A/N: Wow, so one of the things about updating a story so infrequently is that you really notice how bad your early writing is. Live and learn, I suppose.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
In which Hermione has a very long day
Two days later, Hermione was ready to barricade herself in her four-poster bed and think. She needed time and space to do that. Giving Riddle the locket had been an impulse-she thought a good one, because it established to him her willingness to engage, but still she needed more of a plan to back it up. He hadn't spoken to her since, though he smiled and bowed when he saw her. That would change and she needed to be ready.
She threw open her curtains and was about to shut herself in when she saw a small piece of parchment on her pillow. It was not folded and it said simply,
I would like to speak with you about some interesting points you made in your last essay. Would you please come to my office at your earliest convenience?
Prof. Albus Dumbledore
Hermione felt a rush of hope. Perhaps he had made headway on the time-travel problem. Transferring the paper to a side table, she quickly incinerated it and swept the ash into a bin. Then she hurried out.
The Transfiguration professor's office was large and sharply divided. One side had more strange devices than the emporium of curiosities she'd seen with her parents, and the other was neat and severe. Dumbledore was at the board, fiddling with a box of jade green china. Hermione suspected it hadn't started life that way. McGonagall appeared to be marking, judging by her expression of disappointment and irritation.
Dumbledore didn't look around when she came in. "Minerva," he said, "I have something I'd like to discuss with Miss Grey in private. Would it be too much of an imposition to ask you to work in the staff lounge for the time being?"
McGonagall looked surprised, and her sharp eyes flitted between her mentor and his student for a minute, but she gathered her papers and left. When the door had shut behind her, Dumbledore's wand flicked about for a minute and Hermione felt a tension in the air as new wards settled around her.
Her ears were still buzzing with them when Dumbledore turned around. "Who are you?"
"What? I- I told you, I'm from the future. My name is Hermione Granger. I can't tell you more than that. You'll know some of it when-"
"I am not so great a fool as you think me." Even on the other side of the room, Dumbledore seemed to tower over her. His shadow was very long. "I see how close you grow to Tom Riddle and how close he grows to you."
"You saw his... effusion of emotion."
"I did." His eyes were cold. "I wonder very much what kind of person Tom Riddle could think he loved."
That stung Hermione, because she had wondered the same thing, but she was too old, too tired to feel the ache she used to get in the pit of her stomach from when a teacher disapproved of something she'd done. She decided to focus on the later part of the sentence. "Think he loved? You don't think he loves me?"
Even she could hear how relieved she sounded at that. Dumbledore raised an eyebrow and his expression softened slightly. "I do not," he said soberly. "He is not built for love."
"Perhaps not," Hermione said, but she was surprised to realize she didn't quite mean it. It had seemed like love—yes, twisted and warped like the person who felt it, but real.
"What are your intentions?"
She snorted. "You mean, am I going to take advantage of him?"
Dumbledore didn't deign to respond to that. "Miss Granger, why is he so important to what you're doing here?"
"I don't think I can tell you. It's illegal and-"
"You have already broken several laws. Unless the Ministry has gotten much more lax in the future, and I fear the magical government does not trend in that direction, you used a time turner to go back far longer than the legal or safe time. At this point, telling me something more than you have is non-negotiable."
"The short version is that everything you fear about him is right."
"Miss Granger, I don't think you understand what that would mean. I have seen so much that my fears are extraordinary. I do not think you can know what you are saying."
She laughed. "I'm sure Grindelwald was a scarring lov—friend to have, and I'm sure that'll get worse before it's over, but dealing with him doesn't mean you can understand the man who murdered him."
"Tom stops him?" There was an odd edge in Dumbledore's voice. Hermione knew he wanted her to elaborate, but she paused, trying to figure out what the tone was.
Hope. Dumbledore hoped that someone else would step up and end an evil that he had let loose onto the world. For the first time, Hermione saw how young he really was. He had weathered a lot, but not as much as he thought. She felt like the older one.
"No, I'm sorry," she said softly. "I didn't mean that. He just kills him. A long time from now."
"Who stops him?"
"I understand why you want to know, but that has nothing to do with why I'm here. I can't just- explain everything that happened in the past."
Dumbledore sighed and took a lemon drop. "Back to Tom, then."
"It is a story that concerns you. I don't think it's a good idea to tell you much of it."
"Miss Granger, I want to trust you, but I cannot take everything on good faith."
