Hermione hadn’t meant to wander into Knockturn Alley. But then the Weasley’s had popped out of the floo without Harry, and she had panicked. You don’t just lose the savior of the entire wizarding world in the floo network and not freak out a little. Mrs. Weasley was frantic, and even Ron, who was normally unflappable in the face of a potential adventure, seemed to be jumping to the worst-case-scenario.
“He could have gone anywhere,” the red-haired boy said mostly to himself. His hands tugged at his hair, eyes wide with terror. “What if You-know-Who got to him? We don’t know for sure that he’s dead. Dumbledore himself told Harry he thought You-Know-Who was still out there. What if Harry just fell through his fireplace and straight into his lap? Do Dark Lords even have fireplaces?”
Hermione didn’t think it was particularly likely that of all the floo channels Harry could have accidentally fallen through, it would be Voldemort’s. And after pulling a less frantic account of what had actually happened from Percy, Hermione was almost certain that Harry was somewhere in Diagon Alley.
It was much easier slipping away from the group than it should have been, but her parents were currently locked in a conversation with Arthur Weasley who had been so delighted at being in the presence of muggles that he’d started launching questions at them almost instantly. Hermione had only had to step back into the street to be swept away by the crowd. Perhaps a bit too swept away by the crowd, since she quickly found herself in one of the dingiest streets she’d ever seen.
It was darker and less-packed than Diagon Alley, and the shops themselves were unlike anything Hermione had ever seen before. One of the window displays contained two eerily real human skeletons sitting next to each other. The sign next to it read, “Buy two, get one free.” Hermione shivered. Just how many human skeletons could one shop have, she wondered.
But that was the least of her worries. She couldn’t tell which way led back out to the main streets of Diagon Alley. A few buildings down, a gruff man in a long, leather jacket was staring at her, his eyes dark and piercing. She needed to get out of here. It had been a mistake to leave the group, and at the very least, she should have brought Ron with her. Maybe it wouldn’t have been much protection considering that neither of them could legally use their wands outside of school, but it would have been nice to not be alone. And besides, Ron had a way of making everyone around him feel brave.
Hermione turned on her heel and tried not to be too obvious in fleeing from the street. She thought that she had come from this way, although the further she walked, the less familiar everything looked. The streets became even more deserted as the shop window displays became increasingly eccentric. There were shrunken heads that could still talk, and they shouted obscenities at her as she scurried past. Another window held a sign that claimed they had unicorn horn shavings, and yet another professed to be able to procure anything imaginable “for a price.”
Hermione wanted to smack herself. She knew better than to go off on her own. Bad things happened every time. The troll in the bathroom in her first year. The time she’d thought she was going to get kidnapped when she walked home from school by herself when she was seven. And now she was lost in the darkest, shadiest alley she’d ever seen in her life with no way of finding her way back to her parents. Who would come looking for her? Would they find her?
Ron would, she thought to herself. He’ll notice I’m gone eventually, and he’ll make the others come looking for me. But how long would that take? And was it better to stay put and wait for someone to find her, or should she try to find her way out of this maze herself? She suddenly had the feeling of being watched, just an itch on the back of her head, but when she looked around, she couldn’t see anybody. The whole street was empty, and even the shops looked as though they could have been abandoned.
Definitely not staying in one place, she decided as shivers raced down her spine. Once again, she turned and headed back the way she came and found herself in the spot she was in before, though no closer to finding the exit. A shop door to her left chimed loudly enough that she jumped, but that wasn’t the most startling of it. A tall man with long, sleek, platinum hair exited the shop, his black cloak swirling around him in a way that reminded Hermione a bit of Professor Snape. And at the man’s side stood a miniature version with the same platinum hair, the same dark robes, and the same snooty upturn of their noses.
Draco Malfoy’s eyes zeroed in her almost immediately and a sneer immediately made its way to his face. Hermione could feel the dread pooling in her stomach, along with something that was strangely almost like relief. At least it was a familiar face, even if it’s an unpleasant one.
“What are you doing here, Granger?” Draco all but spat. The taller man, who couldn’t have been anyone but Draco’s father, looked down his nose at her as if she were an insect.
Her jaw clenched. “Looking for a book,” she lied. She would not admit that she was lost, especially not to Draco Malfoy. Especially not when there was nobody to protect her. The older Malfoy’s eyebrow twitched.
“In Knockturn Alley?” Mr. Malfoy drawled. There was no doubt that he suspected her of lying, but he seemed willing to play along. “My, my. Do be cautious, Miss Granger. People of your acquaintance might worry about you being exposed to the wrong way of thinking.”
She was already committed to the lie, she thought. Might as well just keep it going.
“That’s hardly their business,” she said with a strained smile. “And besides, knowledge is knowledge.”
Not a total lie. If she could avoid anyone finding out that she’d ever been to Knockturn Alley, that would be preferable to the lecture she would undoubtedly receive from both her parents and Mrs. Weasley. And she really did want to know everything there was to know about magic, even dark magic. That didn’t mean she would ever use it, it just meant that she was curious.
Mr. Malfoy was now looking at her with interest, some strange light in her eyes that Hermione was altogether uncomfortable with. If he was planning something…
“Perhaps…” The older man seemed to think for a moment before reaching into the bag at his side and withdrawing a brown, seemingly untitled book. He held it out to her. Draco was staring up at his own father as if the man had grown two heads. If anything, he was more confused than Hermione was, and Mr. Malfoy was handing her a book. “For academic purposes, of course.”
Hermione stared at the book. It could be cursed, she thought. You know how the Malfoys feel about muggleborns. He could be trying to kill you.
