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A Seven With A Splash Of Red

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He’s number seven.

 

In Hermione’s whirling around mind, he’s a number seven in the middle of an eight-hour shift with nine tables to herself. Everything in her day adding up to a waitress in the weeds after waitress number two smoked so much weed that she’s stuck waiting out a panic attack in the walk-in freezer. This only counting as the fifth time in one month that the spacey new hire has left Hermione high and dry, but the frowning number seven at table ten doesn’t care about the sum of anything other than his water requires a refill plus a slice of lemon.

 

His standard nineteen percent tip he intended to leave going down by the minute, and Hermione’s curls joined in on the action.

 

As the semi-distracted- and fully frazzled- waitress leaned over to pour number seven’s water, a single spiral of brown hair dropped loose over her eyes.  “How’s the salad?” Hermione breathlessly asked, not even her voice slacking off by staying too long in one place.

 

The kitchen bell rung.

 

Hermione fought the urge to glance over her shoulder.

 

“I wouldn’t know,” her businessman customer crisply replied, coal black eyes pointedly following the flow of water in his glass to the lack of lemon on the side plate. “It’s currently wilting under a heat lamp.”

 

“Oh bugger, sorry.” Hermione snapped back into giving him her full attention, her eyes widening after briefly confirming that he wasn’t eating a salad yet, and after setting her pitcher on his table, she scurried off to retrieve his order. “Be right back,” she called out.

 

In fifteen seconds flat, Hermione returned with the salad, a lemon and a crooked smile tossed in for free. “Okay then, do you need any fresh cracked pepper? Crackers? A cracked plate or anything else cracked?” she joked, going for some good old-fashioned embarrassed rambling charm, and her customer cleared his throat after pointedly not laughing.

 

“No.”

 

“Okay, then I hope you enjoy your first bite, and I’ll be back in a bit to check on you!”

 

A set of quickening bells dings swung Hermione’s head away from the task at hand. The ends of her ponytail whipping her cheek, and like a blue ribbon horse at the end of the track, she got the cue that it was time to pick up the pace. She turned to race her mary janes back to the expo counter before traveling onward to table one and five.

 

And did table four ever get their second Diet Coke, she asked herself. Her lip curling up at the corner.

 

Just to be sure, Hermione made a plan to pick up another glass along with a beverage napkin to discreetly mop at her brow. The sweat glistening there probably not going to win her any extra tips. However, before Hermione could finish her to-do list, she heard a more exasperated throat clearing behind her.

 

“Miss-”

 

“Hermione.”

 

“That wasn’t a question,” the businessman interjected, hastening his speech before she interrupted him again “But fine, Hermione ,why are there pomegranates in my salad?”

 

“Wait,” her brow furrowed, “I thought you said it wasn’t a question.”

 

His lips thinned in warning, and Hermione flinched. The difference in their ages only eight years at most, but she felt horrifically young and silly and out of her element when this ridiculously striking man looked up at her but simultaneously down on her. The nostrils of his perfectly straight nose flaring.

 

“Ah,” she awkwardly laughed, her hold on her pen tightening, “the name part wasn’t the question, gotcha. You don’t care about my name. You were probably asking about why there are pomegranates in your salad, yeah? And the answer to that valid question is that I thought it might brighten up your lunch.”

 

“What did I order?” he curtly replied.

 

“A number seven: a spinach salad with grilled chicken.”

 

“With no pomegranates.” He flicked his gaze towards his salad. “And yet here they are. Tell me, were you planning to charge me extra for the pomegranates?”

 

“No.” Hermione stammered, her eyebrows lifting to comical heights. “Oh no, I just reckoned that you might enjoy more color on the plate since it’s a Monday and everybody hates Mondays- and why would I charge you more when the seeds cost a fourth of a penny each?”

 

“A fourth of a penny?”

 

“Sure, in a pomegranate there are six hundred and thirteen seeds, and that whole fruit cost a buck twenty at wholesale. At max, I could reasonably charge you two cents for that salad sprinkling. But that seems like more trouble than it’s worth to ring up when I’m slammed, right? So, I asked the kitchen to throw some in for free, but I can take them out if you’re allergic? Oh my god, are you allergic?”

 

At the end of Hermione’s blisteringly fast spiel, the businessmen blinked twice. In a state of shocked silence before coming back to his senses and slowly leaning back into his booth after noting four tables all intensely eyeing the mousy waitress who tried to cure a case of the Mondays with sprinklings of fruit. The mood turning on her the longer that he kept her preoccupied. That damn kitchen bell ringing again, and so he waved her away with a lift of two fingers.

 

“No, it’s fine.”

 

____________________________

 

He lied.

 

In Tom Riddle’s rigid worldview, it wasn’t anywhere near fine to slip fancy red fruit into a simple, caloric efficient midday salad. At best, he’d annoyingly like the new juicy addition to his life and would always want something off menu going forward. If it was up to this Hermione girl, he'd end up being the guy who orders something off menu before noon. The vulgar future version of himself almost making him lose his appetite, and that imagined scenario still paled in comparison to him accidentally staining his crisp white dress shirt thanks to an errant fork stab. For how could the important, dignified men that he planned to threaten after his meal be expected to take him seriously if he couldn’t even manage to finish lunch without soiling himself with ruby droplets?

 

No, it would not do to get used to a number seven gone wrong. Tom knew what he liked in life, what he expected. But when the pretty waitress next glanced over towards him, he did pop one pomegranate seed into his mouth, watched her breath catch in her throat from across the room when he sucked the tip of his thumb.

 

The step out of his routine perhaps worth catching her stumbling in her own.

Chapter Text

"Three dollars and fourteen cents?"

 

Hermione sharply inhaled, shook her head.

 

"Seriously?"

 

At the lunch shift peak, a hot and more bothered Hermione crouched in front of the daily specials board outside. A determined slant to her lips, a firmer grip on the chalk in her hand. A bold line soon struck through the pie price with an added artistic flourish at the end, and she rocked back on her heels to study her handiwork.  

 

"Yep," Hermione murmured, dropping the crimson and gold chalk piece into her apron pocket. "Much better."

 

As soon as Hermione popped up into standing again, the noon sun beat against her face. But try as it might that great big ball in the sky couldn’t blind out the brilliant feeling of relief coursing through her veins. The world a little more right again for her. A pinch of tension released in her chest before Hermione swung open the door to the busy diner, her pen waving at a Pansy who wouldn't be caught dead in a garden- or any form of nature.

 

"Thanks for holding down the fort!"

 

"It's cool." The willowy goth waitress looked up from the all-important task of folding napkins into bat shapes. "You can just pay me back by covering my Saturday night shift."

 

"Hah."

 

The laugh slightly faltered after Pansy’s eyes narrowed. By Hermione’s rough calculations, there was a ninety-nine percent chance of some silent cursing - or hexing - going on behind Pansy's heavily-mascaraed glare, but Hermione couldn't be all that bothered. How could she possibly summon any extra anxiety after she'd finally closed out on a table of thirty sorority girls who'd shown up without a reservation but came armed with generous complaints and a stingy hold on daddy's money.Their inability to comprehend a lack of artisanal cheese board on the menu, unparalleled. Their diet coke refills, never-ending. Their combined thirteen percent tip unable to erase the mortifying memory of Hermione going back to the kitchen to return five rare steaks for five well done with sides of Ranch.

