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Children of Mars

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For two months Hermione was pretty well convinced that Tom was never going to speak to her again.

She acknowledged that had every right to be furious with her. She did more than acknowledge it - it ate at her.

Hermione was pretty sure she'd tortured Tom Riddle. The guilt at what she'd done to him was only outweighed by the certainty that she'd do it again. And that just made her feel so much worse.

Never speaking to her again was a pretty mild outcome, but it was basically all Tom was really capable of. She allowed it, left him alone and tried not to bother him too much - she tried not to even really jostle him too much when she moved around, and certainly didn't cast any spells at his book or toss it around otherwise.

Instead she kept the diary in her bag with her things, but instead of addressing it, Hermione mostly tried to enjoy her trip to France with her parents and did her best to forget that the diary even existed.

It was hard, sometimes, because the diary had been, if not quite her friend, then at least a solid intellectual challenger, somebody who...

Well, actually, Tom's role in her life had mostly been to present Hermione with puzzles and then make fun of her until she made something of them. Usually something fascinating.

It was a hard thing for her to lose, but he seemed to want radio silence, so she gave it to him.

Hermione was surprised, therefore, when upon reaching a new hotel room, the diary tumbled out of her bag and fell conspicuously open upon the floor.

It was probably lucky that her parents had wanted a room of their own so badly (a thing Hermione was determined not to think too much about) because a book titled Annals of the Department of International Magical Cooperation's Lobby for Standardised Cauldron Bottoms 1977 - 1990 was a weird enough object for a twelve year old to be carting around, even without her revealing to her parents that the inside was completely blank.

Hermione eyed the diary where it had fallen, open and blank and waiting on the once-plush carpeting of a three-star Parisian hotel.

It could have been coincidence.

But it probably wasn't.

There was a white-painted wooden door between her room and her parents'. When the knock came, Hermione closed the diary and put it back in her bag.

"Come in," she said, reaching inside the backpack to slide her novel over the top of the diary, just in case somebody glanced in.

Her mother poked her head in. Jean Granger was a tall woman with an upturned nose and a tumbling spill of tightly-coiled dark hair. Her teeth were basically an advertisement for her practice: white, even, and frequently displayed. She had a bright smile.

"Are you settling in all right?"

Hermione nodded. "It's nice," she admitted, looking over her shoulder.

The bed in this room was a single, but the white linens looked crisp and clean against the warmly-painted walls and dark-patterned carpet. There was a print on the wall of the Eiffel Tower, and a white wooden desk.

Her bag was on that desk, and her eyes drifted toward Tom's diary.

"Yes, it's quite pretty - clean, too," she added approvingly. "Do you think you'll be able to entertain yourself for a bit? I know we planned on some sightseeing, but after the trip here your dad and I could really use a nap."

"I still have some homework to get through," Hermione said after a second. It wasn't entirely false because the essay set by Professor Snape was positively mean. She wondered how Ron and Harry were going with it...

Well, Harry was always terrible at getting his homework done, but she thought that was mostly due to the Dursleys. She still wasn't entirely clear on last year's bars-on-the-window fiasco, but they sounded genuinely awful. Hopefully this summer had gone better for him.

Jean's brow furrowed. "Did you bring your homework on holiday with you?" she wondered.

"Well," said Hermione, "it's holiday homework."

"...I suppose so."

There was a pause.

Jean sighed.

"It's really very interesting," Hermione tried.

"Hm," said her mother, looking a bit torn. Of course she wasn't about to confiscate her homework on the basis of my daughter studies too much. "Don't spend too much time on it, will you? You know you can relax sometimes. Maybe read a novel just for fun. You brought one of them, right?"

Hermione glanced back at The Tenant of Wildfell Hall resting on the top of the diary in her bag. "Yes."

Jean smiled again. "Well, you know what you're doing. We'll set the alarm for an hour or so, all right?"