“That’s too generous of you, Mr. Malfoy,” Hermione said. “I couldn’t—“
“I insist.” And with that, he slid the book into Hermione’s cauldron with her other school books. He smiled thinly. “I’m always happy to further the interests of curious young minds.”
It was so ridiculous that Hermione could have laughed. She might have actually done it if not for Harry, covered in soot and grime, stumbling out of the very shop Mr. Malfoy had come out of. He spotted her almost instantly and came to stand beside her. She did not miss the way his hand was wrapped tightly around his own wand.
“’Mione, there you are,” he said, genuine relief in his voice. Mr. Malfoy had wrinkled his nose down at Harry’s filthy appearance, but his eyes were trained on the visible lightning-bolt scar on the boy’s forehead.
“I take it you didn’t find the book we were looking for?” Hermione asked, giving Harry a meaningful look. He frowned for a moment, but thankfully seemed to understand what she was doing and shook his head.
“Uh…sorry, no luck.” He turned to Draco and appraised him coolly, almost as if he was imitating the blond boy’s typical superior attitude. “Malfoy.”
Draco only continued to sneer. “Potter.”
“The famous Harry Potter.” Mr. Malfoy looked down at Harry curiously, almost with that same look he had been giving Hermione not a moment ago. “A pleasure.”
“Um…yeah.” Hermione elbowed Harry gently in the side. “I mean, it’s a pleasure to meet you too, Mr. Malfoy.”
The older man’s lips quirked. “You should get back to Diagon Alley. Before you’re missed.”
“Right,” Hermione said, grabbing Harry by the hand. “We’ll just be off, then.”
She started to pull him after her, but Mr. Malfoy cleared his throat.
“Diagon Alley is the other way, Miss Granger,” he said, amusement coloring his voice. She could hear Draco snickering, could feel the heat rise to her cheeks, but she turned anyway and marched off in the other direction, all but dragging Harry behind her.
“What the hell was that?” Harry demanded as they finally popped out into the brighter, busier streets of Diagon Alley. “Mr. Malfoy talking to you? And why did you lie about us looking for a book? What were you doing in Knockturn Alley anyway?”
“Looking for you,” Hermione said. Just as she was about to continue, she caught sight of bright red hair barreling towards them in the form of Mrs. Malfoy. “I’ll explain the rest later.”
“Harry, dear, look at you,” the Weasley matriarch said, fussing over Harry as she got nearer. “The state of your clothes. And Hermione! Where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for the two of you!”
The words stuck in Hermione’s throat. Lying to Mr. Malfoy had been almost easy, but now she had nothing.
“I came out in the basement of Flourish and Botts,” Harry said quickly. He ducked his head. “I gave the poor old shopkeeper a fright, I think.”
When did you get to be such a liar, Harry? Hermione wondered. Although, she could say the same about herself.
“And I thought I saw him across the street from where we were standing,” she explained when Mrs. Weasley turned to her. “I know I should’ve said something, but I got pulled into the crowd and next thing you know, we found each other.”
“And then we got stuck. There were so many people, we couldn’t see you anymore, and so we went looking for you,” Harry said. He looked up at Mrs. Weasley. “I didn’t mean to get lost.”
She pulled the two of them into a firm hug. “No, of course not. No one blames you, dears. Let’s get back to the others. Hermione, you’re parents are worried sick.”
Hermione didn’t touch the book from Mr. Malfoy for the rest of break. She looked at it, of course, sitting there innocuously among her other books, but she didn’t touch it. She still thought it might be cursed. And yet, she hadn’t told any of the adults about it. Not her parents, of course, because what would they have been able to do? If it was cursed, it would just hurt them. But she could have told the Weasleys.
She almost didn’t pack it when she was getting her trunk ready for Hogwarts. She almost threw it out, even, but it was still a book even if it was a suspicious one. And she had to admit that she was curious. What had Mr. Malfoy thought to give her? And why? She picked it up to put it in her trunk, but nothing happened. Her hand didn’t burn off. She didn’t spontaneously die. It appeared that it hadn’t been cursed at all.
She didn’t open it, though, until she was in the Gryffindor dorms, her curtains pulled tight around her bed. The book sat before her on the red comforter looking as ordinary as could be. It’s not too late to get rid of it, she thought. But the not-knowing was killing her. Hesitantly, she flipped the cover open.
“Secrets of the Dark Arts: Hexes and Curses from the 17th Century,” she whispered to herself, reading the inside cover. Hermione frowned. Did Mr. Malfoy really buy that she was interested in the Dark Arts? It didn’t seem likely that he’d risk giving a muggleborn Gryffindor an obviously illegal book based off a single interaction. She thumbed through the pages, skimming the contents. It would require a deeper reading later, of course. Regardless of why Mr. Malfoy had deemed it appropriate to give her this book, she wasn’t going to turn her nose up at the opportunity to read something that she likely would never be able to get her hands on again.
She was just about to tuck it back into her trunk when a soft thud on her leg alerted her to the thin, black book that had slid out from between the pages of the first book. This one was significantly smaller, bound in black leather, and embossed with gold lettering that read, “Tom Marvolo Riddle.” It could only be a diary, yet when Hermione flipped it open, the entire thing was blank.
Who was Tom Riddle, and how did Mr. Malfoy come by his journal? Or, well, his blank journal. And had Mr. Malfoy meant to give this book to her, or had it been an accident, just stuck between the pages of the bigger one? And if he had meant to give it to her, what use would Hermione have for a blank journal with somebody else’s name on it?
She put it out of her mind, tucking the diary in her trunk with the other book. There was nothing she could do about it tonight, and so she climbed back into her bed and drifted off to troubled dreams of blank books and dark spells.