 

No, Pansy had nothing on the bitchy blonde brigade, and so Hermione picked up a dessert menu with a shrug. She discreetly fanned her neck, under her arms. The scent of fries and fried eggs wafting into her pores. The greasy aroma cocktail mixing on her skin a later problem and her presently needed cooling down took precedence.

 

"So Saturday, huh?” Hermione drawled, lazy from the heat but rallying to suggestively bounce her shoulders. “You got a hot date with a guy?"

 

The kitchen bell behind them chimed, and Pansy frowned at her waiting order and the upcoming need to smile at her table.  "Nah, I've got a date with a few guys."

 

The menu in Hermione’s hand froze in the air.

 

"At the same time?"

 

"Mmhmm."

 

A casual as can be Pansy went about business as usual. She picked up her table’s plates, smirked at Hermione eyes that were nearly the same size. The shocked reaction from her pretty prim coworker pretty much making her day as Pansy lived for causing a sensation. A jaw to the floor on a Thursday sending her mood straight to the ceiling, and it helped that there was never any threat of rattling her self-esteem since Pansy was a firm believer that spring should always include a fling- a fling made doubly fun with twins who she’d already affectionately started calling her Dopplebangers.

 

Oh no, she was not about to feel bad about that at all.

 

As the sole benefactor of the last word, Pansy sauntered away to serve up Salisbury steak with a side of saucy sarcasm. The conversation conveniently paused before Hermione recovered her cool, or something close enough, and the poor, gobsmacked girl stood planted in place for a few seconds. A mixture of shock and awe taking root in her. Her insides curving into gnarled after she'd connected the mental dots that pointed out to her that someone who owned a shirt that said Yes Today Satan and lined her eyes with enough kohl to make raccoons accept her as one of their own, could still effortlessly draw others to her.

 

Hermione snickered against her hand.

 

How on brand for her, really. It was all so absolutely fitting for her day. Her life. Her chronic case of coming up second place unless she was in a class setting. From her first day of school onward, it always took Hermione heaps of inner strength and resolve and tact to present herself as humble or relatable. The first topics of conversation that sprung to her mind were generally designated as painfully dull by others, and so to connect, she pushed down what truly tickled her fancy until she knew someone better. She forced smiles and awkwardly navigated through small talk to convince others to look at her like she was like everyone else. And yet, more people likely liked and desired prickly Pansy.

 

Oh yes, why wouldn’t a reliably unimpressed Pansy have a gang of ghoulfriends and an impending gang bang and confidence in spades when all Hermione had on her friskiness horizon was falling into bed with a new Sudoku book? Of course, that’s how life worked for her. The future not quite as bright in comparison to the one for the girl who preferred darkness, but light snuck in again when the front door opened.

 

A familiar pair of snakeskin Oxfords crossing the doorway, and just like that, Hermione swung from feeling like the lonely one to two seconds into flustered over seven.

 

_______________________________

 

Fourteen visits.

 

Fourteen visits, forty-five shared words.

 

Fourteen visits, forty-five shared words, and only nine neatly-looped letters needed to sign the name Tom Riddle onto his credit card receipts.

 

A rather succinct first name, Hermione thought. How could anybody with such an ordinary and concise introduction fill up a room when they walked in? The attention around him grabbed without him demanding it. The point of interest shifting to wherever his aristocratic nose pointed, and though he wore scowls over smiles, she couldn't blame anyone for a second look. As someone so stylishly sleek- and seriously out of place for an okay salad- in the down-home Burrow Diner, Tom Riddle caused a ripple in his wake. In the middle of conversations, heads swung in his direction, but it was the last name that moved Hermione.

 

For if he wasn’t an enigma, what did one even look like?

 

How could she even start to make heads or tails of his wants and desires and thoughts beyond the surface when to say that Tom’s first meal with Hermione hadn’t gone swimmingly was a gross understatement. At least twice he’d looked open to holding her head under water instead. His patience wearing thin but his grip reliably strong. A similar rise of mounting frustration present on his face that matched many others during that awful, abomination of a shift, but then they’d shared a look.

 

A look that said I don’t entirely hate you.

 

A look that said I’m full, but I’ll eat you alive.

 

A look that rendered Hermione unable to meet his eye again without feeling hot around the collar, but he grew warmer with each diner visit. He didn’t grimace again. He kept his tone closer to genteel than going for the jugular, and that counted as a win for Hermione since plenty of other patrons held grudges against her for much longer and for much less.

 

Yes, sad but true, Hermione was well used to hangry tantrums. A threat to having her fired for something insignificant barely making her blink anymore, but it still threw her for a loop when in the two weeks following his initial visit to the diner, a more amiable Tom Riddle maintained a peculiar standing solo lunch appointment from Monday through Friday. At precisely twelve thirty-seven on the dot, he’d show up in the middle of tucking his phone into his designer trouser pocket, his tall frame lingering at the door even if there wasn't a line. The most hawkish black gaze imaginable scanning across the room for a moment to note the sections where each waitress worked for the day, and when someone asked if he preferred a table or booth, Tom always tipped his chin towards something in Hermione’s section.

 

Time after time, he picked her company over all others.

 

His posture straightening in his seat when she first stopped by.

 

A fond smile never tipping his lips at the start of the meal, but at the end, he tipped higher than Hermione usually deserved.

 

By his eighth visit, Hermione had already sat in the supply closet and scribbled out on a beverage napkin a list of possible explanations for his patterns. Oh, Hermione loved a good list. The crossed off sentences guaranteed to give her a fleeting feeling of accomplishment when everything felt overwhelming, and thanks to that particular list, she came to the conclusion that Tom previously worked in a restaurant. That story made sense to her. Yes, surely, the root of his unexpected generosity was due to him being a former trooper in the service industry trenches who understood that fifteen percent wasn't the maximum but the minimum tip expected if a server waited on you hand and food without coughing up a lung into your meal. That fairly reasonable chain of events seeming far more grounded in reality than the alternative explanation of him coming back for more subpar service thanks to a crush on her, but tell that to Hermione's hopeful heart that hammered out an S.O.S. between her ribs whenever he held her gaze.

 

No, Tom Riddle didn't overtly flirt with Hermione.

 

He didn’t suggestively soften her name on his tongue when asking for Sugar In the Raw.

 

He didn't happen to let his long, elegant fingers graze Hermione’s when she handed over his bill, but on the fourteenth day, he did arch one dark eyebrow.

 

“Did you cross out the pie price?”

 

Hermione gasped, her gut clenching.

 

“How’d you guess that?” 

 

“The smudge of chalk on your cheek.”

 

“Ah.”

 

The reflex hit to wipe her cheek, but Hermione’s hands remained loose by her sides.

