Chapter 30: At a Loss
The proverbial clock was ticking as they waited for Severus to return.
Harry and Ron were playing wizard’s chess. Ron winning, naturally. The two Malfoys were standing in the corner, Lucius looking mighty angry at Draco as he berated his son for leaving the safe house. Remus was sitting on the sofa reading, but he’d failed to turn a page within the last five minutes.
And Hermione occupied the chair by the unlit fireplace, her fingers tangled in the chain of her locket. Her wrist was still throbbing, the black marks just as angry as they’d been over an hour ago when she’d noticed them, but the ache wasn’t necessarily painful. It was more of a reminder. How she could forget anything to do with Tom Riddle though, Hermione didn’t know.
In fact, when they’d all come into the library to await Severus’s return, all Hermione was capable of doing was remembering, one scene after another. Memories of her husband.
Her boss was doing it again. He was staring at her while she went through the inventory reports. They only had two vampire fangs, four strands of unicorn hair, and half a pint of mermaid’s tears left. She’d fill out an order form and send it to their supplier before she left for lunch with Tom.
Hermione’s eyes scanned down the list and she ignored the feeling of being watched. It wasn’t that Theodore Baker was a perverted man, or if he was he hid it well. He never said anything inappropriate or anything of a sexual nature to her, but when she was distracted or when her attention was on the other side of the store she could feel his eyes roving over her. He was nearly three times her age and had wide blue eyes hidden under bushy gray eyebrows.
She shivered. She loved her job at the potions apothecary, but there was something about the way her boss looked at her. He certainly admired her intelligence and her work ethic. He told her, in no uncertain terms, she was the best and most capable employee he’d ever had. At the time, her chest had swelled with pride. She’d been turned down nearly everywhere else for being a woman, but the day her boss promoted her was justification. Take that Ministry of Magic! She was a witch, a wife, and a supervisor!
Since that day, Mr. Baker began watching her. He watched her as she stocked the shelves, as she drank her tea, or as she did the inventory. Odds were against the looks being of a sinister nature, though they were still disconcerting. He looked at her like she stared at an interesting book, or like the way Ron looked at a book, rather. Like he was trying to decipher a great mystery and failing miserably.
Signing the order form, Hermione stood from her desk, Theodore Baker flinching as she looked his way. Whatever the cause of his staring, Hermione was glad when Tom arrived.
He walked into the shop in a confident stride, his eyes scanning for her. Mr. Baker was quick to avert his gaze when Tom went to him.
“Where is my wife?” he asked coldly.
Mr. Baker’s eyes flicked over to her, then to Tom’s, and then to the floor again. Hermione frowned. Why was her boss so afraid of Tom? They’d only met a handful of times.
“Here Thomas,” Hermione smiled, ignoring the byplay between the two men. It was surely her imagination.
Tom turned to her, his expression still indifferent but his eyes crinkling slightly in greeting. “Are you ready for lunch?”
She nodded. “Let me send this owl to our supplier. I’ll meet you outside.”
He gave a brisk nod, his eyes cutting to Mr. Baker once more before he left the shop. Interesting that, she thought.
Tying the missive to Hoot, the store owl, Hermione sent the little bird on his way and grabbed her cloak.
“I’m off to lunch now, Mr. Baker. I’ve sent the order to Mr. Gibbons and set the remaining mermaid tears out for display. Is there anything else you need done before I leave?”
She always asked if he needed her to do anything before she left for lunch or break. He’d told her once that it wasn’t necessary. Hermione never left anything half-done around the store. He trusted her to leave and be back within an hour.
He shook his head. She swung her cloak on and turned to leave.
“Hermione,” he said abruptly, his voice cracking on the last syllable of her name.
She twisted her head and pinned him with a confused frown. He was always careful to be excruciatingly polite to her and unnecessarily formal. He’d never called her by her first name before. It was always Mrs. Riddle.
“Yes, Mr. Baker?” she asked warily.
“It’s not my place,” he began, rising from his seat as his eyes shifted to the front door. “You’ve worked for me nearly a year now. I did not want to hire a woman, did not believe you would last a fortnight, but I’ve watched you work. You’re smart. You’ve always been kind to our customers and your fellow employees, even when they looked down on you.”
