?”

“Some Gryffs saw her when she’s out with the veela on the grounds—”

Knatchbull started choking at this point, his hands desperately grabbing his neck, trying to loosen an invisible knot that was not even there in the first place. His nails scratched his skin in his desperation and red lines marked the surface. Everyone could see the whites of his eyes as they roll up.

“Would someone please help the poor man. It would seem that his bad habit of chewing and talking at once has gotten to him.” Tom remarked, ever the concerned citizen.

Fintan Gambol took that as his cue to move closer to the other wizard’s side (as he was the one right next to Knatchbull anyway) and slap his back repeatedly. One would note that there seemed to be more force used than necessary even as his face turned a shade of puce.

“Harder, Fintan,” Orion added, scarily cheerful. “It never hurts to do your best to make sure that the bone is out.”

Knatchbull received several more blows to his back, including a few from the student sitting at his other side that took the initiative to assist Fintan in his efforts. One noticeably harsh cough later and Knatchbull managed to dislodge a wishbone from his throat onto his plate, its sides red with blood. The poor prat’s throat was probably a bit raw right now.

Tom smiled. “Well, gentlemen, we can all see that talking while eating is not a wise idea to indulge in. Sometimes it’s safer to say nothing at all.”

Several heads ducked and stayed that way as others quieted down. Gambol had returned to his meal with considerably more relief than before.

“Let us hope that the lesson is learned already without us having to witness more accidents,” Orion concluded. “Perhaps I should get Humbert to run to the infirmary for some potion to soothe the throat in case there are other accidents. It’s never a bad idea to be prepared.”

“Merlin knows one never goes broke by overestimating stupidity,” Bulstrode scoffed from his left. For all his square jaw and big-boned look, he was not just a mere bruiser. The wizard plays a mean chess.

Orion’s gaze met Tom’s.

“Yes,” the Black heir said with undisguised amusement. “you have a point, Brock.”

“And discretion might have avoided a lot of fuss entirely.” Flint commented.

“Do you have something to say, Flavius?” Tom asked, his tone mild. Flavius paled.

“I, no. I wouldn’t presume, Tom,” he said, though from the way Tom’s eyebrows rose up, he clearly doubted that. “It’s just…people talk, you know?”

“I’m sure Lucretia can talk to her,” Orion said before Flavius tripped on his tongue over one trivial thing or another and someone had another dinner table accident.

“I would never think to dictate your sister’s social life.” Tom replied.

“Not at all,” Orion said easily. “We’re friends, aren’t we? I’m sure she’d understand friendly concern.”

Flavius poured the Black heir his drink just as the glass began to empty. Humbert did the same for Tom from his right. The rise and fall of the conversational noises around the Ravenclaw table seemed slightly louder than usual, but no one around them commented on it.

“Now that your schedule returns to its usual form, I take it that the study groups are resumed, then?” Orion asked.

“Of course,” Tom answered. Orion nodded in understanding.

“I’ll make the arrangements for the fourth-years. Flavius, find us a place as usual.”

Flavius paused as he did whatever it was that he needed to do to memorise that before resuming his eating.

“Now, my father sent me another long letter about the Minister, and I think I missed half of the horse-trading in Wizengamot that he was trying to describe. For all the length of his letters, he tends to forget to write the background in. Does he expect me to pluck the details about the people straight from his mind? Do I look like a seer to you?” Orion said with some exasperation. He looked every inch the fourth year this time with his look of annoyance. Tom’s expression was one of bemusement.

“One of these days, I need to write back saying exactly that.” He murmured.

“Spencer-Moon is up to his usual tricks again, is he?” Tom asked, referring to the Minister for Magic.

“One of the reforms. Hell if I know about what project he has going, though.” Orion shook his head. “What I manage to get still sounds ridiculous. General civil service examination? There is nothing they can generalise between the ministry that can use magic and the ones that can’t!”

“There are more innovations that he wished to transfer from the muggle civil service, then?” The fifth-year asked.

“You’d have a better idea of that than I do. Do you have the time to help with suggestions for some sort of counter-proposal, for whatever it is that they’re quibbling about this time?” The Black heir finally asked.

“Of course, I can. We are friends, after all.” Tom’s smile showed as much teeth as a wolf’s fanged grin.

“Much obliged, Tom.”

Orion’s smile would fit well on a jackal.

'-

Hermione had expected Slughorn’s class to at least be relaxing. Since he was overly excited by her potential, it was not difficult to guess that he might be excessively flattering, but he would not be as obstructive as Snape had been for Harry, or even as annoyingly vague as Dumbledore’s little interview after transfigurations class. He’d certainly call her to answer several questions and demonstrate her extensive knowledge on potions.

She had arrived late (she wasn’t going to rush through her lunch and get an indigestion—now, she thought that no class is worth getting cramped stomach). Hermione made her explanations about being previously held up by Dumbledore for discussions—not that she had worried that he even minded. It was another plus of Slughorn’s, she supposed, especially for someone who was a natural teacher’s pet like her. The brunette witch had barely even lifted the hall pass in her hand when the potions master chuckled and assured her that it was completely unnecessary because he believed her.

Her eyebrows rose up. That was really accepting of him.

“Sir?”

“There’s no need to stand on ceremony with me, Miss Curie, I understand what happened very well.”

Really? She hadn’t said anything else beyond she was held up talking.

“You are a talented witch, a credit to your parents and your previous school! It is simply a matter of course if Dumbledore wanted to see just how knowledgeable you are. it is only natural.”

Hermione had felt increasingly uncomfortable as she stood in front of Slughorn’s desk while he apparently paused his class to sing her praises. It was akin to the discomfort of having your parents being too liberal with your praise to your teacher when the whole class is listening in with all the fascination of watching a trainwreck. Her misfortune was such that she couldn’t even send pleading glances to the teacher to just make it all stop.

Slughorn was the teacher and the one playing the parent role in one.

Tom, to his credit, somehow managed to find a natural pause in Slughorn’s monologue. He had unobtrusively slid to her side and gently tugged on her bag. She’d relinquished it to him without even realising it. Merely moments after that, he managed to find the space to speak up.

“Professor Slughorn, I’m sure Hermione is eager to begin the class,” he let that sink in, “as is everyone else.”

“What? Oh! You’re correct, Tom! Of course, of course. You may go back to your seat, Hermione! Now, where were we?”

Tom Riddle had placed her bag on the seat next to his. Of course. She rolled her eyes but went with it anyway. She was late to the class, and she certainly didn’t have time to look around and scout for a convenient spot now. Not to mention all the stares (and probably a few glares) she could feel at the back of her head meant that any other place was guaranteed to be more awkward. She certainly wasn’t looking forward to being gawked at through the class if she’d chosen to sit next to the wrong person.

Slughorn had, thankfully, stopped paying attention to her and returned to his lecture.

“Thanks for saving me a spot, but aren’t you overdoing this?”

Tom was still staring forward, his attention to her the flicker of a side glance. He did not seem the slightest bit perturbed.

“What am I overdoing?”

“Your escorting me? I think this is reaching overprotective levels. The other students won’t bite me, Tom, but they would notice your excessive care and wonder why.”

“Let them wonder.” He said.

“Tom—”

“It’s not a problem at all,” he assured. “I’ve taken care of it.”

What exactly it was that he needed to take care of was something that pricked her curiosity. Since he was apparently aware of the attention he was drawing, she thought she’d warned him enough. Something about Lakshmi’s warnings on rumours and reputations still unsettled her and made her think, but she decided that she could shelve it for after class.

Her prediction on being asked to answer Slughorn’s more difficult questions were spot on. She answered smoothly, easily replying even as it resembled less of Slughorn questioning her and more of a back-and-forth between a master and an apprentice. This was especially true as the complexity of the topic increased. She’d corrected him at one point on the plants used, particularly when she knew there were two closely-related species of nightshade that are easily mistaken for one another.

(Why Neville wasn’t good in potions when he was great in herbology was something she found inexplicable. In the end, she merely chalked it up to the failure that is Snape’s pedagogy).

“While I’m sure this discussion on the different uses of the nightshade family is interesting, I’m sure we can get return to the different variations of the dreamless sleep potion, Professor?” Tom cut in.

Slughorn snapped his fingers. “Right. I knew I was forgetting something. Thank you, Tom. Hermione, another ten points to Ravenclaw!”

With that, the potion master was off once more to the front of the class and Hermione breathed her own sigh of relief. “Thanks. I almost forgot myself there.”

“You’re welcome.”

Not long after that, Slughorn, in his unfathomable mystery, decided to have Hermione assist him in brewing his potion because he was sure something this standard would be no problem for her. It unfolded with the same sense of inexorable doom as a trainwreck.

“I’m sorry?” Hermione asked, not quite sure about what she heard.

“We can brew the potion together,” Slughorn replied cheerfully as he gestured to his cauldron in front of the class. “Based on your accomplishment, I’m sure it would be a great example for everyone else in class!”

The Ravenclaw witch could feel the eyes of almost everyone in the room turning to her yet again. Some, she was sure was glaring daggers or giving her a frosty reception. She was used to being a teacher’s pet, but this is something else altogether! She could already hear some people muttering what could be so special about her. Did Slughorn even realise that singling her out like this was only going to isolate her from the class and make it harder for her to approach her classmates?

“B-but Professor, I don’t think I’m anywhere near your level,” the brunette began.

“Nonsense! I know the standards for OWLs around Europe, and a little Dreamless Sleep would be no trouble for you at all.”

Damn.

She was wondering what else she could say when Tom raised his hand next to her.

“I’m sorry, Professor, I think what Hermione meant to say was that she would be nervous to brew in front of the class, with you. You’re not an ordinary potioneer either, Professor, as your profile in last month’s The Quarterly Potioneer’s Review shows. I’m sure even Hermione would like to be able to learn from you first and see how you work your magic with the cauldron firsthand before she would even consider herself well-prepared to work with you.” Tom said all this smoothly, with a calm and even tone.

“You will not rob her of such an opportunity, would you, Professor?”

His smile was the right balance of respectful and friendly.

Slughorn chuffed at such blatant appreciation of his talents, but more importantly to Hermione, he actually backed down.

“Ah, you’re right, my dear boy. How good of you to remind me!”

Tom’s reply was only a polite nod.

“Yes, yes. I cannot possibly take the opportunity to learn away from you. I’m sorry if I was too rushed in my enthusiasm,” Slughorn beamed at Hermione. She managed an awkward smile back.

“It’s alright, Professor.”

He nodded and turned back to the rest of the class. “Very well, we will start with…”

Hermione deflated the moment she no longer could feel the eyes of the entire class fixed upon her like floodlights on a stage. Tom only gave her a side-glance and an amused smile.

They’d both returned to their potion preparation as Slughorn started describing the process in front of the class. Tom had conveniently taken and weighed all the required ingredients before she arrived at class, and now she was reaping the fruits of his diligence and efficiency. They had split the preparation process between the two of them, and soon each of them was busy with their own chopping, cutting and shredding.

“I bet you could take over the world and manage it well,” she said conversationally, still wide-eyed and mildly shocked after being battered with Slughorn’s excessive exuberance and good will all this time.

Hermione had noticed his good mood from the first time she sat beside him and it had not abated in the least. She could not figure out its cause, though, and it vexed her slightly. She considered it a personal failing to lose track of his motivations.

“Really? What makes you say that?” He asked.

“Hmmm. Let me think about it for a moment.”

It was not hard to note the echo of a smile on his face, not for someone who’d talked to him often and was familiar enough with his quirks. She had all those days of being stuck in the infirmary with him being a constant visitor after all, talking about the materials of the advanced classes—yes, she knew she was a swot. Hermione had made her peace with her peculiarities and stopped feeling bothered about them. Of course, if she was a swot, it meant he was just as bad because she hadn’t managed to bore him.

“Where do I begin? There’s your silver tongue. It’s in the way I’ve seen you defuse various situations with ease. I envy your ability to maintain the peace or move people with no one the wiser about what you’ve just did. If I could do what you can…” she mused.

Her last sentences surprised him. Oh, he did not even pause in his movements, dropping one ingredients after another to their cauldron without stutter. There was a slight shift in his movement, though—as if he’d been focused before and was now more routine, done by rote because his mind was elsewhere.

“Why?” He started, before shaking his hand in dissatisfaction, grasping for words that he couldn’t find. “That is…I don’t understand.”

Her lips quirked at one corner. “Well, I don’t understand you either, so we’re even.”

She knew it was petty, but it was hard not to feel a little gleeful about his frustration. His potential for destruction, his strangeness and persistence, had frustrated her often enough that she thought a bit of turnabout would be welcome.

“That’s not exactly what I meant,” he finally said. She was disappointed that he took a deep breath instead of outright huffing at her.

“Well, it’s exactly what I meant, so I see no problem with it.” Hermione replied.

He huffed. (Yes! She mentally tallied her victory).

Several more ingredients had gone into the cauldron, either of them taking turns stirring when they weren’t chopping. They made for a pretty efficient team, Hermione had to admit that. None of their movements were redundant.

“You mentioned ‘maintaining peace’,” he spoke up again, apropos of nothing. “For one who said she’d seen me destroy the world, who’d said that you’d stop me from doing so…you use the word peace so easily in relation to me.”

Hermione stopped in her movements, only now realising what had baffled him. She picked up her activity again, because the potion certainly wasn’t going to make itself. She ran through her memories as she went on to weigh and crush some seeds with the available mortar and pestle.

Tom had been in the infirmary once when Dippet was also visiting Hermione. Dippet was worried about the prospect of facing further assassins, possibly sent to eliminate Hermione and perhaps even now scouting in Hogsmeade. The headmaster insisted that they certainly must start improving Hogwarts defences—perhaps linking the old Hogwarts moat to the lake would be most ideal? Before he could start looking for workmen to renovate, Tom started to quote one Hogwarts: A History factoid. He informed them that old moat had been disused precisely as the Hogwarts became unplottable and the anti-apparation wards went up. A previous headmaster had considered it redundant already, Tom said.

In the end, he managed to talk Dippet down from his nerves. (And probably saved Hogwarts who knows how much from unnecessary repairs).

Hell, even Maggie Edelstein found it hard to dislike him as he bore the brunt of her questioning (inquisition, more like) with good humour and the old British stubbornness—to Hermione, it rather seemed as if he was setting a challenge to himself to surpass, that he could ‘play normal’ for a long while. Maggie had grudgingly admitted that he does seem to care about Hermione and he wasn’t a coward about it. (“Well, at least he has character. He’s not someone who’s going to bore you or just give-up midway because it’s too hard,” Maggie finally said).

The Slytherin prefect had a light touch with Eugenie that the blonde wasn’t completely awkward in his presence; he knew how to give her space and yet not completely ignore her. Then, there was the unexpected way he’d managed to set two of her dormmates on her. He managed to get them to keep watch over his interest (her), at practically no cost to him, and still make it look like he was such a caring person instead of being the interfering lummox that Hermione thought he was (and still did, she merely tolerated it right now).

Tom Riddle was a diplomat through and through.

“But it’s true all the same,” she stated again, with even less doubt than before. “You do have a talent for it.”

His disbelief was palpable. Hermione raised a hand to stop his possible reply and continued.

“One of the things I’ve lost in the war is my ability to lie to myself. Oh, I still do; everyone thinks very well of themselves regardless of truth, for one, but I can safely say that mine is no longer as large as most people’s.” Hermione shrugged with a cynical sense of self-deprecation, lips quirking up. 

“You get to…see things in war.” She drifted off for a moment.

They were both off at their own sides, busy with their own work, but she knew he was still listening.

“After that, you either accept the initial pain of learning to live with it or it would eat you from the inside. Of course, you can also go with denial, but I find that it constrains the growth of the self too much that I don’t like it—because that’s what denial is, you know?”

“You force yourself to stay still at one point in time, damn all the experiences you’ve gone through.”

(She and Ron had always been great together during the war. He had a head for tactics and ended up quite good at strategy while Hermione had the logistics in hand and was no slouch on the strategic level either. Then again, one can easily argue that she meshed just as well with Harry—her planning for his improvisation, her mastery of hard facts to his ability to inspire and lead. Yet as peace rolled in and came around, her career and Ron’s only pulled them away from each other.)

“It’s like…those middle-aged women who wore thick powder and rouges as if it could bind their vanished youth to them. To live a fake existence… To live as a version of yourself that no longer exists, to be a ghost of yourself. That’s just sad, you know? I know I don’t want to ever end up like that. Better to continue to fight in battles and even die in one.”

She was rambling again, was aware that she was rambling. Yet he didn’t interfere even once. He was a stranger to her battles, personal or otherwise, and she knew he would not judge. It was so easy to release some of the old bitterness she didn’t even know she still held.

“Do you think being suicidal is better?” He asked.

Hermione was about to give him an exasperated look when she noticed the quirk of his lips. He was teasing her. She gave him a flat, jaded look instead and returned her attention to her cutting board.

No. I think that to continue the fight is better. Even in times of peace, there’s always something that needs to be done. Don’t let the past drag you down. Just…be in the present. See the present.”

The brunette witch was lost in her own thoughts for a while there.

(Ron enjoyed watching or playing quidditch and Hermione still wanted to bring books to the field. Reading was her go-to activity on Saturday night. Their activities didn’t match much either. She and Ron tried hard to find a common ground, to maintain the ties that bound the relationship.

At one point, she was able to step back and admit that she and Ron didn’t have that much in common for a life together. To continue to force it was to consign them both to misery. Yet it was still the beginning of the end, even if it was neither of their faults).

“So… Not being able to lie to myself much—it’s one of the few losses I don’t regret.” Hermione said.

She raised her head and observed him quietly, from the patrician line of his nose, the Grecian curl of his black hair to his lips that she’d found diverted her too easily. (Hormones. It’s all just hormones).

This was him in the present—her present too, now. Slytherin prefect, excellent student. Still more human than monster. Hermione is alive instead of dead, and she considered that to be all she needed to fight for the future one more time. Tom felt her attention and looked up; she wondered when his dark blue eyes no longer seem so unreadable or cold. His focus and curiosity were obvious to her.

“You’re saying that I will destroy your world and I have a talent for peace. It’s quite the contradiction that you’re making.”

Hermione shrugged, unconcerned. The world, she had found, does not always like to fall into the neat little boxes and categories she made for it. And it was fine now even if it used to drive her nuts before.

She’d accepted that.

“We are all walking contradictions, Tom. That, I think, is the greatest advantage of being alive.”

Hermione could see his lips pressing into a thin line. Evidently, he was not quite satisfied with her answer and irritated with the awareness that she had nothing else to say. She smiled without doubt or reservation, enjoying the feeling of petty triumph from confounding him yet again.

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Chapter Text

15 Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum

Hermione had never really thought why she decided to take Advanced Herbology. It was just there, along with all the other advanced classes she could take. She hadn’t taken it before, but considering that she had taken the majority of all the others, she didn’t think that actually taking one new class was going to make much of a difference on her course load. Not to mention that she’d picked up more than her share of useful spells, knowledge and other related gardening tricks from Neville.

It had been a completely casual decision, made without much thought.

When she was in the class, though (a class that Tom didn’t take, and thus parting their company), the smell of the earth was a bit like sanctuary.

(It was like Neville’s greenhouse.

He never minded if she dropped in all of a sudden and he never asked for explanations either. Usually she started to ask him about his current project and he’ll happily explain. Soon enough, she’d ask about what she could do, and he’d hand her a shovel, a pot, a pair of hedge trimmers—any tool that happened to be required right then.

Then, they would garden, and Hermione could leave the outside world behind for a few hours. Sometimes Neville’s wife would join them. At other times, she simply watched them with a fond smile and baked cakes for tea.

Hermione still can’t remember her face or name.)

“Miss Curie?”

Hermione was holding a potting in her hands. Professor Spore was looking at her kindly and she could feel the wet tear tracks on her cheeks.

“I'm sorry, Professor. One of my friends has a greenhouse and I…” she trailed away, not quite able or willing to explain.

“It’s alright, dear, take your time. You can continue when you’re ready.”

With a firm pat on her arm, Professor Spore moved on, surprisingly nimble in her wellies. Hermione herself hadn’t thought twice about exchanging her footwear for the rubber boots when offered. A few annoyed wizard and witches apparently had not thought about how well their shoes would fare on the loamy ground. She couldn’t help a small smile.

Really, even the regular Herbology classes happened in a greenhouse. Were they expecting something else?

As she pulled her attention back to Professor Spore, Hermione could almost imagine Neville sitting at one of the front rows. As her gaze fell on familiar plants, even the voice that recited the facts back to her inside her head sounded like him. She could almost imagine his arms being the ones that were raised when she asked the question.

Her eyes felt slightly damp, but her smile held genuine joy as she raised her arm.

She had only realised now that she took Advanced Herbology because it was her link to Neville.

'-

It was strangely relieving to finish Advanced Herbology and see that Tom Riddle wasn’t waiting for her. It confirmed that he had a life of his own and that he hadn’t somehow become obsessed with her and she could drift alone towards the greater Hogwarts. The afternoon sun was golden and she almost wished she was free to frolic by the lake again and just enjoy the good weather while it lasted. The other students, it seemed, were either shy or cautions with her, but neither were they hostile. She thought it as much more bearable than the frenzied jackals the lunch mob had almost been.

Her thoughts drift back to the class.

Most of the other students in the class had been mostly unobtrusive and no one was trying to draw her out and start talking about Tom, or whatever current incarnation of the gossip had become. Well, it lasted until she took a box out of her bag and pulled her live crown of flowers out. Then, the attention sharpened and she did her best to ignore it. It helped that she had the orange blossom and honeysuckle fragrances to focus on.

Professor Spore asked whether she had something to share with the class and Hermione said she knew what she wanted to make for her final project.

“Well, let’s hear it then, Miss Curie. We’ve already heard one or two ideas before now, it would be interesting to hear yours.”

She spoke clearly to Professor Spore about what she’d already managed to create, of how she grafted additional honeysuckle blossoms when she thought the branch didn’t have enough flowers yet. She spoke of how she’d found out that Florescentia worked to induce the orange sprigs to add blossoms as long as the branch was allowed to root and given water—she did clarify that she used spells for the rooting and the water. (She was going to give Tom credit for that later, when she could speak to Professor Spore in private and not feed the student body’s overactive imagination).

The gazes that were sent in her direction was more curious now. They were also focused more on the flower crown than on her.

“It seemed that you’ve been quite successful with what you’re creating,” Professor Spore said with approval. “Yet I don’t understand what is it that you wish to do for your final project.”

“This is merely for the first proof-of-concept that to graft separated plant parts into one with magic is possible. I wish to go further.” She insisted. “I want to try grafting plants from different genus. I was wondering if I can get peach, plum and cherry blossoms in one plant. If it’s not those plants, then maybe hawthorns, raspberries and blackberries. If I can manage this, then the ideal goal is to be able to plant one shrub that can grow several kinds of berries—the perfect potted plant.”

Hermione knew that she had them now.

At least one student was salivating at the idea of a bush filled with a variety of succulent berries, while others were simply interested at the possibilities that could be open if it succeeded. Professor Spore agreed that with her initial success; it was both a viable idea and a good idea, a combination that is not always easy to find. She gave her blessings for it before proceeding with the class.

The brunette witch was serious about her final project, but it hadn’t exactly required her to make public her description of how she managed her flower wreath (which she now safely returned to the carrying box she’d made in a hurry). As Hermione added a sticking charm to the box’s top for good measure before she sat down, she hoped that she managed to head off Lakshmi’s concerns about the importance of reputation in this era.

This, at least, could stave off some of the more ridiculous rumours, right?

The more intelligent students would hear from their friends in Advanced Herbology and realise by now that she made the garland, and it was a nifty bit of magic too. She hadn’t managed to get the feel of this time yet, to study her surroundings. It would be annoying if she still had to spend more time and effort managing gossip instead of taking the pulse of history and planning what to do ahead. Really, this was most inconvenient.

She blatantly hoped that there was something else that can distract the students with. Maybe another scandal.

'-

If her first day of attending classes had been marked with dodging the undue interest of the student body, her second was marked with fire and ashes.

She had been one of the earliest students that came to breakfast and thus the emptiness did not come as a surprise. Then, Eugenie sat down, pale-faced, and even the usually insouciant Lakshmi seemed serious enough that she didn’t comment on the dishes at all. Hermione came down to earth and pulled herself from her class plans to check the Ravenclaw table and beyond. Lucretia had just walked over from the Slytherin table, where Hermione suspected her cousin Walburga was at. She herself was not so sombre, but her expression was one of understanding.

“Where do your other relatives live, Hermione?” Lucretia asked kindly.

“London, I suppose?” Hermione hazarded.

She wasn’t quite sure where Lucretia was going, but a good chunk of the Grangers had been Londoners through-and-through. The kindness was unsettling—not because she thought Lucretia was not genuinely kind, but because she saw pity there. Her gut feeling raised her goosebumps at it.

“Maybe you should check the news when you’ve finished breakfast?”

Hermione could only nod as Lucretia sat across the table from them, joined by another female seventh year. She turned to Eugenie’s pale form.

“What happened?”

The blonde took a deep breath, seemingly to fortify herself before exhaling slowly. Her voice was wavering when she spoke. “What has been happening for a while.”

“Here.” A different voice added, saving Eugenie from having to speak further.

Lakshmi passed her a copy of the Daily Prophet as she took her tea and toast. Hermione gazed past the bombastic headline of “Attack Attempted at Ministry – Our Brave Boys Repels Them!

Her brows raised, she began to read.

Hermione had written a note requesting to borrow muggle newspapers from the library, back when she was still stuck in the infirmary. She also checked the back issues too. She knew that Madam Pince appreciated information in all forms, so Hogwarts subscribed to them too (through a third-party remailer in Diagon Alley). Even with her vague memory of how WWII went for Britain, she’d figured out by now that the Blitz had gone on and failed. Britain had been bombed, but it had managed to pick itself up, bruises and all, and now stood proud and defiant. Other than eating up an extraordinary amount of ordnance on both sides of the attack and counter-attack parties, it also took a big chomp out of the Luftwaffe and the RAF still maintained its air superiority over England.

Then, there was the major what-the-hell moment of 1942 as Nazi Germany turned to start hitting Russia and opened up yet another front for them to face, sucking their resources in that direction.

No invasion of Britain was forthcoming anytime soon.

Grindelwald, it would seem, had decided to take matters into his own hands instead of waiting for the magical government to fall along with the muggle one. He had lead a strike team on his own.

Twenty-four dead, forty-five wounded with another nineteen missing, Hermione read. The size of casualties surprised her—at least until she saw the partly destroyed and burned façade of the Ministry of Magic. A smaller headline on the front page alerted her that three other locations hit last night.

Hermione squinted at the photograph, the wizard and witches low on the foreground still busy running around and silently screaming.

The type of damage didn’t make sense. Most destructive magic was also elemental in nature. The easiest was fire. A witch with a good knowledge of the nature of how water expands as it turns to ice can also do a lot of damage with water by flooding, freezing and then melting them in quick succession (that was one of her favourite bunker-busting techniques).