 

Look casual, she told herself.

 

Look like it doesn’t matter- and like you won’t obsess for hours later about walking around like a smudged-up disasterpiece in front of six other tables.

 

If Tom noticed Hermione’s skin heating up to rival Jupiter's eye, he didn’t appear inclined to drop the conversation into something less embarrassing. He shifted forward with interest, his hands folding comfortably in front of him. A curious, slow-growing smile curving his mouth. “So, why'd you do it?”

 

“I dunno," she shrugged, "is it a big deal or something?”

 

“It must be to you if you crossed it out," he countered, shrugging right back at her, "and I’m interested to know why that is.”

 

Here. Goes. Everything.

 

“I think that Pi is obnoxiously trendy,” Hermione blurted out, choosing the rip it off like a bandaid route when giving him a peek into her crazy. “It's popular for antiquated reasons, and isn’t entirely a trash number, but cutely labeling a pie price with part of Pi is pushing a false narrative.”

 

Tom’s mouth twitched. “And that narrative is?”

 

“That that irrational number Pi is always ideal.”

 

“It’s not?”

 

“No,” Hermione huffed, her tone spiking with frustration, “it’s not ideal all the time. It’s not something to be bloody exalted. If my god was a number, it certainly wouldn’t be Pi, and I know that’s weird to hear because of all the hype around it. Like, I recognize that there's less than a handful of math-related symbols that you'll ever find plastered onto a mug or sparkly thongs, and Pi's one of them. It's very en vogue now, and yet all you probably remember learning in school about Pi was something about three point one four, and that Pi was a mathematical constant related to circles, right?"

 

“I do remember that much." 

 

"For most people, that's all you ever need to know," Hermione sniffed, throwing her hands up, "and we were all indoctrinated in the same archaic school system that told us the basics that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Then on Pi Day, some excited teacher fed us more fun facts like Pi's tied to the physics of waves, that it's in your pupils and double helices and anything else with a darn circle. That it goes on and on and on and it’s super groovy always blah blah blah...but it's lacking at times, my friend.”

 

“Clearly.”

 

“Okay, let the record show that I’m fully aware that you’re inwardly laughing at me. I caught your little shoulder shimmy there, but I'm not going to pretend that the issues with Pi don't get my goat because Pi masterfully hits all the right notes if you want to fall in love with a number. It's just-" Hermione broke out of her rant long enough to look up wistfully, sigh. “It’s just so damn convincing," she begrudgingly admitted, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other, "when even the sign for Pi can stand for two bends in a river with the line connecting it showing the diameter because the average meandering ratio of all rivers approaches Pi. Look, there’s that divine three point one four again! A real-life river’s windiness is determined by its meandering ratio, and I used to think that if that isn't some gorgeous sacred geometry in nature, I don’t know what is.”

 

 

“I didn't know about the river connection."

 

“They do leave out the lovely math stuff in school, don’t they?” Hermione quipped, rolling her eyes. “But all you need to know now is that Pi propaganda is all bullshit to me ever since I read The Tau Manifesto and found out about tau: tau which is equal to two Pi and is the more natural choice for the circle constant. Basically, it's as if Pi is relating to a semi-circle and tau is the whole circle; and then once you start discussing radians and how tau makes circle functions like sine and cosine easier, it becomes clearer that tau is better for explaining certain concepts versus Pi. There’s less math required.”

 

“So, you favor tau?”

 

“Uh-huh, using Pi over tau adds a step, and that’s not the end of the world for people who are already ride or die with math, but it can make it harder to understand for younger folks who are already inclined to hate things like geometry because popular culture loves to label anything math related as uncool. So why make things harder when we know better now? If we strive for precision in math and science, why not teach things right even if it means tossing out a semi-popular holiday that doesn't even get you a day off?"

 

At some point in the heat of passionate Pi talk, Hermione’s palms flattened on the table surface, her body leaning in. The distance between her and Tom halved into something close to familiar, and she counted two tiny freckles at the corner of his left eye. A sprinkling of something personal among the pale. A delightful detail to file away for later dissection whenever she next asked herself what she liked most about his features, but as soon as Hermione remembered their lack of a relationship a prickling feeling in the back of her conscious warned that she’d said too much, gone too far. A silent alarm in her blaring at her to stop dribbling nonsense without a filter around someone she didn’t know at all. However, before Hermione excused herself to go bury her head in the ground, Tom teasingly cocked his head to the side.

 

"So that's a hard no on pie prices being three fourteen."

 

Hermione burst out laughing.

 

“Mmhmm,” she held a hand to her mouth, adorably losing the battle of trying to sound serious when her words kept wobbling about. "But I'm willing to honor the previous price since the change to the menu was so sudden and nutty.”

 

"And if I want the tau price?"

 

"It's six twenty-eight."

 

Tom laughed. "Fuckin' hell, that's absurd for pie."

 

An unexpected laugh and a curse from Tom banished the last of Hermione’s worries. She melted into relaxed. The fear of looking foolish in his eyes vanishing and all she had left was a big dimpled grin for the both of them. "It's cool. I don't reckon that management's going to go for charging double. We're not a hipster hot spot yet."

 

"This could go be the start of it."

 

"It could be the start of something.”

 

______________________

 

“Five.”

 

“Five...forty-three.”

 

“Four and a penny?”

 

“Ten? Nice.”

 

At the end of her shift, an exhausted Hermione hunkered down at the bar. Her shoes happily tapping against the rickety barstool, a collection of receipts fanned out in front of her. The take-home haul after tipping out the dishwasher not exactly encouraging Hermione to quit her day job, but the last paper in the stack ensured that she’d come back all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day.

 

“Okay, give it up,” Pansy needled, snapping a rubber band around her stack of crinkled dollar bills before she dropped into the stool beside Hermione. “What just gave you the I won the lotto look?”

 

“A tip.”

 

“For how much?”

 

“Six twenty-eight.”

 

Pansy slowly shook her head.

 

“You square girls get your thrills in weird places.”

 

Chapter Text

“Where do you like my cock?”

 

“Hmm...” Hermione rolled onto her side in the bed. “Honestly, it’s better at ninety degrees.”

 

Luna grunted. “Like this?”

 

“Mmm...like that.”

 

“You really like it at ninety degrees?”

 

“It’s a flaccid masterpiece!” Hermione exclaimed, but her left eye squinted as she reevaluated her word choice. “A Flasterpiece? No. That’s never going to catch on.”

 

"You've cracked."

 

Standing in the middle of a sunny warehouse loft, Luna Lovegood planted a hand on her hip. Her sniff, unimpressed. Her friend’s lack of decorum undoubtedly warranting Luna's expression, but Luna slightly lacked in the maturity high ground department when her other hand gripped a four-foot tall papier-mâché penis statue spurting a stream of glittery red goo from the tip. A dribble of fake bloody semen continuously splattering the artist from her pale wrists to the podium beneath that she kept adjusting. The phallic feast for the eyes her pièce de résistance for her upcoming exhibition titled The Period of Patriarchy, and to Luna's annoyance, Hermione had not taken anything Luna said with an adequate amount of seriousness that afternoon.