And then she backed herself back into the other room and shut the door.

Hermione glanced down at her bag. She probably should look over that Potions essay again, but it was a lot more compelling to pull Tom's diary out and scrawl inside it.

Hello?

He didn't bother with the niceties, which Hermione supposed she ought to have expected Where are we? he asked instead. The ink was absorbed once more and then, after a moment, reused: I know we're not in the UK.

Hermione was used to Tom having narrow and spiky handwriting that was nonetheless unerringly precise. He seemed to be struggling with the ink she'd supplied through her ballpoint pen, and his writing looked even more jagged than usual.

No, France. I'll be back in Scotland in a week, she added, because there seemed no harm in letting him know.

There was a moment's pause, and he wrote: You brought my diary with you.

Hermione sighed.

Yes, of course she brought the diary with her.

Ideally, she could have gotten rid of his diary and let him pretend she didn't exist, actually, but...

The unfortunate truth was that Hermione would entrust him to nobody else's care. The basilisk was dead - and harvested for potions ingredients, according to Harry who'd had it from Dumbledore - but there was really no end of non-basilisk-related mischief that Tom could cause if he was allowed to roam free.

The alternatives to allowing him to fall into somebody else's hands were killing him or keeping him. Hermione still wasn't certain what the diary was or did exactly, but she was sure that the mind inside that diary belonged to a boy only three years older than her. She wasn't going to kill him. She just... wasn't.

I could hardly leave it laying about, she wrote finally. Who on earth knew what he might get up to? We certainly don't have to write if you don't want to.

Hermione knew from his own confession that he could - hibernate, sort of - when left alone, and that only opening and writing in the diary would force Tom's consciousness awake. She'd used that against him once.

Whether I control someone else or not hardly matters, in the long run, Tom wrote loftily, looking as though he'd quickly gotten the hang of the different ink.

Hermione eyed the statement and wondered. Was he referring to his adult self? Because she was fairly certain, the more and more she read of him, that Tom's adult self was absolutely barmy. And even aside from that, he'd been no more than grey ash and a scream on the wind the last time Harry had seen him roughly a year ago. She chewed a coil of hair thoughtfully.

She decided to ignore the implications of that. Tom had a very limited awareness of the world outside the diary and she was fairly certain he couldn't be much better informed than she was.

The writing faded and he didn't say anything else, but there was the sense of expectancy from the diary - and she noticed that he certainly hadn't answered her question about whether or not they ought to write to each other.

Hermione supposed that was as close to a 'yes' as a proud person like Tom ever got. We're in Paris, she wrote, a little like a peace offering.

If you're here anyway, Tom wrote, you should see the underground library.

La bibliothèque de la Seine - the great library beneath the river. It was an exciting thought, but Muggles were supposedly not even able to see the entryway - and her parents thought she was too young to 'wander' alone for very long.

I've been trying to convince my parents.

Muggles, he wrote, and said nothing else.

Hermione rolled her eyes. Clearly Tom wasn't cowed at all by their last confrontation. That was... annoying, but, in its way, also very comforting.

Tom Riddle, she finally realised, with a soft breath of air and an easing in her guts, was not the sort of person who could be permanently broken by a little bit of pragmatic torture.

They didn't speak again that day, but it was a start.

The underground library had its entrance in the Square du Vert-Galant, a small public park that made up the westernmost edge of the island in the middle of the river. There was a green-painted metal grate covering what seemed to be a maintenance box, half-heartedly disguised by crawling vines and leaves. The padlock opened to no key at all. Instead, it clicked gently free when tapped by a wand, and then behind the disused storage boxes was a cramped stairwell.

The stairs wound downwards in a tight single helix of uneven stone. The further down she went, the less the light from above followed her. At the bottom of the stairwell was a lantern strung from a hook in the wall.

A bored witch with frizzy red hair was waiting at the landing. It seemed to be her job to make sure none of the disguising charms fell through and nobody got lost or absconded with anything from the library, as far as Hermione could tell.