A lot of the damage to the building was kinetic: destruction of brick and stones by a large force hammering down at it. There was no mention of giants or other races brought in with the attack, so it could not have been thrown boulders. What could’ve been—

The muggle penchant for violence and war has now spilled into our peaceful home as Grindelwald forces us to yield to his ambitions. The Ministry had been heavily warded, and thus any hostile apparition had been prevented. Unfortunately, it is certainly most understandable that our public servants did not consider that they needed to defend against muggle means. When Grindelwald came with his pawns and started attacking and exploding the front of the Ministry, the Aurors are quick to respond. Unfortunately, the attack came at a time when people were leaving their office, and as such…”

The Prophet was annoyingly unspecific, but as Hermione checked the photographs she had the chilling realisation that the holes and gouges in the walls were the result of explosives. The high number of casualties were owed to the ‘exploding sticks’ of the muggles that had a high rate of fire and unexpectedly breached any attempted shield that anyone attempted to put up. Many mediwitches and mediwizards that came later did not always immediately understand how fatal the small-looking wounds could be as they followed their first reflex to stop the bleeding. At least three of the victims that died later in the hospital were due to unobserved internal bleeding.

Stephen Shacklebolt was the first Auror to straight out use the Killing Curse in desperation, but it was his example of taking out the shooters that rallied the others to immediately start on the more vicious curses they know at whichever violent attacker they found, wizard or muggle. The newspaper was derisive of one of the eyewitness/victims that said that some of the muggles weren’t ‘moving right’ and that he suspected the Imperius.

It was overly-complicated speculation, as we all know that muggles truly do not need much prompting or excuse to descend into violence…

It all devolved from there.

When Hermione raised her head from the newspaper, she saw her grim mood reflected in the visage of the other students who had taken a seat at the House’s table. The ones who’d just arrived, whether idle or half-awake, was soon pulled into awareness by the sense of emergency from others who were desperately seeking a newspaper copy to read. Someone was sobbing, not far to Hermione’s left. A look at the back page of the paper gave her a casualty list.

She didn’t know why her gaze crossed the hall and ended up on the Slytherin table.

Tom was…there was no other word for it, Tom was holding court. There had to be several seventh years near him, explaining something in low voice, and few other sixth years. The majority of the people were fifth-years, some of the faces she’d even come to recognise from her advanced classes (one Zabini and a pale-haired guy that could only be a Malfoy, both from A. Transfigurations; a Nott).

Tom Riddle met her gaze and held it for two seconds before he made a most imperceptible nod and then returned to his entourage.

The High Table was filled to full capacity today—all the teachers were in, with varying expressions of solemnity.

“Good morning, everyone!” Headmaster Dippet was using the Sonorus charm, his voice reverberating down the entire hall. “Good morning! Can I have your attention, please?”

The tense hubbub of news exchange, of rapid-fire question-and-answer about who knew who survived from where, had simmered down. Yet it was only to be replaced by a sombre and suffocating silence that wasn’t more comfortable.

“Now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the unfortunate news,” he paused, looking down. “The Ministry has been attacked.”

The noise level rose again with the panic and concern and the silence that grew while Dippet faltered did not help. Hermione could not blame the headmaster, as he was clearly as stunned as everyone else in the room. She saw the teachers exchanging glances with each other, and Flitwick suddenly stepped up on his chair.

A burst of songbirds exploded from his wand, trilling and chirping over the conversation. When they flew away or disappeared, it had quieted enough for the headmaster to continue.

Dippet began with acknowledging the morning’s news but without going into much detail beyond how the Ministry had been attacked by Grindelwald, and that there was another place or so that was also attacked. With a seriousness she had scarcely seen from him, he stated that they all grieve with London and that he and the entire Hogwarts staff offered their condolences for anyone whose family was affected. Those with affected family members were exempt from class today. He also kindly suggested that they contact Madam Edelstein in the infirmary if they wished for some draught of dreamless sleep or other reasons. He assured the students that they were still safe because Hogwarts was the safest place to be in the wizarding world, and that this was a great thing for everyone to adjust to and all classes from now until lunch is heretofore cancelled.

As Dippet sat down again, everyone returned to breakfast. Hermione thanked Lakshmi and returned the newspaper to her and she easily passed it to the next desperate and late-arriving Ravenclaw. The chatter rose all around her like the rising tide. It was probably morbid curiosity driving her, she knew, but she couldn't help silently casting a spell to help her pick out and focus on farther conversations easily. It gave Hermione the same directional acuity that allowed an owl to pick out the sound of a scurrying field mouse from a tree three stories high, and an even better ability to tune out the conversations she wasn't interested in.

These muggle inventions are very frightening, aren’t they?

Well, apparently they might not have magic but they’re very creative at killing each other.

Grindelwald brought muggles? That’s against the Statute of Secrecy!

A sarcastic laughter followed. “What Statute of Secrecy? Who in the Ministry could even enforce if against him? Who in Europe can go against him? Besides, the punishment was for when the muggles found out about the wizarding world, nothing was said about wizards finding out new aspects of the muggle world! Like new ways to die!

It doesn’t matter anyway,” a flatter voice opined. “The muggles were mostly dead, right? And there are those obliviators for if they’re not.”

We should strengthen the magical barriers between the muggle and the magical world.”

Slytherin got it right, y’know? The muggleborns are just trouble waiting to happen.

Hey! Muggleborns also died yesterday! It wasn’t as if Grindelwald care!

 Yes, but they’re your people, aren’t they?

What do you mean they’re my people? Of course not! I’m a wizard just like you!

And Minister Spencer-Moon had the temerity to suggest the need to make the Ministry ‘more equal’? Please. We’ll be letting in violent mob like those people in before we knew it.” That one was actually from the Gryffindor table.

Which reforms is he trying to pass again?

Something from the muggle civil service? I think it’s outlandish. Why should we adapt to them? They should adapt to us!

Hermione didn’t have much of an appetite, but her habits of automatically preparing for countless of raids attached to Harry and Ron’s team helped her. The first was food—her body needed the fuel, so she would provide it and shovel it in. She didn’t have to taste it, she just has to put in enough to keep going. After that she’ll check her potion kit (it was her field healer’s kit), her emergency floo powder, her emergency portkey bracelet, her…

Her hand stopped at her bare wrist.

She was forcibly reminded that she wasn’t home, that she’d never get home.

Hermione tried not to heave at the casual hatred she kept hearing, the vitriol against muggles that was creeping into that against muggleborns.

Through it all, her brain worked.

(Because there was no time when Hermione’s brain wasn’t working unless she was unconscious).

She had always wondered how Voldemort managed to successfully rise in wizarding Britain.

Hadn’t everyone just gone through Grindelwald? Why aren’t they jaded of yet another dark lord, spouting what seemed to her just slightly different nonsense? What made him different from Grindelwald that his followers gladly gathered themselves under his banner? She didn’t seem to be able to find books from around the time period of his ascent that tried to delve into the sentiment of the people, the perspectives of the era. Of course, Hermione had often found most wizards and witches to be supremely uncurious about the roots and foundational principles of magic, what was being uncurious about history compared to that? She hadn’t thought about it much, back when she was still in the future.

(As far as she remembered anyway, but her gut feeling told her that she would probably agree with that assessment even if she had her missing memories).

Now, she found herself revising her initial view. It wasn’t merely bigots who flocked to Voldemort’s banner—well, at least not at the beginning when he was rather sane. In the wake of Grindelwald’s attack, most people would easily agree with any opinion that stated that muggles are dangerous, or that wizards need to have ways to protect themselves from muggles. Perhaps still many of them would agree if someone expresses the sentiment of ‘we need to make sure of muggleborns’ loyalty’.

For every action applied, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law.

It was the same way that the Counter-Reformation movement was set off by the sweeping wave of the Protestant Reformation. Voldemort’s rise did not happen in a vacuum where nothing of significant happened. The wizarding world was not static. Grindelwald rose in England, left for the continent and never forgot his dreams of conquest over Britain. Somehow, he had acquired a muggle’s cat’s-paw. Somehow, he’d performed attacks with muggle forces and acquired muggle technologies.

(Somehow, everyone is still talking about the bloody goblin wars in her Hogwarts history class—does no one see the need to actually include the last wars in it so people could learn from it?? Hermione made a note to herself to do something to change the history curriculum in the future.)

Add Minister Spencer-Moon’s reforms (whatever they were) that were apparently seen as biased to non-purebloods and the neo-traditionalist factions had real concerns, real tragedies to rally the crowd behind them. They can rightly argue that the muggle world was dangerous, but they’d easily bent that perspective to its false opposite by insisting that everything traditional had higher value than anything new. Everything that came from the wizarding world held a higher meaning than those that came from the muggle world. This cracked-mirror comparison will go full circle once they start including ideals of blood purity into it, in which they declare that those with pure magical blood are inherently better than those that came from muggle background.

Dumbledore might have fought and defeated Grindelwald at one point in history, but he did not seem to notice the cracks that had been developing in society in the aftermath of the War. He left the people discontent, grumbling and eyeing each other with suspicion.

She gasped. That large strange attractor she’d seen in her preliminary arithmantic forecast for the 1940s in the future? She may have found it.

“…Hermione?”

Lakshmi was clapping her hands in front of her face. She had a suspicion that her house mates had been calling her name more than once. Hermione shook her head.

“Sorry if I’m a bad conversationalist right now, but I really need time to think.”

“Oh. It’s alright. We understand.” Eugenie said.

With one last weak smile, Hermione’s thoughts turned inwards once more.

She began to wonder if Voldemort’s first attacks could even be classified as acts of terror or if he was rooting out known Grindelwald sympathisers that the DMLE couldn’t touch. If so, he would have seemed like a hero, a saviour. He is Richard Lionheart, favourably thought of by the common people as they see him fulfilling a noble cause when he left for the crusade.

Voldemort swooped into the wizarding world like a victorious general.

He is Caesar, leading his triumphal procession and walking up the steps of the senate of Rome to be crowned Emperor. The difference here being the senators either love him or fear him too much to move against him and stop the fall of the Republic. Yet in the wizarding world, he managed to achieve what Caesar didn’t, as most purebloods fall in line behind Voldemort and helped him wage his war.

Voldemort was lauded by an inflexible society consumed by fear. He was the populist head of the mob, yes, but he was also chosen because he represented their deepest desires and the ideals they hold. His name and his image were the answer to the Rorschach ink blot of their worries.

Ecce homo.

Behold the man. Behold your saviour, which you made (chose (selected)) in your own image.

He is an autocrat because that was what many in the wizarding world saw as needed to fight the phantom that is their fears. Muggles. Untrustworthy muggleborns. Envious Squibs. Opportunistic blood traitors. They love his fearlessness because they are fearful. They are beguiled by his confidence because they lack conviction in their society.

It was the anxiety of a people that drove his rise. This bubbling, seething mass of suspicion, this rot that tainted all it touched, was a carcass that drew any sharp-eyed scavenger. She suspected this social discontent might even begin the closest thing she’d ever see to a nation-level hysteria—and that this was the strange attractor in the system

Poisonous ground breeds poisonous trees. Later on, the number of horcruxes increased and the spiral of insanity began as he and his followers grew more and more extreme in their positions. Violence became a common solution to problems now. The people are mostly split into two—those who saw nothing wrong with that, and those who were too afraid to say anything. The ones that are actively opposed to him are too few, too easily ignored by the rest for now.

The conquering hero had turned dictator, the feedback loop of brutality has reached its predictable extreme and the demagogue finally showed his true face. Everything had gone full circle and the wizarding world had a full-fledged dark lord once more.

Live long enough and you’ll see yourself become a villain.

That adage was certainly true of Tom Marvolo Riddle.

'-

Chapter Text

16 Mobilisations and Responses

Tom Riddle moved through his common room with the ease of a shark swimming through the water. Where the slightest swirl of blood can trigger a shark’s frenzy, for Tom, it was the levels of fear he could almost feel thrumming over his skin as his gaze flicked from one student to another. That hunched shoulder, the posture of someone curled into himself—anxiety, emotional pain. Grief? Possibly. A student was wringing her hands as she talked to her friends. One was solicitous with her hand on her arm, the other was holding a handkerchief for herself.

The room was so high with fear and Tom held back his smile. He loved the smell of fear in the morning. Fear was opportunity. The fearful masses looked up to a strong leader to save them.

A second year outright crying—

He altered his path casually and stopped in front of the girl.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s my mother. She works at the Ministry and—and—and I don’t know—

 She wailed. Tom patted her shoulder while he deftly looked out for another female present. There was someone he would rather not interact with for any extended period, but needs must and all that.

“Miss Avery, I’m sure you can help Miss…” he gazed down, and her garbled muttering of her name managed to jog his memory. “Miss Spavin here with her mother.”

Thin, with a highly polished façade, Jemima Avery was the last thing on earth that was motherly. Still, she wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to talk to him. She smiled, showcasing pearl-white teeth behind painted lips.

“Of course, Tom.”

Tom gave her a perfunctory nod and walked away, always keeping at least two paces between them. Last year, she’d ‘accidentally tripped’ when he was walking past her and she clung to him like a howler monkey until he carefully unpeeled her fingers from his self. He preferred to never repeat it. She didn’t seem to have enough intelligence to actually learn from just the first or second application of the Cruciatus Curse, and he really wasn’t in the mood to spend the time needed to break her and train her.

There were more interesting and important things to do.

She swayed a little too far to the right at one point and seemed puzzled to have encountered nothing, but Tom had long since passed her.

“Tom,” a long-faced seventh-year greeted him and made no move to walk away. He was actually rather thin and non-descript, but there was a purpose to his movements today.

“Oswin,” he greeted back with furrowed brows.

He remembered there was no unfinished business between them. As for Oswin, his family were the Orpingtons. Career bureaucrats to the bone, there was always at least one Orpington in the Ministry of Magic at any one time.

“We have a developing situation at the Ministry. We need to respond to the emergency.” Oswin said.

Ah, we have the source of fear now.

“Gather everyone from the sixths and sevenths then.”

Oswin nodded. “I’ll set the meeting at breakfast.”

“Tom, I think you need to see this.” Another voice called out to him.

It was Abraxas, running into the common room from the outside, the Daily Prophet in his hand. “The Ministry of Magic has been attacked by Grindelwald. You know what the craziest thing is? He brought muggles, Tom, muggles!

Silence fell over the room before it exploded as everyone tried to speak up at once. It was only Tom’s cracking of a fire-whip towards the ceiling that quieted the room. He released the spell from the end of his wand.

Thank you, Abraxas, for actually inducing panic in the common room,” Tom’s smile did not waver, but Abraxas blushed to the roots of his hair all the same. The few of Tom’s fellow fifth years that had come to stand by him had to hold back the urge to step back as they felt a distinct chill running through the air. He turned to the crowd that was now hanging at his every word.

“Now, the first thing you need to know is that you’re safe here. There is scarce any other place safer than Hogwarts.” He repeated almost word-for-word the lines he’d told Dippet a week ago. There was a strange kind of irony to it.

Orpington’s partner, the seventh-year prefect Emma Eccleston, had stood next to him with some information of her own and they were comparing notes in low voices.

“We have no idea how bad the situation is, but—” Tom raised a hand to forestall the questions, “but that is merely a temporary situation. We’ll find out more as the news are updated and we of Slytherin House will support each other. We have people whose parents and relatives are in the Ministry and who may have contacted them last night and may have news. Some of these are Messieurs Orpington and Montmorency over there along with Miss Eccleston—please do not rush them.”

There didn’t seem to be a change in his tone, it was still as polite and level as before, but there was a snap of something in the air stopping them from mobbing the three seventh and sixth years.

“They will confer with others who may also know, and they will make a list. After breakfast, they will either put up a list in a roll of parchment on the common room noticeboard, or you may ask them if the list is still unfinished then.”

He took a deep breath.

“As for now, we will go to the hall for breakfast and we will not let Grindelwald scare us. We are wizards. We are witches. We can all cast a spell at the flick of our wands, can’t we? We can summon fires, call up shields and conjure beasts? What do we have to fear?” Tom asked, his smile seemed to draw in the audience and they soon find themselves nodding if not outright answering his question to themselves.

“Each of us with a clear mind can defend ourselves well. Panic, and you might as well lose your head.”

He paused to let this sink into everyone’s mind. He could see postures straightening and tremors easing up. Shoulders wound down and wands were no longer held in such a tight grip.

“Now, let us descend upon the Great Hall with our heads held high. We will show the difference between Slytherin House and everyone else.” Tom said this with such confidence that they couldn’t help but believe in it too.

“Slytherin! Slytherin!”

There was a rousing cheer at that. It was noticeably started by the usually unassuming Melchior Nott before it was picked up by Fintan Gambol and Humbert Jape at some unseen sign of Orion’s. The crowd was sufficiently fired up to follow on its own after that and predictably spread it to everyone. Tom stood to the side along with Orpington, Eccleston and Montmorency—the other two Slytherin prefects had also appeared alongside them. One of them were unfortunately Jemima Avery, but one works with what one has. They took their turns to talk to any Slytherin who wanted to talk, who needed further assurances. Tom applied slightly more strategic selection to this activity than the other prefects as he was greeting members of notable houses.

“Good catch, Tom,” Orion commented as he passed.

“Thank you, Orion.”

Their knowing smirks could’ve easily been mirrors of one another before Orion continued on his way at the head of his own entourage; the younger Flint and Bulstrode near him, Gambol and Jape followed somewhat loosely behind as they picked up their pace to catch up.

Alphard Black (fifth-year Slytherin) on the other hand, was too enthusiastic in the way he pushed through the crowd and shouldered Tom in delight as he stood beside him. His hair looked as if he had been standing on a cliff and had it blown all over the place before he came in, though how it looked dashing instead of messy no one knows.

“Tom! We haven’t seen you for a while what with Slughorn monopolising your time, but once we do, you’re gentling the beast! Calming the masses!” Alphard crowed. It could be argued that his voice was powerful enough to carry to the whole common room. “That was a truly fantastic call to House unity!”

Tom’s smile was slightly fixed. “Well, we all have our duties to perform.”

“Nonsense! That was well beyond duty and you know it.” He gave Tom a light pat to his back; it was still of significant force as he had inherited the big bones of the Crabbes from his mother. His smiles were entirely good-natured and easy.

As Alphard was the heir of a cadet branch of Blacks, Tom only took a deep breath with forbearance. Besides, the other Black heir truly bore his house members no ill-will for their success and was genuinely happy for them. Tom’s success delighted him most, perhaps more so than if it had been his own. He was not a scheming young man. In a way, Tom could appreciate someone who was not complicated to read.

Abraxas who’d been standing right next to Tom before Alphard had shouldered him out of the way was grumbling under his breath about line-cutting Blacks.

“Don’t you have breakfast to be getting to?” Abraxas grumped to Alphard.

“Ha! Don’t you have breakfast to go to? I’m completely fine here.” He took the opportunity of hanging next to Tom to greet and wave any familiar fifth-years that also happened to be passing.

The other Black heir was completely chipper even as Abraxas shoved him back.

Tom gave Abraxas one look to remind him that he was still on the other side of Alphard and still had to suffer the indignity of that shove. The awkward and pale grin he gave in return was accompanied with him pulling Alphard to the side slightly as he reminded the other wizard.

“Stop crowding Tom, you dolt.”

Alphard snorted even as he gleefully pulled Abraxas into a headlock. “You’ve been ‘crowding’ Tom just the same before I came. I think you’re just jealous I replaced you!”

Abraxas managed to elbow his way out of that, but he was too annoyed not to start roughhousing back.

“Why should I be jealous of you?” He scoffed.

Melchior Nott loudly harrumphed at their display of childishness and was of course, soundly ignored. Tom continued to chat with other members of his house, mostly the heirs and firstborns.

No one had thought it strange that it was the fifth-year prefect that was making the general House-wide announcement than the seventh-year Orpington. Oswin himself was quite content to be in the shadow of a much more charismatic leader than he was.

The prefects Orpington and Eccleston had begun to lead everyone away, thankfully including Jemima (the pair of them were quite good at being discreet). Alphard waved at Tom and the rest as he headed out first, most probably because he wishes to catch up with his cousins. Of course, he might also be dodging his sister Walburga (seventh-year), who was just coming up and took it as her personal responsibility to praise Tom’s steadfastness. She’d been monologuing him into boredom before she finally left.

Tom trailed behind them all with Abraxas Malfoy and Melchior Nott.

“That was some excellent impromptu speech,” Abraxas congratulated.

Nott snickered. “You thought that was unplanned? Why, dear Abraxas, I have this bridge I would like to sell you…”

“Oh, come on. You’re just guessing, right? Is he guessing, Tom?”

Tom knowing smile said it all as the three of them walked out of the Slytherin common room. “One has to always be prepared for the worst.”

“You can’t have prepared for the Ministry to be attacked,” Abraxas said in disbelief.

“I have to be prepared for something to be attacked. How long has Grindelwald been sowing chaos in the continent as well as making promises to come back?” Tom asked. His every moment was deliberate with no uncertainty in them; this was a wizard comfortable in his own skin.

“Well…five years, at least?”

“Then an attack really was just a matter of time,” Tom murmured easily. He still received disbelieving looks from the blond Slytherin.

“But that’s…”

“Plenty of time to be prepared,” Melchior finished, eyeing Abraxas’ lopsided tie with distaste. It was enough to prompt the blond to start checking himself in a standing suit of armour. “Though, to keep all that speech in one’s head for more than a year? To perhaps even improve it from time to time? That takes dedication.”

“Actually, I don’t memorise it verbatim either,” Tom said with amusement.

“I…no, you know what, I don’t think I can believe that either. It’s too smooth,” Abraxas said, shaking his head in denial.

Tom’s chuckle followed Abraxas’ many proclamations of either disbelief or impossibility, while Melchior poked and prodded at the blond’s arguments with his sharp wit but never quite offering one himself either. When asked by Abraxas, he easily conceded that no, he couldn’t imagine pulling the speech off so naturally without remembering it by heart either.

He ignored Abraxas’ outraged complaints. “You just bloody guessed! I should’ve known!”

“I certainly didn’t guess.” Melchior insisted.

“You just said—”

“I know what I said. It’s just that I always considered Tom as the exception to…well, anything that crosses my mind, really. So, it’s just natural that he’s planned for this.”

There was a knowing glimmer in Tom’s dark blue eyes, but he neither confirmed nor deny Nott’s words.

'-

Hermione was in a daze.

She asked Eugenie, of course, making sure that she was fine and that her family was also fine as far as she knew—Père Delacour didn’t work at the Ministry, and the French Ministry-of-Magic-in-Exile certainly wasn’t listed as one of the places attacked yesterday. She couldn’t help sighing in relief for her friend. Checking that was the least she could do for the witch who’d been so helpful during her time in the infirmary. The brunette had only glanced at Lakshmi before the other witch smiled and assured her that she had no worries.

“Well, it’s not as if I still have many family members to lose, really. It’s not that hard to keep track of the remaining ones.”

Hermione raised her head sharply at that, but Lakshmi’s slight amusement instead of worry eased her own concerns about her friend.

“Really, I’ll go back to the Tower with Eugenie while we wait for more news, yes? And you can go off and do whatever it is that you do to try to fix this—”

“Lakshmi, what happened to your family?”

“My father can’t get any deader than he already is. He’s already in more peace than all of those people in St. Mungo’s, same with my oldest brother, my two uncles and their families,” she insisted with her usual bluntness. “Now, Hermione, I’m sure you have a plan?”

“I…” well, not a plan exactly, but she couldn’t sit still and do nothing. Even without all of her memories she remembered enough. She kept seeing flashes of wounded people; cuts going straight to the bones, severed limbs. There was the time she kept trying to resuscitate a young Auror until someone pulled her off the dead body, and the way Harry’s eye popped as an undead starfish of the darkest magic gouged it from the inside

“Hermione!”

Lakshmi’s voice pulled her back and she knew what she could do. “I need to do something and I’m not sure if St. Mungo’s prepared to deal with the effects of some of the muggle weapons. I was thinking of going to Nurse Edelstein and compare notes. Maybe we can write a recommendation for St. Mungo’s, or something quite like it.”

“And you know all of what a muggle weapon could do?” Her friend asked.

“I know how to treat some of the wounds, and I think that’s better than nothing.”

“I trust you. Now go to the infirmary and work your overactive brain.” Lakshmi patted her hand.

With a smile that she didn’t quite feel, Hermione stood up and left.

'-

“Hermione?”

Maggie Edelstein looked up, surprised to see her longest ex-patient walking down the length of the infirmary hall once more. Hermione watched a few straggling students walk out. They either had minor injuries, or they were only here to ask for potion of dreamless sleep.

“You haven’t been a nurse for too long, right?” She asked without preamble.

“Hey! I’ll have you know, Missy, that I’m a competent professional!”

Hermione shook her head. “That wasn’t what I meant. I mean, you haven’t left school for long, so your medical education must still be up-to-date, right?”

She paused. “Yes, I suppose. Why?”

“Do they make a point of teaching the trainees and novices how to treat bullet wounds?”

“Bullet wounds?”

“The muggle’s ‘exploding sticks’,” Hermione waved away impatiently. “They have ammunition that they spit out at high velocities. If the mediwitch or mediwizard on the spot just heals the wound without checking since it seemed so small and clean. Goodness knows if the bullet had hit a bone on its way in and fractured or broken something. And I haven’t even started on the internal bleeding.”

She could see Maggie Edelstein paling even more the further she spoke.

“Are you sure?”

Hermione met her gaze dead on, her voice had stayed no-nonsense, professional. “I suggest that no one use Accio to pull the bullet out. This is not a mere splinter of wood, it’s a piece of metal around the width of your fingernail. You’ll probably tear an exit wound that way—Morgana help you if the lung or guts is in the way. Punctured lung can easily be patched temporarily with magic…if it was noticed in time.”

Her smile did not reach her eyes at all. “A leaking gut is a different issue entirely, isn’t it?”

She could see Nurse Edelstein closing her eyes for a moment, her decision was clear the next time she opened them.

“Alright. You make some very good points. How do you even know these things?”

Maggie Edelstein had started walking towards the Head Nurse’s office. The brunette followed her brisk pace.

“War.” Hermione shrugged when the nurse looked askance at her. “If you’ve seen your best friend screaming as his eye popped out like a rotten grape when someone summons an undead ancient starfish into the vitreous humour, well. Suddenly you want to train up a particular set of skills.”

She could see Maggie’s jaw tensing from the side, right up to her temples. The nurse pushed the doors to the office open and Hermione walked right in behind her.

“That’s…I don’t think I’ve even heard of that spell.”

Hermione’s determination had a dark edge. “Off the top of my head, I can tell you ten spells with similar effects that still weren’t exactly the spell I was looking for. Give me a parchment and ten minutes and I can recall the rest I’ve researched trying to track it down—just a few more spells short of thirty and half of them obscure. I still haven’t figured out what it actually was, though that’s probably because I haven’t managed to gain access to some truly extensive libraries of dark magic.”

The older witch folded her arms in front of her chest. Maggie was shaking her head.

“I’ve been wondering about this for a while, Hermione. There’s first aid knowledge and there’s medical one. What you know have gone past the first category for a while now.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “And this matters right now why? I’m not asking to lead an open brain surgery here! Merlin knows I’m not a specialist. I’m not even a full mediwitch and I know it, but combat injury? I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen enough to last several lifetimes. I’m just asking for you to listen. Have I said anything wrong before? Mislead you?”

The two witches held each other’s gaze and neither was backing down. Maggie was the first to sigh deeply, one hand weaving through her copper hair that shone brilliantly under the morning sun.

“Slughorn made notes about your comments on your own condition on your medical file and he praises it.”

