Chapter 26: Whispers in the Dark
It was Ron, of course, who was the first to snap.
They’d been living in Grimmauld Place for nearly two weeks now and the tension between Hermione and the other occupants was making the hair on the back of her neck stand in a constant state of attention. The air was heavy between them with unspoken accusations and disappointments. It was Harry’s idea, oddly, that they remove themselves from the school and reside once more in the gloomy house that homed the Order of Phoenix. Minerva had agreed before she’d realized Harry had meant for him and Ron to leave as well.
“Mr. Potter, you have not completed your final year,” Minerva said, scandalized.
Harry did not back down. “We’re tired of hiding away here and doing nothing about Voldemort and the war. We wouldn’t have even come back this year in the first place had Hermione…”
He trailed off and while Minerva still did not agree with them, she did not bring the matter up again.
And so Hermione found herself, Remus (who resigned from his teaching post), Lucius, Severus, Harry and Ron residing together in the depressing house. They were oddly matched flatmates and even if the circumstances had been different, Hermione knew much of the tension between them would remain.
She spent the first three days holed up in the room she and Ginny occupied during the summer. The men of the house took turns bringing her meals and more often than not they’d sit untouched at the base of her door. Hermione could not bring herself to deny Harry, though, who came to her with silent but understanding eyes holding a tray of food. After two days of refusing meals from everyone else, the others didn’t even bother to try and just sent Harry up to her.
Those three days were spent in guilty mourning. She barely slept and when sleep managed to claim her she was visited by nightmares of darkness, phantom caresses, and a sibilant voice that should not have comforted her as much as it did. Her waking hours were spent fighting off memories. It seemed that no matter how she tried to reconcile herself to the fact she would never see Tom Riddle again, her heart refused to accept it. Whenever one of the others would enter the house and slam the door shut, her heart would freeze, thinking it was Tom coming home from work. She held her breath when someone would walk up the stairs and pause before her bedroom. It reminded her of when Tom would pass by their kitchen and pause in the entryway to listen to her hum and sing.
But the moments passed and her heart would fall each time it was denied the person she most longed to see. The person she would never see again.
She heard his voice sometimes, as surely as he was standing behind her. She could sometimes feel the small tuft of air as if he hovered behind her whispering into her ears. She could imagine feeling his lips brush softly against her earlobe.
“You are mine, Hermione,” his voice would echo in her head. She’d jump and spin around in her chair. But Tom was never there.
She ventured out of her room on the fourth day. Remus had prepared a light lunch and the boys had just sat down to eat when she entered the kitchen. The already silent room froze. Her hair was a mess, there were circles under her eyes, and her clothes were wrinkled.
“Hermione,” Ron smiled.
She did not return his grin.
“Please, come in and eat, Hermione. I’ve just fixed us some sandwiches,” Remus said.
She did not move from the doorway and remained silent as she stared vacantly at them. She had left her room because she’d been going nutters with Tom’s voice in her head and she desired company to distract her.
“Sit Hermione,” Severus said.
“Eat, you are far too thin,” said Lucius.
She ignored them all and blinked, uncomprehending. But when Harry spoke, his voice was not forcefully cheerful like with Ron or Remus and it was not carefully neutral as with Lucius and Severus. He spoke to her as casually as one would inquire about the weather.
“You didn’t finish breakfast this morning, Hermione,” he said, very matter-of-fact. “Join us for lunch.”
She moved into the room, taking the seat Harry vacated as he got up to fix her a plate.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked.
Hermione knew the answer to that was obvious, but she answered him anyway, her voice quiet. “No,” she said.
He nodded. “Tonight I’ll fix you a cup of the chamomile tea. It always worked when you made it for me.”
“Alright,” she said.
“And we’ll do a spot of reading in the library before you sleep. Perhaps Hogwarts, A History. They’ve released a new edition, did you know?”
“Well they have. Remus was able to snag a copy yesterday in Diagon Alley. It’s been more popular than I’d have thought.”
“Yeah,” Ron jumped in. “Who’d have thought you weren’t the only one to read it, eh Mione?”
Hermione set her sandwich down and pushed away her plate. “I’m not so hungry.”
Harry nudged the plate back to her. “Nonsense. It’s good, you’ll see. Try it.”
She did. It didn’t taste bad, but it wasn’t particularly good either. Food seemed to taste like ash to her these days.
Harry, who’d been watching her pointedly to make sure she ate, turned back to his own meal. “After this, we’ll go read. I’ve already flipped through the new edition, but I want to know what you think about the revisions to chapter four, seven, and twelve.”