In the excitement of new classes and seeing her friends again, it took Hermione another week before she remembered the blank diary. It seemed pointless to keep it if she wasn’t going to use it, she reasoned, and maybe having a place to keep her thoughts would be a good thing. She’d never bothered to keep a diary before, but the more that she thought about it, the more appealing the idea was.
On the second Monday of term, Hermione pulled out the journal and wrote, “My name is Hermione Granger,” on the first page. She dipped her quill in more ink and returned to the page only to find that her sentence had completely disappeared. For a moment, she stared at the paper, wondering if this was some kind of joke journal meant to frustrate its owner. If so, Hermione could understand why Tom Riddle had wanted to get rid of it.
But a moment later, dark ink appeared on the page once again, this time in an elegant, unfamiliar script.
“Hello,” the journal wrote. “My name is Tom Riddle.”
She slammed the book shut with a squeak and threw it off the table. The tiny black book thudded against the nearest bookshelf and fell to the floor. Hermione stared at it, hardly noticing the ink from her own quill dripping onto her robes. Slowly, she rose to her feet and approached it, wand drawn.
A diary that writes back to you, Hermione thought. Are those common? She rather doubted it. Especially since Mr. Malfoy had accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally) given it to her. She had to know more, and until she did, she resolved not to write in the diary.
Hermione had been right that Tom Riddle’s diary seemed to be an anomaly. Her careful queries about whether such a thing were possible were always met with curiosity, as if no one had ever really considered making one. She had looked through every possible relevant book to see if there was a charm to make books talk back to you, or to see if a human person could be transfigured into a book, but she came up empty handed.
Her next task, however, had proved more fruitful. Hermione had gone in search through Hogwarts’ student records to see if she could find a Tom M. Riddle, and not only had he been a prefect and Head Boy, he’d also earned an award for Special Services to the school. And he had the highest NEWT scores on record for the last hundred years. But he had been a student in the 1940s. Hermione thought that somebody with school records like that would have gone on to do remarkable things, but it seemed like Tom Riddle had simply disappeared immediately upon leaving Hogwarts. He had certainly never done anything noteworthy enough to be mentioned in any history book.
Hermione had even looked through the past fifty years of ministry records to see if he had ever been listed as a candidate for minister, or a minister’s undersecretary, or a head of department. But no. It seemed that Tom Riddle had never become anyone important, and Hermione had half a theory that somehow he had been trapped inside his own diary immediately after leaving Hogwarts. It was the only thing she could think of that would account for someone disappearing so completely.
“How did you get stuck in your diary?” Hermione wrote into the diary nearly two weeks after Tom Riddle had first introduced himself. It was a little rude, probably, to not explain why she had introduced herself and then never written him back. But she still didn’t know what kind of magic she was dealing with.
“Ah, Hermione Granger. Back again,” Tom Riddle wrote back. “You’re not going to throw me at another bookshelf, are you?”
Hermione blushed, thankful that the diary (probably) couldn’t see her embarrassment.
“I was merely surprised by a sentient diary last time,” she wrote back. “But I am curious about what kind of magic makes you work.”
“Persistent, aren’t you?” Riddle wrote. “Very well. I am a…collection of memories, I suppose. Are you familiar with how a pensieve works?”
Hermione was reluctant to admit that she did not. “Not yet,” she wrote.
“Penseives can be used to view memories. A wizard merely extracts the memory they wish to view and places it in the penseive. Some people keep copies of their memories so that they can view them whenever they’d like,” Riddle wrote. “This diary works much the same way. Only, due to the mass of memories stored here, I am capable of conversing as if I were sitting there with you.”
“Kind of like the enchanted portraits, then,” Hermione wrote. “An imitation of a person, but not the actual spirit of the person.”
Tom wrote back a moment later. “Yes. Something like that.”
Writing to Tom became a part of Hermione’s daily routine. She had so many questions about her classes, about magic, and Tom always seemed so knowledgeable. Though Hermione could find answers for herself—and frequently did so—Tom was able to provide academic conversation that no one else seemed willing to give her. He would challenge her viewpoint on almost everything, force her to defend what she’d read in her beloved books, and he never seemed content with a textbook answer. Hermione learned more from Tom than she did from some of her classes, and for that, she treasured him.
“You have to be a Ravenclaw,” Tom wrote one evening after a particularly heated debate on transfiguration. “Third year? Fourth?”
“No, actually,” Hermione had written back, quite proud that he’d thought her older than she was. That he’d thought she was smart enough to be fourth year. “I’m a Gryffindor. Second year.”
“You’re wasted in Gryffindor,” he wrote back after a minute. “Are you sure you weren’t mis-sorted?”
Of course, Hermione should have known that the peace couldn’t last forever. It started with the petrification of Mrs. Norris, the horrible writing on the wall. The Chamber of Secrets had been opened.
“It’s all so strange,” Hermione wrote into the diary. “The Chamber of Secrets is supposed to contain a monster that only the heir of Slytherin could control. But what kind of monster can petrify someone?”
“Perhaps it was merely a prank,” Tom suggested. “The Chamber of Secrets was opened in my own time, you know, but they caught the monster.”
“Really?” Hermione asked. “What was it?”
“An acromantula,” Tom said.
Hermione frowned. She didn’t know a lot about acromantulas, but she didn’t think that they could petrify. But Tom was older than her, and so she reasoned that maybe this was something he knew that she didn’t.
“Besides,” Tom continued. “The cat was only petrified. It’s not as if someone attacked a student.”
Hermione had to admit that Tom had a point. If someone really had malicious intent, wouldn’t they have targeted a student? Really, Hermione could believe that even Fred and George might petrify Mrs. Norris for a prank.