Hermione’s smile was lopsided. “And we all know that Slughorn is known for his impartiality.”

Maggie snorted at that. “Well, no, but he’s not completely blind on the medical side for some types of injuries. He can still give some slow interns I know a run for their money. If he says you know what you’re talking about, then you do.”

“Thanks. So, how are we going to do this? Are we going to write a report and stamp your name and Slughorn’s on it?”

Nurse Edelstein frowned. “What?”

“Slughorn’s name and yours, Nurse Edelstein. I’m just a mere student. It would be more believable if the name on it was someone more well-known like Slughorn, or a medical professional like you.”

Maggie shook her head. “No.”

It was Hermione’s turn to be baffled. “What?”

“If we’re doing this together, then your name is going to go on it as well. I’m not going to claim credit when it’s not due.”

“But most people wouldn’t think—”

“Most people will bleed to death if they don’t listen to medical professionals,” she firmly stopped Hermione’s line of argument without another thought. “Now, tell me what you know and we’ll hash out what to write down together. I can contact several of my colleagues by floo to hear what they know and don’t know, and I bet we might even have something done by lunch.”

It was hard not to be floored at the amount of trust, of belief that the nurse had in her.

“Thank you. You won’t regret it, I promise.”

Maggie’s grin was confident. “Oh, I know. I’m just going to enjoy knocking down some of the snooty medics that I know off their high horses.”

'-

Nurse Edelstein was a force of nature in her own right.

Oh, Hermione enjoyed the parts where she floo-called several other nurses and mediwitches and mediwizards that she knew that happened to be off-duty and free to take her call. The nurse asked them about what they knew or heard about the types of injuries from yesterday’s attacks, and it was soon clear that not all of the people in the field recognised what had created the injuries. There was one perceptive mediwizard (internist) and one senior nurse who had seen the bloody Crimean War who started checking the condition of the internal organs of the people that were too weak or losing consciousness, even if it seemed that they didn’t have any injuries. The number of tests Madam Álava ran was frankly intimidating to hear even to Hermione. Unfortunately, the two highly-skilled professionals were the exception to the rule. Most seemed satisfied if they didn’t see any surface wounds or see any bruising.

Ironically, it was perhaps the ease with which magic can close up bullet wounds that made the worsening conditions of some of the patients harder to check.

When Nurse Edelstein reached back to the healer and the senior nurse and told them what she’d found, that most had no idea, they were furious. Furious enough, in the case of nurse, to stepped right into the fireplace and arrive at Hogwarts.

“What do they teach in schools these days?” Esmeralda Álava strode with the confidence of her experience, her all black outfit and tall black hat gave her a quintessentially witchy image. Her grey hair was bundled tightly in a bun and her lips were pinched. Maggie couldn’t help but grin.

“Oh, you know there wasn’t even much of a nursing school when you were young!”

She sniffed. Her voice was still strong, still strident. “It doesn’t mean we should all be barbarians and let the standards fall. Oh, hello, dear, I didn’t see you there.”

The witch turned her head in a distinctly bird-like gesture, her still sharp and observant eyes fell on Hermione.

“This is Hermione Curie, the student with the idea that we need to disseminate the knowledge on wounds from muggle weapons. Hermione, this is Esmeralda Álava, our Grand Duenna of the Order of Nightingale.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Ma’am.”

“Good.” Her reply was brisk and her face seemed to naturally be severe. “And please, what grand order, Maggie? We’re nurses and we keep people from dying. It’s as simple as that.”

“She singlehandedly established professional nursing standards in wizarding Britain.” Maggie mock-whispered to Hermione.

Esmeralda harrumphed. “Rumours and exaggeration. Grow old enough and they collect like hairballs from a cat’s vomit.”

Hermione blinked at the salty language.

“Well, they don’t just happen like that for everyone. It’s only around you, Madam Álava.” Nurse Edelstein insisted.

Granny.” She corrected. “You’ve actually volunteered across the Channel. You’ve earned it.”

Maggie’s expression was almost fond. “Alright. Granny Álava.”

The fireplace lit up again and soon a distinguished, middle-aged man with brown hair took his hat off. His wire-rimmed glasses were made of gold and seemed both functional and expensive.

“Oh, Madam Álava is already here? Well, this promises to be interesting.”

“Maggie is up to her usual tricks again, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get a front seat to her muckraking.” Madam Álava explained.

“I’m not muckraking,” The redhead insisted.

“Well, if you prefer we stick to the word ‘scandalising’ as your old nursing matrons would like to put down on your reports, we can do that too.” The senior nurse bluntly said. “Orpington, let us watch as Maggie scandalise some of St. Mungo’s old guards. If she can throw in some subtle and even not-so-subtle questions about their competence, I’ll treat everyone to dinner.”

She was not the slightest bit moved by the colour that started to flood Nurse Edelstein’s cheeks.

You’re part of St. Mungo’s old guards!”

“I’m Emeritus, dear. I can be as critical as I wish, and they have to shut up, listen and call it wisdom.” Esmeralda said, her eyes gleaming with silver.

“So, you were saying that a common effect of these exploding sticks is internal bleeding?” The mediwizard asked, clearly taking the safe road of not engaging with Madam Álava at all.

“Yes, Healer Orpington. This is Hermione Curie here and she has experience working with wounds from muggle weapons. Hermione, this is Oleander Orpington, Healer of St. Mungo’s.”

“Charmed, I’m sure.” He nodded. Hermione returned his greeting with a half-curtsy of sorts.

“Well, I had been canvassing any colleagues I can contact. It’s mostly anyone that’s not on shift right now,” Nurse Edelstein said. “And apparently, there’s no protocol in place for wounds by muggle weaponry and they’re probably missing a lot of internal bleeding. The more obvious broken bones are fortunately, more easily detectable, and anyone found by rubbles would be checked for fractures and broken bones, so those are fortunately not an issue.”

“If someone is crushed nearby, then they should have checked for internal bleeding!” That was Madam Álava again, eyes flashing.

“Well, perhaps there is no sign that the person has been under any sort of rubble,” Healer Orpington gingerly started.

You wouldn’t even think of being that careless.” She flattened his efforts to allay her concerns.

“Well, it wouldn’t really take much time and it’s better safe than sorry. So—” 

“Exactly. This is untenable.”

“There’s also the risk of pulmonary contusion,” Hermione added, once she thought there was a pause in Madam Álava’s rapid-fire sentences. The medical professionals in the room turned to her.

“I saw the photographs of the Ministry of Magic. They used muggle explosives there, didn’t they? Whenever you have people in the vicinity of explosives, you’d have to take into account that some would have primary blast injuries. It’s the shockwaves from the explosions—they create a high-pressure wave moving at supersonic speeds. It’s too easy for the capillaries in the lungs to burst or tear the alveolus tissue. It would fill the alveoli sacs with blood. I suppose someone’s bound to notice when some of the patients cough up blood, though, but that’s not a guaranteed symptom in all cases so some critical patients might still be beneath notice.” Hermione’s brows furrowed slightly.

“Speaking of supersonic shockwaves, as it’s the propagation of energy through air, it would be worse in a closed room than in the open where the energy can be more easily dissipated into the environment.”

“The effects of muggle explosions are similar to some of the more percussive spells, then?” Healer Orpington asked.

Hermione’s brows rose. “Why, yes. Except more severe, as the energy is multiple times larger. Oh, I remember something else—air embolism. You’ve got to watch out for possible pockets of air developing during the explosion. I suppose if it had blocked an artery, my advice would be moot as anyone suffering such would’ve died soon afterwards.” Her following smile was more bitter than not.

“You’re exceedingly well-informed on these types of injuries, Miss Curie.” The Healer noted.

Hermione shrugged. “War. You have an entirely different sort of drive to learn when you know you’re the one standing between your friends and greater harm.”

“Anyway, you don’t have to believe what I said. I’m sure we can collect the continental newspapers like Der Spiegel—wait no, that’s a muggle one—Die Knöchelknochen, I think. Sooner or later, there’d be wizards and witches wounded by muggle weapons in their reports. Maybe there’d even be a description of the wounds. I’m sure there’d be many similarities.”

“Well, we can’t just sit around,” Madam Álava said, promptly standing up. “Come on, then.”

Maggie only sighed, but she stood up and took her coat from the hanger. She even took Hermione’s coat from the hanger and handed it to her. “Come on Hermione.”

“Uh, where are we going?”

“Why, to St. Mungo’s, of course.” Madam Álava said.

“But I have classes,” Hermione replied, more confused than anything.

“You can owl Dippet some sort of dispensation letter, can’t you, Oleander?” The Senior Nurse turned to the Healer. He was entirely too calm in the face of her demands, as if he was used to hearing them.

“I’ll get my secretary on it as we get back to St. Mungo’s.”

“Excellent.”

Esmeralda Álava took a pinch of floo powder from Maggie’s pot, knowing exactly which one it was, threw it into the fireplace and stepped in after calling St. Mungo’s as a destination. Healer Orpington turned to them.

“Well, ladies, I’ll go first since I probably will have to coordinate on the St. Mungo’s side.”

“You have to stop Madam Álava from scaring the interns and terrorising the low-level administrators, you mean?” Nurse Edelstein asked dryly.

He placed his bowler hat on his head again.

“Exactly as I say. I need to coordinate our party’s movements with St. Mungo’s.” His smile was wry and he left in the same way that Madam Álava did. The fire crackled in the grate, the last of the green colour had already vanished as it returned to its reddish colour.

“Right. Our turn, then.” Maggie said.

Us?

Nurse Edelstein gave Hermione a side glance. “I did say that we’re doing this together.”

“But, but you already know what I needed to tell you.” The brunette said, with not a little amount of surprise. “It’s mostly just that. I’m sure you can follow the consequences of explosives and high-velocity projectiles and come up with a list of possible injuries to check and—oh, come on, Maggie, you’re a nurse. I’m sure the rest of the healers and nurses at St. Mungo’s aren’t complete idiots either. Not with someone like Madam Álava among them. They’ll figure it out.”

Maggie’s smile was fond. Hermione glared at her when she started patting her head, though. Never mind that Nurse Edelstein had several inches on her.

“You don’t get it, do you?”

“What?”

“Madam Álava doesn’t just take anyone with her on her rounds. If she thinks you’re good enough to be an intern or a nurse, no one in St. Mungo is going to gainsay her.”

What?” Hermione still couldn’t quite understand what Maggie was saying.

The nurse huffed. “She didn’t correct you and she let you finish without interruption. That’s high praise coming from The Duenna. That means she thinks you know enough that you might as well follow and learn more of the healing craft to be even more useful. Come on, she’s going to be ornery if we’re slow.”

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Chapter Text

17 Detours in St. Mungo's

Suppose you were an Unspeakable. If you were about to consider doing some sort of measurement on time and history, then the first thing you need to do was to get a thorough grounding on quantum physics.

Hermione was pretty proud about the way she managed to write a proposal and argue her way up to the Department Head and got paid to take classes at Trinity College, Cambridge (Newton’s almamater! Yesss. She took way too many pictures around the campus with a glee that most people won’t understand).

It wasn’t about being an actual, honest-to-goodness, theoretical physicist (that would take entirely too much time, and Hermione already had too many things to do). But if you’re trying to work with time, then why not first keep up with what the people who’d figured out how time interacted with the universe’s most basic particles? Especially when they’d figured out that time was just another dimension—with only one direction accessible at the macroscopic scale than both directions like the three spatial dimensions, sure. Yet considering that Hermione was a witch with practical experience of being sent back to a past position in her own timeline, she certainly had a leg up compared to the poor physicists.

Of course, her use of the time turner never went back farther than 24 hours. Too close to her original timeline to accidentally alter something that would be dire for her in the next 24 hours (or create a paradox). It wasn’t as if she wasn’t given lengthy and precise instructions to its use, and warned that even if she acted rashly, she was the one to suffer the consequences as history is persistent and tends to correct itself.

In physics, she found out later that this was called the Novikov self-consistency principle. In which no object sent into the past can alter the paths that allow it to be sent to the past, because it would create a paradox; if the past is now different so the object does not get sent into the past in the first place, then does that mean that its actions now can’t have happened? Time paradoxes are pretty headache-inducing and a pox on the causality of the laws of physics. The self-consistency principle thus imposes a welcome order on the universe and restores causality.

So, no effort to shoot your own parents would work. Perhaps it may turn out that the man who raised you wasn’t your biological father after all. Wasn’t that interesting to note? And whoops, no, bad mistake, that woman you just killed wasn’t your mother either, though now you think of it, they do look unusually alike. Would you like to try to kill more people now? Not that it would help. The universe, basically, is self-maintaining (or self-correcting) in the direction of the primary, consistent timeline.

The main assumption held in the principle is that there is only one timeline, no other alternative timelines exist, or if they do exist, they are not accessible from this timeline.

This is not the only interpretation of quantum mechanics that exists. There is also the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics, better known as the many-worlds interpretation (Everett turned away from physics when his theory was dismissed from the mainstream of his time; he died at 51 as a successful defence contractor and an alcoholic).

Where classical mechanics is deterministic (e.g., Person A travels at so-and-so kilometres per hour in one direction—you’ll always be able to find A as long as you know how many hours has passed), quantum mechanics is probabilistic. You don’t know where the electron is around the proton, what you do know is the shape and size of the electron cloud. Whether a particular spot you picked has the electron or not depends on the probability. Is it a low probability spot, or is it a high probability spot? Or maybe, it’s just not your lucky day, and even after choosing a high probability spot, you don’t find the electron there. Better luck next time.

The Everett interpretation reconciles the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics with the deterministic one of classical mechanics. Suppose there’s a ¼ chance that the electron is in spot A, ½ chance that it’s in spot B and ¼ chance it’s in spot C.  Where is the electron now? Well, why do you even have to choose? The electron exists in all the spots. It’s just that those events occur in three different universes. Three different timelines.

How did all these timelines even exist in the first place? Do they just suddenly pop out of nowhere?

Well you see, as Everett would have said, you’re looking at this the wrong way. You’re too fixed on what you see as your own reality. The ‘real’ reality is not any single alternative reality that the electron takes—it is not the one where it ends up in A, or in B, or in C. The real reality is the electron’s original, universal wave function that describes all three paths as possible outcomes. Reality A, or B or C can be considered as three different aspects of a higher-dimension reality.

A, B and C are mere sides to a triangle. The triangle is the actual reality itself.

It’s a simplification, but the main idea is the same. The problem is that humans are beings of 3D space and 1D time. We’re bound to our 4D world, and as such, we can’t easily conceive higher dimensions (if they exist), and the higher universe that Everett sees as the true universe, of which ours is only one side, is something like that.

Our version of the universe, our timeline, is a mere facet of the (hyper) diamond that is the much larger true universe.

In Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, to travel through time is to move to an earlier point of your timeline, true. But if at one point in the past you’ve acted in such a way as to prevent yourself from being sent into the past (a paradox), what it means is that now, you’re no longer moving on your original timeline. You’ve just shifted to a different one; you have moved to a different side of the higher-dimensional true universe. You’re on a new facet of the diamond-shaped universe.

Say hello to an alternate timeline now.

But see, this is where things get interesting, because Novikov’s principle and Everett’s interpretation actually leads to the same conclusion in the case of time travel.

Do as you wish.

If Novikov’s principle is true and there is only ever a single accessible timeline, then it’s self-correcting. Either what you do won’t matter, or ironically, for the world as you know it to develop, you have to do all the things you ended up doing in the past. (If a time-traveller ever figures out that they are their own childhood hero, that’s a special kind of head trip).

If Everett’s interpretation is true and that any significant changes you make will only shift the timeline you’re on into a new one rather than stay as your original one, then you might as well do all the changes you want to do. Because, why the hell not? It’s not as if you’re affecting your original timeline, anyway. (Of course, what you do might still look scary to people from your new timeline, because to them, it would seem as if you’ve gone to the past and erased your future self, as opposed to hopping into the past and swimming up to a new river of time than to continue on your old one).

This is why even as Hermione accompanied Nurse Edelstein to St. Mungo’s in confusion, trailing in the wake of the formidable Esmeralda Álava, she didn’t hesitate even once when she was asked to inform a group of young nurses what she knew about wounds inflicted by muggle weaponry alongside Maggie Edelstein. Healer Orpington had apparently started to organise groups of nurses or healers that were either sent in her and Nurse Edelstein’s direction, to Healer Orpington himself, or to Madam Álava.

The higher-skilled healers and senior nurses certainly ended up with Healer Orpington or Madam Álava. Hermione wouldn’t even pretend she can address more than two-thirds of the questions they might field—and that was an optimistic estimate. The trainee nurses and interns don’t scare her, though. She’d seen young Aurors with even more bravado, making up in bluff what they have yet to have in experience, and it only amused her (if she was in a good mood), or was annoying as hell (if she was having a bad day).

But after several doubters on the damage that a bullet could inflict, Hermione has had enough. She stopped Nurse Edelstein from chewing the idiots out because she thought she might have a better idea. She asked the nurse if there was a free space that they won’t be disturbed at, and if anyone had collected the muggle’s exploding sticks.

The glimmer in Maggie’s eyes seemed to imply that she knew what Hermione was planning.

Maggie managed to pull some Aurors into bringing what they managed to collect to one of the back courtyards of St. Mungo’s. There were copious references to Madam Álava and occasionally also to Healer Orpington, but they got the guns. Hermione cast stasis on them and floated them carefully in front of her. An accidental discharge was the last thing anyone needed. Since the few junior Aurors that Nurse Edelstein had bullied into getting the guns were grumbling, Hermione offered something to salve their annoyance; they’re also invited to watch.

“Watch? Watch what? You’re going to heal some people?” One of the Aurors squinted down at her. The way his freckles stand up on his nose and his hair was only marginally better in tidiness than Harry’s didn’t help at all to make her take him seriously.

Hermione didn’t roll her eyes even if she was very tempted to. “A demonstration. You want to know what can be done with these too, right?”

That perked him up immediately.

“I can get some friends too, right?”

“Oh, invite anyone you like.” She assured him.

He bounded off with enthusiasm. Hermione and Nurse Edelstein continued on at the head of their little entourage. Outgoing patients and the occasional visiting family member or nurse watched them pass with curiosity. Hermione’s boots barely made a sound on the marble floor, and she was glad she’d bought them the last time she visited Diagon Alley with Professor Merrythought.

“Do you know how to handle those things?” Maggie asked.

“I know how to handle some models. Not sure if any of these is one, but we might as well try, right?”

She ignored the sceptical expression on Nurse Edelstein’s face. Sometimes, the best way to get people to follow you was to act like you know exactly what you’re doing and that you’re completely confident in your success. That was the second lesson in being a leader. The first one is of course, to actually know what you’re doing.

Well, she did. She was about to try finding a gun she knew how to shoot with and shoot with it. That sounded like a plan.

At least she knew that these were no longer early guns, where she actually had to pour gunpowder into the barrel from some gunpowder horn and then manually shove the ball in. No, these come with cartridges, and unless someone left them out in the rain, they’d still be fine. No Auror was going to leave all the guns and cartridges in the rain, right? That seems to be too careless.

“Anyway, do you think we can get some tea, cakes and biccies for everyone?” Hermione asked.

“I might be able to do it,” Maggie mused. “Why?”

“it might take some time. It’s certainly easier than waiting around with nothing to do.”

“Well, alright. I’ll see what I can do.”

Several of the young people following them perked up. In fact, it that seemed to cheer everyone slightly and made them more favourably disposed to her. She almost laughed. Her real reason was simpler, in a way. She didn’t know how much time she’d need to figure out how one of these guns or rifles worked, and they were more liable to wait if they had a distraction at hand. For these young wizards and witches in rather junior positions in St. Mungo’s? That was definitely food. She would guess that several of them might have even missed breakfast in a hurry.

They reached the courtyard in a rather disused wing that Nurse Edelstein had been directed to.

Of course, before we proceed here, there were several things that needed to be kept in mind.

Guns hadn’t come naturally to Hermione. She was still a witch, first and foremost, and unlike spells, there’s no ‘less harm’ mode for guns. Any instructor would have told their students the same thing—don’t aim a gun at anyone you don’t want to kill. It was because the risk was always there.

She had flashes of memories about some of the new dark zealots they were fighting against. Some had started hiding in muggle areas. The more annoying part was that they had even started creating enough chaos in the muggle world to have muggle law enforcement going after them. There were many of them that it was a strain on the obliviators—especially with how cameras became more and more ubiquitous. It wasn’t even civilian cameras that first gave them an idea of their trouble. It was CCTVs. It invited investigations to any violent altercations that was recorded by CCTVs.

When obliviators insist that they can do it to any and all of the police officers sent, Hermione had to ask them if they had any plans for the paperwork it was going to leave behind. The detectives and officers might lose their memories of the event, but once they get back to the office, they’ll see that there is this case that they were supposed to be working on, that they now have absolutely no idea about. Then all they need to do is see the video evidence and start it all over again. If they keep obliviating investigators, the police will just send more, and if they keep doing that, it will alert the muggle authorities that something unknown, memory-altering and possibly dangerous is happening there.

“Do you want to get investigated by the MI5? Because this is how you get investigated by the MI5.” Hermione had snapped.

She’d had to remind them that the Minister for Magic is still answerable to Downing Street.

The Prime Minister is certainly one muggle who knew about the wizarding world and how the Ministry of Magic is structured. He was not going be a little ticked off that they were doing large scale memory wipes of his law enforcement for no good reason—he was going to be bloody pissed off.

What she suggested was to cooperate with muggle law enforcement.

Harry and Ron could absolutely get behind that idea. Hermione had argued that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement didn’t even need to use the word magic in their alternative name, or even demonstrate magic most of the time. They just need to be officially acknowledged by all branches of the government as a specialised agency dealing with specialised crime, and that cases in their odd jurisdiction (magic) can be safely handed off to them and the more normal side of law enforcement no longer needed to deal with it.

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement had thus joined the 21st century British bureaucracy by officially becoming a member of Her Majesty’s Government. They were mostly hidden and classified up to the eyeballs that most people still don’t know they exist (of course). But for the times when they have to officially take over high visibility cases from the local police or the Met, they have a badge to flash and a name to use and the case flops over, no obliviation necessary (except for the eyewitnesses, but that’s a given). The CCTV record is now theirs to use (or destroy, as it were).

The DMLE did perform the courtesy of telling the conventional police they took cases over from whether an arrest was made, and whether the case holds up in their ‘special courts’, but again, most details fell under the heading of ‘classified’. The boys in blue might complain about the DMLE and nickname them ‘the Black Hole’ (as in, cases come in, nothing comes out), but they passed their cases all the same. It made things easier in the age of constant cameras.

Harry and Ron were chuffed with the idea that they had real badges that they could show to both muggles and wizards and have it mean something. They made a good show of swaggering into the office with their badges out and wands ready every other day, like some absurd parody of American cop movies, shouting ‘freeze’, ‘you’re all under arrest’ and insisting that the office snack of the day to be donuts. Hermione was laughing the first several times around—the boys were too ridiculous. Sure, the formal name for the DMLE was intentionally so long and obscure that most people would have no idea who they were or what they do, but if people actually tried to check, it was there. The plan was a hit with the muggleborn wizards and witches at the DMLE who now didn’t have to explain so much to their parents about what is it that they do for a living. One muggleborn even retold with high amusement at lunch one day that his parents thought he was some sort of counter-intelligence James Bond, what with how secret his work seems to be.

Harry and Ron sold the idea of learning how to shoot a gun as something they need to do to ‘blend in’. It was also enthusiastically backed up by Draco (he was certainly corrupted by the boys). Draco had been kidnapped to more than one movie nights in actual muggle movie theatres—for all of his snobbery, the Slytherin was always weak to getting persuaded by his friends. Hermione also had no idea how they get the support of Terry Boot, or Blaise Zabini (did it even matter? They were in some far-flung corner of the Ministry, for goodness’ sakes, not the DMLE) and other old Hogwarts colleagues as well as those from different years.

But it worked. All those arguments and support and lobbying worked.

Basically, training how to shoot a gun became mandatory in the DMLE (it helped them blend in when they liaise with muggle law enforcement, and they’re not as helpless in situations where they can’t publicly display magic). It was optional for other Ministry employees—of course, no one else from other departments was required to keep up the skill as they were wizards and witches. It was entirely optional. Hermione took one for thoroughness’ sakes. She never really carried a gun to the field and never felt the need to, even if she did accompany the boys to the range from time to time to practise.

Now, as Maggie Edelstein transfigured two blocks of wood into pig carcasses, Hermione was about to demonstrate that knowledge for posterity.

What is she doing?” One of the interns mumbled to another, but still within hearing range of Hermione.

I don’t know. She’s fiddling. Can she use that thing?

I’m more concerned whether we’re safe.

She recognised the cardboard cartridge boxes. The 8L on the label probably meant they were 8 mm. Hermione sighed over the dampness of one box and set it aside. The rest seemed to be alright. She found one rifle that seemed reasonably dry among others. She cast a quick-drying spell just to be sure and did the same for the box of cartridge.

Alright, I could do this. The cartridges go in here and…wait, this seems to have more space. How many could fit here? One? Push down and wait for the click—yes, that’s it. Two, three…oh, it could fit a few. It’s just not obvious at first because there’s that spring mechanism at the bottom that pushes up. Well, I suppose it would be impractical if it could only fit one or two, right? Another one and…sheesh, how many shots are you going to take anyway, Hermione? Four is fine. Or maybe I should add one more in case I slip and didn’t quite hit where I want? She had to speak to herself, the mental ramble was somehow soothing. If she didn’t, her hands might tremble slightly with nerves.

She just wanted to hit some place on the pig carcass that had bone, just to demonstrate the effect. It was probably a good idea to aim some of the shots at. She didn’t notice that the noises had actually quieted down.

“Nurse Edelstein?” Hermione called out.

“Yes, Hermione?”

“Can you please make sure that no one’s going to walk onto the courtyard? Do we have some means of isolating it?”

“We’re isolated enough as it is. It’s fine. These fine gentlemen would stand guard, even.” She motioned to the freckled Auror that had returned and brought some of his friends. They were staring at Hermione with undisguised curiosity. She waited until they took positions and confirmed it back.

“No one cross the courtyard, alright? I repeat, no one cross the courtyard while I’m firing.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Nurse Edelstein confirmed.

She made some ear muffs out of her scarf and settled it around her ears. Hermione did her best to ignore the moving people, clearly still chatting from their hand gestures and moving lips. She raised the rifle and settled the butt on her shoulder. It’s not even that far, she noted about the target. This is shooting fish in a barrel. She chose four spots on the first pig carcass and started. Two holes appeared on the chests, the carcass now swinging slowly. Hopefully, one of the shots had hit the ribs. Another two shots went on the stomach to demonstrate the effects on the guts. There’s still another shot she could take. Another one for the ribs, then, in case she’d missed the earlier two.

When she lowered the rifle and pulled her impromptu earmuffs down, she could see more than one young nurse or intern demonstrating fear of her.

She could…she could use that thing. She’s a muggleborn, isn’t she?” A voice murmured.

Hermione ignored then and walked towards the carcass, raising the volume of her voice to carry well.

“Some of you have questions on the amount of damage an exploding stick, a gun, can actually inflict. Well, here it is. Everyone, move forward. We have a first-hand demonstration.”