She smiled in confusion, her feet shifting nervously to the door as he closed in on her.
“I’ve watched you blossom, Hermione,” his blue eyes crinkled into a smile that didn’t quite make her nervous as much as confused. “It’s not my place, I know. I’m not your father, but if you’re being mistreated at home, I’ll help you.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll help you leave him, Hermione. He won’t control you anymore.”
“W-what?” her voice quivered.
“Your husband,” Mr. Baker stated, his eyes once again flicking to the door Tom had exited a moment ago. His eyes wide, he nodded slowly.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
But she did know. It made sense now, how carefully he watched her. He thought Tom was abusing her. Was he looking for bruises as he stared at her? Maybe he stared at her so long because there was never a scratch on her. She didn’t know whether to be amused or horrified.
“I love my husband, Mr. Baker,” she whispered, her eyes softening as she looked out the window. She couldn’t see Thomas, but she knew he was there, waiting for her. Her hand rose to her neck and her fingers lightly grazed her locket. “We are very happy together.”
Despite her honesty, it was clear he did not believe her.
She left without saying anything else. She did not have the time or patience to convince the well-meaning man, and Thomas would be suspicious if she kept him waiting.
He was leaning against the brick wall to the left of the shop window, his black robes sharp and neatly pressed. He nodded stiffly in greeting and she slipped her arm through his, ignoring the searching eyes of Mr. Baker as he watched them walk away.
“What took you so long?”
Hermione smiled, but was careful to keep her eyes averted. “He asked me about the inventory.”
She could feel him looking down at the top of her head. “Tell the truth now.”
She sniffed. “Can’t keep anything from you, can I?”
He smirked and reached out to open the door to the Leaky Cauldron. They didn’t speak until they sat at their table and ordered.
“Well?” he asked as their waitress walked away.
“It’s funny, really,” Hermione said.
He gave her a sharp look. “Why aren’t you laughing then?”
“Mr. Baker stopped me before I left,” she spilled out in a rush.
Tom set his butterbeer down, his expression excruciatingly neutral. “And?”
She fiddled with her silverware. “He’s a silly man, Thomas. He didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Hermione,” he said warningly.
“He was,” she hesitated before settling on- “concerned.”
She could tell he was starting to get angry. His eyes were narrowed, his lips were a thin line, and he had a tendency to speak in short, clipped words when he was upset.
“You,” she admitted. No point in skirting the issue, really, when she always caved in the end.
“I see,” he murmured.
“It was actually kind of touching. Misplaced, but touching,” she said. Her voice was overly cheerful in an attempt to advert Tom’s anger.
Her attempt failed.
“Meddling old fool,” he muttered. “I’ll see to him.”
Her heart froze and fear jabbed at it. She hated it when he talked like that. Hated it even more when he followed through. “Tom, you mustn’t,” she whispered, conscious of the many people crowding the inn for the lunch hour.
“Mustn’t I? They have to learn, Hermione. They have to learn their place and they must know that you are mine. No one will take you from me.”
Hermione bit her lip to keep from pointing out it was that attitude Mr. Baker was so concerned about. “He’s an old man, Thomas. Don’t hurt him. Please. For me.”
She could tell he wanted nothing more than to deny her request, but she refused to give up so easily. Her gaze held steady with his, a silent plea in her eyes.
“Very well,” Tom said. Hermione let out the breath she’d been holding, but could not bring herself to relax completely.
Now, if only she could convince him to not hurt anyone else in the Wizarding World – then she’d be in business.
Hermione’s eyes flickered to Harry who was frowning at the chessboard. “Round two?” he asked, not particularly interested in playing the game so much as looking for a distraction.
She needed a distraction too, Hermione decided. Too many memories were spinning in her head, waiting on the sidelines to be called into the game.
“Harry, Ron,” she spoke softly, but they heard her clearly in the tension filled room.
Ron looked hopefully at her and Hermione felt a twinge of guilt for being so mean to him earlier. Even if he was a prat.
A small, timid smile curled her lips. “I’m feeling catty,” she said.
Matching grins instantly blossomed on their faces. She realized suddenly that it had been a long time since she’d seen their carefree smiles and decided that the grins suited them a lot better than the frowns they’d been sporting lately. There certainly wasn’t much to smile about these days, but she’d find a way to make them smile like that again. And frequently.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Remus was quick to chime in.