But still…something wasn’t quite right.
Hermione had finally finished reading the book Mr. Malfoy had handed her in Knockturn Alley. They were dark spells, some so vile they made her stomach turn just to read about, and yet, there were also hexes that were no worse than what they were taught in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Or rather, what they would have been taught in Defense Against the Dark Arts if Professor Lockhart were a competent professor in any capacity. But the point was that Hermione couldn’t understand why half the spells in the book were banned.
Tom had been the one to point out that they had only been made illegal during the rise of Grindelwald, and that conversation had sent Hermione on a quest to find out just why certain magics were banned. The Unforgiveables, she could understand. They were horrid, and the fact that someone had to enjoy the idea of torture, or murder, or controlling someone’s free will in order for the spells to work made it all the worse. But other spells were no worse than the bat-bogey hex, no worse than some of the prank candies that the Weasley twins made. And they’d only been labeled as such because they required a control of magic that most people just didn’t possess.
Or at least, that’s what Tom argued.
“Witches and Wizards who were too weak to cast these spells had them banned,” Tom wrote. “Just because they lacked the proper focus, the proper control. They were too afraid that stronger wizards would have power that they didn’t, and they tried to control them.”
Hermione wasn’t sure she agreed with that, but she couldn’t find any other logical reason for it. And she had to admit that maybe Tom had a point. There were plenty of students in her own classes that had trouble casting even the most basic of spells. It didn’t take a huge stretch of her imagination to think that they might feel threatened by more competent witches and wizards.
Professor Lockhart, for example, was not a competent wizard, and if that hadn’t been abundantly clear from the fact that Hermione was learning more from a sentient diary than from her actual class, then it was suddenly clarified during the dueling club. Hermione had never rooted for Professor Snape before in her entire life, but there was something satisfying about watching Professor Lockhart fly across the room from the strength of Professor Snape’s expelliarmus and land on his ass.
That satisfaction was short lived when not five minutes later, Harry accidentally revealed that he was a parselmouth to half the school, thus resulting in the rumor that he was somehow the heir of Slytherin. Hermione could’ve smacked him.
“Why couldn’t you just banish the snake like a normal person?” she asked in the common room later that night.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry snapped. “Maybe because I didn’t know I wasn’t speaking English? Maybe because it looked friendly and I fancied a chat?”
“Relax, mate,” Ron said. “’Mione’s just worried about you. Everyone thinks you’re the heir of Slytherin now. You’ve got a target on your back.”
They were all silent for a moment as the weight of the day’s events sank in.
“Well,” Hermione said after a moment. “There’s only one thing to do.”
“Get Harry to convince a bunch of snakes to crawl into Malfoy’s bed in the middle of the night?” Ron asked, drawing a snicker from the dark-haired boy.
“Ronald!” Hermione smacked the red-haired boy lightly with a rolled up copy of the Daily Prophet. “No. We’ve got to figure out what’s really going on.”
Hermione didn’t tell Tom about her plan. She didn’t tell him that she and Ron and Harry were going to brew polyjuice and sneak into the Slytherin dungeons to interrogate Malfoy. She hadn’t told him about Harry being a parselmouth either, or that she was still looking into the Chamber of Secrets issue. No matter that Tom seemed to think that the whole thing was an insensitive prank, Hermione knew there was something more to it. Harry had told her that a house elf named Dobby had warned him that there was some evil lurking in Hogwarts and that it had to do with the Chamber of Secrets. And then Colin Creevey had been petrified.
And she hadn’t told Tom.
Being temporarily turned into a cat/human hybrid was a miserable experience, but being locked up in the Hospital Wing had given her distance from Tom, and with that had come a strange clarity. She was no longer sure she could trust him. Everything he’d told her had either been flattery or a strategically placed piece of information designed to make her change her mind on something. And when she considered that Mr. Malfoy had given her the book, she berated herself for being foolish enough to trust Tom in the first place. Because really, what were the chances that Mr. Malfoy had accidentally given her a book that could talk to her, influence her? Even if Draco wasn’t the Heir of Slytherin, that didn’t suddenly make him or his father good people.
She had decided to lock the diary away until she could decide what to do with it. The logical part of her brain urged her to turn it in to Professor Dumbledore, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that. Because while Hermione adored Ron and Harry, Tom was the only one who really understood her. He would talk about magical theory with her for hours, and he never shied away from teaching her more. He never called her a know-it-all. And maybe he had been manipulating her, but it still felt wrong to betray him. She just didn’t know what to do.
But in the end she didn’t get a choice on the matter because the diary was gone by the time she returned to her room. Someone had ransacked her things sometime during the month that she’d spent in the hospital wing. Someone had taken Tom Riddle away from her. And it very nearly sent her into a panic. She wasn’t sure if she was more worried about Tom being hurt, or if she was concerned about what Tom might be able to do in the hands of someone less aware of his manipulations. But there was nothing she could do without revealing that she’d kept his diary a secret from Harry and Ron for nearly four months. And how could she even begin to explain that?
It had been two months without Tom Riddle’s diary to keep her company and Hermione felt his absence in her life. There was nobody to talk to about magical theory, nobody to learn from, nobody to debate whether or not dark magic was really evil. Every day felt slower than the next, and the only thing that kept her from searching for the book was the continual reminder that no matter how much she liked Tom, she did not trust him. It was probably better for her, she reasoned, if she was out of his grasp.
The petrifications were still happening at an alarming rate. Sir Nicholas and Justin Fitch-Fletchley had both been attacked, and no one had been able to figure it out. The only lead they had was that Moaning Myrtle of all people had been killed when the Chamber had been opened the first time. All she could remember were big, yellow eyes, and then death.