She floated the pig carcass out of its hook and laid it on the ground. Hermione knelt and checked the location of the wounds. She mentally scanned through several cutting charms she knew and chose one that cut in specific depths. She made a Y incision on the pig’s chest and opened the skin flaps when she was done. Her audience had started to drift towards the carcass out of sheer curiosity.

“Look at that rib, it’s pulverised. This is why it’s always prudent to check for broken bones and fractures when someone gets shot, because it is completely possible. Now, let’s see the next one. It only nicked a rib and went straight through the lungs.” Hermione picked two leaves from the ground and transfigured it into a pair of plastic gloves. She wore it to reach for the pig’s lung and lift it. “It’s gone straight to the back too. Guess what happens if this is an actual person? The patient has a sucking chest wound. Guess what happens if the surface wounds are healed?”

Hermione pulled the plastic gloves off and threw it on the ground as she picked up her wand again.

“It’s no longer a sucking chest wound, but the lung is still leaking. Now, what happens if someone’s lungs have been shot in more than one place? Congratulations! You now have someone who’s slowly drowning in his own blood, but no one around the poor sod even has a bloody clue.” She snapped. “Of course, maybe the wound doesn’t bleed into the lungs, maybe it bleeds out. Well, good, that means you have blood pouring into the thoracic cavity!”

“Now, who’s still a smart ass enough to say that closing up the wound was the best thing you could do and that everything is minor wounds beyond that, hmm? I’ve seen more than one friend gets shot, so anyone thinking this is just something you can walk away from is asking for it.” She knew she wasn’t being fair to most of them, but she has had it. Seeing the guts and viscera again, even if it’s just those of a transfigured pig, was starting to get to her. Not many dared to meet her eyes as she stared them down one by one.

“Shall we see what happens when the colon gets perforated? Well, that’s next. I got two hits in at the abdomen, at any rate. If we don’t get to see the colon get perforated, then it’s probably the intestine that has a hole or two. If we’re lucky, it might even hit the stomach—gastric acid leaks for everyone! Let’s see Mr. Piggy here get his insides peeled by the acid!” Her tone had gotten increasingly sarcastic the further she went.

Nurse Edelstein had sidled up next to her.

“I think I get this,” she said softly. “Want me to take over?”

Hermione let out a gust of sigh. She had only been going over the gross injuries and hadn’t gone into the minute details that they also need to know. Then again, her patience was fraying into something dangerously ragged already and it was probably a side-effect of that.

“Yes, please. I thought I could do this, but I forgot I really can’t stand fools.”

Maggie patted her shoulder. “It’s alright. You can have your tea and crumpets before you teach the next group, and I can walk this one through the rest of the internal damage.”

“And then we get to the effects of explosives,” Hermione added with false cheer. “Goody.”

“And then we get to explosives.” Maggie confirmed.

'-

Hermione calmed down after the first group.

The tea and cakes probably helped, and the crack of the rifles probably reminded the gaggle of young medics and nurses that the exploding sticks, the guns, were actual weapons instead of toys and they now took it seriously. The other groups that arrived later were less rowdy than the first one, to Hermione’s relief. She managed to teach two more without Nurse Edelstein having to step in often to add factoids that she might have missed or forgotten.

Madam Álava came sometime around the third session, followed with orderlies who carried actual pig carcasses. They were calmly moving and hanging it against the wall. Behind her came Healer Orpington, the white robes of the healers of St. Mungo’s along with the nurses.

“I hear what you’ve been doing, Hermione.” Madam Álava said. “And I thought to myself, what if even more people still disbelieve the effectiveness of these weapons? Well, I thought we should leave them more permanent reminders.”

The freckled Auror whose name she still didn’t know moved forward.

“We agree. You can use however much of these things you need to use to demonstrate.”

Hermione turned to Nurse Edelstein. “I’ll trust you to secure the area, Nurse Edelstein.”

“Of course, Hermione.”

There were five carcasses this time. She slowly moved to her previous spot, pulling her temporary earmuffs back to their place and knelt on the ground. There was a chair that she’d dragged close. She supposed she was going to use that again too for support. The chatter of the world receded and she could focus on the boxes of cartridges. Hermione absentmindedly dried them and took the rifle she had used before. She blocked the outside world. All the eyes, all the people and the attention, they weren’t there. There was just her, slowly pushing cartridges in, listening to the tell-tale click before taking the next one and pushing that in.

She raised the rifle and decided to shoot from the left. One shot, two shots, three. She let the carcass swing a little, got used to the swinging pattern and made two more shots. Eject the spent cartridges, she reminded herself. Wait for the click, she’d say as she placed new cartridges in.

Hermione had made the exact same shots that she did before—she aimed to hit at least one rib and hit the guts twice. The last shot was always a bit random, depending on her whim. She did this until the third carcass and realised that the fourth and fifth still had their heads. Well, that would be a good opportunity to study head wounds, right? She decided then that the heads would get two shots from now on, the gut only one, and the chest two.

Ron was right. It was easier doing this if she didn’t try to think about anything in particular and just lose herself in the rhythm of the movements. Besides, these were not people, they’re just pigs.

When Hermione lowered her rifle for the last time and stood up, she saw the proud look in Esmeralda Álava’s face, true. She could also see Maggie’s satisfied smirk, probably because she’d just won an argument against some of her friends or colleagues about Hermione.

It still didn’t make it any easier to see several of the gazes that were filled with fear.

She clenched her fists. It was ridiculous. The wand was also easily an instrument of death. In fact, she would use it with far more ease than she could use any gun, and she couldn’t even run out of ammo! And yet it was the latter that prompted their fear, it was the latter that made people see her as something larger than life. Of course, there were always the murmurs.

I think she’s a muggleborn.”

Scary, aren’t they?

Somehow, that old appellation became much more sinister here.

'-

When Hermione stepped out of the infirmary office’s fireplace, she was surprised to see Lakshmi and Tom there, sitting calmly as if it was normal for them to greet each other and chat. The sun was already low in the sky, and the east-facing infirmary office was not so bright without direct afternoon sun.

“Eugenie was here for a while, but the Free French Mages wanted to convene again and she couldn’t say no to them either.” Lakshmi clarified. “Bunch of sodding Gryffindors, I tell you.”

“Welcome back.” Tom said.

Nurse Edelstein stepped out of the fireplace behind Hermione, but she herself was too surprised to move.

“I…I’m back.” Hermione said with relief. “I’m back.”

Lakshmi stared at her curiously. “St. Mungo’s can’t be that bad. What happened to just explaining about wounds?”

She hugged the other Ravenclaw without compunction, and she laughed because she didn’t feel like crying. Even when surprised, her friend just went with it and patted her back.

“What, they tested you first before letting you explain things? It couldn’t be that hard for you, could it? I saw what you call your bedtime reading, Missy.”

“Well, you guys can go catch up with each other. I’m going to go find someone else I can gossip with.” Nurse Edelstein said. Hermione released Lakshmi and waved at her absently.

“Enjoy your break,” the brunette said.

“Absolutely. You too.”

The nurse walked out. Tom was watching her carefully, and it almost reminded her of their early encounters when he was always trying to read her intent, her possible moves.

“Hermione?”

Oh, what the hell. There was just Lakshmi, she thought, and oddly enough, Tom was also a friend at this point. Where he expected her to perhaps take his hand, she launched herself into his arms and buried her face at the crook of his neck. His cologne was very muted, something of oak and forest, and it was mostly only something distinctly him and soap. She found she preferred that compared to guys who doused themselves in it that her eyes watered and she could swear her olfactory cells died by the thousands.

Tom was tense for a moment before he slowly relaxed again and held her back without a second thought. Hermione was sure she heard a snort from the other witch, but she was unexpectedly quiet. He was rubbing circles into her back, and as comfortable as it was, she owed them some explanations.

“People said ‘muggleborn’ behind my back as if it meant something close to ‘monster’”

He stiffened for a split second. The sentence wasn’t exactly what she wanted to say, but Hermione couldn’t find it in her to regret it. It did describe the situation enough. She still hadn’t pulled herself away from his arms as she said it. He was solid and supportive and it was nice and warm to be held. It’s nothing personal, she told herself. Really.

What? Who on earth are those idiots? You’re the last person I’d blame for anything, you’re just that compulsive a do-gooder. It’s actually tiring seeing you walk around and help anyone who trips into your path.”

She almost rolled her eyes. Lakshmi’s outrage was unexpected, but the exaggeration and backhanded compliment was all her. Hermione lifted her head and sighed.

“I don’t know if I can blame them, though. I mean, the first group had a lot of doubters and were getting really annoying. So, I thought I can stage a little demonstration for them.”

“Demonstration?”

Hermione sighed. “I can use guns—those exploding sticks, yes. I’m not actually used to it. I have never carried them and I will probably mess up in maintenance, but I can use it in an emergency. Preferably at point-blank range.”

She could almost hear Lakshmi’s forehead scrunching even when she wasn’t looking. There was a pause in Tom’s movements. She certainly gave him something to think about.

“Why would you even know that?”

“War.”

Her Ravenclaw friend snorted. “That’s your answer for everything, isn’t it?”

“And yet it’s true. Even my pureblood friends learned out of curiosity.”

Things were quiet for a few more moments. She couldn’t really see what was happening, but Tom hadn’t stopped running his hands down her back. It was nice.

“Alright.” Lakshmi finally said. “I’ll pass your news along to Eugenie and Lucretia, and maybe anyone else who needs to know. Anthony, you should go wherever it is you two lovebirds go when you avoid the whole world. Our Cleopatra needs to stay away from fools and idiots for a while.”

Hermione frowned. “You know that those two ended up dead, don’t you?”

“As do all of us,” Lakshmi replied philosophically.

“We can take care of ourselves, Chakravarty. Don’t let us detain you.” Tom finally spoke up again.

Hermione heard a huff. “I certainly won’t. I’ll see you at dinner Hermione, Riddle.”

'-

Chapter Text

18 Afternoon Entertainments

It was at lunch when Tom noticed something was wrong.

Orion had gone off sometime earlier to arrange a casual game of quidditch. He certainly had a love of the game, for he was on the Slytherin House team as a chaser along with Alphard. There was no shortage of people who joined him; it might simply be how everyone seemed to be high-strung this morning, or the remaining ones who weren’t might simply be bored. With not much to do, he was not the only person feeling restless. The last time Tom checked, Orion might have even picked up some people from other houses.

The day’s classes were written off as a loss. While on the one hand Tom welcomed the extra time to plan and coordinate schemes, he was still somewhat annoyed by it. Why were they in Hogwarts if not to study magic? He can certainly read up ahead of the class, but he’d be missing the potential discussions, the opportunity to raise interesting questions and even direct the class’ interests. It was rather inefficient for everyone else, just because some of them might prefer not to go to class at all.

It wasn’t a surprised that the hall was rather empty even as lunch began. Everyone must have thought that they’d have all the time to eat. Almost by habit, his gaze flicked past the Ravenclaw table and he saw that Hermione and her friends were missing. Eugenie Delacour was unexpectedly sitting on the Gryffindor table, and Tom easily picked up why that was.

It was the loose association of French expatriates—most of them had ended up in Gryffindors. Not that Tom was surprised with the way they were generally angry at what they call the fake French Ministry of Magic currently extant in Vichy France. He wondered whether any of the French Exiles’ locations had been attacked last night, but he waved it off as something he can figure out later. Chakravarty, he noted, was with Lucretia and her seventh and sixth year hangers-on.

He couldn’t see Hermione anywhere.

She might just be late, he reasoned, as he sat next to Melchior. Abraxas, he presumed, was also off the at the quidditch game. Yet even as lunch continued and other students began to trickle in, she was nowhere to be seen. The volume of her hair itself would’ve rendered her easy to notice. The usually high-spirited Vespasian was fortunately sitting near the exuberant Alphard and the higher years of the Slytherin quidditch team, drumming up not a little noise with their enthusiasm.

It did make his particular spot at the Slytherin table more peaceful.

He knew he was falling slightly in making small talk when Tybalt Yaxley settled to talking with Mulciber and Parkinson. Mulciber and Parkinson, whose usual stellar contributions to conversations with him and Malfoy were either grunts, a slow expression of incomprehension, or tentative effort to ask if anyone followed the results of the last major league quidditch game.

How Abraxas didn’t feel his brain was dribbling out of his skull when he talked to the two of them, he didn’t know.

They’re actually rather alright,” he remembered the Malfoy heir saying once. “A bit simple, but they still have their likes and dislikes. It’s just that you scare them so much they’re always nervous around you, Tom.”

Well, he was sure he scared Gallus Rosier too, but being partnered with Gallus at Potions did not fill Tom with the resignation of Sisyphus that always came over him whenever he ended up partnered with either Mulciber or Parkinson. They were certainly boulder-like enough in form and he was always the one pushing them up an intellectual hill. Whether they stayed at the top when he was done was up to the whims of either a malicious god or an uncaring world (newsflash: they were always at the bottom of the hill when the next potion class rolls around). It was most fortunate that neither were taking Advanced Potions, though Rosier certainly did.

He had gone halfway through main course, and yet another check at the Ravenclaw table showed that Hermione had still not arrived.

Abraxas had arrived, freshly showered, and Tom could see Orion trudging in the general area of the fourth-years, nodding as he passed. Tom noted that neither of Hermione’s friends seem concerned of had even been checking for her arrival. Odds were, they knew where she was and they didn’t think that she’d even come at all. A thought struck him then.

Was she back at the infirmary?

He turned to Nott.

“Mind saving some of the dessert for me?”

“No problem at all, Tom. Wait, you’re going somewhere?”

“I’ll see you at the dorms.” Tom replied, before standing up and leaving.

'-

The infirmary was empty.

The rows of empty bed stretched from one end to the other, on both sides of the hall. That was not usually his concern, but it was when even after straining his ears, he couldn’t hear any other sound. Usually, there’d be the faint footsteps of Madam Edelstein surveying her domain—he was familiar with the distinct click of her high-heels after visiting the infirmary for two weeks. Sometimes, he’d hear the clinking of bottles if she was checking potions.

Tom’s strides quickly took him to the infirmary office, but even before he pushed the doors open, his instinct told him that it was as empty as the rest of the place.

There was a note pinned to the cork board.

Out to St. Mungo’s. We will be back by afternoon.

It was signed by one Madam Edelstein and Hermione Curie.

The casual nature of the note and the fact that Hermione signed it along with the nurse belied the possibility that the Ravenclaw had been taken to St. Mungo’s because her condition worsened. If that happened, only Madam Edelstein would have signed the note, and Hermione’s friends would most probably be worried instead of eating lunch with ease.

It was a conundrum. He did not like conundrums as he much preferred to have answers.

He walked back out of the office and saw the generous curves of one particular Ravenclaw just entering the infirmary. Her amber eyes did not change when she saw him and she continued to make her way towards where he was standing by the infirmary office. He simply waited for her to approach him.

“I thought I’d find you here, Riddle.”

“Miss Chakravarty,” he greeted back.

“She’s in St. Mungo’s.” Lakshmi Chakravarty said.

“Well, yes, there was a note.” He replied. “A rather unspecific note.”

“She couldn’t bear not doing anything, and she was familiar enough with the effects of the muggle weapons on the human body.” Chakravarty might not realise it herself, but her shoulders had tensed as she said this before slowly easing back to her languid pose. He dispassionately noted that it was one that subtly drew the eyesight to her significant bust. Tom’s attention was still on her eyes.

“She thought she’d talk to Madam Edelstein about what she knew and check if St. Mungo’s already knew about it. See if they already have an established procedure for wounds by muggle weapons.”

“It turns out they hadn’t,” Tom finished, somehow not surprised at all.

For all the practicalities that the wizarding world had over the muggle one, other common-sense solutions escaped them entirely. If the wizarding world was a person, it would be an idiot savant.

“She sent me a note by house elf. I’ve informed Eugenie and Lucretia, and I didn’t see you all morning.”

Tom did not comment as he knew she would not have scoured all Hogwarts just to find him. She did not owe him that much and Lakshmi Chakravarty had never struck him as someone who would do favours to other people just because it was the nice thing to do, and she was not one who cared much to have endless favours owed either. Even her sinuous body language was simply one she slipped into naturally instead of any active effort to seduce him. She was already quite satisfied with where she was.

Chakravarty was thinking, trying to recall things.

“She said that if she’s not back for lunch, she’d probably only be back by tea, at the earliest.” The dark-haired witch said again. “I suppose we’ll just find other things to amuse ourselves with.”

Her smile was alluring.

“Well, I suppose we shall,” Tom said, right before he bid her farewell and she returned it easily. He made his way to the infirmary door first.

“I did notice that you didn’t thank me for informing you,” Chakravarty said this lightly. She was walking some three steps behind him, also on the way out of the infirmary. As she was being yet another meddlesome female, he didn’t bother to turn around.

“If you have managed to reach me this morning, I would certainly have.” He said.

He only gave politeness as much as was due. She let out an unexpected peal of laughter.

“Hermione was right. You do have more sharp edges than you allow others to see, Mr. Riddle.”

“As you do,” he noted.

“I think everyone knows exactly where I keep them. That’s why most of them are so adept at avoiding it nowadays. You, however…you’re too perfect. You have no apparent flaws. Most can only say good things about you.”

“Well, one must take care not to scare the children, mustn’t we?” He noted dryly.

That gained him another chuckle from her.

“Oh, I like you, Mr. Riddle. I really do.”

‘-

Now, there were only the two of them remaining in the infirmary office, as Nurse Edelstein had been kind enough to go off earlier. As Lakshmi’s steps faded in the distance, Hermione felt Tom gently prying her from him.

She would have sent him a questioning look if his hands did not cup her cheeks before he covered her mouth with his. Her eyes fluttered to a close while her right hand rose up, all too happy to play with his silken hair again. He bit her lip and took the gasp that came with it as an opportunity to take her open mouth. If the way she ran her nails over his scalp came with the added bonus of getting him to kiss her deeper, she really wouldn’t complain.

One of his hands glided at her side, gently following the outer curve of her breast. Yet when his thumb tweaked her nipple over her clothes, it sent a jolt of pleasant surprise and she moaned. Tom paused and took half a step away. He glanced at his hand with the perplexity of one who couldn’t quite figure out how it got there. He still didn’t remove it.

“Did I hurt you?”

Hermione blushed. “That’s the farthest sound from hurt I could get.”

“Really?” He was observing her carefully as he asked.

She didn’t understand what he was asking until she felt his thumb moving in a circle in exactly the same spot it had been. She took a sharp intake of breath and bit her lip. That was when his eyes grew darker, far closer in colour to black.

“I think I’ll have to try a few more times to be sure.”

He stepped forward once more to kiss her with more fervour than before. This time, Hermione wasn’t shy about placing a hand over his backside. He should wear robes less often, she randomly thought as she caressed the firm curve under her palm. The advantage of muggle clothes was certainly in how form-fitting they were. Jeans—he should absolutely wear jeans. But then Tom was placing open-mouthed kisses down the side of her neck, and suddenly she found thinking to be wholly superfluous and unnecessary.

Hermione had been pulling his tie all this time—the man had a lovely neck—and was already working two of his buttons open and easing his collar to the side. She leaned forward to the juncture between his shoulder and neck and gently bit down. He hissed. Another moment later, she was up against the wall and he was pressed along the entire length of her body. Her skin was hot where they touched and then he kissed the life out of her and she welcomed the heat. Something distinctly hard was pressing against her lower half. She really needed to stop now before they couldn’t find the willpower to stop at all.

When they separated, they were both breathing heavily. She leaned back in a daze while he dropped his forehead against the wall. He was not in a much better state.

“Well,” he murmured, “this is a pleasant surprise.”

Hermione chuckled as she rested her head against his shoulder.

“It is,” she agreed. “It has been a good day in some aspects but a terrible one in others. I’m just tired of everything. I’m not looking forward to coming to dinner and maybe hear the whole speculations about muggles and muggleborns again.”

“I was about to say that muggles do seem to have a penchant for war, but I gather that you’re not in the mood to discuss it right now.” Tom noted. She retaliated by kissing his jaw, enjoying the way his hand on her waist tightened as he tried to control himself. She was not unaware of how he’d been pulling it out of her skirt.

“You’re right. Thanks for being here. It’s nice to be able to not think about things for a while.”

He was watching her face with that perfectly neutral expression that made him unreadable to many.

“Would it be the same if Delacour or Chakravarty had been here? Or perhaps some other Ravenclaw, perhaps Verrault?” There was a particular intensity to his tone that she didn’t quite get.

She certainly remembered the sixth-year Ravenclaw prefect. Verrault was a serious wizard, but he did not think twice in passing her his notes on Ancient Runes yesterday, just so she can get caught up. She handed it back to him within ten minutes, to his surprise. Still, she wouldn’t even have remembered him at the top of her head if Tom didn’t mention it. It confused her. Why would he—

Oh. Oh.

“Of course not, Tom. You’re…”

Well. What was he again? She was pretty sure that if he was just a friend, she didn’t exactly make a habit of snogging Neville.

“You don’t know either, do you?” His tone was amused when he said this. She narrowed her eyes.

“And what do you know, Mr. Riddle?”

“I know that other people aren’t quite real, witches included. You, Hermione, are real.” His hand curled underneath her jaw, holding her with unaccountable care.

Hermione didn’t quite understand what he said, but the depth of his gaze was unmistakable. It floored her. It wasn’t love. She couldn’t quite imagine him ever being someone selfless, to act in a way that would not serve his own interest at the same time, but she had found the beginnings of something deep and unfathomable nonetheless that was centred on her. She had the sensation of someone who waded into a natural pool by the beach, only to find themselves in an inlet open to the ocean. There were depths and undercurrents there, coaxing her to stop holding on to anything else and follow them into the abyss. Suddenly, anything she’d thought to say felt inadequate.

“I was rather annoyed this afternoon because Chakravarty had not seen fit to inform me of where you were gone to until then.” He said, out of the blue.

“Next time, I’ll make sure to leave a message for you, then.” She answered without thinking.

It was an easy question to answer. It was just taking precautions. It didn’t force to her to find meaning to a storm of thoughts and emotion she did not know how to begin to appease. His thumb was stroking her jaw line and her throat felt dry.

“Why am I real?” She asked.

He shrugged. “You just are. Perhaps it’s how you refuse to be afraid, or how you will not back down from what you believe. Then again, your mind is a rich labyrinth, Hermione, with unexpected treasures waiting at every turn. Your defiance is not an empty boast because of it.”

“I’m hardly the first to choose not to fear you.” She said.

“You’re the first who chose to stay close despite knowing what I am.” He said, the answer brilliant in its simplicity.

Hermione’s breath caught in her throat because for the first time she thought she saw more of his facets than before. She was familiar with the intelligent student and she’d seen the dutiful prefect more than once. Like the young man who showed her how to cut bread in perfect thin slices, this time, she saw echoes of the abandoned orphan again. Did he really have to show all these sides so easily to her? What could she do about it, anyway?

Why her? Why?

She didn’t know what her expression looked like, but the second he caught it, he couldn’t help himself from kissing her. It was neither chaste nor sedate—perhaps it could never be perfectly chaste between them anymore, not after they’d tasted each other like today. Yet it was sweet and thick with the promise of something more, like a long draught of honey wine in summer.

“I…” she took a deep breath, her mind still a-scatter. “How are other people not real?”

His blue eyes met hers as he contemplated her question. Tom seemed to be weighing something as he answered slowly, carefully.

“They never are to me. You remember watching Punch and Judy, don’t you?”

Hermione nodded, remembering the puppet shows of her youth. The humour was slapstick, it was silly and Mrs. Punch (Judy) always ended up hitting Mr. Punch with a stick and vice versa, but it was enough to absorb a young child’s attention.

“You see any puppet show on a stage and you can clearly see their sticks and strings, the hand inside. You know where the puppet master is and where he’s directing them, but you don’t interfere because you find it entertaining. Now, the world? There are many puppets with various masters, most of them useless, and after that they don’t even give you the courtesy of being amusing.” He stated.

“I’ve always thought, I might as well start taking over their strings and pulling them if it was the case.”

“Strings, Tom?” She asked, finding herself fascinated with the topic against her better judgement.

His focus returned to her, but his hand was stroking underneath her collar bone. “Most people are rather transparent, don’t you think? This one has popularity for strings, and that’s what other people pull him with. Another one has wealth. This one need social approval oh-so-very-desperately that they’ll allow anyone who can grant it to move them as sock puppets.”

“Many, of course, are varieties of power.” He finished.

Tom was curious enough to taste her skin with his tongue, to follow the line his hand had been tracing. Hermione tilted her head back at the sensation with a surprised gasp.

“And it makes them not real?” She asked.

“Hermione,” there was something wry in his tone now as he drew back to meet her gaze again. “If a person moves to the right when you direct them to the right, leaps to the left when you wish them to, and jumps up when you set the bait above his head, wouldn’t you also doubt the notion of free will and intelligence?”

“But they have their own life,” she began.

“Puppet shows. All of it.” He answered with a dismissive tone.

“But that’s not—”

“Hermione, you did ask me about why they’re not real, didn’t you? I’ve just told you.”

“And I’m not just another doll with my own puppet show?”

Tom chuckled, and Hermione found herself unable from stopping herself from touching his face. “You create whatever you wish, pulling any puppets around you into your orbit. You easily destroy several others’ strings and you take other people’s sock puppets with barely a thought. You’re a force to be reckoned with. You’re the last thing from weak.”

“Why do you not care that I can kill you?” She asked, baffled.

“Yet you’ve chosen not to, haven’t you? You told me yourself, Hermione. You’ve stayed your hand and now you can’t stay away. Your curiosity won’t let you—I’ve begun to take your measure, dear. You simply have to move closer. You wish to see what the monster you’ve let go can become, now that you’ve gifted me with your foresight. Perhaps you feel responsible.” 

He was elated with what he saw in her eyes. “Ah. You do. You clearly do. You don’t need to worry, Hermione. It’s the same way I’ve found you too interesting to leave alone or kill.”

“You’re not a monster, Tom. Not yet,” she murmured, her hands sliding under his blazer. She was enjoying his warmth, contented in the way he unconsciously leaned into her touch.

“Yet you’re the one who first brought me up as Jörmungandr.”

Why did he even have to remember her offhand comment on world-eating snakes? She was really only referring to his Slytherin background and Parselmouth skills. Not that he knew that she knew.

“And now?”

“Now we’re two stars falling into each other’s orbits. It’s especially true when you can hardly find someone who can talk to you on your level, clearly someone whose massive intellect can distort the world around them. When you do, it’s rather hard to stop, isn’t it?” His voice was completely casual.

She was agreeing with him on more than one level as his hand began to slip under her shirt and up her back.

“You’re looking for someone who is not a puppet?” Hermione asked, wry.

“Yes.”

“And yet you don’t mind that it’s someone who can kill you,” she observed.

He pulled her close, his lips a hair above her ear. His voice was intimate. “I’m sure if you were that unrefined in your methods to stop me, you’ll find that I’m also completely able to kill you to preserve my own life. I don’t see you avoiding me just for that reason.”

Tom was completely unconcerned. Then again, Hermione supposed she really shouldn’t cast aspersions against him when she wasn’t exactly worried about him standing between her legs either, his hair mussed and his smile as charming as the devil’s.

“Maybe I just haven’t decided yet.” She murmured.