Hermione knew he hadn’t been reading.
“Yes,” Lucius said. “That would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.”
Hermione smiled and found it so easy to forget suddenly. “Or an incredibly Gryffindor thing to do,” she countered.
“Stupidity and Gryffindor are synonymous, my dear,” his tone was sickly sweet. “And you weren’t always a Gryffindor.”
Her good spirit evaporated at the casual reminder. “Thanks Lu,” she muttered sadly.
Lucius admirably fought off a wince. “You know what I mean, Hermione.”
“No I don’t,” she snapped. Quite suddenly she was furious. Why wouldn’t he let her forget? Didn’t she deserve and hour or two of freedom, with no strings attached? Hadn’t she been through enough to warrant that?
“Did you just call my father Lu?” Draco asked.
“Shut it, Malfoy, no one’s talking to you,” Ron said.
Again with the fighting. Was it ever going to end?
I can set you free. Only I have the key to your chains, my dear. You need only but ask, Tom whispered.
She shot out of the chair. She couldn’t stay one more minute in that room, with them fighting again, and with Tom’s tempting offers getting even more appealing.
“I’m going out,” she said, her steps were fast and twitchy as she moved to the door. “Don’t follow me.”
She made it to the hall and apparated before they could stop her.
It was a very ‘Harry’ thing for her to do. Very impulsive. She knew better than to let her emotions control her actions, but it seemed like the years of fear and sadness had caught up with her and she could no longer control them. Instead, she had to run from them.
So she ran.
When she reappeared, she hadn’t really known where she was. That was another stupid thing for her to have done. She’d apparated so quickly, not wanting to give them the chance to stop her, that she’d barely thought of the coordinates of her destination. She could have easily splinched herself or worse.
Still, she made it to the cemetery in one piece.
The resting place of her parents was a very secluded cemetery surrounded by trees. At this hour, no one was around, and in an another attempt to escape from her human emotions, Hermione fell to her hands and knees in the form of a mountain lion. The transition from human to cat was a blessing, for as soon as her paws hit the floor, the dull roar of emotions was pushed back as animal instinct took the front seat.
Her tail flicked lazily before she dashed towards the furtherest part of the cemetery where two headstones marked the final resting place of Hank and Helen Granger. It took her mere seconds to get there and with amazing control, Hermione the lion stopped, walked a tight circle before plopping down and staring at the tombstones.
She felt the sadness push up against her protective barrier which made her inner cat mewl and hiss unpleasantly. Forcefully she pushed it back. She’d turned into the beast to forget her human pains. All she wanted to do was forget, if only for a little while.
She sighed, her body relaxing as she fell to her side with her back brushing the tombstones as she rested her head lazily on a paw. What little sun there was felt heavenly on her back, the warmth stretching through her body as her shoulders relaxed and she sighed again, a purr forming on the exhale. As a cat, the world was amazingly simple. Tom’s voice didn’t reach her feline ears, and her human troubles seemed years away. It was tempting to remain there forever, finding solace within the cat.
In the past, and she forced herself to view her life with Thomas in the past-tense, she hadn’t felt safe enough to give herself over to her inner cat. At the end of her seventh year, she held back the turn in transfigurations and stood in class with a fake look of concentration on her face. No one had turned that year, although Minerva’s form did flicker. Hermione suspected Tom could have, if he really wanted to, but had probably held back the change for reasons similar to her own. Secrecy.
As she laid on the grass, lightly purring and basking in the rare sunlight, Hermione realized how much she’d missed being a lioness, missed the life of mere instinct and no responsibilities. As she dozed there, Hermione embraced the solitude and relished the closeness to her parents.
Before she’d been thrown into the time loop, the death of her parents had been fresh. She’d been so hurt and angry. But more than that, she’d been so lost. If Remus hadn’t taken her in, she was sure to have lost her mind. Time had a way of healing wounds, though, even the ones people think will never fade. She’d had nearly three years to mourn her parents, and while the wound was healed, there’d always be a tender scar that ached from time to time like a Grandpa’s rheumatism that acted up right before it was about to rain. She wasn’t happy with the situation, but she could think back on her mother and father and feel something more than the gaping hole in her chest left by their absence.