Hermione spent all of her time in the library researching monsters because now, more than ever, she was certain that Tom had been wrong about the acromantula. If the heir of Slytherin was the only one who could control it, then it made sense that it had to be a snake. And the only snake that Hermione could find that could kill with a single glance was a Basilisk.
But then, how was it getting around?
Harry had the diary. Harry had Tom’s diary. And Tom was talking to him, telling him what he knew about the Chamber of Secrets. And it was…very telling.
“He turned in Hagrid?” Ron yelled in outrage. “This Tom Riddle sounds like a dirty rotten snitch to me.”
“They were going to close the school,” Harry said with a shrug. “In the memory I saw, Tom said he had nowhere else to go. Hogwarts was his home. What would you have done?”
“He was wrong, then,” Hermione said. It pained her to talk about Tom like she didn’t know him, but the others couldn’t find out. And some things were beginning to shift into place in her mind. Some things that she didn’t know how to make sense of. “Acromantulas can’t petrify with their eyes. You heard Myrtle. She said two, big yellow eyes. Acromantulas have eight black ones. It doesn’t add up.”
“See?” Ron said. “Hermione thinks Riddle’s a liar too.”
He is, isn’t he? But why did that hurt so much?
Tom’s diary was stolen from Harry’s room. And then, not two days later…
Penelope Clearwater was petrified. There hadn’t been any attacks when Harry had the book, but as soon as it was gone, well…Hermione had an idea of what was happening. She was sick to her stomach.
She had liked him. She could admit that now. Brilliant, clever, Head Boy Tom Riddle. And somehow he was behind the attacks. Because what were the bloody chances that the Chamber of Secrets was open in Tom’s time, and once again when his diary, his memory, was returned to Hogwarts? Was it really likely that Mr. Malfoy had slipped the book into her cauldron by accident? Didn’t it seem suspicious that Tom had been the one to find the monster? That Tom had needed Hogwarts to stay open more than anything?
Coincidence, she could have told herself, but she knew better. Because when Tom had been hers, how often had he tried to persuade her that there was no difference between light and dark magic? How often had he told her that people were dull, useless, but she was brilliant? How often had he shown his distaste for muggles in little throw-away lines that she had ignored because she had wanted to believe the lies he was feeding her?
No. It was Tom. She was sure of it.
Which is why she finally came clean to Harry and Ron. She told them everything: her chance meeting with Mr. Malfoy in Knockturn Alley and the book he’d given her, writing to Tom, figuring out that the monster had to be a Basilisk, how she’d pieced together that it could only be him behind the attacks.
“I knew Malfoy was behind this somehow,” Ron said. “Well, you know, his dad.”
“Why didn’t you tell us at the beginning?” Harry asked, his voice soft. He wasn’t accusing, just curious, and maybe a little hurt.
“It was just nice, you know.” Out of everyone, she thought Harry might understand the best. “To have someone who just…got me. And I thought I was being cautious, but it wasn’t enough.”
“What do we do now?” Ron asked. “We haven’t got the book and we don’t know who has. If we go to Dumbledore, he’ll wonder why we didn’t come forward sooner. We don’t know who the next target is or when he’s going to attack or even how he’s doing it. And we don’t have proof. You remember what happened first year with the stone. Nobody believed us when we said someone was going to go after it.”
“I don’t know,” Hermione admitted. “I guess we’ll just have to wait.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
“Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever,” Ron read aloud, staring in horror at the blood on the wall. “Ginny.”
“We’ve got to do something,” Harry said. “Anything.”
“We’ll need Lockhart,” Hermione said with a grimace. “If he’s done even half the things he’s claimed, then he’ll be the best equipped to take on a basilisk.”
“But we don’t even know where the Chamber is!” Ron was pacing back and forth, tugging at his hair again.
“Yes we do.” Harry said it so quietly that Hermione almost missed it. Ron froze and they both stared at the black-haired boy. “Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom. You heard what she said. She was sitting there crying when someone came in, said some funny words in a foreign language, and then, boom. Big yellow eyes.”
“You think the entrance opens with parseltongue,” Hermione said, following Harry’s train of thought. “In Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. If it was anywhere else, somebody would have noticed by now, and if it could open any other way, somebody else would have done it.”
“Okay then,” Ron said. “We get Lockhart, and then we go get my sister.”
Lockhart was useless. Ron’s wand was useless. And now Hermione and Harry were stuck on the other side of a huge pile of rocks with nowhere to go but onward. At least nobody had been hurt. Well, Lockhart seemed to have lost all of his memories, but that didn’t really count considering that the man had tried to obliviate three children and leave Ginny for dead.
Harry and Hermione had their wands drawn as they entered the final room. It was huge—big enough for a basilisk, Hermione thought—with a gigantic carving of Salazar Slytherin’s face at front and center. There was no doubting where they were. And just ahead, sprawled out on the stone floor, was a small, red-headed girl who didn’t look like she was breathing.
“Ginny,” Harry called, running ahead and dropping to his knees next to her. She was so pale she looked as though she was already dead, but Harry had his fingers around her wrist. “There’s a pulse. She’s still alive. Ginny, wake up.”
“She won’t wake.”
Simultaneously, Harry and Hermione whipped their wands towards the new voice, a low baritone that could only belong to one person. Hermione had never heard him speak, had never even seen him before. Despite the diary’s ability to pull someone into a memory, she and Tom had only ever written to each other.
He didn’t need his looks to convince you, Hermione thought bitterly. All it took was a handful of compliments and few well-placed questions.