"Can Muggles really not get down here?" Hermione wondered quietly. She wasn't entirely sure if the witch would speak English. It was common that French witches and wizards would have some English, but the reverse was less so - at least among the ones Hermione had met.

"Non. Parce qu'ils sont stupides," she sniffed.

"Er," said Hermione, whose grasp on French was uncertain at best. She had a strong inkling about stupides, though. "Parlez-vous... anglais?"

"Oui. ...Une touriste? Parlez-vous français? Non? Quel choc."

She wasn't sure what she was saying, exactly, but her tone wasn't friendly. "Sorry - er, um," said Hermione, becoming a bit flustered. She opened her mouth and nearly said merci, je ne comprends pas. That was definitely not right. "Désolée?" she muttered finally, uncertainly, and fled deeper inside.

The library was amazing.

It was huge and cavernous. There were no flames in amongst the stacks, and no windows this far underground. Instead, light from the entrances was bounced between plates of polished metal until it hit a series of clear, glowing crystals that hung from the roof. They glowed cooler than fire and warmer than electric lights.

The light was plenty to see by, but probably not bright enough to be good for the eyes in the long term - as evidenced by the hunched, squinting figure of the only other witch down here. She looked up at Hermione as she edged past and gave a deeply unfriendly hiss, clutching a ragged piece of vellum in her bony hands.

Hermione scrambled past and glanced over her shoulder only once, mostly to be sure the witch wasn't following her.

Among the dim lighting the mishmash of stone and wooden cases loomed, huge and groaning beneath the weight of poorly-indexed books, scrolls, papers, journals and wood-cuts. There were isolated patches of organisation, where somebody clearly interested in a specific topic had taken pains to arrange a section of their interests all clumped together - here an overloaded shelf on the wizarding conspiracy behind the Norman Conquest (she was coming back for that), there a section on the terrible Muggle-Murdering Wolf of Soissons, a huge section on the uses of aconite in preventative potions (which seemed oddly specific), surprising amount of information on Marie de France's Bisclavret, a whole wall on the murderous Beast of Gévaudan...

Hermione got sort of lost. She certainly took a great deal longer than the 'hour or two' she'd promised her parents.

She came back to their rooms with her head full of new ideas and a satchel full of notes and references she'd have to look up later, some of which she was certain she'd never be able to find at Hogwarts.

As soon as she'd sat down to unpack her ink-spattered notes (with her equally ink-spattered hands), Hermione felt the urge to talk to Tom.

It wasn't sensible. She'd resisted the temptation for months, and now, having had a single conversation with him - mostly not even friendly - she found herself wanting to go right back to talking to him about magic.

She thought about it for as long as it took her to scrub the ink out of her nail beds in the tiny ensuite sink, but in the end it was harmless enough. She was aware of the compulsions on the diary, and she knew Tom wouldn't be able to overpower her unless she let him - and besides, he was likely to be lonely in there, anyway.

There was no good reason they shouldn't talk about areas of shared interest, surely.

I wasn't aware there was so much about the history of lycanthropy centred in and around Paris, Hermione wrote finally, once she'd given in and cracked open the battered book in which Tom Riddle's diary was hidden. But there was a whole separate section of the library here!

Certainly, Tom responded, after only a moment's pause to contemplate. The ink from Hermione's ball point pen was markedly thicker than the ink they used for quills, but Tom's handwriting was becoming more legible with practice. If you believe certain stories, it's where the curse originated in the first place.

Hermione had read that, too, but the evidence seemed very spotty and she told him as much.

You can't find a reliable source on anything much from 700 BC, Tom pointed out. Although honestly there's little evidence to suggest it is a curse in the technical sense. It's more like an infectious disease.