Where a naïve virgin might be fooled into thinking that sexual attraction and love are the same thing, she’s not an actual innocent, is she? Hermione was quite aware of how different the two feelings are. As such, she found it foolish to deny that she did find him attractive, that his intelligent conversation made him so fascinating to her compared to most people. After all, it did not change the fact that she will still bring him down if he tried to become a dark lord.

“You have to admit, we’re quite well-matched, Hermione.”

“That’s just your silver tongue talking, isn’t it? Are you persuading me towards an attachment, Mr. Riddle?” Hermione shrewdly asked, but not without her own grin.

“What is life, without taking a few calculated risks?”

'-

Tom found himself in good humour that night.

He’d easily agreed to Hermione’s suggestion that they eat at the kitchens, because she was not in the mood to face the Hogwarts student body yet. The decision was swift as it presented him the opportunity to monopolise her company even longer. It also happened to coincide with one of the nights where he was free of his prefect duties. Even if it hadn’t, he’d exchange his patrol schedule with someone else’s—Merlin knows he’d accepted other people’s schedule switch often enough before to have accumulated many favours. It was worth it for a private dinner with her. It had been a while since his interest was caught by something new this completely, whether it was a new project, a mysterious tome, or something else.

Tom was not unaware that it was the result of this odd push-and-pull between them that neither felt particularly inclined to name.

He found himself pleased by the littlest things. Like the heat in the kitchen that vexed Hermione enough that she discarded her outer robes and other excess clothing until she was down to her shirtsleeves, and she rolled her sleeves up without a second thought (thank Merlin for the pragmatism her healer training gave her on the subject of clothes). The fireplace behind her added touches of gold and copper to her curls and it also made her shirt slightly see-through. He could see the fine side-profile of her breasts.

Hermione calling up his name pulled his attention back to her and he smiled before following suit, discarding his robes and blazer. As they had been taking shortcuts and back ways, he’d felt confident enough to not put on his tie on again and hadn’t done anything to his buttons either. From the way Hermione’s attention had drifted to his neck, he knew she was not unaffected.

“Missy?”

One of the house elfs had approached Hermione, its unusually large eyes wide open. In Tom’s opinion, it made her look like she was permanently concussed. He supposed it might pass as ‘cute’ to other people.

“Ah, hello. I hope we’re not being a bother.” Hermione smiled warmly.

The house elf with what looked like a patchwork apron rapidly shook her head. “No, no! Missy is not a bother at all. Young Miss and Master is welcome to stay.”

“I’m afraid we haven’t been introduced. I’m Hermione Curie.”

“Oh, we knows who you are. We knows much. Miss Hermione and Mister Riddle is welcome to have a good meal. Pinny will serve you. Pinny will always serve you.” Pinny nodded vehemently as she said this.

“Thank you, but you don’t really need to be aware of me in the middle of the night, do you?”

The house elf was horrified. “Pinny have to! Pinny always listens for Young Missus’ call!”

No amount of negotiating managed to make the house elf budge.

Out of all the strangeness he’d seen that day, he hadn’t expected Hermione actually becoming embarrassed at the house elf’s naturally servile attitude. In fact, he didn’t even understand why she needed to make small talk with it.

She was not only polite to the house elfs, but she was extraordinarily chatty in a way he didn’t even see with her classmates. She asked about their families, she asked about who planned the menu for tonight and why that particular menu was chosen and she promised them that one day, she’ll hear the recipes along with the stories that came with them.

As with other oddities of hers, it piqued his curiosity. He had a method to deal with many of her inexplicable actions—he simply memorised it for now to find out the reason behind it at some other time.

The food arrived. It was a more complex menu than was offered at the House tables—he was impressed. Hermione’s knowing smile showed that she was aware of it. She did not tease him about it but proceeded to explain that the house elfs never quite dared to experiment with the menu. They were considering it, yes, but they simply don’t know where to begin without a human guide to start with some baseline.

“Someone like you, I suppose,” Tom casually said. She nodded without irony at that.

“Yes, exactly. Not right now, no. I already have too many things I need to do. Still, one of these days, I’d help the house elfs revamp the menu. Then, I might even have time to help them construct a cook book and publish it.”

“A cook book,” he repeated, as he had no idea of what else to say.

“Yes. Because they perform such a wide range of services for the wizarding world but they’re so invisible that people take them for granted. I know that it’s unfortunately part of a house elf’s make up to be psychologically attached to wizards and witches. It also makes sense in a way because they need to absorb said wizards and witches’ excess magic to thrive instead of merely just survive. Still, it does not mean that their culture had to be sublimated under the wizarding world’s!”

Everything she’d said at the beginning made complete sense. It wasn’t even something that most people knew, but she was Hermione, and he’d begun to expect encyclopaedic knowledge on esoteric subjects as something normal from her. Still, he had no idea how that related to her final conclusion.

“Sublimated? Hermione, they have no unique culture of their own.” Tom couldn’t help but say.

“Exactly! If they can easily subsume any sense of self in service of their human masters, why not unique cultural expressions of their own? That’s why I’m going to help them establish their own culture, and to remind people that some things we might think as part of the wizarding world are actually contributions by the house elfs that we’ve taken in and accepted as our own.”

Tom blinked.

It seems that she was correct in advising him to not ask her about house elfs, considering that this was what a random chat about them already could get her to say. At times, she’d say the most outlandish things that he could not quite tell whether she was serious or not, and his best method in dealing with it so far is just to continue the conversation into something more reasonable.

Like chimeras.

“What do you think about creating chimeric animals?” Tom asked.

She pursed her lips in thought. “Hmm…that’s not so simple or straightforward, is it? You need to know beyond mere Care of Magical Creatures.”

“You’d need to know Care of Magical Creatures, Transfiguration and Blood Magic, to be precise.”

“Ah, of course. I should’ve remembered that. Their organs wouldn’t work cross-species without the blood magic, would it? So, of course it’s necessary. I wonder how the wizarding world deals with histocompatibility…”

He stared at her, hiding his surprise well.

Hermione did not even realise that she was nowhere in the vicinity of normal as she accepted the inclusion of blood magic without blinking, as if it was a mundane magical subject like the first two. Some of the Slytherins he’d talked to would still even balk at it and turn to check whether there are any eavesdroppers nearby. Hermione was completely unconcerned. The colour was bright on her cheeks and her hand movements were lively and arresting.

“The problem with chimeras is that, it’s just that most wizards and witches are so irresponsible about it, you know?”

Instead of affronted, she was exasperated. It took him off guard.

“I’m sorry?”

The Ravenclaw witch pointed out at the number of wizards and witches who were determined to leave their mark through the creation of a new species. Half of them failed, and almost all of them are definite megalomaniacs, she flatly noted. The creation of a new species was rarely ever for any benefit whatsoever but to cater to the ego of its creators. Her tangent astonished him for a long moment.

“It’s irresponsible and damaging to the ecosystem of whatever poor place they choose to release their experiments to! It almost always results in an ecological disaster!”

He had to be impressed at the speed the witch marshalled her arguments.

“Most chimeras created are top predators—usually they’re too competitive and territorial to gather or even grow in population. Their numbers are thus limited by design,” he commented quickly, to hide the fact that he had no idea what else to say. Ecological disaster? How did she even reach that point in the first place?

She huffed. “It’s not surprise that they’re usually a predator. It’s all one grand ego-stroking display, like I’ve said. And I suppose yours would be some species of giant snake, am I right? You’d probably want the Titanoboa as one of the basis species, in that case. I’m sure that particular snake can certainly swallow an elephant. But have you thought about how the chimera will mesh in the local food web?”

What?

Tom was fortunate that none of his underlings were here to see him stop and stare for three whole seconds. He had never thought that after experimenting with blood magic on magical creatures that it was important to start considering their role in the native ecosystem. Most people would ask about why he was making a hundred-feet, cunning man-eating snakes first and ask him to stop doing something so distinctly dark wizard-like.

Hermione, it seems, cast her gimlet eye towards the preservation of the natural world.

“Well?” The Ravenclaw was tapping her fingers on the table, waiting with an arched eyebrow.

It was clear that she expected him to come up with an ecologically sound plan to introduce the chimeric snake on the spot.

“And the blood magic?” He asked instead, dodging her question. He was now morbidly curious about how she thought.

“What about the blood magic?” She asked back, her brown eyes wide and guileless. Inwardly surprised, he quickly eliminated the possibility that she was joking.

“You would need to use it to create a healthy chimera. As I’ve stated earlier, the skills required is found across Care of Magical Creatures, Transfiguration and Blood Magic.”

She nodded while listening to what he’d just said. “Why, yes, I agree with you. You’d need to mine the depths of those three fields. Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of self-aborting foetuses inside wombs or eggs, and then you’ll also have major organ death due to irritated immune system—it relates to the histocompatibility like I’ve said before. MHC is hard enough to deal with in intra-species organ transplants, much less inter-species ones.”

Hermione seemed to realise what she was saying at this point as she shook her head.

“Oh, I suppose that’s too far into the weeds for your level of interest, isn’t it? Never mind that for now. I do have to say that you’re off to a good start already—you’d probably have better odds starting with a reptilian species as a basis than a mammalian one.”

“Because with snakes, you can keep lowering their body temperature since they don’t generate their own body heat. It slows down their physiological processes that you can practically check the changes you made in slow motion—what more could you ask from your experimental animals?” He added before he could help himself. 

Tom had only planned on listening, to make her talk and allow him to gauge the limits of her knowledge that way. Yet some part of him did not want her to have the impression that he had not done the groundwork research for it.

His pride would not let him seem a complete novice to her, even if he knew that her knowledge of physiological processes would probably exceed his, what with her healing background.

Hermione beamed at him, her smile unexpectedly wide and warm.

“Yes! Exactly! Not to mention that reptiles generally have slower immune response than the members of the warm-blooded taxa that it lowers rejection of grafts and alien body parts to attach too. I suppose there might be some really potent blood magic ritual that can merge or blend species, but there’s really a dearth of texts that I can’t be sure…”

The brunette drifted away as she become lost in thought. Tom, on the other hand, was readjusting his perspective on Hermione yet again after she said ‘alien body parts to attach’ without blinking. It was why he said the first thing in his mind without holding back.

“‘Ritual to merge or blend species’, really? So vague and without any example rituals mentioned? No mention of any particular schools? That’s practically guessing by your standards, Hermione. I suppose this means you’ve never actually read a book on blood magic, have you?” He teased.

Hermione reddened slightly, but she didn’t quite admit her ignorance.

“I couldn’t possibly miss that much from those texts. I’m sure some of the knowledge in them can be found in other magical branches…” she muttered.

Other people might be fooled, but Tom knew that she was dithering. He also knew that blood magic was a field where he definitely had the advantage—though he had never even expected her to be familiar with it in the first place.

Not in his wildest imaginings.

Fascinating, he noted. He even asked her about several more-complicated blood magic rituals and watch as she evaded and blushed at her lack of knowledge of them. Hermione settled with a glare when she finally realised that he was teasing her.

 “You—!”

“I had to figure out the limits of your knowledge somehow.”

“You could just ask.” She was definitely not amused.

 “I can teach you further about those sacrificial rituals I mentioned,” he said this to distract her.

“How much do you know? Celtic or Germanic?” Hermione asked, forgetting her annoyance quickly.

“Oh, I do study both and a couple of others,” he replied with a modest tone that Hermione no longer accepts at face value now. She kept staring at him without blinking. “I pride myself in being an amateur Luwian ritual specialist and I do have some Hittite ones I’ve memorised alongside.”

“In their original languages?” Her voice was soft when she asked, solemn. She was completely hooked.

Tom nodded and he did not expect the high-pitched sound of excitement she made. If she had been sitting near him instead of across the table, he suspected she would’ve jumped up and hugged him.

“Really? How did you even find someone who knows exactly how it sounds?”

“I have my sources. I’ve even tried out one—turns out that a deer can power a decent blood ward for a house.”

His grin was wide and true, with the bloodthirst of an old pagan god riding with the wild hunt. Hermione’s understanding of how rare the rituals he’d found as well as her appreciation was one he’d never received from other people before. Simply put, most wizards truly didn’t understand the effort required to collect rituals in a language that died some three millenniums ago, along with the persistence required to learn said language. The look of amazement and wonder she gave him reminded him of the first time he drank wine.

Her adulation was intoxicating.

With her enthusiasm, it was clear that he could mine her healing knowledge for his projects and she’d assist without a second thought. Not to mention that he already had several tomes on blood magic at hand that he knew she wouldn’t be able to resist if he could place them under her nose. It was almost a shame that the couldn’t follow that particular topic for now and he had to pull them back to his first question.

“What about the Ministry for Magic’s issue with Blood Magic?”

He stumped her for a few moments before some form of understanding finally grew on her face. She gave him a bored look.

“Oh! That was the problem you were trying to point out earlier. You could’ve been more specific.”

He shrugged carelessly. She continued.

“I don’t see any problem with it because contrary to what most people thought, I know that blood magic is one of the oldest magics in the universe. It’s not particularly good or bad either—it was as easy to create a protection spell with blood magic as it was to curse someone. Of course, forcing someone to sacrifice their blood instead of using your own to power your blood magic spell is definitely Not Good.”

“No! Really, you don’t say?” He dryly commented. Hermione glanced upwards but mostly ignored his sarcasm.

“Other than that, I basically disagree with anyone using it to curse someone the same way I disagree anyone using a wand to cast a Killing Curse. But we don’t see anyone outright banning hexes, curses and jinx, do we? Why put a blanket ban on all blood magic, then?”

“The Ministry might disagree with you on that,” Tom noted with a slight grin.

“The Ministry can be a right twat sometimes and you know it too,” she answered without care. “One of these days, we’re going to make the Wizengamot be more specific about the kinds of blood magic it outlaws.”

“We will?” He asked, highly amused.

“Oh, we certainly will.” She was all confidence.

Did she realise how easily she used ‘we’ to refer to herself and him? No, he didn’t think she did. He thought he’d have more fun with this by avoiding any mention about it for now.

'-

They did end up talking about the technicalities of constructing a chimera for a while as they eat, losing track of time as they did so. Tom began to notice this when he realised he’d taken a second helping on purpose to delay, and Hermione kept adding more dessert on her plate later as she slowed down to only occasionally nibble on it.

If they were at the great hall right now, the tables would’ve been half empty at this point.

“It occurs to me,” he said some moments afterwards as they were more than done with their meal, “that you have yet to inform me of how I could have fallen into madness.”

Hermione’s warm brown eyes met his, and he could see her coming up with words to say and then discarding them as fast as she made them. The quietness stretched into seconds, broken up only by the faint tinkle of silverware.

“It’s that bad, is it?” He asked with a smile, trying to lighten her mood.

From the way she cringed, he was probably more correct than he knew. He sighed.

“Alright. So, how terrible was it? If you continue to stall, I’m afraid I’ll also continue to be deprived of the knowledge of how to not destroy myself. And here I thought you liked me, Hermione.”

She didn’t even react to his light-hearted comment, which moved it from ‘concerning’ into ‘alarming’ very quickly. He wanted answers immediately, of that there were no doubt. Yet from the way she seemed to be lost in some disturbing vision of a far-off future, he wasn’t sure he was willing to prod her too much that she’d be annoyed enough to viciously provide him all the terrible, embarrassing details.

Hermione finally told him. The words came tumbling out with a long, drawn-out sigh. “It was the dark arts, Tom. You went too far into them to ever came back whole again.”

“That’s highly unspecific,” he replied, mildly irritated.

She gave him a warning look to not interrupt which he chose to listen to this time. He gave her the opportunity to collect her thoughts again.

“It’s the soul, you see. Many of the magics that fall under the purview of the dark arts are classified thus because they affect the soul. Contrary to what people say as they curse lawyers, it is not actually possible to be alive if you were soulless. It is still impossible to be alive and stable if you have only a small amount of your soul healthy and untouched.” Hermione noted.

“So, did I happen to destroy mine?” He asked with a cheer he definitely wasn’t feeling. “Taint my soul beyond all recognition?”

The sad, understanding look that she gave him made him feel worse, for some reason. Yet even when he knew his smile had gone cold, her expression did not waver. Her next question surprised him.

“Can I hug you?”

A beat. He continued to stare blankly at her, uncomprehending.

“Pardon?”

“Look, this is a very depressing topic, and I still haven’t exactly bounced back from all the mess of today. So, if you’ll allow me to hug you so I don’t have to feel as miserable, I think I can continue to follow this personal hole to China that you’re intent on digging.”

“I suppose I can.”

Hermione moved off her bench and slid next to his. She didn’t sit facing the same side, though; she faced the opposite. In that way, it was easier for her to slip her arm around him and lean into him. He found himself not minding the contact too much. She was warm and soft in his arms—certainly a very pleasant object to hold. He could catch the faint fragrance of roses that inspired him to give her one, along with ink, the scent of fresh parchment and something sweet that was distinctly her.

“You know, I didn’t think I ever really checked what the pieces that have fallen off you look like—in that future, I mean. We were too busy staying alive and just trying to kill you as quickly as we can. We were trying to keep more people from dying and the world from falling apart even more.” Hermione continued conversationally into his shoulder. “All those fallen pieces of your soul might be the blackest black, for all I know. What I do know is that at the end, you barely had any piece worth speaking of inside you. You’ve just torn it to so many pieces. At the end, you’re really not all there. Did you know that you were bald, snake-like and had no nose? He was —”

“You don’t need to say it.” His hand curled around her waist without thought. It would seem I’m still a coward about facing my own destruction after all, he thought, with a bitter sort of humour.

“I told you it was depressing.” She said this with a hint of that know-it-all tone that could be very annoying if she deployed it in full. Luckily for Hogwarts so far, she seemed to restrain herself most of the time, even in classes.

“I miscalculated just how depressing it could be,” he murmured, his nose buried in her curls. “Now, I find myself in need of a new topic.”

She snorted inelegantly. “You’ve just needed a new topic now? I needed it a few minutes ago.”

He knew she was going to be insufferable if he let her go on for a while; Merlin knows he has enough experience with it whenever she was winning arguments against him in their discussions in the infirmary. What he did instead was to pull back and kiss her. It was a different sensation now, especially since they were only in their shirtsleeves. He could feel the faint rise of the goosebumps on her arm and had the unobstructed access to the full curve of her breast. Well, not quite that unobstructed yet, but it wasn’t as if he was incapable of remedying it soon as his hand trailed down her collarbone—

“Tom?” Hermione’s voice was breathy, and he found that he liked feeling the reverberations through her chest as his nose was stuck in front of her sternum.

“Yes, Hermione?”

“You’re unbuttoning my shirt.”

He leaned back, taking stock of his work and feeling rather satisfied. “Why yes, I believe I am.”

His nonchalance caused her to roll her eyes as she proceeded to button them back up. He was watching the tantalizing line of flesh disappear with a resigned sigh.

“I am not going to provide a free show for the house elfs.” She insisted.

“I think you know as well as I do that their wonderful virtue is that they’re utterly unconcerned about people’s personal business.” Tom noted.

“If you were going in the direction that I think you’re going, you still owe me some real dates.”

He quirked an eyebrow in her direction. “A date?”

“Yes. A date. A real dinner outing, to a restaurant, to demonstrate that you’re not a skinflint and you can actually show a lady a good time. I do like to dance, if you must know,” Hermione instructed. Merlin, she was bossy. Oddly enough, he didn’t find the annoyance he usually felt when most people thought they need to order him around—probably because when Hermione said something, she had the knowledge and good reason to back it up.

“I think I can manage a few dates.”

Good.” The pleased smile she gave him was bright enough to light up the room. It took such a simple thing too, he mused, curious.

“Now that you’re not in such a melancholic mood, would you tell me about what happened in St. Mungo’s?” Tom asked.

Hermione tucked herself to his side and started recounting her day from the beginning. He wrapped his arm around her once more without even thinking.

Tom listened first curiously, and then with increasing interest. Her parents had considered it important enough for her to know how to operate a muggle weapon? What kind of life had her family lead in Norway before her parents died? Slughorn had only said that they were expatriates, but Tom were beginning to have his own theories that they were Ministry agents of some sort—why else had her entire family been hunted down by dark wizards? Why else did it seem that there was no news of other survivors from the British magical circle of Kopervik that she came from? After asking Slughorn of her origins, he’d checked.

All anyone could find was that it had been burned down to the ground, with casualty numbers unknown. The news had strangely never made it into Britain’s newspapers either. Hermione did not even seem to try to find news about her family and friends on the Prophet or the other papers she reads in the infirmary whenever he saw her reading the paper.

It was as if the news blackout was not a surprise to her at all.

The easy way she listed the injuries she’d seen and the risks that mediwitches and mediwizards not familiar with muggle weaponry would miss told him that her medical knowledge was beyond mere first aid needs.

He was caught up with the entire mystery that was Hermione Curie.

She was all for the cultural revival of the house elfs and she did not think that there was anything unusual about studying and utilising (some) blood magic. She could apparently operate a muggle exploding stick—gun, and she knew more about the deep arithmantic calculation required to even begin charting time for an entire society than everyone in the whole castle whose blood were ‘purer’ than hers.  

Hermione thought he was most likely going to destroy the world and still chose to be near him.

We’re all walking contradictions, Tom, Hermione had said to him once. He found that none were more so than her. He was going to enjoy unravelling yet another new mystery from her, to figure out more of her secrets that she might not even realise were anything special (like the way she did not even blink about stating outright that not all blood magics were inherently bad). He was not even sure what made him gave her one last kiss after they’ve put on their entire uniform again. It simply felt like a slightly different good night that was a fitting way to end the dinner.

It was convenient for him that neither of them seemed to be interested in drawing away from each other then, isn’t it? He had all the time in the world to figure her out.

'-

It was late. Melchior and Abraxas had been minding their own business at the corner table* in the Slytherin common room when Tom found them.

*this is the distinct privilege of an upperclassman, even more so when said upperclassman is associated with Tom Riddle, who had been known to chat in Parseltongue with some of the common room’s fixtures.

“Melchior, Abraxas,” Tom called out cheerfully.

Two heads looked up. Where one head was dark, the other was light.

“Afternoon, Tom.” Melchior greeted back, which his friend followed a moment later.

Where Melchior had been reading and annotating calmly, Abraxas had been fiddling with his quill as he thought, its feathered tip frayed from absent-minded nibbling. If it hadn’t been one of the more expensive writing quills of Scribbulus’ that he used, he would’ve earned the ire of his partner for splattering inks all over their work. For all the contrast that they presented, they were the highest-ranking of Tom’s underlings and were amongst the smartly-dressed Slytherins.

“You’re just the people I’ve been looking for. You’re working on that Potions essay we need to turn in on Friday?”

Melchior was too busy thinking it was unusual for Tom to still have something to do after he finished his prefect rounds. It was Abraxas who asked first, without much too thought or guile.

“Yes, it is. What can we do for you, Tom?”

Tom slid easily into an empty seat on the table.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but your family holds around fifteen percent of Daily Prophet’s share.”

The blond Slytherin shrugged. “Thereabouts, sure. might even be more if I consolidated my mother’s holdings as well.”

“And yours are not significantly smaller either, isn’t it, Melchior?” Tom asked yet again.

Melchior had yet to say a word, still trying to read Tom’s expression. He was unaffected by the pleasant mien his liege lord wore. His face was a studied exercise in neutrality.

“Yes. If you would tell us what story you’d like to run, we can have our contacts working on it tomorrow.” He answered, cutting straight to the meat of the matter.

“Ah, but I need it tomorrow.”

The Nott heir frowned in thought, even as Abraxas nodded and said that it would be no problem. His friend would probably even say that he’d write the article himself if necessary, recklessly taking on a task he had considered neither of them had much training in. No. Personally, he’d rather delay than do a less than excellent work. He had been so lost in thought that he’d missed the witch that had come up to Tom’s right. Her cool expression and undeterred composure was familiar to most people by now. Emma Eccleston, sixth-year prefect. She had fine cheekbones, he can admit. Yet with her hairstyle, it made her look more severe and older. Not a hair escaped her bun.

“There would be no need to trouble yourself on that front. With a little help, I’ve done most of the work this evening.”

Melchior could see Abraxas’s brows creasing slightly as the witch spoke up before Tom even signalled to her, but he was more laidback on that point. She was an outsider—she wouldn’t know the proper protocols, would she?

Eccleston brandished a scroll in their direction. Abraxas picked it up and scanned the words quickly.

On the other hand, if Tom had been busy doing this, it would explain why neither of them had seen Tom at dinner. Neither Melchior nor Abraxas had disturbed him earlier this evening either, when it seemed that he was busy meeting with the Policy Swots. They decided to just play cards right then.

“Oh? Really?” Abraxas commented out loud as he read.

It was the surprised tone that did it. Melchior glanced across the table.

“There’s nothing I’ve written that isn’t the truth,” Emma stated. Yet there was an interesting glimmer in her eyes.

Tom’s smirk was as inscrutable as it had always been.

'-

Chapter Text

19 Countermoves

When Tom stepped into the common room of the Slytherin dungeon, he found three sixth and seventh year Slytherin prefects, waiting. With them were two others, a sixth and a seventh years that liaised with him quite regularly.

One of the winged-back chairs was empty and he figured that they had reserved it for him. Tom took the implicit invitation. His mood had been good after the pleasant dinner he had with Hermione, so he was unaffected by this small ambush. He recognised the group to be the Wizarding Society for Better Governance, better known by their colloquial nickname the Policy Swots.

“Gentlemen, Lady.” He nodded at them and at Emma Eccleston, the single witch among the five.

“Tom,” Orpington, the seventh-year prefect, began after he sat down. “We want to know what you plan to do.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What I plan to do?”

They exchanged glances with each other, with the slightest gestures of the head or a twitching hand. Their hesitation was almost palpable in the air while he calmly waited for them to come to some sort of consensus. Once more, it was the staid Orpington who spoke up again.

“For the future, Tom. Spencer-Moon’s not a bad sort at all when you’re holding everything together in the middle of a war. He gets people to work together. He could even pull resources from the muggles, which might be because he has a good relationship with the Prime Minister.”

The wizards, Tom noticed, did not really like to think about the Prime Minister of UK much. It meant admitting that in the end, their society exists at the behest of muggles. Many wizards and witches didn’t even know that the Minister for Magic was not the highest authority in the land and that there was yet another that he or she has to answer to.

For Oswin to bring it up in the first place spoke of something urgent.

“But all these reform ideas, Tom. It’s just…it’s not going to take. He’s not even trying to canvass support from all the ranks.” Emma said, not quite believing what she was saying either.

“And no one likes how he’s ignoring the muggle issues that Grindelwald brought up.” Mordred Montmorency, the sixth-year prefect, spoke up. He didn’t have to raise his voice to be heard.

Mordred was slim, blond and the farthest thing from a fidgety person. Someone who can easily stand at the corner of the room and be forgotten in no time. Yet he was more akin to a good hunting dog, and not the ones who ran in mobs to flush out foxes either. He was the one that can wait beside you. All that quietness belied his ability to swiftly act in one burst of energy, to go in for the kill.

“Muggle issues?” Tom asked.

“Grindelwald issues.” Mordred clarified. “Most people want greater separation from the two worlds right now, because it’s clearly not safe, is it? And the Minister doesn’t seem to get that.”

Tom shook his head. “The Aurors need to be more decisive when they act, especially when under attack.”