Tom Riddle was unfairly pretty: tall, dark-haired with a sharp jaw-line and dark eyes. The way he moved was graceful, every motion controlled. Hermione hated him. How could he look like that and be such a bastard? A part of her had hoped that she was wrong, that Tom hadn’t been lying, that she’d just misread the whole situation. But here he was, in the flesh, proving her right.
“What did you do to her?” Hermione demanded.
Tom’s eyes had been trained on Harry, but they snapped to Hermione at the sound of her voice. It hurt—even though she knew it shouldn’t—that Tom hadn’t noticed her until now. Because that meant that it really all had been a lie. It meant that he’d never found her special at all.
“Hermione.” The older boy said her name like it was the first breath of air after nearly drowning.
“Answer the question.” She leveled her wand at him, ignoring the way her hand shook, ignoring the way her name sounded coming from him. His lips quirked up at the corners.
“As persistent as ever,” he said. He glanced down at Ginny disinterestedly. “As for her, I haven’t done anything. She did it on her own.”
“I doubt that,” Harry snapped. Tom’s eyes shifted to him for a brief second before focusing back on Hermione.
“It was going to be you,” Tom said, jerking his head back to where Ginny lay on the ground. “You see, in order for me to live, she has to die. At the beginning, it was supposed to be you, Hermione. You were so curious, so eager for a challenge. But it would have been a waste for you to die. We’re so alike, Hermione—“
“We’re nothing alike,” she spat at him. “You used me to open the Chamber of Secrets, didn’t you? You used me to petrify Mrs. Norris, to petrify Colin Creevey.”
“What does it matter?” he snapped. “I quickly realized you were too valuable, that I couldn’t sacrifice you. I just needed enough energy to draw in another. I only took what I needed, Hermione. I never hurt you.”
“Do you want a bloody medal?” She glared at him. Ron’s language was rubbing off on her, but at the moment, she couldn’t care less. “Yes, thank you, Tom. I’m so grateful you didn’t decide to use me as a human battery.”
He ignored her. “And then, through Ginny, I learned about you, the Great Harry Potter who defeated Voldemort as a baby. I knew I had to meet you.”
Harry glared up at the older boy.
“I confess myself disappointed,” Tom said with a sneer. “How is it that a baby with no extraordinary magical talent was able to defeat the greatest wizard of all time? How did you escape with nothing but a scar, while Lord Voldemort's powers were destroyed?”
“Why do you care how I escaped?” Harry asked, scowling at Riddle. “Voldemort was after your time.”
“Voldemort is my past, present, and future.” Tom wrote his name in the air with his wand, and with a flick, sent the letters rearranging until they spelled out, “I am Lord Voldemort.”
“Fuck,” Hermione whispered to herself. She typically refrained from cursing, but now seemed as good a time as any. And if Harry’s face was anything to go by, he agreed. No, no, no, no, no. Harry drew himself up, though he was still a good head shorter than Riddle.
“I suppose you think you’ve won,” Harry said. “But you haven’t. As we speak, Professor Sprout is reviving the petrified students with mandrake root. You haven’t managed to kill anyone this time.”
“Haven't I told you? Killing mudbloods doesn't matter to me anymore. For many months now, my new target has been you.”
Hermione flinched at the slur and the coldness in the older boy’s voice. He’s Voldemort. All this time you’ve had a bloody crush on Voldemort. And now he’s trying to kill Harry. Again.
Tom smirked. “Let's match the power of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against the famous Harry Potter.”
And then Tom was hissing, calling for the basilisk, and Salazar Slytherin’s stone mouth was sliding open, and Hermione was closing her eyes as tightly as she could even if her wand arm never wavered. She didn’t want to die this way, in the basement of the school, killed by a huge snake being commanded by a teenage Lord Voldemort who had pretended for months to be her friend.
She couldn’t see anything, but she could hear the weight of the snake’s scales sliding against the stone. Fawkes’ song, and the basilisk screaming as the bird clawed the snake’s eyes out, and then Harry running, the snake chasing after him. Why hadn’t it attacked her?
“It’s just us now, Hermione,” Tom said, and his voice was very close. “You can open your eyes.”
“Why should I trust you?” she snarled, keeping her eyes clenched shut.
“If I was going to kill you, you silly girl, I’d have done it already.” It was clear from his tone that his patience was thinning. She cracked open her eyes.
He was close, just a pace away. He’s Voldemort. He’s Voldemort, she repeated over in her head. But he was also Tom, brilliant and talented and handsome. Voldemort. And he’s just sent his basilisk after Harry, so you can stop pretending like they’re different people.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re here,” he said, voice low. He was looking at her like she was a particularly rare book, like she was special. Important. “If anyone could figure it out, it would be you. But you shouldn’t have come.”
“And you shouldn’t have released the basilisk,” she replied. “You shouldn’t have taken Ginny.”
She aimed her wand at his throat, but he only smirked.
“What were you thinking, Hermione? That you would come down here and fight me? That you would stop me? Kill me?”
“If I had to.” She wet her lips. Could she really curse him? For Harry, I could.
“You could join me,” Tom said, stepping closer, closer, until he placed a hand on her wand arm and swung around behind her. She could feel the warmth of his almost-body on her back, the slight weight of his hand on her arm, the light touch of breath on her cheek as he bent down to whisper in her ear. “I could teach you so much, things no one else thinks you’re ready to learn. A whole world of knowledge at your fingertips. Someone to challenge you. I can give you what nobody else can.”
For a moment, she could see it. By his side, she would grow into somebody strong, capable, unstoppable. She would be limitless. And she would be his. No one else in the world shared her passion for knowledge quite the way that he did. No one else in the world had the same drive to perfect magic, to push boundaries, to explore the impossible.