Her eyes filled with tears as she dropped her sandwich again to look at him. Harry had never been good with depressed females and she wondered why he was the only one who seemed to know exactly what to say. Why was it that everyone else’s company was nearly unbearable, but his presence was not? She wondered where this new Harry had come from. How was he able to show up the instant her thoughts and sorrow overwhelmed her? How did he know exactly what to do and say?
He looked up from his meal, feeling her eyes on him, and smiled slightly. His eyes were kind and unassuming. There was no pity there. It came to her then, as their eyes locked, what Harry was doing and how he knew what to say. He was treating her the same way she’d treated him after Dumbledore’s death. This wasn’t some hidden facet of his personality; he was just doing what he knew she would in the same situation.
“I’ve missed you, Harry,” she whispered.
No one else heard her. She thought for a second he hadn’t either, but then he reached across the table and squeezed her hand in his. “I know, Mione, I know.”
She came down for meals regularly after that, although she never ate as much as everyone thought she should. She showered each morning, donned clean clothes everyday, she’d read in the library or sometimes in the backyard, and each night Harry would sit with her in the kitchen and they’d drink tea in comforting silence. She generally spoke only when spoken to and often felt annoyed when anyone other than Harry would attempt to strike up a conversation.
“Up for some wizard’s chess, then?” Ron asked each time she would enter a room.
“Do you want to talk, Hermione?” Remus would say, frowning in concern.
Severus and Lucius would always say the same thing. “You need to talk eventually,” they’d say. They were right of course, but Hermione was finally beginning to feel something other than emptiness or sorrow. She was starting to feel the pangs of resentment, anger, and betrayal.
“They lied to you, Hermione,” Tom whispered to her every time she saw them fall silent each time she walked into the room. They’d obviously been talking about her. “They don’t deserve your love.”
It was three days short of two weeks when Ron snapped.
“Want to play wizard’s chess, Mione?” he asked as she entered the library.
“No,” she saidd. “I’ve no desire to watch little stone pieces club each other to death, Ronald, and I’ll thank you to stop asking.”
“Bloody hell, Hermione. What’s with the mood swings? Even you can’t be on the rag for two weeks straight, are you pregnant or what?”
“Quiet Ron,” Remus frowned in warning.
“Silence Weasley,” Lucius hissed, his eyes narrowed in threat.
Ron, of course, ignored the warnings. “No, I’ll not shut it. I’m tired of being ignored. I’m tired of having to act like she’s a spooked cat that’ll run if I so much as move. It’s time she got over him anyway, no good piece of dragon dung he is-”
“Shut up!” Hermione roared, and so surprised at her yell, he did. “You’ve no right, Ronald Weasley. No right at all to be talking about him like that. You don’t know him like I do. You didn’t see him the way I did. I would have been dead within the first week had it not been for him. He saved me from it all. He saved me!” she was crying as her voice grew louder with each word and her control on her rioting emotions slipped.
“Yes, I did save you,” Tom said to her. “And I’ll save you again if you want me to. I’ll save you from these blood traitors. They don’t love you. They don’t know you like I do.”
She shook her head but his voice still lingered. When she spoke again, her words wobbled and her hands shook. “I’ll thank you not to speak of my husband again.”
Back in her room, Hermione sat stiffly on her bed, tears rolling down her face as Tom’s ghost comforted her.
“They do not deserve your tears, Hermione. They are beneath you. Think on them no longer.”
She cried harder.
“Do not be so weak. You are stronger than this, my dear. You are above them.”
She shook her head. She could not believe such blasphemous thoughts. She refused to even entertain them.
“Do not be so modest. You know I speak the truth. You do not belong with them. Your place is with me,” his voice was dark and alluring, and in her mind’s eye she could see his hand reaching out to her, palm up, offering her the world in a hand basket for the price of her soul.
Such a tempting offer, though.
A knock sounded at the door and Hermione jumped and her hand, which had risen unbidden as if to take Tom’s, jerked to her face as she rubbed away her tears. She did not speak and hoped that whoever was outside would take her silence as a dismissal and leave her be.
Such was not the case.
The door opened and Severus entered.
“Hermione,” he said softly into the room’s darkness.
“Leave me be, Severus,” she said. Had it been Harry, she might have let him stay and he could sit with her in silence until she fell asleep, a routine that was increasingly more common each night.
“No,” he said. He was still speaking quietly, but she recognized the underlying steel in his words. He would not be leaving anytime soon. “I’ve brought you something. It is time to stop hiding from you past. Embrace it, accept it, and move on.”
He held out an envelope that she took after a slight hesitation. She had no inkling as to its contents, but what she found inside was probably the last thing she would have expected.