 

“I’m sorry,” Hermione giggled, rolling into a moon-shaped pillow to smother her amusement. Her back heaving. Her attempts to pull herself together tragically failing.

 

Luna sighed, letting go of her art.

 

“I don’t know why I asked you over.”

 

“Because you’re a neurotic Nelly who can't hit up her girlfriend for show second opinions because she fled hours ago while shrieking that she wasn't going to ponder over penises with you for another minute.”

 

The end of Luna’s nose twitched, her response monotone, “I stand by my comment that asking Lavender to hold a handful of fake dicks for me wasn’t asking for much since she’d held a handful of real dicks in college for the heck of it.”

 

“Yeah,” Hermione snickered, rolling onto her back, “I can’t imagine why she stormed out after.”

 

“It was a bit offensive, huh?” Luna rubbed a hand down her face. A smudge of spunk left behind. The damage done, but a pinkish semen-like smear was the last thing on her radar when she dragged her feet to go join Hermione on the bed. Her legs folding into criss-cross applesauce, elbows glumly resting on her knees. “Ugh, I hate show days,” she groused, shook her dirty-blonde bangs out of her eyes.“My mouth runs away from me to get to the next day ASAP."

 

“That’s an interesting argument.”

 

“It’s true!”

 

"I’m not disagreeing!" Hermione held up her hands, releasing the pillow. "I, for one, have always found it fascinating how quickly you lose your sensitive side when you're usually all about that unbothered zen vibe. Like, I've seen you apologize to trash in the wind that hit you."

 

"It's the stress," Luna pouted, dropping her chin to her chest. "And the worst part is that later on, Lavender gets to hammer in her same points that I’m not politically correct and that I spew things out that should be kept inside- and that she hates my crystal collection.”

 

“To be fair...” Hermione pointed to the rock and crystal stuffed shelves behind the bed, swung her finger to the one hundred rose quartz pieces dangling from the chandelier above them. “It’s out of control.”

 

“You know I only buy crystals from rock shows now- they’re practically a steal! That cluster of amethyst was a door prize.”

 

“I know, hon.” Hermione pet Luna’s knee. “I know.”

 

At a loss for how to defend her crystal obsessions without sounding crystal obsessed, Luna dropped the argument, but her frown hung on. The corners of her thin lips tugged into a perfect pitiful arch. Her restless fingers absently knotting a loose thread on her paint-splattered smock, but she didn't stick with the meaningless task for long before wading back into high anxiety waters. “Do you reckon Lav will come to the show tonight?” she softly asked, big silvery-blue eyes looking up at Hermione.

 

“Sure she will.”

 

“And you’re still coming by yourself?”

 

Yes,” Hermione stressed, shifting up to seated and dodging the heart of Luna’s question. ”I promise to come on time for your cum show.”

 

Luna snorted.

 

“I do believe you went a whole ten minutes this time between cum puns.”

 

Hermione pressed her lips together, nodded with faux-seriousness.

 

“I’m quite mature now.”

 

A sole giggle that sounded like a squealing balloon fluttering in the air whined out of either Luna or Hermione, and it started a comical cascade. The trickles of contagious laughter bubbling up and out of them. Their hands soon wildly flailing in the air as both women helplessly gagged on promises to stop, but neither could get the hang of it.

 

They could only keep laughing harder and harder until their sides ached.

 

They laughed until they forgot what they're laughing about.

 

The laughed until salty tears slid from Luna's sleep-deprived eyes, and to keep from falling off the bed she slung an arm around Hermione’s waist. The support, everything she needed. A good old-fashioned giddy, hiccuping emotional purge. A remapping of her mood territory that couldn't come soon enough since Luna Lovegood in artist mode took nothing more serious than her projects and the poignant messaging behind them.

 

In not an exaggeration, if any random person on the street one day happened to ask Luna about her destiny, she'd whip out star charts on her phone to show how it was her cosmic higher calling to ask provocative questions that society wasn’t ready to answer, to overthink when everyone else slacked off. And once when a former girlfriend had foolishly asked her to join them on a hike, she’d retorted that she needed to create and contemplate more than she needed fresh air. That was her level of commitment to her craft. That was Luna take it or leave it, but count on Hermione to rescue her friend when she threatened to disconnect into insufferable. The nudges back into reality born from a helpful place, and Luna accepted the lifeline since Hermione respected her craft when it counted. At least half of the art in her friend's tiny apartment was purchased from Luna before art section write-ups started encouraging fabulous folks to shell out thousands of dollars for an original Lovegood piece, and Luna never forgot that.

 

When nobody thought she was anything special but called her especially odd, Hermione believed in her.

 

All the way back to the second day of Intro to 3D Art, Hermione had taken the initiative of saving Luna a workstation seat beside her after she'd already endured one hell of an awkward first conversation with the blonde the day before. The unexpected offer made with a point of a colored pencil. An encouraging smile. A most mischievous lift of her shoulder as Hermione revealed her grand prediction that the semester would be loads more interesting with someone like Luna around even if the letters in Luna’s full name- after assigning numbers to the alphabet- didn’t add up to a prime number. And if Luna found that chain of thoughts peculiar, she didn’t comment.

 

A little bit of weird wasn’t a deal breaker for her either.

 

In a show of unconditional fondness, Luna presently picked up Hermione's hand. A quick press. A messy thank you that left a physical and emotional mark on both of them before Luna hopped off the bed to make nice with Lavender. The donated free wine still in her girlfriend's Smart car not about to walk itself over to the show, but before Luna parted to grovel through text, her squeeze on Hermione tightened.

 

“Oh, you’re brilliant!” Luna squeaked, lips parting with reverence to grow an ecstatic grin. “If I invite people to sit in a chair in the middle of a room and live with what they see for a full minute, the statue at a ninety-degree angle definitely looks more distorted from this viewpoint. Oh my gosh, that’s such a fitting visual metaphor if one considers erectile dysfunction standing in for the dysfunction in modern society.”

 

________________________

 

Now, how in the world Luna managed to secure a bathroom fixtures store as her venue, Hermione could not begin to guess. But the vibe fit. The proof of its success no more accurately illuminated than when a visibly distressed grandma with peacock feathers pinned in her bouffant called the setup “uncomfortable, clinical almost”, and behind her in the line, Hermione fervently interjected her agreement.

 

By design, the location was meant to unsettle. If one stared too long at the pristine toilets lined around the room, the above light glare off the porcelain hurt their eyes. You had to look away. You surrendered choice for comfort, your attention boomeranging back to the center of the room with that spiral of Luna’s statues oozing variations of red substances.

 

Oh, you could surely fight it for a while, but you couldn't get away from their larger than life thrust into your life.

 

In a similar vein, Lavender Brown shot across the store with laser-like precision. Her honey-blonde curls bouncing. The eyesore of a teal and banana-yellow muumuu she wore that evening swishing with her determined steps, and reluctantly along for the ride, a suited up Luna barely kept up beside her.