"All right," she said. "All right." She stopped to arrange her thoughts. "Once," she said. "Once there was a boy." She blinked back tears and swallowed a lump in her throat. "He was born without love and he grew up without love and he decided that power was infinitely preferable. So he found a group of rich, cunning, ruthless people who were a little unhappy with how society was going. Not a lot, but a little, and he could use that. So he told them they were seeing a decline in the wizarding world, a slippery slope to savagery and darkness and that if they were brave and noble soldiers they could stop it. He promised to lead them into the light. I imagine it was rather like Grindelwald, really.
"And so they turned the whole world into a slaughterhouse in the name of progress. They killed men and women and—and children." Hermione swiped her hand across her eyes. "But they were not unopposed. Good people rose against them and fought. You fought. None of it was working, but then a woman who loved her son so much she would die to save him—she died. And she saved him.
"And then Riddle went away, conquered by the power of pure love." She probably shouldn't sound so sarcastic about that. "But he wasn't dead. Of course. Horcruxes."
Startled out of her rhythm by the interruption, Hermione laughed again at the question. "Many." She wondered when she had last laughed because she was happy rather than because her world was so dark that laughing felt like the only thing to do.
"So this boy, the one whose mother had saved him, you protected him, but you also raised him to be a weapon. And somewhere in the future he is still fighting, even though you aren't around to wield him anymore. He is fighting so hard and he is losing. But I thought if I could find Riddle's last horcrux, I could give Ha—give the people fighting him a chance. So that's why I'm here, to find it. And get rid of it, if I can. That's it, I suppose."
"That's a big responsibility for one as young as you."
"It's been mine—ours—since we were eleven."
"Did I do that?"
"Put it on the shoulders of an eleven-year-old."
Hermione felt the need to reassure him, which was a strange sensation. "It wasn't your fault. I never had a choice."
"Why?" Dumbledore looked as close to losing his calm as Hermione had ever seen him. "What took that choice away?"
She thought about saying that Riddle wanted to exterminate all of her kind, so it wasn't really like she could have just remained neutral, but that wasn't it, not really. It had been the troll that had done it. "I had people who needed me there. They were eleven too, you see." She didn't say that their involvement was partly Dumbledore's fault. It wouldn't change it—she knew he would make the same decision at the end.
"You must be very brave." The professor's eyes glistened. She had no answer. She didn't feel brave.
"But what about this necessitates getting close to Riddle?"
That was a more complicated question. "It—it wasn't planned, mostly. But even if I could get to when I know the information I'm waiting for already exists, I would die or go mad before I got to the present."
"Miss Granger." His voice was gentle. "When are you from?"
"1998. I was trying to go to 1971."
He was silent for a long time. Hermione's head hurt from the buzzing of the wards.
"My apologies, Miss Granger. I had assumed you were from the much nearer future. If that is true, returning to your own time sane and healthy would never have been possible even if you had arrived without incident."
"Yes." More silence. "I knew that. I planned for it. I just needed to survive long enough when I got back to tell my friends what I'd found out. But the problem is that from here even 1971 is a big enough jump to be lethal. I could have done it when I first got here, before I took hold in this year, but the time turner was broken and I couldn't go anywhere. Now... I might have time to find what I needed, but I'd never last long enough to communicate that information to my present.
"Since that method's out, I was planning to wait here until the information shows up. The issue is that I don't know how long that will take. It could be years and I'm worried about staying so long in the past that I die as soon as I get to the present. I couldn't be sure of the effects. They cut off the research—I'm sure you're aware—because of all the deaths and maimings and mental breakdowns.
"Then I thought maybe I could stay here indefinitely and hope I stay alive long enough to reach my present, but that's even riskier. I have no contacts here, and I'd be an undocumented Muggleborn trying to survive a time where being anything but Pureblood is a political liability even for major public figures.
"I think the best option right now may be to see if I can figure out from Riddle what the Horcrux is likely to be and, if possible, finding out when it is made. That means befriending him."
Dumbledore was deep in thought. He gave a little shake of his head at that. Something occurred to Hermione.
"Professor, when I got here, you suggested I stay in the Heads' dormitory. Feeling the way you do about Riddle, why did you do that?"
Dumbledore shook his head again. "Riddle had already come across a mysterious transfer student in his house and year. He would have been... curious if he had suspected me of hiding you from him. I hoped that if he saw you often, you would be an annoyance, nothing more, and you might be in as little danger from him as possible. I was mistaken."
"Riddle does love to upset your plans that way. Well. Anyway. It's all academic at the moment. You haven't had any luck contacting the Ministry, have you?"