I confess myself at a loss. For years I have pondered how best to express my regret for the pain and sorrow I’m sure you are experiencing. How does one apologize for the way things must be? These few words may seem but a cold comfort to you at present, but perhaps years from now you will look back on this old fool and no longer feel anger and resentment, but instead acceptance and forgiveness. Wishful thinking on my part, mayhap, but as I write this and think of you know that I feel a fondness that would have been reserved for my daughter had I been blessed with one.
But I, too, feel sorrow and regret for what I now must ask of you. The road before you is part of my own orchestration, and it is long and it is narrow. A path that you alone must travel. It will be hard, of that I have no doubt, but perhaps at the end of your journey you will find happiness and peace. Merlin knows that you, Hermione, deserve both.
You know what must be done. Denial serves best the weak and ignorant, and you are neither. I wish I could be there with you. I wish I could shoulder your burden to take as my own, but such a thing is impossible.
If you are reading this, I have left this life and started a new adventure, and I deeply regret that I have nothing to offer you but mere words you will find empty despite their earnestness.
But know that you are not alone, not by any means. There are those who will help you in any capacity you need. Those who love and care for you, and will follow you no matter where you choose to lead them. The time has come, Hermione, not only to choose between what is right and wrong, but also what is easy.
I have the utmost faith that you will choose correctly.
You know the question and you have the answers. Use them well.
With deep and sincere fondess,
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
She blinked after reading the letter, her mind curiously blank.
“He wrote it after he realized the full extent of the damage caused by the ring.”
Hermione did not look away from the letter even as she lowered it quietly to her lap. She stared intently at the flowing, slightly pointed print. There was a small ink stain on the bottom right corner and she wondered, the first thought to cross her mind after reading it, why he hadn’t banished it away.
“I got the impression that he wished there was more he could say,” Severus said. “He wrote at least three drafts.”
Hermione looked away from the letter, but refused to meet his eyes and chose instead to look out the sole window of her room. The moon was half full and filled her room with pale ribbons of moonlight.
“Hermione,” Severus’s tone lacked its usual bite, but there was no short of disapproval in it.
“What?” she snapped back.
Severus sat beside her. “Self-pity does no become you. The world does not stop turning even if ours falls apart. There is much yet to do.”
She laughed, her tears spilling onto Albus’s letter and smearing the ink. She watched as the newly wet ink bled on the parchment. “What would you have me do, Severus? What do you want from me? I’ve played my part. What more could you possibly want? Haven’t I given enough? I don’t-” she sobbed. “I don’t have anything left to give.”
She felt his hand tentatively touch her shoulder. “I would have you happy again, Hermione. I would have you smile.”
Happy. When she thought about the word all she could picture was Thomas in his dress robes, he was always handsome but in his evening wear he was gorgeous, smiling ever so softly as they danced, their wedding rings catching the dim light in the restaurant and winking out like two stars in the night. She had been happy in Tom Riddle’s arms, dancing the night away.
“My husband is dead,” she said. “And you want me to be happy?”
“It is unwise to dwell only on sorrow. You are not the only one to have lost someone you love,” Severus whispered.
He was right. She was not the only one to have suffered from loss. Harry had lost almost everyone dear to him. Remus was the last true Marauder. Lucius was separated from his family, and Severus had lost his own life and chance at happiness. He’d offered up both on the altar to sacrifice for the cause.
“I’ve lost my husband not to death, but to his own darkness,” Hermione said. “It’s different.”
“To an extent,” Severus allowed.
She shook her head. “No, not to an extent. It is entirely different. It was always there, of course, lurking behind every glance and every touch. But I- I thought, foolishly maybe, that I could stop it. I was never meant to, was I? I only delayed the inevitable.”
“Time is a paradox. You cannot change that which has already happened.”
“Is it all my fault, then?” she asked. “Did I make him what he is today?”
“No,” he said firmly. “Tom Riddle chose his own path, as you must now do.”
“Your path ends with me, Hermione. No matter what you choose, I’ll come for you. You are mine.”
She frowned. “Has he called a meeting?”
“No,” he said. “He has been relatively inactive since your return.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know yet.”
“You know that is not true. If Potter knows, so does the Dark Lord.”
“Does he- will he try to kill me?” she asked.
“Never, my dear. You are mine. I always protect that which is mine.”
“No,” Severus said. “We do not believe so. It is unclear still what his intentions are.”
Hermione looked back down at the letter. ‘You know the question and you have the answers.’
“Do not lie to yourself. I hold the answers, Hermione. Do not defy me.”
She ignored him. She knew what was expected of her now. Severus was right. There would be plenty of time to mourn Tom Riddle after the fact. Right now, they had Lord Voldemort to worry about.