 

“Isn’t it fabulous?” Lavender gushed before reaching Hermione, her hold on Luna’s arm bordering between possessive and painful. “It’s a triumph! Isn’t my girlfriend outrageous?”

 

“She’s a gem.” Hermione mouthed the words Pinot Noir for the bartender beside her, turned back. “It’s memorable, for sure.”

 

Lavender lips curled in, eyes bulging.

 

“No. Rock. Talk.”

 

As a general rule, Hermione never argued with anything hissing.

 

The survivalist in her knew when to back off from a losing fight, and Hermione bobbed her head in agreement. A display of keeping-the-peace public submission that the observant bartender in front of her had noticed judging by him pouring heavier. A glass of wine for her filled to the top when everybody else settled for half, and after generously tipping, Hermione tipped her glass towards Luna. “You having a good night?”

 

“Of course she’s having a good night,” Lavender answered for Luna, barking out a laugh loud enough to peel a layer of eardrum out of Hermione’s ear.”She’s nearly sold everything!”

 

Hermione hid her wince with a long sip.

 

“Congrats.”

 

“Honey,” Luna crooned, sweetly distracting Lavender’s keyed up energy, “I think we should go and mingle with people who look interested in forking over too much money. Let’s give Hermione here some time to explore the space and how the exhibit makes her feel.”

 

Hermione mouthed a thank you.

 

“And if the influx of empowered- or enraged- estrogen in the room happens to trigger your early moon time moment, there are organic tampons in the restroom. There’s also a pickle tray near the plungers,” Luna added, shooting Hermione a cheeky wink over her shoulder as she walked away, “and if that doesn’t strike your fancy, I have a feeling that you’ll find the price listings to your liking.”

 

______________________

 

At fifteen to eleven, Hermione finished making her obligatory estimation that there were seventy-two attendants packed into the art show’s two rooms- the vibe picking up from polite to party. The lights dimmed. The laughter louder than before. A DJ set up beside the Toilet Seat Options sign thumping tribal-fusion bass music over the buzz of continuous conversation, and Hermione’s skin hummed as she weaved through the larger room to say goodbye to Luna. All her nerve endings on edge inside her flowy dress that showed off far too much open real estate on her chest to feel entirely comfortable for Hermione.

 

For only the thirtieth time that night, she crossed her arms.

 

The pastel mullet dress with spaghetti straps not likely reading as particularly edgy to anyone else, but the up-close personalized touches on the silk labeled the garment as one of a kind.

 

The plush blue marks.

 

The dainty petal-pink threads.

 

The unmistakable lilac outline of a kiss.  

 

A moving art piece by way of Luna collecting kisses on handkerchiefs from her boyfriends, girlfriends, one night stands. The individual pale squares hand sewn together by her for years. The smudged lipstick marks on them embroidered over in one of three colors that turned fleeting moments into something permanent- the lips remaining long after the lovers left. The sauciest subtle collage of college, but after completing her most personal project a year earlier, Luna threw Hermione a twist by insisting she keep it.

 

“I’m in a cleansing time of life,” she'd said, “I don’t need to carry emotional baggage into my next trip around the sun.”

 

“Uh-huh, that makes sense...”Hermione trailed off, firmly agreeing that the draped dress hung beautifully on her form, but her mind remaining unconvinced that Luna wouldn’t regret her impulse give away once the haze of hungry passed after her latest juice fast. “But, do I need the baggage?”

 

“I think you might when it makes your tits look perky.”

 

Who could argue with Hermione’s nipples? They led the way, and she caved into Luna’s wishes. The act of wearing Luna's heart on her sleeve- or rear- never a default Saturday night option for Hermione, but she made an exception for show days. Why wouldn’t she rock a piece of good luck art from her friend? A sign of solidarity that didn’t require underwear underneath, but that wasn't why Hermione suddenly felt exposed after her attention snagged on a couple hanging out by the door.

 

Her thighs clenching.

 

Her cunt clenching.

 

Her heart joining in just for kicks too after it dawned on Hermione that there was her number seven in a familiar suit with an entirely new accessory on his arm.

 

In one of the last settings in the world that Hermione ever expected to run into her suavest customer, an obscenely confident, leggy model of a woman clutched Tom Riddle's bicep, pointed out a statue. The wild black dandelion-like hair on top of her head shaking when she threw her head back to guffaw at something she found hilarious. The glare that Tom sent her, reproachful. Her wink, shamelessly fond. The fastest back and forth scene playing out in an intimate show, and the worst part for Hermione was finding the woman believable in the role beside Tom Riddle. She was all ease and bravado in a forest green leather crop top and matching slim cigarette trousers. A fashionable force of nature you couldn't look away from even when it could batter you.

 

That’s the one.

 

That’s the one who goes with your seven.  

 

In the space of a stalled heartbeat, Hermione abandoned hunting down Luna.

 

A goodbye over text working well enough for her.

 

A sneaky dash out the door sounding sensibly sane to Hermione when to her massive embarrassment, she couldn’t locate her stomach after it dropped. Gutted. That's what she was. The logical part of her brain shut down after she'd become a vessel of feeling and feeling and realizing down to her missing guts that somewhere along the line she'd bought into the delusional hope that Tom Riddle had a crush on her.

 

How was that for absurd?

 

A few wry smiles from him had convinced the secret soppiest part of her that he kept swinging by the diner for more than the damn salad. A twenty-five percent tip sealing the deal as Hermione was well aware that she was worth only twenty-one percent on her best day, and wasn't that flattery fun to believe for a while? Didn't a Tom crush feel downright cozy during a long series of dull days? Yes, indeed it did, but in the face of such laughable lunacy, Hermione couldn’t retreat from the room fast enough.

 

In her favor, a tall couple heading out at the same time mostly blocked Hermione from Tom's view after her feet picked up the urgent message to move.

 

The first quick two steps safely behind them.

 

The next four treating her well.

 

The home stretch of sixteen steps within her grasp before the couple swerved to hug friends right as Tom glanced over, poor Hermione stuck in the crosshairs of his view. The wobble in her heels no match for his shocked expression that said stay put for a hello, and a low word passed to his perfect match beside him. The first seconds of his stride towards Hermione not registering as outside of her nightmares, but she caught up to reality by the time he stood in front of her. Alone.

 

"They let you out of the diner?" Tom teased, slid his hand into his trouser pocket, his gaze down her body. "How'd you swing that? Did your boss see you in this dress and demand you go out and ruin someone?"

 

A previously unknown about dimple pressed into his cheek to drop Hermione’s jaw.

 

A flash of white hot want ricocheting from her belly to between her legs.

 

The whole of her body collectively going off its rocker and into outer space because had he heard what he'd said? Did he have any control over his devil-given mouth, or was dripping sex into his words the default function when genetically blessed to be Tom Riddle in Tom Ford? Was that the trade-off? Unfortunately for Hermione, Tom couldn't possibly answer any of the many rapid-fire questions flipping through her head, and she stared back at him with all the grace of a wide-eyed startled llama.