Hermione was not well-versed in what the 'technical sense' of a curse might be. Of all the areas she'd read about, dark magic was probably the one she'd read least - it was gross and not something she really wanted to practice. Historically it had also been used again and again against muggleborns like herself, which often made it stressful to read about because many relevant texts also contained long rambling diatribes on the topic of the terrible mudblood menace plaguing society. Extra reading for defence, such as it was, had been most of her attention to that area of study.

She nodded anyway, because lycanthropy did indeed seem much like a communicable disease. Although... some of those stories had been pretty ghastly, too. It definitely seemed like dark magic.

Well, at least it was sufficiently rare that she was unlikely to meet a werewolf.

Hermione had taken out a subscription to the Prophet only days after she'd received her Hogwarts letter two years ago. One of the very great advantages of the Wizarding World was that the post owls always knew where to find her, even if she was in another country.

The morning's copy of the Prophet arrived by owl that afternoon (presumably having been delayed by inclement winds across the Channel) with the smart tap tap of a predatory beak upon her window. Hermione gave the handsome post owl several knuts for his trouble and watched him wing away on soft, silent feathers until he was nothing but a speck in the sky.

She kept herself busy with reading it while her parents were occupied with visiting the Eiffel Tower. This was a tourist activity in which Hermione had very little interest, all told. The history of the Tower was doubtless fascinating, but in the end it was, basically, a building. She had books to read, and felt very clever for organising to see the library that morning instead.

The very front page of the paper was taken up by a picture of a gaunt, horrid man in a prisoner's duds. AZKABAN ESCAPEE! read the headline in enormous print. As she watched, the man clutched at his bars and bared his teeth at the camera.

Hermione frowned down at the image. She didn't know a lot about Azkaban, but... yes, there it was, even the paper said it: the famous wizarding prison had never before seen a break out. She read through the article quickly, feeling a little grim to discover that the escapee - Black - was a Death Eater. The Prophet might not have been willing to come right out and say it in those words, but it was certainly implied.

...that meant that when the mass murderer killed someone again, it would probably be a muggleborn.

The article's author also seemed to think he'd been implicated in the Potters' killing somehow, tying him up in some confusing narrative where he murdered their friend before laughing madly in the street. He couldn't have been the murderer of the pair, because that was pretty manifestly Voldemort. The paper wasn't entirely clear on his role.

Well, that was just... shoddy journalism, really. Hermione scowled.

Hopefully Harry wouldn't read this far. He didn't usually read past the 'continued on page-' for any given article, and only even looked at the paper when somebody shoved it under his nose in the first place. Maybe nobody would tell him.

After contemplating it for a few long and uncertain moments, Hermione turned back to the diary.

It's supposed to be very difficult to escape Azkaban, isn't it? She wrote. You'd have to be a very skilled wizard?

Azkaban? Tom responded. Not really. You'd just need help. But without help, he conceded, it would be extremely difficult. You'd need somebody to bring you a wand at least, I expect.

Quickly, Hermione outlined the context of her question. She left out the part about Black being a staunch supporter of Tom's future self. Some things it was clearly better he not be privy to. She certainly didn't want Tom conspiring to somehow end up in Black's hands.

It doesn't sound like they think he had help, she pointed out. The Prophet isn't always accurate, but it's fairly independent - they've printed some hair-raising stories about the Minister.

A sufficiently competent wizard might do it with just a stolen wand, but not after twelve years. No. Tom seemed very certain.

Because they'd be too... Hermione thought about the image of Black on the front page. A lot of words occurred to her. Worn. Gaunt. Broken. Unhinged. ...they wouldn't be strong enough?

No, fool girl, wrote Tom, with an exasperation she could feel through the cover, because of the dementors.

Hermione had only the vaguest idea what a dementor was, and resolved immediately to look them up at her earliest convenience. She could hope that her parents would let her spend another morning in the library, but she didn't think that would be the case. No doubt they'd be extolling the virtues of Fresh Air and Sunlight if she so much as suggested it.