Oswin was unusually restless. He didn’t even bother to sit down, settling for sitting on the arm of Montmorency’s chair. “It’s dangerous Tom. We’re not prepared for this, not yet. My father told me of a demonstration of muggle weaponry in St. Mungo’s today and I insisted on being allowed to get a copy of my uncle’s memories since he was there.”

His breath was sharp, harsh. “I saw the autopsy results on the pig carcasses, though I was going more with the highlights of what my uncle told my father. They tested with shield spells and their bullet went through every single one of them. In my uncle’s memories, I saw the young woman who fired the gun too. She was so quick and cold. It was as if she was only calculating her bill for lunch and how she’d have to split it with her friends.”

“A natural killer,” one of the other sixth year murmured.

It amused Tom to see as fear spread in the little group the way a winter chill had just snuck into the room. Their incomprehension was pathetic, because he did not doubt for a moment that Hermione’s efficiency in killing anything would be glorious. But he knew this was but the first challenge that Hermione would face in the wizarding world—that they would fear her for the same reason she had confounded him.

She was simply beyond any mundane categories.

On the other hand, he knew that he needed to redirect them from focusing on their fears. When he spoke next, the cadence of his voice was easy to listen to.

“This morning, as the news break over Hogwarts, Hermione Curie offered her assistance to Madam Edelstein. This is because she has an unusual knowledge of the effects of muggle weapons on the human body. For those of you not aware of it, I’ll add that she has gone through a war. Norway, after all, is still under forces affiliated with Grindelwald. It is perhaps also the reason of her hospitalisation the same day she arrived at Hogwarts,” Tom said. He could see them leaning closer, curious about Hogwarts’ newest transfer student despite their uncertainty or whatever it was that they’ve heard of her based on the rumours.

“Discussions with Madam Edelstein confirmed the depth of Miss Curie’s medical knowledge—at least in this particular field. The Nurse’s efforts to check with her colleagues who worked at St. Mungo’s gave her a mostly dissatisfying answer. Most of them had no idea of the harm. Thus, with the support of a healer and senior nurse who understood the importance of what they’re saying—one of which I’m sure was your uncle, Oswin—the four of them set off to St. Mungo’s to spread the information.”

Tom leaned back slightly, watching the group collect their thoughts. People think at different speeds. The trick is to find the point where at least two-thirds of your audience reaches understanding and step in at that point. If you wait until everyone does, someone would’ve already spoken up in dissent.

And dissent is not something you’d want to allow right now.

“Not that it’s not nice to know some improvements are happening,” Fortunately, Mordred provided the interference all on his own, without Tom having to speak up. “But what has that got to do with, well, everything?”

“The senior nurse (the name escapes me right now) and Oswin’s uncle here informed the healers and nurses. The junior healers and trainee nurses is left in the hands of Madam Edelstein and Miss Curie. As it happens, they don’t immediately believe in the dangers of what Miss Curie was describing, not even when Madam Edelstein started adding her opinion.” Tom paused, letting the dissatisfaction build.

“That’s ridiculous,” a rather heavy-set seventh-year muttered.

“See if they’d like it if they got shot.” That was…Horrocks, was it? What he did knew about the wizard was that one of his family member was a casualty in St. Mungo’s.

“I know,” Tom nodded with a look of understanding. “They’re still new, yes? Fresh out of school, they haven’t seen enough bodies yet. What they need is something to shock them out of their doubt.”

“What happens next, then?” He paused.

“Well, what happens next is that Miss Curie volunteers to give them precisely that demonstration that is needed. As I’ve said before Gentlemen, Lady, she has lived through war. Desperate times require desperate measures. One of the results of these is that under emergency, she’s quite capable of operating the muggles’ exploding sticks. The purpose, I believe, is to kill them with their own weapons if push comes to shove.” His last sentence tripped surprise and disbelief in equal measure as colours rise and expressions change. He continued before anyone spoke up.

“The senior nurse that had supported them saw what she was doing with a transfigured pig carcass. She brought real pig carcasses so the evidence would last and ask her to shoot them. Then, there’s all the tests you’ve heard about with the shield charm and whatnot. The senior nurse’s name is…hmm, I had it at the top of my head—”

He made a show of snapping his fingers and acting surprised when he’d remembered her name all the way from the beginning.

“Ah, Esmeralda Álava! The so-called Grand Duenna of nursing on the wizarding side of the Crimean War. Which, I’m sure you’d know, Orpington, as your Minister ancestor was brought down precisely for interfering in that muggle war.” He ignored the way Oswin coloured. “Considering all she’d done in establishing the nursing profession from the foundation up during that time, I’m sure you’re very familiar with her name too.”

“Very familiar,” Oswin murmured.

“Sometimes, people just don’t believe you unless you personally provide them with…examples,” Tom said, meeting the gaze of each and every one of them. None of them were going to mention Hermione negatively in relation to the shot pig carcasses again. He moved on to the next topic.

“Now that that’s settled, I’m sure we can return to our conversation about Minister Spencer-Moon. If his reforms are not going to take anyway, is it something that we need to be concerned about? Most of what anyone needs to do is to stall until the next Minister is chosen.”

“But people also want to see some sort of progress happen, otherwise it will increase their degree of discontent. They’ll distrust the government as an institution more, and that’s actually bad for anyone that wishes to be Minister for Magic.” Eccleston spoke up. Tom was not quite aware what department and division her mother was stationed at, but she was frighteningly well-informed on Ministry politics.

“So, we’re looking into something that can tide over. It doesn’t matter if it’s small as long as it can get past the Minister and the Wizengamot.”

The heavy-set seventh year scoffed. “Might as well ask for snow right now, Eccleston. It’s probably just as easy.”

“We also need to push it from the public side,” Eccleston added, ignoring her year mate’s complaint. With her hair in a single braid and her glasses firmly on the bridge of her nose, she looked every inch the schoolmistress. “Barely anyone has political capital to spare if they think an election is in the offing. But anyone would support an act brought by the public if they think it serves their interests too. That’s why many people were passing information to Oswin and I’s parents as they know it would get to us.”

“A petition,” Oswin sounded out the word.

“A draft for an act, brought forward by a petition and public opinion,” Montmorency refined it out loud.

Well, he had been planning on gathering the rising swell of public’s animosity towards muggles. It could be easily used in a fight against both the meddling, incompetent government and Grindelwald’s forces with his muggle pawns. To fight the latter, it was so convenient that they couldn’t hesitate to use violence—and what better violence, what better power than what he can gather from the darkest arts?

He will start as an outlaw of the people, one Robin Hood. As he struck these enemies down, people will bow to him in reverence even as the hems of his robes were soaked in blood. It didn’t matter as long as it was the blood of the ‘wrong’ people. As long as he proved that his power brought them security, they will thank him.

It would be so easy to take the power he wanted that way.

Yet Hermione’s warnings about what happened at the end of his most obvious path stayed with him. She did say that it was an effect of his continued efforts to delve too deep into the dark arts. Now, he was forced to be more circumspect in his methods. More caution was warranted unless he was prepared to be mad. At the very least, this way, he wouldn’t turn away the moderates from his growing faction.

It was shaping up to be not such a bad idea, after all.

“Well,” Tom said, “I’m sure we can come up with something. Montmorency, you first. Tell me what you have…”

He didn’t miss the relieved expression in Montmorency’s face. It was easily mirrored in Orpington’s and a variation of it exists even on the more stoic Eccleston. They hadn’t been so sure of his interest in what they wanted to do either. It was as if they were afraid Tom might not even be interested in aiming for the Minister’s seat, preferring to take a more forceful route…

Tom almost wanted to grin and congratulate them for not being exactly blind to his previous impatience, along with the increasingly dark edge to his aura and magic.

Not that it was relevant. There’s a high probability that it wouldn’t be his path now.

Well, why not just see where this one will lead to, instead?

'-

The day after Hermione had gone to St. Mungo’s, she found Tom somewhere after their classes. It was closely approaching lunchtime.

She had chosen to attend classes whose schedules didn’t match his for today and as such they had not been together. Fortunately, she did have the idea to follow his actions on the day of the summer picnic; she located him using sympathetic association. Her object of focus was his extensive scroll detailing the scope of her classes. This was why she was at some midpoint between the potions class and the Great Hall with her wand held like a compass needle, a scroll in hand. Hermione furrowed her brows the moment she saw him.

“You did something, didn’t you?”

The brunette could see him holding himself back from a smirk. “I did many things, Hermione. I’m afraid you’d have to be more specific.”

“The news, the rumours,” her hands were making weird shapes as she tried to find words for it, her brows scrunching up. “I’m suddenly Florence bloody Nightingale. Where did you even get pictures of me in front of a group of interns and novice nurses? I think I saw some students keeping copies of them. Then, there were also the ones where I was wearing a trainee uniform because Madam Álava recommended me to do so to stick out less.”

She took the arm he proffered without a second thought and they walked arm-in-arm in the hallways. Hermione noticed the glances sent her way as well as the double-takes.

“Madam Edelstein had been very helpful.” Tom commented.

“She…oh, of course she’d take pictures, or somehow filch them from other people.” Hermione murmured. Her annoyance somehow having subsided to a manageable degree because she couldn’t fault Nurse Edelstein for her fondness. It was…nice.

“You should be happy. She seems to care for you very much.”

Hermione peeked at him from the corner of her eyes. “I think you’re just happy because of how helpful she’s being to you by proxy.”

“Am I?”

“What are you currently working on, Tom?”

“A little bit of this and a little bit of that.” He answered, that enigmatic smile still on his face and thus indirectly annoying her. “By the way, Professor Slughorn misses you. I can see it in the way his face fell when he saw me entering class without your company.”

Hermione tilted her head to the side, trying to figure him out and coming out with nothing. She didn’t repress the scepticism from her voice.

Really. It’s only been what, two days since I’ve last seen him?”

“He does so love to keep up with his students.” Tom remarked.

“And nothing of much significance has happened.” Hermione said.

“That would be in the eyes of the beholder, wouldn’t it?”

She could see his eyes crinkling at the corners, even if his mouth barely changed from their evenly neutral position. He was smiling and it was a genuine one. Alright, she had to admit that it pleased her more than seeing his good student façade, but the curiosity was driving her spare. She just could not, for the life of her, figure out why. She did notice that the last time she passed him in corridors with Eugenie before her first class this morning, Tom’s entourage had an additional pair of Slytherin seventh-years attached.

“I think there’s something you’re not telling me.” She drew the words out slowly, carefully.

“Technically, it’s nothing you didn’t tell me.” He parried.

Hermione felt like pinching the bridge of her nose. It might have been the physical work required of Care of Magical Creatures, but she didn’t feel like she was at her best to keep up enough with Tom’s silver tongue.

“This is all going to end up being convenient to you somehow. I know it. I just can’t figure out the how yet.” The sudden boost to her reputation was not a bad thing. There were less students staring at her suspiciously or with fear. The ones staring at her as if they weren’t sure they saw her was a bit on the odd side.

“You have a suspicious mind, Hermione.” If he meant to sound disapproving, his eyes shouldn’t have gleamed. Hermione snorted.

“No, I’m just less subtle than you.”

“On that note, have you seen this morning’s Prophet?” There was that restrained humour in his voice.

“I was preparing for Advanced Care for Magical Creatures, so no. Why?”

It was a class on the care and handling of Hippogriffs, and Professor Kettleburn was far stricter on checking the level of student’s knowledge and preparedness before even beginning to allow access to the creatures. It was completely appropriate for an advanced class. It wasn’t surprising that not many students took it. On the other hand, it caused her to muse whether Hagrid was inspired by Professor Kettleburn’s class but was underestimating the dangers when he made his own curriculum—for one, not everyone had the instinctive understanding for the mind of other species like he did.

“Ah, well. You’ll have something to look forward to now.” Tom said.

Hermione couldn’t help sending him suspicious looks, but she had a feeling it was only feeding his secret enjoyment.

‘-

“And here’s our heroine of the day!”

Lakshmi said this when she saw Hermione arriving. Lucretia also happened to be there today and smiling. Eugenie wasn’t present, but Hermione didn’t blame her for still needing to coordinate things with other French wizards and witches.

“Hi Lakshmi, Lucretia.” Hermione was staring at her friend in bafflement. “And what are you saying?”

Lakshmi turned to Lucretia with a large smile on her face. “Oh, this is priceless. She didn’t know.”

“Oh dear, I suppose that would make my congratulations to be premature, wouldn’t it?” Lucretia said. Hermione could see the gazes of various people around their part of the Ravenclaw table turning in their direction, either subtly or overtly. She decided that she might as well just take a seat while she figured out the news.

“Alright, what did I miss?” The brunette asked.

“I think it would be easier if you just read this first.”

Just like she did yesterday, Lakshmi passed Hermione her copy of the Daily Prophet.

Madam Álava Finds a Diamond in the Rough?”

The wizarding community has suffered a painful blow recently with Grindelwald’s attack on the Ministry, along with his simultaneous attacks to several important residences and offices. The scale of the attacks is unprecedented, and his methods are as brutal as they are crude…

Hermione skipped two paragraphs that covered the grounds of Grindelwald’s attacks, perhaps it was there for anyone who had been living under a rock recently and hadn’t heard of the news. She just wanted to know what was going on.

But we are not without hope. A time of great trials is also the best time for us all to come together and show the spirit of our community. As the news break in the morning, recent victim of Grindelwald attack, one Miss Hermione Curie, rose to the challenge. Her recent transfer to Hogwarts was due to her recently losing her parents in Norway, dead to the depredations of Grindelwald-affiliated forces there. In the wake of the Ministry Massacre, Miss Curie was determined that her painful knowledge on wounds made from muggle weapons will need to be spread far and wide to save lives.

On that same morning, she made her way to St. Mungo’s accompanied with Madam Edelstein, the Head Nurse at Hogwarts’ Infirmary. Supporting her is the Grand Duenna of Nursing, Esmeralda Álava and Healer Orpington. Madam Álava had checked the knowledge of the healers on the ground of the disaster and had declared that most of them ‘were a crock of shite’—

Hermione couldn’t help her burst of laughter, thankful that she hadn’t been drinking anything. Yes, it sounded exactly like what Madam Álava would say—she just didn’t think the Prophet would publish it verbatim.

Healer Orpington assures us that the current teaching standards are adequate to address the types of injuries generated. It is merely the weapons that were unfamiliar, and thus some wounds had not been expected. Madam Álava would like to say that the best healers and nurses she knew did not let ‘alien weapons’ stop them from assessing their wounded properly. Both agreed that Miss Curie knew what she was talking about, and she made very good points of how first aid procedures for such wounds could be improved.

Our reporter visited St. Mungo’s to talk with the trainee healers and novice nurses that had been pulled into Miss Curie’s impromptu class. ‘She’s pretty intimidating, actually’ one of the healers interviewed admitted. ‘You wouldn’t expect it from a petite witch like her, and one so young too, but she gets fired up about all the damages the exploding sticks could inflict. I think it’s because she’s gone through it herself’. Another nurse agreed that she was ‘straightforward in class, cuts right to the meat of the issue.’ She also said that she was ‘very informative and didn’t sugar-coat anything.’

Trainee healer Coombs went on the record to say that he understood her level of drive. ‘it comes around when your patients have died on you. You wish to do your best not to experience that again.’ But is that enough to move most people to teach four consecutive classes in a single day? Because that is indeed what Miss Curie had done. St. Mungo’s assures us that the changes suggested by Madam Álava and Healer Orpington have been implemented—”

Hermione skipped the paragraph going on about St. Mungo’s bureaucracy quickly dancing to the tune of public scrutiny. Her brows were furrowed as she wasn’t quite clear why there were many mentions of her at the beginning. Sure, she taught four sessions, but she taught one class out of the three that was there, and that was the novice one. Nurse Edelstein taught it with her and there was no mention of that! She skimmed most of the rest and just went with the one at the end.

Other healers have reluctantly admitted that Miss Curie indeed knew something, as her last tour of St. Mungo’s beside Madam Álava has the senior nurse standing aside and asking her to diagnose several of the patients wounded from the Ministry fracas. After chatting with them, Hermione Curie, correctly identified their major ailments. It has to be kept in mind that she is not even a trainee healer or novice nurse. Her wealth of knowledge, it would seem, was owed by her tragic background.

It would seem that the Order of Nightingale has a new star in their horizon. We all wait with bated breath what kind of progress she can help usher in the future.

Hermione slapped the paper down. “Oh, that is just—”

“Magnificent?” Lakshmi asked with a grin on her face.

“Congratulations on your achievement, Hermione. We’re all glad to have your help.” Lucretia said from across the table. She was the very picture of lady.

“Thank you, Lucretia. It’s just…Madam Edelstein wasn’t even mentioned much! And she was there, supporting me all the way.” Hermione tried to stop herself from gritting her teeth. “This is bollocks.”

Lucretia coughed and the brunette sheepishly looked up. “Pardon my language.”

“Well, it’s spun to be your story, so I’m not surprised that she wasn’t in there.” Lakshmi said.

“What’s the Order of Nightingale, anyway?”

“It’s an order of nurses, mainly, though many frontline healers are also accorded the honour of also being inducted into the order.” Lucretia explained.

“You’re probably one of the few non-nurse and non-healer to have gotten in.”

Hermione blinked uncertainly. “I’m in?”

It was Lakshmi’s turn to curse and get a throat-clearing reminder from Lucretia. “Oh, goodness, girl. Did you actually read the article? You know, the bit about the ‘infinite care for the wounded’ and the ‘sense of responsibility to the community’? Well, there’s also the more boring comment of Madam Álava’s of ‘she has a good head on her shoulders and she uses it’. That one doesn’t even sound special at all.”

It was Madam Álava’s brisk assessment that brought a smile to Hermione’s face, though.

“Um, so, what do I do with it? Do I have to put in hours to St. Mungo’s? But my class schedule is already over-full” The brunette said.

Her two dormmates were staring at her as if she’d grown a second head. Actually, in the case of Lakshmi, she might even be less impressed by a second head. Two dark-haired witches conferred in silent looks with each other before they turned to Hermione again.

“You bask in it of course, you berk. You’re still in Hogwarts. They can’t exactly expect much out of you, can they?” The fifth-year witch answered.

“You might want to answer any healing-related questions our House mates might have?” Lucretia said.

Lakshmi reacted to that by saying that those idiots can certainly open a book on their own for the level of inane questions they were going to ask. Hermione sighed and ran a hand through her hair. It got stuck half way and she pulled her fingers out.

“It’s just…I’ve read the article, alright, but I still don’t understand what it all means.” 

“Why don’t you ask Riddle?” Her friend asked from next to her. Lucretia was calmly drinking her glass of water.

“What does Tom have to do with it?”

Lakshmi snorted. “Please, darling, it’s harder to find what Riddle doesn’t have to do with in Hogwarts.”

The dark-haired witch raised a hand with finely painted nails, waving away her look of disbelief.

“He has increasing pull outside Hogwarts too--I’ve seen that the Ministry Swots are sticking to him like leeches recently, looking so serious you might’ve mistaken them for the war committee. Look, I’ve said that Riddle has his web of influence, right? Then let me tell you, there’s not a lot of people that can pull off a slanted piece like this on the Prophet—as far as I know, most of them don’t know you yet and I know Lucretia didn’t do it.”

Her amber gaze was sharp and bright, and Hermione was once more aware that for all of Lakshmi Chakravarty’s comments that she was a recent transplant to England, she still came from an old family (“the Chakravartys are still among the Four-Fold Families in the Indian Empire, dear”). She was used to their political games.

“I wasn’t even aware of what you were doing yesterday,” Lucretia admitted.

“Oh.”

“Yes. Lakshmi told me about you going to St. Mungo’s, but I thought it was for a check-up until I read today’s news. We’ve never really been prepared against muggle weapons, do we? And we pay for that lack of knowledge in the most painful ways. If we can help with that, no matter how small, I believe it would make a difference.”

Across the table, the Black witch was thoughtful. Her dark eyes found Hermione’s easily.

“If I had known, I wouldn’t mind helping you with such an article, though of course it might have a slightly different approach—subtler, certainly, and with related news spread out over several days. Different styles, I suppose.”

Hermione could find no words to say. She’d known that her friends were from well-known families (and Lucretia was the closest thing to a lady in the wizarding world), but she didn’t know the extent of their influence.

The old families, it would seem, play the game at a different level than she was used to.

‘-

Hermione might not know exactly how the web of patronage and alliances occurred in Hogwarts right now, she was quite aware that Tom was at the centre of several.

She had merely thought of passing the Slytherin table and telling him that she was going ahead first to Advanced Arithmancy if he was still occupied. Tom noticed the moment she was walking towards him. She saw him sitting with two seventh-year Slytherin prefects across him, with a rather bored-looking forefather of Draco Malfoy and a watchful Slytherin with dark hair that nonetheless seemed familiar sitting to Tom’s either side.

“Hermione, how good of you to join us,” Tom greeted.

Her eyebrows rose. That meant he had something to show her. She was curious enough to wish to see what it was rather than just snubbing him.

Melchior Nott (she had just recalled his name as she’d seen him in one of her classes), moved farther to the left, creating a space between him and Tom. Hermione didn’t think much about sitting right there.

“I was about to leave for Advanced Arithmancy class, actually, but I can stay for a while.”

Hermione could see the people around him observing her curiously. “Let’s start with the introductions, then. Everyone, this is Hermione Curie. She has recently been transferred into Hogwarts as a fifth year and Sorted into Ravenclaw. Hermione, the one to your left is Melchior Nott,”

Nott nodded to her and she nodded back. He gestured to the wizard next to him, who had to lean forward to see her.

“This is Abraxas Malfoy—”

She gave him a slightly weird smile because for all his stronger jawline and bones, the expressiveness of his face was pure Draco. It was odd seeing someone so familiar and also not at the same time.

“—and the two seventh-year prefects in front of you are Oswin Orpington and Emma Eccleston.”

A calm, brown-haired wizard and a witch with glasses and ruler-straight posture nodded to her, looking for all the world like a clerk and a librarian. Some more basics small talk beyond the initial introduction were dealt with. Both Slytherin fifth-years took Advanced Potions with Tom, which would explain their highly curious glances and Hermione’s rising embarrassment as she tried to forget Slughorn’s exuberance on Monday. Nott did say that he was in Advanced Charms, while Malfoy was in Advanced Transfigurations. Both were also in Advanced DADA, so she supposed she’ll see them there.

Oswin Orpington confirmed why his name had seemed familiar; his uncle was a healer in St. Mungo’s. Hermione’s eyes widened with recognition and she said she thought she could see the similarities in their eyes.

When that was done, Tom launched into an explanation of how comments had been flooding into the Wizarding Wireless about the sense of insecurity the public was feeling after Grindelwald’s attacks. They wanted the government to do something. Alas, the government was not as nimble or prepared, and disgruntlement was rising.

“Orpington and Eccleston may have a few ideas on that.” Tom said.

“Actually, it’s not as if there was nothing. There’d been talks about the development of a stronger notice-me-not ward to distract muggles.” Orpington said.

“But it’s not going to work on Imperius’d muggles,” Hermione said.

“Well, fortunately, most people are not aware of that,” Emma Eccleston’s diction was precise, her tone cool. Many people mistake it for distaste, though Hermione had heard echoes of her own speaking style that she didn’t.

“So, is this an effort to find a real solution, or are we just going through some political theatre here?” Hermione asked. She could see Nott’s eyes widening at her blunt question, but Emma seemed to appreciate her direct tack.

“Preferably a real solution; it’s why we’re here in the first place, after all. Yet before that happens, anything that can distract the public and stop them from panicking would still be useful.” The seventh-year answered.

“Hence why the stronger notice-me-not charm is still useful to announce.”

Emma nodded. “Precisely.”

“Well, people would like to see more Aurors around, but the Aurors do have real jobs to do instead of just hanging around to appease the frightened public,” Oswin muttered as his gaze returned to his parchment. Hermione saw then that the plates of food had been mostly taken away from their area—almost everyone around Tom had their own set of parchments or scrolls.

Hermione’s eyes drifted towards the ceiling. The non-magical world was in the middle of WWII right now, albeit already past the worst of it (The Battle of Britain was over and decisively won by the Brits). The sense of impending danger that they were feeling were probably even more than what the wizarding world felt, but they still managed. On the other hand, as her grandparents had proudly told her, the Londoners had been well-trained about what to do if they hear the air-raid siren sounding. They knew where the nearest shelters are as well, knew what to do with there were no shelters nearby and well, life goes on…

“Make some drills,” Hermione spoke up.

“I’m sorry?” Melchior asked. She turned to him.

“Civilian drills. You know, what to do in case of emergency, where to go and who to find? Get the Aurors to do their own field test with the muggle weapons they have, figure out what can get through it and can’t.”

“No one can use those things,” Oswin suddenly interrupted, before he blushed.

“Well, I hear that Minister Spencer-Moon had a good relationship with the Prime Minister, right?”

She waited and got several reluctant nods around the table; Tom’s was more matter-of-fact than anything else.

“Then I’m sure he wouldn’t have any problem asking to get some of his men trained in muggle weapons.” Hermione said, conveniently not commenting on the expressions of discomfort that passed on the face of more than one person. Fact of the matter was, they were trounced by muggle weapons and they needed to deal with it. Well, they wanted a solution, right? She didn’t guarantee it wasn’t going to hurt their pride and feelings.

“Though if you want an overview of what can stop the average bullets, well walls do. Always keeping at least one wall between yourself and someone with muggle weaponry is a good idea, though not getting spotted in the first place is even better. A cheap plaster wall is as useless as a shirt, though. Once the Aurors can determine the best strategy for surviving attackers with muggle weapons for civilians, they can then turn that into a drill. After that, you start gathering people. Practice it.”

She snapped her fingers. “Oh! I remember that a thick layer of water also robs bullets of its kinetic energy, so hiding inside a pond with a bubblehead charm is actually a good place to hide—unless you’re facing the highly improbable enemy of someone with a stock of waterproof explosives.”

Hermione could see the morbid curiosity in Nott’s grey eyes.

“What happens then?”

“You get flattened by the explosion’s energy carried by the water. You see, where air dissipates the energy of an explosion easily, water, with all its mass, transfers the energy easily. It can crush you. I mean, have you seen what the water pressure at 100 kilometres under the sea is like? Human bones become sponge.” Hermione explained with excitement. That was when she realised what she was doing and shook her head.

“Oh, I’m rambling again. Tom! You’re supposed to stop me when I’m rambling.”

She casually elbowed him. He chuckled. Now everyone was staring at Tom as if the two of them had started a Punch and Judy skit of bashing each other over the head. The seventh-years were almost frozen mid-movement (Oswin looked terrified), Nott had just choked on his food—and was Abraxas gaping?

“You were being informative, Hermione. I thought it would be most useful for them to listen to what you have to say.” Tom said.

Tom casually tapped Malfoy’s chin and the other Slytherin almost jumped out of his seat as he hurriedly closed it.

“Alright. To get back on topic, a drill is also useful because once you’ve started drilling some basic movements, it becomes an ingrained reflex in the advent of an emergency. Panic doesn’t have time to set in and you’d save more people that way when they already know what to do instead of, oh, I don’t know, stampeding to the only exit and blocking it because of that.”

Oswin was making notes and it was rather gratifying to see. Emma seemed to have questions from the way she was frowning. She just seemed to be unable to find a way to word it the way she wanted yet, so she still kept quiet.