"Miss Granger, I am very sorry."
"Well, we knew it might take a while to find out anything."
"Miss Granger, I have found out. The time turners currently at the Ministry are not capable of time jumps as big as you need. They can do a year or so. No more. That avenue is closed."
"Oh." Hermione hadn't thought it was possible this meeting could get any more depressing. She should have known better.
"I am so sorry."
"Well, that is unfortunate, yes." She straightened her back. "When we first talked, when I arrived, you said the other option was a wyrm? That they could help without a time turner?"
"I did, but Miss Granger, that was always a long shot. I only mentioned it in the interest of completeness. They are very rare and very, very dangerous."
"I'm in the business of looking for what's hard to find and probably fatal. Have been since I was eleven."
"Please don't. I have to find a way back. I will find out what I can about the Horcrux and then I'll head off to Europe. Failing that, I will stay in the past and wait for my future to come round again." Failing that, she would try to place the information somewhere Harry might find it at the last minute, and she would try to die in a way as inconvenient for Voldemort as possible. She didn't say that last bit out loud, because Dumbledore looked horrified already and she couldn't deal with watching him crack. He was still so young.
"Are we all right? You no longer suspect me of collusion with our resident cult leader?"
"No, Miss Granger, I do not. I want to say that you can always talk to me if you feel it will help. I may not understand everything, but I—"
"Thank you. Thanks." She stood and practically fled, leaving Dumbledore staring silently after her.
She planned to go straight back to her dormitory, since she was now even more in need of time for silent thought than she had been earlier, but she went past the library and out of habit went in and checked out two books on dragons and dragon-like species. She even gave the librarian her usual smile, though the tear tracks on her face probably ruined the effect a bit. Then she left and turned back toward her room.
"Miss Grey!" Hermione turned and saw Corentin Harad at the end of the hall, framed by the torches behind him on the wall. She smiled bitterly. Of course. All her nervous energy rushed out of her as she watched him approach.
It was a brief conversation, and she didn't have to say much. Corentin said that he could not be a party to lies anymore, that he had a duty to his house. That he had to tell them all. That out of respect for their former friendship, he would give her some money to get out of Hogwarts rather than stay to disrespect the Purebloods further. He held out a sack, which Hermione did not take. He walked away.
As soon as he turned his back, Hermione raised her wand to Obliviate him, but her hand stalled in the air. In her current emotional state, she wasn't confident she could do a Memory charm with the precision necessary to let it go unnoticed. The spell wasn't in her wheelhouse anyway. She could live with damaging Corentin's mind as part of the cost of war, but if she botched it, not only Corentin but the other Slytherins would notice it and that could spiral out of control easily. She resolved to wait and see how things shook out. Maybe she could find a way to turn it to her advantage. If not, at least she had Dumbledore to discuss it with.
"Let's talk about Cathy," Riddle said as he sat alone with the twins in a small courtyard on the ground floor of Hogwarts. "Imagine she's been working hard to get food for you, Lavinia, and you, Hadrian, and for all of the other children at the orphanage. She's been doing her best but she doesn't quite have enough money." Lavinia's eyes were wide and sad. Hadrian looked bored. "Now imagine that she passes by a big bakery and she can smell the breads and cakes. The baker is there and she can see that he and his family have all they need and more. She decides to steal a loaf of bread to feed you and the other orphans. A policeman sees her taking it and arrests her. What do you think about that?"
Lavinia frowned. "That's bad," she said decisively. "Cathy was helping us. She shouldn't be arrested for that."
Hadrian looked as though he concurred that Cathy shouldn't have to face consequences, though Tom imagined his logic was different and probably a lot closer to Tom's own than Lavinia's.
"But isn't stealing against the law, darling?" Tom asked Lavinia.
"It shouldn't be," Lavinia concluded. "Not when she's helping people."
"A very wise position," Tom said. Lavinia glowed with the praise. "Dark magic is similar. A lot of it is against the law and even very good wizards like Dumbledore sometimes get upset when it's used, even if it's being used to help people. So you can't tell anyone I talk to you about it, all right? Because they might try to stop us talking about it. It'll be our secret."
Riddle surveyed the twins to see what effect his words were having. Lavinia looked appropriately impressed with the necessity of keeping Tom's little chats about Dark magic a secret. Hadrian looked impressed at having a secret and also seemed to have a slightly better grasp of what was meant by Dark magic. He had kept shooting glances at Leila, who was curled up on Tom's neck during the discussion. Everything was going according to plan.