Still... she dug out her copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It was a pretty thin book, light on details, but Newt Scamander was well-respected in the field and it would be a good starting point, at least.

The entry on dementors was... not inspiring.

When she looked back to the diary, all Tom had written by way of elaboration was: After that long, an inmate wouldn't want to leave.

That's disgusting, she penned back roughly.

Dementors are disgusting. They're the natural allies to the worst, most uncontrolled kind of dark magic. That's what Azkaban was, before it was a prison - the fortress of the cruellest dark lord of the age.

Hermione eyed the book unhappily. Coming from a man who had committed his first murder at sixteen, this was a pretty damning assessment.

She really did not like this idea that Black had had help, either. There's no other way he could have gotten free?

There's always another way, Tom allowed after a long and thoughtful pause. If you can conceive of it, there's a strong chance magic can do it. Dementors feed on human positivity. They affect animals, but far less severely - they are adapted to feed upon humans' complex emotions. It's an interesting exercise. To speculate, then: if your prisoner was an idiot, intellectually damaged, a very young child - or perhaps suffers from certain rare psychiatric conditions... Possibly lasting spell damage to the brain... Certain potions have a permanently tranquilising effect. I assume a Draught of Despair would make one thoroughly uninteresting to a dementor, but the outcome would be quite similar...

He trailed off thoughtfully. Ideally one would remain under the shield of a Patronus Charm, but that spell is too draining to maintain for any useful length of time in this context and it cannot be cast without a wand.

None of these sounded like good options to Hermione at all, although they tended to support th theory that Black would have to be completely mad.

Black, you said, Tom wrote finally. No doubt the child of Charis or Wulburga. They're a very old family, privy to a lot of old magic. It's possible your prisoner has resources that I don't have access to.

That was delicately put, but Hermione understood what he was getting at immediately. The kinds of resources old families like that had and which Tom Riddle hadn't were those dealing with very dark magic indeed.

She looked back at the wild-eyed prisoner on the front page and bit her lip.

It didn't seem unlikely.

Hermione put dementors on her ever-growing list of research items and tried to think of more pleasant things. In this case, even her potions homework seemed more pleasant than monsters or murderers - and after that, she had a great many other subjects to prepare for. She suspected she was taking more electives than anybody else in the school this year, and she'd need very thorough preparation to keep her grades at an acceptable average.

She was tempted to ask Tom what he knew about Confusing Concoctions, which were the topic of her homework. It was, however, an awful idea to become too dependant upon Tom - only partially because he wasn't at all reliable and she'd have to remember to double-check anything he told her. No, primarily, it was just that it would be intellectually lazy.

Hermione would do her own work, thank you, and when Snape inevitably found some way to reduce what she considered a surefire O to an E out of sheer spite, she would learn from his scathing commentary and do better next time.

Still, even her potions homework wasn't frustrating or absorbing enough to distract her completely.

For that, she had to wait for Harry. She'd sent him a broomstick maintenance kit for his birthday, but given the relatives he lived with she had no particular expectation that he would have the opportunity to write back.

Finally, on a Tuesday morning, she received a letter from Ron to tell her that somehow Harry had managed to blow up his aunt.

"...When are we going home?" she asked her parents over breakfast, even as she peered in consternation at Ron's appalling handwriting. She was pretty sure that said blew up.

If it did say blew up, then how had that incident been kept out of the paper? It was obviously water cooler gossip at the Ministry, because that seemed to be where Arthur had overheard it.

Blew up his aunt.

"Two sleeps," Jean responded cheerfully. "Feeling homesick, love?"

Hermione opened her mouth to explain. But, well... She might not have admitted it to Tom, but some things Muggles just weren't great at understanding.

Besides, there were definitely things a mother preferred not to learn about the company her only daughter kept, surely.

"A little," Hermione demurred.

Mostly, though, she wanted to find out what on earth had happened to her friend.