 

"It's uh," Hermione stammered, instantly struggling to carry on a conversation where every word from her didn’t end in a high-pitched question mark. "It's...my friend's show."

 

"So the ruining is all for your fun?"

 

Hermione made a sound between an exclamation and a scoff, clamped her lips together to collect herself for a second.

 

"There is no ruining."

 

“Mmh.”

 

That little unconvinced hum of his shook off Hermione’s flustered jitters. A snap of annoyance darting through her body when it struck her that Tom had the nerve to continue flirting with that face of his and that damn hum. Her hackles raised in warning. A current of anger in her picking up speed the more she pictured Tom planning to pull her chain for an ego boost. The proof of what he actually found fuckable on a Friday already waiting by the door for him. The writing on the wall spelling out in bold letters that flirty, frisky playtime with the little, gullible waitress was only a passing amusement, and Hermione decided that it was high time to shoo him away since Tom clearly had better things to do- fiercer people to do.

 

“Alright then, it was nice to see you,” she hurriedly said, gestured towards the door, “Have a good night with your-”

 

“You been here for a while then?” Tom cut her goodbye off, sweetened the slight with a smile. “You have the lay of the place?”

 

“Yes,” she huffed, exasperated, “It’s only a couple of rooms.”

 

“That’s not much.”

 

“No.”

 

He stepped closer. “Shouldn’t take you long to walk me around then.”

 

“Is that a command?”

 

“A soft beg.”

 

On the opposite side of the room, Tom’s plus one intently looked on. A subtle side-eye from Hermione confirming her suspicions, but Tom wasn’t behaving like a good boy bound to a leash. He held his hands up in prayer pose while asking Hermione to be bad. A glint of fun in his dark eyes, the most disarming warmth in his tone. The words confounding and mercurial seemingly created for him, and Hermione had the darndest time blowing off someone pleading to stay. Saying things he shouldn't, throwing her off balance when she thought she adored symmetry best.

 

Looking at her lips for too long and not long enough.

 

“I don't think that's the best idea,” Hermione, at last, shakily exhaled. "I mean, don't you think your date will mind?"

 

“Bella?” Tom slid Hermione’s hand into his, held them up for a joint wave to the woman who mimed gagging back at them. “No," he chuckled, rolling his eyes, "shockingly, I'm not together with that graceful goddess- and if she's fucking lonely for a minute that’s her damn punishment for bringing me here under false pretenses.”

 

“How did she do that?” Hermione asked, her relief traded for curiosity.

 

Tom ran his tongue across his teeth.  

 

“By telling me that she’d read about a show that I should feel a personal connection to.”

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“Because it’s full of dicks,” Tom gruffly admitted, gently tugged Hermione away as she let out a laugh and forgot why it was so unnatural for Tom Riddle to hold her hand as if they knew each other.

 

Chapter Text

He touched her.

 

His hold, casual and loose.

 

His thumb grazing her knuckles.

 

The tactile attention from him and the wine in her persuading Hermione to spring for the slowest route possible around Luna’s show before she woke up gripping a pillow in bed instead of holding Tom Riddle’s hand. The dreamy glow around her body too sublime to ever rationally last outside of this enchanted place full of plaster penises, but Hermione would take what she could get. In the face of borrowed time, Tom asked her opinions, and instead of allowing anxiety to curdle her into a mass of useless jelly, Hermione spoke freely.

 

The fear of jamming her foot in her mouth rendered as an unacceptable option.

 

A spell of twenty minutes gone before she knew it when conversation kept flowing along with flashes of Tom’s smile keeping her afloat; but then an unsettled pucker took up residence between his eyebrows. His fingers slipping through hers to drop to his side.

 

"What?” Hermione lowered her wine glass away from her near sip. “Is something wrong?"

 

“I can’t help it,” Tom heavily exhaled, pinching his bottom lip between two fingers before restlessly letting go. “I’ve been mulling it over, and I know that it might sound controversial and will probably disappoint you once I’ve said it, but it must be said.”

 

Tom looked up and away and then somberly back at her. “The truth is...I don’t think that I have a space for such a massive member in my home.”

 

A joke? A joke from Tom?

 

In a narrow hallway between exhibit rooms, there wasn’t any need to stand so close to each other. The wall beside them muffled the thumping music down to no longer competing with their conversation, and Hermione didn’t have to raise onto her tiptoes until she stood eye-level to Tom’s jade snakeskin tie bar. But she did anyway, beaming up at him.

 

“Best save up for a villa then.”

 

Tom dramatically gasped. “You’re suggesting I take the Pompeii route of decorating?”

 

“Minus the ash.”

 

“Of course- that would be a vulgar touch.”

 

He gave good banter. Hermione had to give him that.

 

Oh yes, Tom Riddle could arch a dark eyebrow into unfairly cute. He could shift a piercing black gaze to far too leisurely eyeing the nearest gurgling statue as if it captured even a fraction of his interest when he kept closing the distance between him and Hermione. A smooth step forward. A brush of the wall on his shoulder.

 

A brush of Hermione’s nipples against his lapels.

 

Her lashes, fluttering.

 

Her whimper, embarrassing.

 

"So what I’m hearing,” Tom bit his obscenely kissable lip, mischievously tilted his head towards a statue, “is that if I’m looking to start curating my collection of penis-themed art, this piece is practically a steal at only three-thousand four hundred and sixty-one dollars.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Hermione shakily quipped, not her first choice in witty comebacks but her fingers flexed against her glass’s stem. The third time in almost as many minutes that her voice dipped into new depths of breathy around him. The exact opposite of inhabiting a sexy air of cool calm and collected when she needed it most, but keeping her cool proved reliably out of her hands around He Of The Searing Gazes.

 

The wine glass, however, that she could squeeze in tandem with her thighs.

 

“An odd price, isn’t it though?” Tom sniffed, a narrowing of his eyes warning away a waiter baring stuffed olives. “Three-thousand four hundred and sixty-one dollars.”

 

“It’s a prime number.”

 

A spark of amazement jerked Tom’s head back. “Do you have them memorized that far up?”

 

“Pretty much...yes,” Hermione winced, “but I didn’t have to go through the numbers in my head because I already figured out that Luna set all her prices as prime numbers.”

 

“She did?”

 

Hermione aimed her glass towards the three closest pieces.  

 

“That one there is two-thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven. That one is five thousand three hundred and ninety-nine dollars, and the sparkly disco one that you shuddered at when passing is a whole four thousand one hundred and eleven dollars.”

 

“Why?” Tom’s mouth rounded, a perfect picture of befuddled. “Why the devil choose prime numbers for prices instead of rounding up for more money?”

 

“For my enjoyment, “Hermione shrugged, shooting for nonchalant and not numerically obsessed to the point that her friends gave her pity primes as gifts. “I helped her set up.”

 

“That’s a random way to say thank you.”

 

“Prime numbers occur randomly the higher up they go.”