A subtle rustling pierced her thoughts. Instincts took over, her ears twitching to the bushes to her right as she rolled from her side, turning her lazy nap into a crouch, legs tense in concentration as her unblinking gaze bored into the bushes.
The rustling started again and a low rumbling started in her chest in response.
Quick as lightening, a rodent darted from the leaves. Her eyes caught the flash of silver of the rat’s front paw and not even half a second later she pounced, her limbs pushing her through the air and her jaw locking around the rat, not tight enough to kill him, but with a warning pressure that told him she could, very easily, if she wanted.
The rat turned, his image rippling, and then it was a wizard she held captive. The years had not been kind to Peter Pettigrew, who even in his human form looked more like a rat than any man had a right to. Her jaw was locked around his wrist and she tightened her hold in warning.
He twitched and whined in response.
“Please,” he begged. “Please don’t hurt me!”
He was quite pathetic, and her cat-self was getting tired of toying with him, unimpressed with his pleas. The urge to give in to her anger was strong. His skin was nothing against her claw and tooth. She’d rip through him like butter. Her growl was loud and inescapably clear. If he didn’t stop moving, she’d kill him.
“Please!” His cry took on a higher pitch. “Please, my lady!”
Her growling ceased and disquiet settled in her chest. Without thinking, Hermione transformed, leaving her cat-self behind and she found herself crouching unsettling close to the traitor.
Pettigrew smiled. It was obvious he found Hermione the witch laying on top of him to be much more appealing than Hermione the mountain lion. Flinching in disgust, Hermione threw herself off of him and simultaneously went for her wand.
Her hand was steady and her voice firm as she hissed, “What did you just call me?”
Pettigrew’s dirty grin died and his whole body twitched as if random intervals of electricity was being shot through him. It took Hermione a moment to figure out it was because he was scared. Of her.
“M-my lady,” he said.
Which is exactly what she’d thought he said. “Why did you call me that?”
“I live to serve,” he whined, his head bowed in obedience.
She inwardly scoffed. What a poor excuse of a wizard, and an even poorer excuse for a man.
“I’m taking you to the Ministry,” she announced.
“Please,” he begged. “You must listen.”
“I most certainly do not,” she bristled. “I don’t give a fig why you’re here, but you’ll come with me peacefully if you don’t want to get hurt. Get up and let’s go. And no funny business now unless you want a stunner between the eyes.”
“I bear a message from your husband.”
She froze. “W-what did you just say?”
Her heart was beating painfully against her ribcage and her breathing turned shallow.
And the filthy wizard smiled knowing he was suddenly safe from the Ministry officials.
“My lord bid me to give you this token,” he stated, digging into his pocket and tossing an envelop on the grass at her feet.
She looked down at the envelop and in that split second, Pettigrew disapparated.
But she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her eyes were riveted on the sharp, precise writing that had scrawled her name, Hermione Riddle, across the front.
Don’t touch it, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Harry whispered. It could be a portkey.
And outside of her cat form, Tom was also talking to her, his words dripping like poisoned honey in her ear. Not a portkey. No, you’ll come to me willingly in the end because you know where you belong…
She snatched up the letter before she lost the courage, her body tensing in preparation for the portkey to activate and whisk her off to some castle or dungeon or whatever. But nothing happened. She sighed, disappointed and relieved, and slid her thumb under the tab, pulling out a parchment written in Tom’s efficient hand.
I forgive you your lies, Hermione, but do not try me. My patience has worn thin these fifty odd years and if you do not return soon then I will be forced to collect you. Do not displease me.
It was unsigned.
Dear Merlin. Her hand went limp and the letter drifted to the floor. Thoughts chased each other in her head, each one nipping the previous in the heels. What does he want? Has he really waited all this time for me? Will he kill me? Does he… want me?
Through the confusion though, a random thought surfaced.
Slowly, laughter bubbled in her chest. It wasn’t the carefree sound of good humor, but a desperate laugh that was borderline hysterically.
He sent me a threatening note… Just like Grindelwald.
She laughed until the giggles turned into sobs that drowned her. At a loss in her sea of despair, her hand came up and fondled the locket, her life preserver even now knowing what it sealed inside.
What was she going to do?