She wrenched herself out of his hold and twisted, firing a quick confringo at him. It missed, Tom spinning out of the way so fast that she couldn’t believe it. Now he was facing her again, his own wand raised.
“You won’t win,” he warned her. “This fight is pointless.”
“I told you once before, Tom,” Hermione said, firing off a bombarda. It, too, missed its target, clipping Salazar Slytherin’s nose instead. The stone burst into dust. “I’m a Gryffindor.”
His face contorted briefly, and he dodged yet another of her spells. He wasn’t dueling her, not really. He was just dodging, throwing up a shield charm when he felt like putting in the effort, but he never tossed a curse her way. It was a good thing, too, Hermione thought, because she was certain he would have beaten her in less than ten seconds.
“And I told you that you’re wasting your talents there,” Tom snapped back. Somehow during his series of dodges and ducking and spinning away from her spells, he’d gotten close enough once more where he could grab her by the hair, jamming his own wand into her throat. “Enough.”
Hermione panted, tired from magical exertion, and tried not to strain against the tight grip pulling at her scalp. His wand was pressed firmly into the side of her neck, hard enough that she’d be surprised if she didn’t have a bruise there tomorrow. Assuming she got to live to see tomorrow.
Footsteps echoed in the chamber, and Tom spun around so that he was once again behind Hermione, his wand still at her throat, his other arm wrapped firmly around her waist so she couldn’t move.
“I’d hate for you to do something stupid and Gryffindorish and force me to kill you,” he whispered in her ear. “So be a good girl and keep still.”
Hermione was torn between terror and relief as Harry ran back into the Chamber, eyes scanning the room quickly and landing on her. His wand was drawn, aimed at Riddle, but even from a distance, Hermione could see the tremor in Harry’s hand. He was too inexperienced in dueling, and Tom was too good at it. Harry didn’t stand a chance.
“Let her go,” Harry said. “You don’t want her. You want to kill me? Fine. Just let her go.”
Tom tilted his head mockingly. “Why would I bargain with you when I can have everything?”
And then the basilisk burst from the water again, the shock of it sending Harry stumbling backwards, his wand clattering to the floor. The wand rolled meters out of reach, and even if Harry ran to it, he wouldn’t make it to his wand before the basilisk got to him. Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see her best friend die. Tom’s wand jabbed into her neck again.
“Watch,” he demanded. “Or I’ll make you, Hermione.”
She forced her eyes open. The snake was looming over Harry now, poised to strike, and the only thing within Harry’s grasp was the sorting hat. The sorting hat, which now had the gleaming handle of a sword sticking out of it.
Against her better judgment, Hermione called out, “The hat, Harry! The ha—“
Tom cast a silencing spell on her, her voice dying in her throat. His grip tightened around her waist, hard enough that she worried he might crack a rib, but it didn’t matter. Harry’s hand was wrapping around the sword. He was rising to meet the creature even as it moved to strike. The sword pierced the roof of the creature’s mouth, straight through its skull. As Harry wrenched the sword back out, the basilisk fell to the ground with a crash.
“No,” Tom hissed, his grip vicious as he dragged Hermione forward, his wand trained on Harry. Hermione was on the verge of hysterical laughter. Harry had killed the basilisk. He’d won. But then she saw the single fang protruding from his arm. Riddle saw it too, and he grinned.
“Basilisk venom,” Riddle drawled. “A quick death, but not a painless one. In mere minutes, you and Ginny will be dead, and Tom Riddle will return. Very. Much. Alive.”
Harry pulled the basilisk fang from his arm, wincing. Hermione stared at the wound. There was nothing she could do to heal him. Even a master healer would have difficulty with basilisk venom, and there was no way to get Harry to one fast enough. Hermione pulled against Tom’s grip, the urge to reach out to her friend greater than her fear of Tom’s anger. But the older boy pulled her tight against him.
“And Hermione?” Harry asked, glaring at Riddle even despite his increasingly weakened state.
And then she spotted it. The diary, small and black, and mere inches from Ginny’s side. Mere inches from Harry. Tom isn’t alive yet, Hermione thought. He’s been living in the diary. If he isn’t separated from it completely, then maybe…
“Hermione,” Tom said thoughtfully. He reached up to stroke her hair, to brush it back from her face. She leaned as far away from him as she could, but he was still holding onto her and she couldn’t get far. Tom grinned. “Hermione is mine.”
Harry’s eyes met hers. Her voice was gone thanks to Tom’s silencing charm, but there was still a chance.
“The diary,” she mouthed at him. “The book.” Harry’s eyes darted to the diary and back to Hermione.
Tom noticed. “What do you think—“
But he never got the chance to finish that sentence because Harry grabbed the diary and rammed the basilisk fang right through the front cover. The effect was almost instantaneous. A large, gaping hole of light burst through Tom’s chest causing him to gasp and release his hold on Hermione. She stumbled forward, falling to her knees in front of the diary. Harry passed the basilisk fang to her without a word, and she flipped the diary open to one of its many blank pages and dragged the fang across, tearing the paper as she went. Tom all but split open with light, a single shout escaping him before he exploded into nothingness.
“You’re okay?” Harry asked. His eyes searched hers. “He didn’t…Riddle didn’t hurt you?”
She shook her head. Her eyes landed on his wound. “You need a healer.”
“I think it might be a bit too late for that,” Harry admitted. “You’ll have to take Ginny back. And tell Dumbledore what happened. Tell him that Riddle was Voldemort, and—“
“No. Stop it.” Hermione grabbed Harry’s good arm and wrapped it around her shoulder. “We have to try. Now, I’m going to pull you up – you’ll have to help me – and we’ll go for help—“
Fawkes screeched overhead, descending in a slow circle until he came to land by Harry. Tears seeped from the bird’s eyes, and as he leaned over Harry’s arm, a few dropped into the basilisk wound. The cut seemed to sizzle for a moment, but then the skin stitched itself back together.