“It’s useful. We can certainly add it to the list of useful programs in response to the attacks that the government can do,” Emma finally said.

“Which is currently set at zero,” Oswin murmured under his breath. Emma was still focused.

“But we still need at least one that’s slightly higher-profile. We need something that can be a beacon of hope.”

Hermione’s brows creased.

“What are we planning for, again?”

“Something to rally the people behind a purpose, Hermione,” Tom clarified.

She glanced at him from the side without hiding her curiosity. “Why do I feel like your most preferred action is a direct strike at Grindelwald’s sympathisers?”

This time, it was Melchior and Abraxas whose movements faltered for a moment before they resumed. She wasn’t blind—she was quite aware that they were the core around which the later Death Eaters would form. They were young men already dreaming of glory, and they intend to seize it with their own bare hands. Their imagined path was almost operatic in its grandeur and simplicity.

The Knights of Walpurgis, she managed to recall from the depths of her memory, that was what they’d been called, right?

“Well, that would not be without its risks, would it?” He said, eyeing her in return.

“But it is admittedly the most public-relations friendly. Everyone can grasp what it means when they hear it,” Hermione said, playing devil’s advocate to herself. She sighed.

“But you’re right. I don’t like the risks—” like the obliteration of Tom Riddle into the Dark Lord Voldemort, she thought to herself, “—I suppose I’ll try to think up of alternatives.”

Hermione’s gaze had begun to wander to the rest of the Great Hall.

“Would you still be taking your time, Tom? Because I think I’d rather not risk being late and just go to Arithmancy class right now.”

“Actually, I think I’d be leaving with you too. Well, that’s it ladies and gentlemen. We’ll continue this later.” Tom said.

Hermione was surprised that all he’d had to do was stand—she didn’t think she saw him tidying up his belongings at all. Farewells were exchanged as well as some final small talk (apparently, they were the only ones taking Advanced Arithmancy—Eccleston did, but she was in seventh year that the class she was taking was Advanced Arithmancy II as she’d taken the other class last year).

Tom barely needed to lift his hand far before she took it, the movement coming easier to her as she spent more days in the past as he slipped her arm in his once more.

'-

“You had something else to say,” Tom said, apropos of nothing.

He was taking her through the smaller corridors, the back ways and old servant ways once more and she didn’t mind. It was always more convenient for their talks of questionable topics if no one else were to overhear them. It was just so easy to be misunderstood.

“It’s something that’s probably controversial, that was why I was holding back.” She said.

“Alright. Go ahead, then.”

“I was wondering of joining the efforts of the muggle war,” Hermione mused out loud. Tom’s reply was perfectly amiable, as if she was just considering a new restaurant they might like to visit.

“You’re right, that won’t be popular at all.”

“But we won’t even be starting it—it’s already underway, for one. Grindelwald brought the muggle war in into our world, muggle weaponry and all. Why can’t we fight back his and his catspaw? Because if there’s one thing that would guarantee a sharp reduction in his forces is if Nazi Germany falls. There’d be no one to supply him soldiers to be Imperius’d.”

“Don’t you think your native antipathies are colouring your perspective?”

Hermione frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Your parents, your friends and the people you know. They were in Norway, were they not? The members of the British wizarding circle of Kopervik. And yet you’re here alone…”

She drew a sharp gasp of breath. Tom might’ve said Norway, but she interpreted it in her mind as Lost Future.

“…and it’s easily Grindelwald’s fault, perhaps Nazi Germany as well. Your wish for their destruction is entirely natural.” He finished.

Well, her wish for Grindelwald’s destruction was basically because he was an arse of a dark lord and she made it a habit of taking them down where she found them. There were no two ways about it. But she couldn’t say that she had no memories of anyone from Norway to Tom. They walked in a silence that was not uncomfortable.

“If there was a way for the wizarding world to join in a way that our primary actions and purpose would always be in taking Grindelwald down instead of having to assist our muggle counterparts by providing them magical assistance, it may have a better chance of succeeding.” He finally said.

Hermione sighed. Right. Like that was going to happen.

Another minute had passed before something occurred to Hermione as her brown eyes widened.

Information! We can begin with information exchanges, Tom.”

“Why information?”

“Grindelwald working with his muggle catspaw must be breaking all levels of the Statute of Secrecy, right? But no one can touch him when he’s surrounded by his own magical fighters as well as muggle soldiers. If he or his wizards (or witches) gave some sort of concealment charm to groups of muggle troops, then his troops would have an advantage compared to the non-magical UK forces.”

“Which is an obvious transgression against the Statute of Secrecy,” Tom said quickly, picking up the direction of Hermione’s thoughts.

“So, we’re only putting things to rights when our Aurors find his location. It also wouldn’t be completely strange if they get attached to non-magical forces to dispel the spells—because the muggles are useful to protect them against Grindelwald’s muggles.” Hermione spoke faster.

“We can also say that we’re getting the muggles to fight Grindelwald and his muggle catspaw for us, to improve our odds facing him, and all that the Aurors sent to the field are doing is reversing all his actions to advantage his muggle army that breaks the Statute of Secrecy.”  Tom added. His voice was still even but she knew that like her, he was also walking faster as ideas spark one after another in his mind.

Turnabout is fair play.” Hermione said with relish.

“It’s a direct action against Grindelwald and something Minister Spencer-Moon cannot argue against, given that he’s been in such good company with Winston Churchill. I’m sure the Prime Minister would only be too happy to try out the idea.” Tom finished.

She turned to him in surprise. “So, you do know the name of our Prime Minister.”

It was clear that he was holding back from rolling his eyes. Barely. She considered it an achievement that she had chipped that layer of perfect prefect away today.

“I’m not a blind idiot, Hermione.”

“Well, I might be fooled by that sometimes,” she said glibly, ignoring his cool stare. “Anyway, I think I have an idea to keep the wizarding world’s position to be still somewhat neutral as well. Say that we’re helping enforce the Statute of Secrecy against Grindelwald’s transgressions. If Grindelwald stops using muggle catspaw or allies, the wizarding world will also immediately stop assisting the muggle world. See? We have a clear limit to hold to. I’m sure everyone would love that.”

Tom was nodding slowly at that. “Then it becomes a strictly wizarding war once more.”

“Precisely. So, do we bring this idea to the DMLE, or the Minister, or what?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. We need to find a way to ensure we’ll be listened to. Even more importantly, we need to ensure that we’ll get full credit for it and enough public acknowledgement. Otherwise we’ll simply be someone else’s stepping stone.”

Hermione sighed. “Right. Politics. I keep forgetting that.”

'-

Chapter Text

20 Arithmancy, DADA and Risk-taking

The current Arithmancy teacher was one of the French expatriates in Hogwarts, one Professor Adele Lagrange. Her robes were colourful, lively, and the click of her high heels were clear as she walked with confidence to the front of the class. Blonde, stylish and beautiful, Hermione began to question the motivations of half the boys taking the class. She was hoping that none of them were going to drag down the quality of the class’ discussions just because they took something that above their ability level.

Professor Lagrange did gaze at Hermione for about a few seconds with interest, but she easily moved on and start the class. Hermione was still annoyed that she and Tom ended up on the second row because certain male students had arrived rather early and filled the first row of seats.

“In our last meeting, we ‘ave started talking about arithmantic arrays. Traditional numerology is all well and good if the subject of your calculation is only one event, one chance. It can also still be relied upon for the broad-brush of an individual’s well-being or general arc of life, even if the result is usually too wide and rarely of any practical use.”

Adele Lagrange had a slight French accent (e.g., her r’s are rather closer to French r’s than English, words beginning with th- shifts close to z’s), but even with that, her words were very clear. Hermione found herself nodding along the explanation easily. This was all rather basic and she’d already known them. Still, it was nice to hear that the professor wasn’t lax in covering the grounds.

“When we consider more factors that can affect an event or a person, we increase the accuracy of our prediction. Of course, at the same time, the more factors are involved, the more they can affect each other, creating their own complications. It would be most accurate to determine the direction of influence between these factors and the strengths of such influence, but alas the world is not always as convenient as we wish it to be. If that cannot be, it is almost as useful to at least calculate the degree with which they correlate and covary.”

With a flourish, she revealed the previously-hidden blackboard. On it were two squares, one already filled with numbers and the other empty.

Ah, matrices, Hermione thought with familiar fondness as the professor’s words wash over her. She found getting back to the basics to be rather relaxing.

Arithmancy was one of the foundations of charting the flow of history and time, after all. Arithmantic matrices were the first step in that direction, what with all the events and people she had to keep track of. Yet even then, it was still a crude tool—it was a stone axe in her toolbox compared to the cutting laser of using phase space. Entering factors into the matrices can only work with so many variables before the correlations and covariances increase exponentially and bogged everything down (10 factors already need, what, 45 of the correlations? Yes, it just gets painful to use with large number of factors).

There was no doubt that if one were to go large scale, then one must move on to using phase space, but she truly did not mind going through some of the basics again. She didn’t want to lose her touch, after all. A restrained cough from Tom’s direction made her turn. (Coming from Tom, that was the equivalent of an outright scoff or sneer).

Just beneath his calm surface, she could see polite contempt.

Hermione followed the direction of his attention to the front row boys. A good chunk of them paled at the sight of the matrices—sorry, arithmantic arrays—and more than half of them had the glazed look of the ignorant and overwhelmed. This time, it was her turn to groan. And here I was hoping that this class would run smoothly…

She had been a little too loud, though, and Professor Lagrange’s attention snapped to her.

“Miss Curie, was there anything you wish to say?”

Fortunately, she was good at finding answers for teachers on the spot.

“I was checking the arrays, Professor. We know that we need to consider the relationships between each predictive factor as well as the main object we want to calculate predictions for. But this web of relationships is going to get too dense as the number of factors rise.”

She took a deep breath and tried to go through her thoughts on this topic slowly, for the benefit of the rest of the class. If she was going to monopolise the attention for a few moments, the least she could do was help nudge the general comprehension along. She was years beyond the class, after all, it was the good thing to do.

“If we have 1 main object and 1 supporting factor, we only need to calculate 1 relationship between those two objects—that generates 1 correlation.”

“If we have 1 main object and 2 supporting factors, we need to calculate 3 relationships between the 3 variables—we get 3 correlations.”

“If we have 1 main object and 3 supporting factors, we now need to calculate for 6 relationships between the 4 variables. So, that’s 6 correlations.”

“Now, what happens when we have one main object and, say, nine factors? It’s still not that large a number when we consider the complexity of the real world. But even these 10 variables already had a whopping 45 pair-relationships between all of them. That’s 45 correlations to consider on top of the 10 primary variables. It’s significantly more than the primary 10, isn’t it?” Hermione spoke the words and the numbers slowly, making sure that the consequences hit all the students present.

Hermione shook her head. “If you’re even serious about making arithmantic predictions that cover a larger group, the matrices, um, arithmantic arrays are still rather unwieldy.”

At one point, you just get tired of using that stone axe, Hermione thought. Professor Lagrange paused for a moment before a smile slowly spread over her face.

“You ‘ave a very good point, Miss Curie. Yes, once one is prepared to leap into large-scale arithmancy, then arithmantic arrays become troublesome to use. But that is beyond what most would consider in this class, non?”

The sighs of relief that went around the room was certainly not faked. Hermione only shrugged helplessly at the teacher’s inquiring glance; it was probably a silent question about why she even brought up a concern that would be beyond the needs of most students. Look, she had been working on charting history and the flow of time before this and suddenly she had to come up with something related to the advanced arithmancy class in two seconds. it was harder for her to remember quickly the more basic issues involved here than the more esoteric ones that she’d faced.

Professor Lagrange turned to Tom with a sly smile on her face.

“Mr. Riddle, it looks like you ‘ave a strong competitor for the top of the class.”

His voice was calm and collected as usual. His words, however, were not. “I find the competition exciting, Professor. Nothing sharpens your mind quite like the challenges of another intellect.”

A quite murmur spread around the class, the words to which she couldn’t quite catch.

The teacher turned back to Hermione. “Ah, the gauntlet ‘as been thrown, Miss Curie! Will you back down or will you accept it?”

Professor Lagrange was stoking the competitive fires on purpose—exactly why, Hermione had no idea. Pragmatically, she might just be trying to wake up the few dozing or wool-gathering students at the back to sit up and pay attention.

“Well, Professor, I find that if you give an inch to Tom Riddle, he’ll walk all over you. So, I really must insist on taking my victories. It’s the only way to keep his respect.” Hermione kept her smile innocent and nice. She didn’t miss the flash of amused smirk she saw from him at the corner of her eyes.

She ignored any outraged gasps of Tom’s admirers as she did what they might consider as blaspheming his character when she was only speaking the plain truth. On the other hand, that might be why that Slytherin sixth-year at her far right had just paled. Tom turned to her with what she recognised as mock surprise but others probably see as mild bafflement.

“You have no need to win anything for me, Miss Curie.” To other witches, it might sound charming, as if he’d win things for them. Not to Hermione.

“And what, I should just let you win? You really don’t like losing, do you, Mr. Riddle?” She replied sweetly.

Adele Lagrange chuckled. It was a rich and enchanting sound.

“Well, this class might be interesting after all. I look forward to your final projects, Curie, Riddle.”

Tom nodded in acknowledgement while Hermione’s smile and nod was certainly friendlier.

'-

Galatea Merrythought, the Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts, was not a stranger to Hermione.

She was a witch with a thick mane of silver hair that fell to her shoulders. If not for her distinctive hair, it was hard to estimate her age as she had one of those ageless faces. The fact that her posture was still straight and that she could outfight most people half her age was another. Hermione’s familiarity with her, however, came from conversing with the witch as she accompanied Hermione on a trip to get her school uniform and related supplies before she was discharged from the infirmary.

The professor even recommended the shoe store that supplied her favourite boots to Hermione—she bought one with extra grip, the strongest short of hiking boots with spikes. Hermione had bid her mary-janes goodbye with relish.

“Hermione, Tom, take any position as you wish.” Professor Merrythought greeted them.

Another characteristic of Galatea was that she did not stand on ceremony and tended to use first names rather than last.

“Um, Professor?” Hermione asked as they entered the class.

She was sure they had arrived before the it was due to start. A quick search around the room confirmed that as there were only a few students already present, and Hermione knew that Advanced DADA was one of the few advanced classes that were filled well. The tables and chairs had all been pushed to the sides. The class was the size of a normal class most of the time, but Professor Merrythought always brought down the partition at the back with two other classes when it came to practise time.

Professor Merrythought continued. “If you’ve read the previous class notes that I’m sure Tom passed to you, we’ve gone over good and bad habits in duels and fights—and making sure that you’ve begun ingraining the good habits from now. Tarantallegra!

Hermione’s shield was wordlessly up with the flick of her wand (she could cast Protego half-asleep), her expression was still mildly perplexed. When she took her shield down, she saw another layer flickering away; to her right, Tom also had his wand out. The prickling of magic build-up she could feel from his side, though, was buzzing with something darker until he flicked his wand out and dissipated the uncast spell.

Their DADA professor smiled at them both as Hermione and Tom slowly made their way into the room.

“Excellent reflexes both of you! Not to mention that was some exemplary silent casting of the Shield Charm. Five points each to Ravenclaw and Slytherin.”

“What is this about, Professor?”

“Why, I want to see whether all those lessons have stuck, of course. What better way than field test that?” Some of the newly-entering students slowed down in doubt. The sharper ones like Abraxas and Melchior have taken their wand out. The two Slytherins nodded their greetings to Tom, and then surprisingly to Hermione, to herself. She nodded back, slightly confused.

“Are we to duel in pairs, then?” Tom asked.

“That is the general idea, yes.”

“Is it to be a duel or is it to be a fight, Professor?” Hermione asked.

To everyone’s surprise, the witch grinned, flashing them her teeth. “That is a very good question most wouldn’t even consider. Have another five points to Ravenclaw, Hermione.”

Merrythought turned her attention around the class, watching the students milling around.

“Does any of you have any idea? Ethel? No? Well, let’s see…Augusta, how about you?”

Augusta was a Gryffindor witch who was built like a Spanish galleon—all grand curves and made for war. She was also at least half a head taller than Hermione. There was something familiar about her in the lines of her face. Hermione inwardly shook her head. Never mind. It’ll come to me later.

“A duel is a formal activity. There are rules and there are protocols. A fight is…” Augusta’s smile was far from friendly, and two of the boys closest to her took a step back without even thinking about it. “In a fight, anything goes.”

“Good. Five points to Gryffindor. Yes, you’ve illustrated the general principle well.”

Three more Slytherins that Hermione didn’t quite recognise have also trickled in. They also greeted Tom before greeting her. She greeted them out of reflex and good manners ingrained in her, but it was still…weird.

Merrythought spoke up. “Since I’m still not certain about how well you’ve internalised your lessons, we’ll start with the easier of the two. You’ll split off in pairs to duel. Yes, Hermione?”

“Can I talk to you for a moment, Professor? Privately?”

Curious gazes strayed in her direction. The professor approached her without a doubt. She gave a quick glance to Tom, but Hermione shrugged. “He’ll figure it out himself sooner or later, Professor. It’s fine. It’s about duelling. I can’t duel.”

“Nonsense! Your reflexes are excellent, and based on your Charms and DADA records, I have no doubt that you have a wealth of spells on your fingertips.”

Hermione shook her head. “I mean, I can’t be allowed to duel. I can fight, and I’m used to fighting for my life in various fields, but in the highly-structured and supposedly safe duel? It only takes a flash of the wrong spell or something to take me off guard for my combat reflexes to kick in. The next thing you know, I’ve moved on to cutting spells, blasting spells, the Reductor Curse and all the works, Professor.”

Professor Merrythought seemed thoughtful as she regarded Hermione carefully. Hermione’s jaw tightened for a moment, but she didn’t back down. She knew this about herself and felt the truth deep in her bones—her reflexes fired too fast sometimes, too deadly. She had begun to believe that she’d forgotten some terrible times at the tail end of her last life before she was suddenly thrown into the past.

“Hermione did warn me not to cast any spell on her without her awareness because she can’t guarantee that she won’t overreact.”

The silver-haired witch turned to him “What spell did you cast, Tom?”

“Rejuvenating Charm, Professor. She was looking pale and she’d just been released from the infirmary. I judged it to be better safe than sorry.”

Galatea Merrythought sighed, eyeing the brunette. “I’m sorry that you have some form of shell shock, Hermione, but you cannot enter my class and not participate in duels.”

“I know. I just don’t want to risk it.” The young witch was dejected. She felt just as depressed as the professor was disappointed.

“Hermione doesn’t have to duel anyone else. She can fight me.”

Both witches turned to Tom—Hermione in surprise and the professor in a contemplative mood.

“How about a friendly fight, Hermione?”

Hermione shook her head.

“But I—”

“I’ve said it before, haven’t I? If you can kill me so easily, then the fault is entirely mine.” His smile was less of the nice, assuring prefect and more of the unsettling smirk with darkness lurking at its edges. It brought Hermione to a pause because she’d rarely seen it in public—she’d rarely seen the real Tom in public.

Professor Merrythought laughed, thinking it was all a good joke on Tom’s part.

“Well, I have to assure you, Hermione, Tom here is very good. I think he's right and that you don’t need to worry about him.”

“Can I go last, Professor? Preferably with no one to get in the way?” Hermione asked.

Professor Merrythought’s lips quirked at the edges. “That confident, are you?”

“It’s more of a precaution than anything.” Hermione corrected.

“Since I’ve never seen you fight or duel before, fine, I’ll allow you the entire field this once. Mind you, if I feel your abilities are still easily contained, you’ll duel or fight along with all others like everyone else, Hermione.”

The brunette witch couldn’t help but smile. “If you can contain my possible excesses, Professor, I wouldn’t mind duelling anyone.”

The professor drifted away after that, arranging and rearranging everyone else around the class in pairs as Hermione and Tom stood aside and getting the occasional odd look sent their way as everyone else got ready.

“We’ll be in trouble if you can’t refrain from using so-called dark spells,” Tom started conversationally.

She shook her head. “I don’t like the really gory curses. If I accidentally use one or two spells that are categorised as dark, it’s generally only because I picked it up out of an old tome somewhere and had high damage and as such gave the Ministry the willies. But I don’t think it’s something you can’t block or avoid, or anything so nasty that I can’t heal it.”

He eyed her curiously. “You’re admitting that you know dark spells?”

She huffed. “And what, like you don’t know a good handful of them? I know that you know. You know that I know. Let’s stop the ridiculous pussyfooting around and call a spade what it is. I’ve always been careful to only use spells that can be healed—I don’t actually want to cripple, maim or kill people. Then, we both know that the Ministry can be biased against some ancient magics.”

“Mmm, right. Like blood magic.”

“Which we will not talk about right now because we’re in class,” Hermione cut in. “But yes, it’s ridiculous to ban some protective magics because of their source when they don’t harm anyone and allow others of very similar purpose. Now, I think you’re not idiotic enough to start fight with any of the highly corrosive dark curses that can easily be detected and hard to cure, and I think that you know that I’ll go after you with a vengeance if I ever found out that you used them against other people.”

They were both watching the duelling students with a clinical detachment. Abraxas had rather good reflexes, she saw. One of Tom’s Slytherins was more intent on dodging than attacking—he hadn’t cast nearly as much spell as he could, but she had to give him points for not being hit even once.

The left corner of his lips curled up slightly. “You’re not going to report me?”

Augusta flattened the Hufflepuff she was set against within the first few minutes and left in a disappointed stride. She was paired up again quickly with the slippery Slytherin from before by the professor. An olive-skinned Ravenclaw wizard that was vaguely familiar actually made good use of covers and even other duellers.

Hermione shrugged. “If I knew you’d get caught and charged for it, I would report you. If I know that nothing would stick? Well…”

If she had decided that he’d get his second chance, then it was her responsibility to ensure that he didn’t abuse it either.

“Ah, your old standby of vigilantism. I almost forgot.” He mused.

“It’s not—” Hermione had to draw a deep breath and tell herself to not get baited. Tom had a good point. She was not law enforcement here. She wasn’t even law enforcement in the auxiliary way that the Unspeakables still were. “I swear you’re giving me grey hairs.”

She felt something to her right and saw Tom had lifted a strand of brown curls at the end of his wand.

“No, I don’t think so.” He said lightly as he put them down again. She rolled her eyes.

“Right. Just as long as you know that I make a habit of fighting dark lords where I find them. This is regardless if the government is going to have the same idea or stick their heads in the sand in denial.” Good is about what you do, she thought. It’s something you keep up day by day. It’s something in your actions no matter how small and not just something you talk about.

“Courage is doing what’s right no matter how afraid or alone you are,” she murmured.

Surprisingly enough, Tom gave her a few moments of peace. He’d heard her and accorded her words respect whether or not he understood them. When he spoke up again, his words might seem casual, but she knew the weight of his intent in the thickness of the magic he’d unconsciously drawn around him.

“Your position is duly noted, Hermione.”

The duelling students began to fall one by one, the room clearing up. Hermione had stood up properly instead of leaning against the wall, memorising the dimension and details of the room, calculating them. She needed to make a quick estimate of the volume, after all. Hermione bounced slightly on the balls of her feet as she started to feel the pre-fight excitement build up.

“I know that I can heal anything from my usual bag of tricks. I assume that you can give me the same guarantee about your spells?” She asked.

He gave her a side-glance. “What if it’s something I know you’ll be able to heal?”

“You expect me to be in pain and still capable of healing myself?”

He waved it away as if it was a minor detail. “It’s just cuts that might go too deep if you don’t stop them in time. Searing burns, the usual.”

“And you can’t heal something that simple?” She asked, askance.

“I can. Yet it would be a little rough around the edges when compared to what you can do.”

She understood what he meant. He’d heard the extent of her expertise when she told him of her St. Mungo experience, after all, and had recalibrated his skills in relative position to hers accordingly. “So, you can do the primary healing in case it hits and I’ll take over the fine details if it’s not enough. Yes, that’s fine.”

“Very well. We are agreed, then.”

When Professor Merrythought called them over, Hermione was ready.

'-

Everyone was clearly outside the line of the Protego Maxima that Professor Merrythought had kindly provided for them. Hermione had taken the professor aside for a moment and ask her if anything left inside the barrier was destructible. The professor smiled and said yes. That was all Hermione needed.

Neither of them waited for any signal from the professor. Once Merrythought walked herself out of the bubble, they acted.

Tom started with a chain of a curse, jelly-legs jinx, and another curse. Hermione had her shield up without thought and leaped behind the closest pile of tables and cast her staple, Aguamenti Maxima. With her magical potential, it was a lot of water. There were exclamations of surprise as water in the volume of a small swimming pool was emptied inside the barrier. She shielded herself against the first blasting spell, the second shredded the pile of table next to her.

Hermione cast another two of her staple; Freeze and Evaporation. “Glacia! Vapora!

Glacia was cast several times at random on the floor, Vapora cast in the air. Her boots gripped the ground true as she kept moving, never to be found where the spells were hitting. Visibility became a problem for the next few moments and both of them stopped casting spells in order to avoid giving themselves away. She could hear the slight hiss of a snake or two on the ground and smiled.

The first snake she saw she simply sent a fireball in its direction.

She sent a messenger patronus so quickly it was mostly a shining white lump. A cutting curse, a burning whip and a strong gust of wind came towards her as Tom gave up on anonymity—her patronus would mark his general position sooner or later for her before it disappeared.

As the wind pushed the steam partly aside, she threw the stack of broken tables across to him and threw an extra fiery blasting curse in their general direction to set them on fire. The second layer of his double Protego didn’t hold, and she knew the rain of burning splinters did restrict his movements for a few moments. She took a double take when she realised he managed to conjure a third Protego layer in no time. Dammit.

Fortunately, a few moments were what she needed.

Hermione decided to pull her signature move. An invisible Bubble-Head Charm came over her head. She cast her personal modification of Aguamenti to generate a few puddles of bleach instead of water while she pulled herself into the mindset, the chemical understanding necessary for her next transfiguration. She threw three spells for five of Tom’s and deflected one—his last cutting curse was stronger than she’d thought and went through her Protego to slice her forearm.

She was getting too close, but she didn’t look away from him as she felt the warmth of blood blossoming over the lower part of her left sleeve.

Hermione vaporised the bleach. When she found the space between their exchange of spells, she silently cast her own spell to transfigure the remaining water and bleach vapour to isoflurane (also a personal spell of hers) and created her own version of a knock-out gas. 

She couldn’t afford to lose her focus as hexes and counter-hexes flew between them. The sting to the last wound told her that it wasn’t a plain vanilla cutting curse either as Tom upped the threat level of his curses and started dabbing in the darker ones. It was either acidic or had some gross rot in it.

She could deal with it later.

Even when he slipped once or twice on the floor, his casting precision and speed did not change. It was only a matter of time, though, and when Tom slipped the third time, it seemed that he noticed that his balance was failing. He stared at her through dark hair strewn with water, his eyes had the darkness of a wary predator sizing up a competitor about to take his prey.

“What did you do?”

Considering that both of them were casting silently most of the time, theoretically, they could chat. Even with side-stepping and dodging thrown in for good measure.

“I don’t know what you mean?” She said, trying innocence for size with wide guileless eyes. It fit very poorly with her smirk.

Tom snorted. “The steam. It’s not just air and water, is it?”

He ducked two more spells and sent back a bright, blue fireball. “I smelled the bleach, Hermione.”