 

The second she heard herself, Hermione regretted it. Up until then, she’d been doing so well. The booze sloshing in her blood relaxing her into forgetting to keep compulsively tallying up every word between them. The interest from him on her every word enough to keep her interest but then she’d almost went off the rails and ranted again. It’s all so ludicrous to her, really.

 

A lecture should never stand in for foreplay.

 

As if sharing the same thought, Tom’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ll have to take your word on it.”

 

“I um,” Hermione looked down into her glass, scanning her brain for safe speaking subjects territory as she led the way out of their corner and the theoretical one she’d backed herself into,” I believe we’re down to one last piece.”

 

This time when they strolled over, Tom didn’t offer his hand.

 

He kept his thoughts to himself too. His jaw tight.

 

He reminded her of the first time they'd met when he'd projected exasperation versus eagerness to know her. The easy breezy rhythm they’d fallen into knocked off balance thanks to her big geeky mouth, but Hermione forced herself to avoid looking rattled. She pretended that the silence was comfortable and mutual. She walked with her shoulders straight, and for his part, Tom didn’t ease her spinning out masochism. To her surprise and displeasure, he simply hung his focus on the art that she knew he didn’t care for. The quiet between them heavy in a noisy room. A heavier question waiting to spring free from him as Hermione could feel something devastating coming on, but she never expected the shock to come from their right.

 

The sight of a gasping woman in her fifties recovering from missing her step, her hand at her chest. The red-bearded man with her glancing down at her in alarm to over at Tom and Hermione in confusion. An even blend of humiliation and regret written all over the woman's aristocratic, floundering features when Tom answered her gawking with a peculiar expression that Hermione couldn’t immediately place, but then he chuckled.

 

“A big dick around you is quite a shock, huh?”

 

“Yes,” the woman blanched, pulled her companion away with her before he insulted Tom on her behalf, “sorry.”

 

“That was an odd thing to say to her,” Hermione picked up her jaw, craning her neck to watch the couple go. “Do you know her?”

 

“Speaking of odd and knowing strange people, how do you know Luna Lovegood?”

 

“Oh,” Hermione’s attention snapped back to Tom, her smile recovered, “we met in art class.”

 

“You majored in art?”

 

“No, mathematics, but I took art to help round me out. I’d been told I needed rounding.”

 

Tom drifted his gaze down Hermione’s form.

 

“I’m rather fond of your shape.”

 

Hermione’s cheeks rivaled the wine in her glass.

 

“Hush, you.”

 

“Hmm,” Tom hummed his disagreement, flashed a wry smile. “If it’s alright by you, I’d rather do other things with my mouth.”

 

How do most adults respond to flirting in public? If you’re Hermione, you discover a newfound interest in the tops of your heels. The spot light’s shine never resting comfortably on her head, but that wouldn’t do for Tom, he tipped her chin up with his hand.

 

“Do you have any art on display?”

 

“Not here,” she replied, her words grazing her lip over his thumb.

 

His eyes grew heavy, his answering stroke every bit intentional. “Do you have some at home?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I would very much like to see it.”

_______________________________

 

A few hours after the show opened, fringes of inebriation teased Hermione's head into wooly. The warm spread from tits to toes. The flush finding her cheeks more often than not, but alcohol wasn’t responsible for the full-body feeling of loved on and lovely.

 

No, that pep in her pulse was all Tom Riddle’s doing.

 

On her potted plant covered porch, she kept jamming the key into the side of the lock, laughing when Tom laughed behind her.

 

The mechanics of getting inside rather simple enough, but that was before Tom rested a hand on her lower back.

 

A touch that some might have construed as grounding or comforting, but tell that to Hermione’s wayward fingers.

 

“Got it,” she exclaimed, cursing under her breath, “I swear that I live here.”

 

“But do you often make it inside?”

 

“Yes,” she hissed, sassing his sass.

 

A step behind, Tom turned to close the door, click the deadbolt. “For the record, I’m not opposed to breaking and entering on the first date.”

 

“I’m not sure what number of double entendres you’re at for the night, but it’s up there-” catching herself a second too late, Hermione pressed a finger against his lips. “Ah ah ah, I heard it, and don’t you dare respond.”

 

The raspy laugh rumbled against her finger, and Tom leaned back.

 

“You’re awfully bossy after four glasses of wine.”

 

“Do you want to see my subpar art or not?”

 

Tom flourished his hand in the air. “Lead the way, boss.”

 

Out of her heels, the satin hem of Hermione’s dress brushed across her battered knock-off Persian rug. A long ginger cat hair or two sticking to the fabric, but Tom kept his eyes higher as Hermione guided him through her cozy two bedroom condo. The ceiling to floor wall of books on shelves catching his intrigue, the categorization unsurprisingly numerical, and he traced a finger over the spines. The sound of his skin on leather only broken up by the occasional decorative potted succulent spilling forth green that made him lift up, but then he’d carry on skimming over the titles. An author’s name voiced when Tom hadn’t heard of it, Hermione clarifying without glancing back.

 

“That one’s bloody brilliant. The last chapter comes off a smidge too sentimental to tie up a book about statistics, but don’t we all get a little sappy towards the end of something we believe in?”

 

“That or angry.”

 

As a house guest on his best behavior, Tom sacrificed the lead to follow behind a slightly swaying Hermione on her tour across her home. The stylish blue with bronze fixtures 1950’s style kitchen pointed out. The bathroom painted a sunny yellow with black and white tile coming next. The subtle sound of fabric on fabric as background music when Tom’s suit jacket slid off his shoulders as Hermione pulled bobby pins out of her hair to get comfortable, told him to grab a drink if he needed one. The designer garment folded over his arm without them yet addressing how often she’d caught him studying her profile in the back of the taxi, but now Tom put his eyes to use by scanning the room for options before placing his jacket down on the back of a worn- and well-loved- artsy leather chair with a stitched lion’s head in gold thread.

 

A home for something out of place.

 

The keys and purse and pins in Hermione’s grip landing on top of an antique console after a tiny toss and Tom eyed a row of framed pictures above. He noted each face, who hugged who as his long fingers automatically unbuttoned the cuffs on his white dress shirt. Left one. Right one. The sleeves rolled up.

 

A forearm striptease in three folds.

 

The only witness in the room oblivious to Tom making himself at home until Hermione spun around before opening a closed door. “Oh....”

 

“Oh?” Tom echoed.

 

“Yes, er-” Hermione pushed a hand through her curls, wracked her brain for a response that didn’t include the phrase Holy Fuck Your Arms. “I-I should warn you that the studio’s a mess.”

 

“If ever there is a place to make a mess, I reckon it’s there.”

 

“Right.”

 

At the end of her stalling, Hermione deeply inhaled, pushed the door open to invite him to judge her as a Manet or a mistake.

 

Scarlet.

 

Gold.

 

White.

 

In the office space that Hermione used as a studio, Tom spotted six paintings in a trio of shades. The canvas sizes ranging from small to half the wall, the landscapes varying, but three colors repeated in all of them: scarlet, gold, white. An artistic color period if ever Tom had seen one, and without comment, he strolled up to the farthest away painting. His head cocked. His hum an appraisal. The woman behind him shifting nervously from one foot to the other the longer he stayed contemplative, but when he looked back, he put Hermione and her feet at rest with a slow-growing smile that floored her.