That didn't just go for the situation with the twins, either. Things were progressing nicely with Grey as well. He had decided to make her think he loved her because he wanted to keep her off-guard. Now that he realised that she identified him with someone who had hurt her, he knew that the best way of doing that was to be affectionate towards her in every way possible. Her intelligence, her obvious combat experience, her magical power, and her mysterious background made it highly likely that she would be useful to him in the future. He highly doubted that he could make her fall in love with him, given how much animosity towards him she felt at the moment. He could, however, make her trust him if he could make her think he very much disliked the idea of hurting her. That mission seemed to be going well.
Riddle was smiling benevolently down at the twins when Eileen appeared at the other end of the courtyard and made her way towards them.
"Tom, I need to speak with you."
"Hadrian, Lavinia, go just there, inside the door. I'll take you to get warmed up in a minute. What is it?"
"Corentin told me something today. About Grey."
When Eileen was done, Riddle counterfeited shock and felt nothing but satisfaction. He had known there was something odd about her. She had probably imagined herself at Hogwarts, visited before, but had decided to go to one of the foreign schools, as Muggleborns with ties to other countries sometimes did. Home school was a convenient Pureblood equivalent and it made sense that she would have used that as her explanation. That explained the red and gold he had seen her wearing in her thoughts, if she had been convinced that her Hogwarts house would be Gryffindor. How shocked she must have been to find herself in Slytherin.
And the locket... He had an idea that that might prove less impenetrable now that he knew this.
Questions remained. How did she know a Weasley? Had he been wrong in his identification of the boy he had seen? And why would she would have transferred to Hogwarts at a time when the rise of Grindelwald was a well-known reason to fear wizarding Britain? He bought the idea of Grey running towards a fight: it fit with his idea of her character and he was pleased by it for reasons he couldn't put a name to.
All this passed through Riddle's mind while Eileen waited for him to say something. At last, he said, "Go ahead. I'll come in in a moment. Thank you for telling me." Prince turned back towards the entrance to the castle. Palming his wand, Riddle rose to follow close behind her.
Hermione stood in her room with the shattered Time Turner in her hands. It glittered like fool's gold—mocking her with its uselessness. Though she knew she ought to go down to dinner soon, she was sure Corentin meant what he said about informing the Slytherins that they had a Muggleborn in their midst.
Unless he was being aggressive about finding them, Corentin wouldn't have run into Eileen or Seraphina yet and she didn't think he liked Abraxas enough to speak to him directly. If she went down to dinner, she might have one more moment in which they looked at her as an equal, treated her with deference and even with warmth. But then, she might not.
Even if they were blood purists, even if every moment around them required mental energy to keep up a ruse, it was lonely to imagine them ceasing to speak to her.
She wasn't entirely certain how things would play out with Riddle. As a half-blood trying to hide it, he had less leeway to keep a Mudblood pet than one of the others might. This was especially true because she was pretty certain he was already planning to head a violent purist faction, whether or not he had foreseen the end of Grindelwald. Yet he loved her. No matter what, she could use that, not just to protect her in this but also to help her find the last Horcrux. That was what she was there for. That and nothing more.
Mustering her pride and her Pureblood face to weather the coming storm, Hermione stepped out into the Heads' common room.
Riddle was waiting there and he was smiling. It was now for the first time that Hermione felt she could imagine what confronting the diary version of Riddle must have been like for Harry. With his hands folded before him and that queer smile Riddle looked like a black-and-white photograph come to life. The blurring of past and present did not dilute the menace coming off of him. Hermione found herself sucking in small, frightened breaths. This was another of the moments when she really remembered everything Riddle had done and would do. He loved her violently, in the most serious sense of the word. And she could see that he knew what she was.
"I found it. Witchcraft," he said slowly. "Witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate's offerings." He took a step towards her and Hermione took a step back so that she was backed against her door. He followed her.
"And withered murder, alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf, whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, with Tarquin's ravishing strides..." He was so near to her now that he had to hold his arms tight to his body in order to keep them open, visible, non-threatening. Hermione could see the pale undersides of his wrists with their blued tracks of veins. He put his hands lightly on her arms and goosebumps prickled all along their length. Hermione waited for the last line, but Riddle only looked at her. Hermione swallowed and did not miss the way his eyes flicked towards her throat with the instinctive focus of a predator.
"May I?" Tom said.
If he had stabbed her, Hermione would have been less shocked and less distraught. She felt the door at her back like a fence and she could smell cool, dry earth. Riddle's smell.