“Phoenix tears,” Harry whispered in wonder. “Of course. They have healing powers.”
“And they can carry extraordinary weights,” Hermione said, eyeing the bird. “I wonder…”
“And then Fawkes carried us back out of the Chamber,” Harry finished. “Although I think Professor Lockhart was confused. He didn’t, uh, think magic was real.”
“I see.” Albus Dumbledore was looking between Harry and Hermione with a twinkle in his eyes. “There’s quite a bit to sort out, I think. But it can wait. For now, may I suggest the two of you go see Madam Pomfrey.”
Hermione hesitated. “Professor…”
Professor Dumbledore peered over his half-moon eyeglasses at her. “Yes, Miss Granger?”
“He won’t—that is to say, Tom, um, Voldemort—he won’t be back again, will he?” Hermione asked. “Like that, I mean. In a diary, or—“
“I think it would be wise to remain cautious,” Dumbledore said. “I—“
The door to the Headmaster’s office was abruptly thrown open, Mr. Malfoy and a small house elf standing in the doorway. The blond man strode in as if he owned the place, the house elf trailing behind, half-bent over.
“Dobby?” Harry said. “The family you serve is the Malfoys?”
Hermione watched as Mr. Malfoy sneered at the small creature. So this is the house elf that tried to “protect” Harry by sending a rogue bludger at him, Hermione thought. Her eyes flicked over to Mr. Malfoy, who was looking down his nose at Dumbledore. She felt her own anger rising in her chest. The only reason any of this had happened was because Malfoy Sr. had decided to slip Tom Riddle’s diary in Hermione’s things. He was the reason why Ginny and Harry had almost died, why Hermione had nearly been abducted by a teenage Voldemort. He was the reason why Hermione had met Tom, and subsequently, had forced her to kill him. Mr. Malfoy could burn in eternal hell for all Hermione cared.
“You’ve returned to school,” Mr. Malfoy said to Dumbledore. “The killer was caught?”
Dumbledore smiled. “Yes.”
The Malfoy patriarch was impatient. “And?”
“It was a book.” Dumbledore picked up Tom Riddle’s diary and waved it. “How Tom Riddle’s old school things found their way into Miss Granger’s possession, it seems we’ll never know.”
The look in the Headmaster’s eyes as he stared down Mr. Malfoy indicated differently. Because of course Hermione had told him about the meeting in Knockturn Alley—even if she hadn’t specifically mentioned the other book Mr. Malfoy had given her.
“Curious,” Malfoy said. “And the Chamber of Secrets?”
“Closed for good,” Dumbledore said cheerfully. “Lemon drop?”
“No.” The blond man curled his lip. He took a deep breath as if to calm himself. “And the monster within?”
Dumbledore eyed the other man knowingly. “A basilisk. Killed by our very own Mr. Potter.”
Mr. Malfoy’s eyes flashed and he turned to glare at the dark-haired boy. “Well, let us hope that Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.”
Harry met the man’s gaze, unflinching. “Don’t worry. I will be.”
With that, Mr. Malfoy and Dobby left in a swirl of dark robes, Mr. Malfoy kicking his house elf out the door on their way out. Harry glared after them, and then suddenly looked down at Tom Riddle’s diary.
“Could I have that?” Harry asked, eyes darting between the book and Dumbledore. “Seeing as it no longer, you know, works for the forces of evil?”
The corner of Dumbledore’s mouth lifted in a small smile. “Go ahead.”
“Excellent.” With one hand, Harry grabbed the book. With his other, he practically ripped off his right shoe, rolled down his sock, and slipped it into the pages of the book. He forced his foot back into the shoe, sockless, and bolted out of the room, shouting, “Mr. Malfoy! Mr. Malfoy, wait!”
“What is he—“ Hermione started.
“I do believe he’s going to free a house elf.” Professor Dumbledore shook his head fondly. And then his eyes found Hermione’s, suddenly serious. “Miss Granger, you’re not the first to be fooled by Tom Riddle’s charm.”
She sank back into her chair, the exhaustion finally kicking in. “But it’s my fault—“
“It’s not.” Professor Dumbledore was quick to stop her, his voice stern. “You did not open the Chamber of Secrets. You did not release the basilisk. You did not petrify the students. Tom Riddle did.”
“He used me—“
“But you did not do those things,” Dumbledore said very seriously. “And most importantly, when he offered you everything, you refused.”
“He was lying,” Hermione said dully. “Everything he said to me was a lie.”
The Headmaster gave her a sad smile. “I do not think that is quite true, Miss Granger, and I know you do not think so either.”
She nodded. Maybe Tom had meant it. Maybe he really had thought she was something special, and maybe he really had wanted to teach her, to craft her into somebody formidable who could stand by his side. But it didn’t matter in the end. Everything Tom wanted was twisted. Every future with him was only ever pretty in Hermione’s head.
“Thank you, Professor.”
“Now go.” The Headmaster’s eyes had regained their usual twinkle. “I suspect Harry will have an interesting story for you about Mr. Malfoy’s house elf.”
Hermione smiled and let herself out of the Headmaster’s office. She would be fine. They had won. Tom was gone, and that was good. It would be good. She would get used to it. At the end of the hall, a dark-haired boy with one sock stood next to a short house-elf, both grinning like fools.
Yes, Hermione thought, her own smile becoming more genuine. I could get used to this.