She cursed, suspecting that her shield wouldn’t be able to handle it completely and went for cover. Well, it wasn’t as if he could dodge it at all, she reasoned to herself.

“Knock-out gas.” Hermione calmly said, content on making her every third spell a shield to deflect, even if it meant reducing the volume of spells she could send to attack. All she needed was to wait, after all. There were four metres between them now. “Give it up, Tom. You only have a few more minutes before you’re out cold and I win.”

He chuckled.

“I’ll take a chance with those few minutes.”

Unexpectedly, he closed the distance. Tom side-stepped a blasting hex, tanked a group of mini fireballs (a custom-modified Confringo) with a double layer of Protego before rolling forward. Hermione intensified her spells before she realised that she had to get away from him. Close quarters fighting was not her forte. Two metres. The realisation came a few seconds too late as he didn’t bother avoiding her flame whip to his upper left arm and had outright tackled her. She didn’t let go of the flame whip and pulled hard, recognising it as her last chance. Hermione could smell burning fabric beginning to mix with burning flesh as the whip tightened and burned. It must have hurt, but even through tightened jaw, Tom didn’t drop his wand and managed to jab it at her ribs instead.

That sharp dig made her lose control of the flame whip and it disappeared.

She held her wand against his throat, but his was still pointed at her side. She could cut him in half from the throat down and he could blast her torso open. Theoretically, they could both blow up each other at roughly the same time.

“Impasse, witch,” he declared, his voice low through exertion as he pressed down over her.

Wasn’t there some sort of rule about how people weren’t supposed to sound sexy when they were threatening you?

Hermione cursed. “Fine. Impasse. You do realise that that was suicidal, don’t you?”

It was only when he swayed as he stood up that Hermione hurriedly reversed her transfiguration. She forced the anaesthetic vapour back into liquid form, summoned an empty potion bottle from her own bag and then summoned the liquid into the bottle. She popped her invisible bubble-head charm and then dragged him to the nearest chair she could locate. He was in a worse shape than her—it was why she hadn’t been worried even when he had his wand against her ribcage.

From his faint grin, she knew he found all of it highly entertaining.

“You’re right, Hermione. I hate losing.”

She harrumphed in annoyance and folded her arms. “If I was someone else, you’d be dead. All the other spells I know at close-quarters are really damaging to the internal organs!”

He nodded. “I know. Yet the combat spells you used just now were mostly good for medium and long range. I saw that, and it was why I thought I’d move the fight to the range you’re weak at.”

Hermione stopped in surprise. His actions were not as reckless as it had seemed at first glance. He’d seen the weakness in her tactics and he found a way to position himself there. He’d be a frightening battlefield commander.

“That was still a rash move.”

“I gained an impasse from it, didn’t I?” His eyes were half-lidded.

She huffed and turned to the professor who was pulling the barrier down. Merrythought was excited. Hermione was just tired.

“We’re tied, Professor. Because apparently, Tom is a sore loser and would rather gamble everything in one last, impulsive shot than surrender. If it was an actual battle, I’d have killed him already with some truly deadly spells.”

The other students were staring at the amount of destruction, the smell of burnt flesh in the air and the dripping wet Hermione and Tom with varying expressions of shock. Some were turning pale or rather green.

“I’m beginning to see why you wish for containment. That was highly unorthodox, dear. Effective, I’ve no doubt, but highly unorthodox. With all your silent casting, I’m not sure I followed everything that happened, though. I think we should go over it together in my pensieve. But why all the water? And what is that smell?”

Hermione choose not to answer where the vague odour of public swimming pool came from. She had to do something with all the excess chlorine from the bleach. Isoflurane had needed more fluoride atoms than chlorine.

She cast Ventus instead to blow it away with a strong gust, as the classroom door was currently conveniently open (someone probably opened it when she started steaming the room).

“Hermione’s favourite class is transfigurations, Professor.” Tom answered the question from his seat instead. “It is apparently one of her best fields too. Once one realises that, it was not hard to figure out her preferred moves. The ice to affect the terrain, the steam to affect visibility…”

“Nice analysis, Tom. That lunge of yours was also very well-executed. In a fight, any move is valid if it helps you win.” Merrythought agreed.

“And now, I have to take his stubborn self to the infirmary.” Hermione finished.

“Is it the burn on Tom’s arm?” The older witch asked.

She sighed. “No, I can fix that easily with some time and effort. It’s just that I’ve transfigured some of the vapour into anaesthetic gas, Professor. The concentration isn’t what you’d call high, but Tom’s been inhaling that for a while. He’ll be fine. He just needs to sleep it off rather than futilely trying to focus on the class.”

The silver-haired witch stared at Hermione for a few moments without finding the words for it. ‘Surprised’ didn’t seem to be enough to begin to cover it.

“I think we need to have a conversation about using that in practice situations.” Merrythought said.

Hermione held back from sighing yet again. “Yes, Professor. Now, can I just…?”

“Certainly. You’ve both earned it. A fight on that level isn’t something I often see, that’s another ten points to both Ravenclaw and Slytherin.”

“Thank you, Professor Merrythought. Tom and I will be taking our leave now.”

The first thing Hermione did as she pulled another chair to sit in front of Tom was to heal the cuts and he did her the same courtesy. Episkey worked for the shallow cuts unless there was some sort of acid or infection involved because you’d just be sealing the damned thing in. Right now, she had exactly one wound of that description. Hermione knew a spell that would fight the foreign agents in her blood, with the slight downside of not being able to close the wound immediately.

The burns were salved, but it does take a little more finesse to heal than a simple cut, and Hermione thought she’d rather do it somewhere else than the class where everyone was staring at them like a zoo exhibit. Some rudimentary drying charms also helped their soaked clothes, though it left the fabric feeling a bit rough and with a faint impression of static (household charms weren’t her strength either). Tom surprisingly did a better job drying her hair and leaving it in soft curls.

One of these days she would remember to ask him to teach her that particular spell.

“I think I’m still quite capable. I don’t need to go to the infirmary,” Tom commented as he stood up following her.

Hermione was magnanimous enough not to comment that he was speaking carefully, a fraction of a second slower than his usual speed. She understood his reluctance, though—she was still feeling the rush from the fight, reflexes lightning-quick and magic fizzling in her blood. She could feel his gaze on the back of her neck and she knew he hadn’t lost his sharp focus either or his intense awareness of her presence.

“Look, if the class was just going to go over each of everyone’s individual duels, it’s going to be boring for us. Are you saying you don’t want to get out of class early?” Hermione asked with a hand on her hip.

He very much didn’t argue with her on that front.

'-

Tom might be able to seem completely unfazed as they walked out of the class, but in their walk to the infirmary (on a route of Tom’s choosing), she noticed that he’d stumbled into her a few times. Other people might consider it an accident. Heck, if she was walking with anyone else, it probably was an accident. Yet Tom was too well-coordinated, she knew this now. A few stumbles were a few too many.

“Are you alright?” She asked.

“Are you afraid you’ve somehow transfigured some poison instead of anaesthetic?” He asked back.

“No!” She saw the slightest twitch of his lips again and rolled her eyes. “Of course not. I know what I’m doing. You’re just…”

“I’m fine,” he said, evenly. There was none of the insistence of someone who was annoyed with the question, or the carelessness of someone who was only randomly answering.

When she tried to surreptitiously watch him, he was eyeing her in turn.

“What?” Hermione asked, a little unnerved.

“Perhaps I should ask you that question,” he said, “as you’re the one watching me.”

Alright. It was true, but it was hard to explain. He turned to a spiral staircase that seemed to have been servants’ stairs and climbed up. She followed suit behind him, taking note of his gait. The stairs ended up in a landing, in a small alcove of its own with a door that she guessed would open to some hallway. It even had a small wooden table. The place had the dimensions of a linen closet. Tom had stopped at the landing, seemingly waiting for her.

“I didn’t know this was here—”

He turned around and kissed her hard, one hand at the back and the other possessively holding the curve of her backside against him. She was still high on adrenaline and he’d just heated her blood once more. His kisses were a much more delicious burn and she found herself leaning into his touches as he pushed her back against the table. He gave playful nips to her neck that made everything pleasantly fuzzy and she bucked against the hardness in his trousers. Hermione clutched his shoulder in a way that would leave nail marks without clothes but he certainly wasn’t complaining. Her hand slid down to his forearm.

It was his surprised hiss that had her retreating, brown eyes wide.

“Your arm! Dammit, Tom, let me do something to—”

What she got was a quick kiss. “It’s fine. I’m sure you’ll fix it in no time.”

“Well, let me—”

Another kiss. “I just need to—” Kiss. “Tom!”

Hermione was flustered, but she was rather determined. Tom seemed to be quite aware of her stubbornness and let her fuss where she had coiled her flame whip around. He even made it easier by discarding his robes and blazer.

“You were glorious. I was right on top of you, your spell was burning a hole through my sleeves and you didn’t release your attention for even a second. You simply kept burning, would probably keep burning if I hadn’t broken your focus.” His voice was a low murmur that sent shivers down her spine. It probably didn’t help that his mouth was two inches from her neck. How he was making it hard for her to think might be why her reply was rather ornery.

“Well, I was trying to force you to just bloody give up already. If a burn was going to do that, I was all for it.”

He chuckled. “So bloodthirsty.”

Hermione huffed, but colour rose to her cheeks as she didn’t miss the admiration in his tone.

“It’s called winning a fight and staying alive.” She said.

“But you know you’re not going to die from the fight. You never did used any of your more damaging spell, didn’t you?”

“Neither did you,” she noted. She absently started to open the buttons of his shirt when she found that the healing spell wasn’t really as effective with the barrier of the shirt. Tom pulled his tie loose and dropped it to the side, untucking his shirt from his trousers.

“And yet you fight viciously all the same, in a fight that you still know and understand to be non-lethal. If that’s not bloodthirsty, I’d like to know what is.” His voice was deceptively casual.

She looked up at him with narrowed eyes. Some of his hair had fallen in front of his forehead and he looked more disreputable than usual with the mess. She didn’t see a problem with it; she felt like messing it up even more, a token protest against the world to show that the perfect prefect never existed.

“You just bring out my competitive side, alright? Because I know you’d be giving your all. Why should I just lay down and let you win when I can beat you?” She muttered.

“You didn’t.” He pointed out.

“Because you don’t like losing and would rather be suicidal?” She asked in a saccharine tone.

“There are around ten spells I could recall now that I could’ve used. A few would give you phantom pains, such as one to simulate appendicitis, another gangrene, and since they’re by definition phantom, they’re undetectable to most. The other is that I should’ve just blasted you with Glacia—considering all your wet clothes, you’d be mostly frozen into an icicle. You just have the devil’s luck.” Hermione stated. She simply hadn’t been able to react fast enough when he chose to blitz her than run out of time succumb to the anaesthetic.

Tom eased his shirt off as she cast several spells on the arm. The burn really wasn’t anything serious (by her standards). The skin was frighteningly red, and there were even striated lines where it was gone and you could see the flesh (muscle) underneath. She guessed this to be where the flame whip had abraded the skin completely. At least there were no white spots where the tissue had outright died. There was only the momentary tensing of his jaw when she touched it.

“Well, well, aren’t you a sore loser too?” She could hear the amusement in his voice.

Hermione sniffed with disdain but knew she couldn’t deny it.

“Oh, fine. I don’t lose with better grace than you do either.” She grumped.

Hermione did several twirls that she knew by rote for a spell to ensure that the deeper layer of skin had enough blood flow before a quick Episkey easily fixed the surface ones and regrew skin. It was still pink and a bit sensitive, but the skin of his arm was whole once more.

“You didn’t lose,” he pointed out yet again.

A small smile played on her face. “Yeah. I didn’t lose either, did I?”

“Time to close the gash on your left arm.” He said.

She remembered that it was the one with the dirty wound. She pulled her outer layers off with a grumble when something snagged, before rolling her shirt sleeves up to check it. The swelling had receded, yes, but she probably needed to check one more time before she’d feel it was safe enough to close it.

“It’s taking its sweet time. What the hell did you use?”

Pythonis Ictus.”

Hermione tried to parse the Latin. “Python something… wait, is the last one bite? Did you just give me a python bite? Where’s the antivenin??”

“Pythons are non-venomous, Hermione.”

She blushed at his knowing look. “Right. I knew that, what with their killing by strangling and crushing their prey.”

Apparently, she’d panicked too quickly to think over it properly. Damn, that was embarrassing. He didn’t seem to be intent to pick her on her slip, for some reason.

“On a more technical note, it isn’t a bite. It’s closer to a slash with a fang. Otherwise you’ll have recognised the cause of the wound from the pattern of the bite in the first place.”

She had to admit that it was ingenious—it didn’t look like an obvious animal bite at a glance. But the wound being technically caused by a phantom tooth mean that the swelling had been…oh, old-school infection that came from all animal bites. Right. That means dealing with it was pretty simple. Another jab, turn and tap at the wound as she cast the usual spell against minor infections and Tom had closed it with Episkey before she finished casting hers.

“All the wounds are dealt with, then?”

“Well, you still have isoflurane in your bloodstream but mmmpph—”

This time, the kiss wasn’t exactly a surprise as she belatedly realised that the glimmer in his dark blue eyes were somewhat familiar. She just couldn’t stop explaining even as he sunk his hand to the curls at the back of her head. It was only when his mouth slanted over hers that her higher brain finally switched off with a contented sigh and told her to enjoy herself. When she ran her hand down his sides, she’d only then realised with unexpected joy that she’d pulled his shirt off earlier. Now, she had all this skin to explore.

Why yes, she thought to herself maybe I’ll do exactly that.

His hand was under her shirt, following her ribcage up to her breast. She’d thought he’d stop there, but he trailed to the back following her bra instead and made short work of the clasp when he reached it. There was something about having the warmth of his hand over her naked breast that raised her heartbeats and she reflexively grind herself against him. Their breaths came out harsher in that moment.

Wait, when did she hook one leg over his waist? Since when did they curl around each other?

“You were stunning when you’re trying to destroy me.” He murmured to her shoulder.

Hermione had to chuckle at that. Her fingers were appreciating the muscles of his back with a leisurely speed that made one wonder whether she was trying to memorise each dip or contour.

“Shouldn’t you be more worried?” She asked between kisses.

“Why? It was merely play.” His dark eyes met hers—she could almost see the laughter, the glee he was holding back there. It struck her that the more of her abilities he saw, the more fascinated he became, even when she turned out to be what Ron had only half-jokingly called ‘a one witch demolition team’.

Harry was the one with all the magical firepower, of course, and the best fighter in more than a generation. Unlike Harry, Hermione might not be an incarnation of some god of war on the field, but out of his friends and colleagues, she was the one who could keep up with him in terms of the scale of destruction—she didn’t need that much pure magic when she had science as her force multiplier.

Tom had just opened all the buttons of her shirt. She should be more concerned about this as she’d discarded her shirt to follow her robe and blazer.

She just wasn’t.

“Other people would be—” she gasped. Both of his hands were on her breasts. “—more worried about having a witch that—” he did this movement with his hips that made her lose her line of thought,

“—a witch that can sling scary spells at them in a heartbeat—ooh, do that again.” Her voice was a breathless entreaty at the end.

‘That’ was her with legs around his waist, his mouth over her throat and their lower bodies tightly entwined that every slide generated wonderful friction. Their kisses might as well have been drugged honey, as she felt time to move in thick, lazy drops around them following the rising rhythm of their movements. Her own kisses tasted of sweet desperation as the heat inside her build up and she was running out of breath. That was when she realised that their whole fight had probably been building up to this.

“Only cowards and idiots, Hermione,” he whispered, “run from a witch of your power.”

She should stop being enchanted with the way he said her name, as if she was a secret pleasure for him to keep. His humour was because she was hidden in plain sight and no one seems to see.

“We should fight again sometime,” she said softly between tasting the sweat trickling down his jaw.

His answering grin would have sent most people to run far, far away from him.

'-

Chapter Text

21 Evenings at the Room

Maggie Edelstein didn’t know what her evening would bring, but it wasn’t this.

Hermione and that Riddle boy entered the infirmary still with their clothes worn, cut and singed. It was only their apparent ease of movements that stopped her from running. No, neither of them was wounded. The Ravenclaw was fussing over her hair, which she insisted must have looked like a lion’s mane regardless while the Slytherin wizard assured her that it was fine—he was right too, in this case. Her curls might be wilder than usual, but their richness actually reminded her of Vera Lynn. There was an earthier feel to her today than her usual prim appearance, and it made her more inviting.

Tom Riddle looked fit to be hanging about the docks himself than to be a prefect; he had the appearance of one who’d just walked out of a barfight and the confident stride of someone who’d won. All that he lacked was a cigarette hanging at the corner of his lips to perfect the image. Both students had the brightness of eyes and vitality of skin that came from recent physical exertion.

“Goodness, what happened to you?” Maggie had dropped whatever it was she had been holding and was by their side in no time.

Hermione huffed. “We happened to each other.”

It took her a moment to process the answer. Even then, her disbelief was still clear.

You?

“It’s the Defence class.” The brunette witch said, as if that made everything obvious. “We fought, we healed each other’s wounds and I made a second pass in case I missed anything. I just need you to look him over and pronounce him fit as a fiddle again before any of his admirers screamed that I’ve killed him.”

She heard a derisive snort—a snort! —from Riddle and her eyebrows, which had been rising through Hermione’s story, rose even higher. Oh, she never bought into his apparent perfection, no matter how many girls gushed about him as they pass her infirmary. Yet she’d never seen him act with anything less than perfect decorum even when she was trying to discourage him from keeping Hermione’s company. She’d wondered then if Riddle himself had forgotten his real personality in his effort to embody the ideal student.

Apparently not, as somewhere deep down, he still kept a sarcastic edge.

“If anyone thought you could kill me with just that, then they truly shouldn’t have been in Advanced Defence in the first place,” was his cutting remark.

Maggie was amused of the fact that he actually voiced the opinion than that he held it in the first place.

“You’d be surprised how much you could support your Defence grade based on the written exam results alone. I checked the weighting of each component. It’s entirely possible.” Hermione answered.

“I doubt most people could reach more than eighty percent on the written component.” He casually dismissed the intelligence of his year mates.

Harsh, Maggie thought with slight surprise. Add in his rough appearance like some survivor of a schoolyard scrum, he’d fit better as the mocking delinquent right now than his usual air of perfection.

Surprisingly, Hermione didn’t seem to be fazed by his sharpness at all.

The brunette was thoughtful. “Perhaps there was some pressure to grade to the curve? I mean, you have seen what the Hogwarts Board of Governors look like, haven’t you?”

“Half-filled with mollycoddling parents, half with sycophants and another half with clueless Ministry lackeys?” Riddle asked back.

Now that was a sentiment that Maggie could get behind, and she didn’t hide her snorts of laughter. She couldn’t believe she just exchanged a look of understanding with Riddle, of all people. The student with a scarily perfect façade.

“That’s three halves,” Hermione replied.

“I didn’t say there weren’t overlaps.”

“Look, I know what you can do, Hermione. So, what tests have you run?” Maggie asked, cutting into their back-and-forth.

“Standard? I mean, no open wound or sores anymore, no burns whether thermal, electrical, chemical, etc remains—”

Burns? You have burns?” Maggie yelped.

“—I need to up my calcium intake, but I think you already know that. Otherwise we don’t need to replenish any loss of blood. He’s not concussed and neither am I…what else am I forgetting? Oh! No inflammation and other signs of infection. We’re already clear on that front.” Hermione didn’t walk her through her explanation—she ran through it.

“What spells have you been using, exactly?” The nurse asked with a vague sense of dread.

“Can you just check him one last time so I can tell people that you’ve given your seal of approval?” Hermione finished, her eyes wide and innocent. Maggie, of course, knew better.

“You could have just done it yourself and say that it’s infirmary approved. You know that I don’t mind if you do that since I trust your skills for the basics,” the nurse said. “Now, what else that you haven’t told me?”

The Ravenclaw student was waffling; Tom was the first to react as he reached for Hermione’s hand. The brunette didn’t even seem to realise that she grasped him back easily. Maggie blinked. Since when did they—

“See? It’s fine. We can just go back to our dorms and rest.” Tom said. Maggie had only realised then that even throughout the entire three-way conversation, his attention had never left Hermione for long. Even now he’d placed her arm over his once more.

“But…”

“You know the quality of your own work, don’t you?” He asked Hermione, overriding her self-doubt.

She bit her lip. “Well, yes.”

“Then I see no reason why you should fret unnecessarily. Good afternoon, Madam Edelstein. Our sincere apologies for interrupting your afternoon.” He nodded to her and of course Maggie nodded back. Hermione’s goodbye followed soon after, and then the two of them left in the same speed they had entered it. Maggie found that she had more questions in her head than answers.

“Advanced Defence Against the Dark Arts, huh?” She mused to herself as she checked at the clock.

Ah, no wonder. It was already ten minutes past the time when the last class would let up. Hermione and Riddle probably went straight to the infirmary after class.

‘-

“But…my essays!” Hermione wailed.

This was the middle of the week and Hermione hadn’t started on any of her new homework. It was blasphemy, that was what it is. They had both separated to change and freshen up before meeting again in the Room of Requirements, at first to do their respective homework while tossing ideas to each other until Tom brought up his newest idea of having a meeting this evening.

Tom Riddle seemed utterly unconcerned about her emergency as he lounged in the green wing-back chair provided by the Room. Hermione’s was grey (the unofficial colour of the Unspeakables, not that anyone would know).

“It won’t take that much time for you to finish them.” He replied. “There aren’t even that many yet, Hermione.”

Well, he was hard to deny. Alright, so she knew she wouldn’t take long to finish her Arithmancy one, and she’d certainly have fun preparing for Transfigurations. But she hadn’t taken Advanced Care of Magical Creatures the last time she was at Hogwarts, and she certainly needed to read the suggested reading too.

“So?”

She stalled. “We can’t do this tomorrow? Or in two days?”

“Well, what with the future of the wizarding world at stake, I thought you’d prefer if we act faster than slower?” He asked.

The rest of Hogwarts would take him seriously when he said that, agreeing with the wisdom in the statement. Hermione found it hard to do so, especially since she could now detect that hint of mocking in his tone. It wasn’t always there, but it was there often enough for her to begin to recognise it.

“If you say that you want to save the world, I’m going back to my common room right now,” she warned. He had one of his not-quite-a-smile on.

“Well, we do need to coordinate on the campaign, and it was your idea.”

“And I just came up with it on the way to Advanced Arithmancy today, so pardon me if I didn’t think I’d have a meeting about it within several hours.” She grumbled.

He sighed. “Apparently, Slytherin has the field for quidditch practice in two days, and people became inconveniently unavailable.” Contrary to most wizarding males she knew regardless of the era, Tom was singularly unimpressed by quidditch, even if he still took the scheduling conflicts the popular sport caused without a comment.

“What about tomorrow?” She asked.

“You have Astronomy at night and that usually means shifting your sleeping schedule forward. Unless you would rather not attend…?”

No. You’re right, I’m not skipping Astronomy.” Her Head of House taught it. If she was about to miss it, she thought she’d better have a damned good reason.

She rubbed her forehead with resignation.

“You’re frustrated,” he observed.

She let out a vexed bark of laughter. Between adapting to the unexpected aspects of the wizarding world in 1942, getting into the groove of classes and wrapping her head around the constantly-evolving puzzle that is Tom Riddle, she hadn’t even had time to start on charting history.

“Whatever gave you the idea?” Her question was entirely cynical.

“At the very least, I can promise you a very good opportunity to vent before the meeting begins.”

“Really?” She was sceptical but open to possible positive news.

“How well-practised are you in indoor fighting?” He asked.

“Urban combat? I’m very well trained at it.” She didn’t miss the gleam of interest in his eyes.

Hermione’s smile flashed her canines and was a little too similar to Othello’s for anyone’s peace of mind.

“Now, how much destruction can I do?”

'-

One blond-haired and one dark-haired Slytherin fifth-years were walking down one of the higher corridor of Hogwarts, looking for all the world as if the personification of day and night decided to stop and chat at that moment instead of journeying on their cosmic paths. The more unusual state for Abraxas and Melchior wasn’t that they were wandering around when no classes were held, during the evening, but that neither was in the company of any female. On the other hand, Melchior had always been more circumspect about that than Abraxas that it wouldn’t be strange to find him alone than with someone.

“Do you know why we’re summoned?” Abraxas asked Melchior.

The Nott heir huffed. “Do you even think before opening your mouth to speak?”

“I know there’s a meeting tonight with the boring seventh-years, but that’s not what I meant. That meeting is not in the next hour and we’re called earlier and to the Room. Something’s rotten, Melchior.” Abraxas brooded.

Malfoy would have made for a fine Hamlet if only he were not too handsome, his hair so very shiny. It was difficult to take him seriously when his fine features advertised to all and sundry that he’d never had a hard day in his life.

“Well, yes, otherwise we’d be in our common room lollygagging or you would be in your dorm room wanking. Would you stop stating the bloody obvious?” Nott snapped.

“I knew it. We have to save him. I don’t know how, but that witch must have sunk her nails into him.” The blond decided.

“Abraxas,” Melchior said, slowly. “This is Tom we’re talking about. Tom.”

Tom, who considered all the witches even vaguely interested in him as dust under his shoe.

“For every man out there, there’s a Helen of Troy that can turn his head and make him lose his mind. There’s this one woman for which he’ll launch a thousand ships. The Morgana to his Merlin,” the blond insisted.

“You’re mixing your stories.” He muttered.

“You saw her, didn’t you? Not bad looking at all. A bit on the bookish side, yes, and Merlin knows the teachers haven’t stopped asking her questions and or to demonstrate things. Yes, we know she has a brain and we wish she would stop flaunting it because it’s becoming tiring. But when she moves, Melchior, it’s like she dances with magic. You saw her at Defence, right? Can you imagine her…flexibility, her stamina?”

Nott was rubbing his face with his hand. Well, he can imagine her alright, he was a red-blooded young wizard. They’re always looking, anywhere, and there’s really no harm by it and just pure enjoyment of Nature’s bounty. He was always up to appreciating Mother Nature. It didn’t mean he wanted to be caught looking at a witch that Tom bloody Riddle took the effort to lure to his side.

He has self-preservation instincts.

“I think you should stop looking, mate.” He advised. Abraxas’ forehead creased.

“Well, I can’t. I mean, we have to observe the enemy to figure out their weaknesses, right? How am I going to do that if I stop looking?”

Melchior stared at Abraxas blankly for three seconds before his face crumpled with his mental frustration. His left hand was starting to yank his dark hair.

“Morgana’s Tits, Abraxas! For the love of Slytherin—”

“You see, we have to find a way to remove her influence from Tom.”

“We have no idea whether she actually has any influence on Tom.” Melchior said.

Tom, after all, has the habit of collecting people. He’d know. He was part of that blasted collection, just more self-aware than most to realise it. Tom had also displayed the sentimental range of a teaspoon. If someone was useless, they were useless, and they’d never rise beyond pawns in his perspective—and this was Nott being generous.

“There is no way a witch that attractive becomes that close to a wizard and not influence him. Why did he suddenly get the idea for that article for Emma to write? Why did we have to get it published in the Prophet?”

Because Tom asked for it? Nott noted sarcastically.

“I think she wants to be famous and that’s why she’s sticking c