She knew she need to get a hold of herself. The game was on and she had turned it into this. She couldn't lose, not on this footing. If she did, the grudging respect and budding love she had wrested from Riddle would be wrenched away in a heartbeat. He was not the type to love an adversary easily defeated. "Yes," she said.
"Towards his design moves like a ghost." And Riddle kissed her. His lips were dry and firm. When Hermione opened her mouth a little, he tasted metallic. Neither of them moved much or pulled the other closer. They just stood in a kiss while long seconds stretched out around them. It was Riddle who pulled away first.
"You're shaking," he said.
"I'm afraid," Hermione said, shocking herself as much as him by the admission. Once upon a time, she had been a person who couldn't lie under pressure. She hadn't thought she was that person any more.
"This is frightening," he said and Hermione had a wild mood swing towards hysteria. He wasn't scared, she knew, and he didn't even believe he was fooling her.
"What do you want, Tom?"
"Now or in general?"
"Right now, I want you to come down to dinner with me."
When she was still playing the Slytherin game, Hermione would have said she was indisposed. If Riddle knew she was Muggleborn, that meant Corentin had already told other people and there was no joy for her in seeing the Slytherin seventh-years at dinner. Still, she had decided to try to remember what being a Gryffindor had meant and Gryffindors didn't run from fights even when they were destined to lose. Her inner voice, which was beginning to sound disconcertingly like Riddle's voice, asked her if that was why so many Gryffindors were dead.
The walk down to the Great Hall felt endless. Hermione didn't let Riddle take her arm and after one shadow of an attempt, he pulled back and didn't try to make her. Her ankle was no longer at all hurt, so he had no excuse to do so. Lavinia and Hadrian appeared and trailed behind them like wraiths. It was creepy how much they evidently depended on Riddle's company, but then that was starting to sound rich coming from her.
The Slytherin table looked as it always did: elegant, composed, but lively all the same. Even though she knew how accomplished at dissembling Pureblood teenagers were, Hermione was surprised at how warm the seventh-years' smiles to her were. She didn't know what she had expected, but something akin to a public shunning had seemed much more likely than their quietly pretending nothing had happened. She wasn't sure this was the better option, since she would know what they were thinking behind their smiles, what they were merely waiting to say until they were alone.
She and Riddle sat down, inconveniently with Corentin on Hermione's right. Corentin laid a hand on Hermione's shoulder and she jumped out of her skin. She could barely make herself turn and face him, but when she did, he said, "I seem to have been missing you since you got back, Miss Grey. I was very sorry you had to go before we could have you visit the house. My aunt was very much looking forward to it." Hermione just gaped and Corentin continued more quietly, "Tom explained about your family emergency."
"Erm, yes..." Hermione looked around her, bewildered, and felt Riddle's finger tap once against the crook of her arm. She shot him a glance and at once understood.
Corentin was still talking, even more quietly now so that Hermione had to strain to hear him. "There have been a lot of family emergencies lately. That's why Dodgewood left." Hermione fought to keep her face blank at the mention of the Slytherin Riddle had saved her from. She was fairly sure he hadn't gone home, or anywhere really, and trying to seem neutral about that while also coping with the fact that Riddle's tactic for dealing with people who knew inconvenient things seemed to be to get rid of their memories, with considerably more finesse than she had ever seen it done. "The war has ripple effects," Corentin said finally. "No one is safe." Hermione tried to return his significant look in kind.
When Harad turned away from her to eat, Hermione turned to Riddle. "You have got to stop doing that," she said softly but with venom.
Riddle seemed to think she was making a joke. He smiled his best charming-the-professors smile and said, "You're welcome."
"I'm serious, Tom."
"You would have preferred I had let things fall as they might?"
Hermione, conscious of Abraxas opposite them studiously ignoring their conversation, said only, "I was handling it."
Riddle laughed, making no effort to conceal the noise, so that all of the other seventh-years looked towards them. "You're very brave, Grey. Got a little bit of Gryffindor in you, have you?"
He knew about that, too, and he was making jokes about it in front of everyone. She kicked him under the table. Then she remembered herself and was suddenly as scared as she had ever been. Hermione had forgotten for a moment he wasn't Harry or Ron and she wasn't in a snit over the way they never did their work without prompting.
Riddle was silent. She forced herself to meet his eyes. He turned towards the center of the table, and helped himself to a serving of mashed potatoes. "Eat up, Grey," he said. His smile as he turned back toward her was private, intimate.
Hermione's hands trembled all through dinner. The future felt very far away.