 

“I can't help but notice that you’ve painted subtle gold threes dripping from the clouds, gold threes hidden in the landscape, and gold threes present in the ocean spray that you’ve shaded with three colors. Is that your favorite number, Ms. Granger? Do good things come in threes for you?”

 

It wasn’t fair.

 

The word “come” casually coming out of his mouth wasn’t fair warfare if he expected Hermione’s knees to soldier up and keep supporting her. The most juvenile part of her brain surrendering to giggly and blushing behind her big, bushy hair. The sophisticated adult that she'd always hoped she'd be going down in flames on the wordplay battlefield, but Hermione pulled herself together before the slip in her senses rose to the surface. The task infinitely easier when she could reasonably eye a painting instead of him, her index finger tracing over a field of golden wheat threes that she’d only seen about a hundred times before.

 

“It isn’t just me that favors threes,” Hermione said. “If you ask a random anyone on the street to count in another language, they’ll give you one, two, three...uno, dos, tres...ichi, ni, san...un, deux, trois...eins, zwei, drei. They may not know a lick of anything else in the language, but we’re used to that count off. It's fed into our cultural vocabulary. It’s fundamental that all us strangers connect with three.”

 

“How do you connect with it?”

 

“I see the number as gold, two is scarlet, and one is white.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

How pointless it felt for a significantly inebriated Hermione to cling to apprehension instead of babbling out her answer. The girl she was before used to live for a teacher calling on her to ask her opinion on all things intellectually engaging, but adult Hermione had been burned too many times. It no longer came second nature to show off all her crazy cards so early in a relationship, and they weren’t even in a relationship. So, she paused a beat before responding to his prodding like a good show pony prancing around for a prize. A pro and con list scribbling down and scratching out in her mind as she weighed her options because she liked him invading her space. She liked him.

 

In the living room, Hermione caught Tom ducking below a brass octahedron shaped lamp to keep from thwacking his head. The honeyed yellow light spilling over his gray suit. A ray of near sunshine winning over the shadows until he straightened up, and it hit her that he looked rich and refined and like he was playing the lead part in the wrong play. Her quirky home decorating sealing his designation as one seriously out of his element.  

 

She didn't know him.

 

In her home was a man she didn't know, a man who could overpower her if she didn't know something defensively useful like Krav Maga, but fortunately, she did. The wobble on the curb outside of the taxi not suggesting as much, but Hermione could kick ass. She could make him cry for his mummy with a well-timed toss of a teacup to the trachea, and that’s why she hopped up to comfortably sit on her desk, her feet dangling.

 

Yes, she didn't know him, but he didn't fully know her either.

 

“How about I answer your question if you answer mine immediately after.”

 

“That trade’s a tad terrifying,” Tom sharply retorted, laughed, “but I do enjoy a good gamble.”

 

They shook on it, and then Hermione leaned back on her palms. “You ever heard of synesthesia?”

 

“The condition where people can taste sounds, or feel colors?”

 

“Ding ding ding!” she grinned, pulling a grin from him too. “You get all the points as it is absolutely the neurological condition where when one sense is activated another activates too. As far as we’ve counted, there are sixty subtypes of synesthesia, but the most common is grapheme-color synesthesia. If it’s honesty time, I’m not entirely sure I have numeral-based synesthesia,” Hermione admitted, shrugging with a casual lightness that Tom didn’t fully find believable. “But people experiencing synesthesia are more common than we think- even the author Vladimir Nabokov had grapheme-color synesthesia.”

 

“The guy who did Lolita?”

 

“Yep. He, his wife, and his child saw specific colors for letters. For example, they’d all see a letter M as a color, but they all saw different colors.”

 

“Is that how you see numbers and why you remember them so well?”

 

“No, I uh...” Hermione broke off script, laughing humorlessly after arriving at the less clinical and more personal part of the explanation. “I-I think,” she started and stammered, shook it off, “I think that I categorize and cling to numbers because I can passionately love them without any shame. Like, I don’t have to be less awkward to finish an equation. I don’t have to spend time dwelling over how to connect with people who'd prefer me dumbed down because it makes them feel better about themselves, and I can just stick to facts that I love. For someone who was constantly described as obnoxious when they were young, that's comforting. I mean, if you asked my teachers- or basically any other kid in my year- I spoke too loudly and too often. I was an insufferable swot. "

 

“That’s shit if they told you that," Tom spat out, but his expression switched on a dime to curious, and he stepped forward until his thighs brushed her knees.“How did that make you feel?”

 

“It made me feel a compulsion to stop talking and start counting the tiles on the ceiling in class, the ratio of blondes to brunettes.”

 

In Hermione’s opinion, a far too perceptive Tom Riddle tracked his eyes over her face, her fingers squeezing the desk. He cataloged. He searched and searched until his features lit up with recognition. “Ahh, and they couldn’t make fun of what was in your head if nobody knew about it.”

 

“Correct.”

 

“You withdrew didn’t you? The good girl stopped raising her hand in class?”

 

The bob of her chin answered enough, and when Tom didn’t call her a pushover or the familiar childhood taunt of Stranger Granger once he’d heard her out, Hermione decided to let him see more of her true colors. Her ambition. Her resilience. Her spite. “But I’m the one who got into Cambridge for a Master of Mathematics. I’m one of the few girls in my year who created something outside of a busted marriage by age twenty-four. I got out. I got the fuck out, and that’s all because while everyone else mastered small talk and how to flirt, I became fluent in painting patterns and assigning numerical values to colors. I made myself see differently instead of settling for crappy friends, and I sold my first painting for three hundred dollars because of a clever enough blurb and offering something unique. So no, I don’t have God-given synesthesia, but I did rewire my own damn brain to bring something beautiful and rare into the world.”

 

A mixture of fierce pride and gloating obstinacy colored the speech of the woman Tom once considered mousy. The sharpest edge in her revealed as thriving after a beaten down beginning sought to make her bend, and as if fearing how Tom would react afterward, Hermione leaned back to hold onto humble- but Tom surged forward.

 

A hand on her cheek, his lips crushing, coaxing, celebrating hers.

 

The gasp of surprise from her overtaken by a heated give and take and take and take which refused to be ordinary or slow, but did taste like free Pinot and passion. A first kiss from a man who knew when to scrape his teeth across her lip, tangle his fingers in her hair. A needy whimper from her lost on his tongue, and Hermione couldn’t recall why she’d ever thought herself shy or worried or small. No, surely she was made for euphoria. To stand tall as a grand, gorgeous giant of a girl with butterflies thrashing in her chest and a warm breath of praise against her kiss-stained mouth after Tom pulled back.

 

“You lovely thing.”

 

Chapter Text

It’s the damndest thing.

 

The eleventh letter in the alphabet.

 

The ninth letter beside it.

 

The nineteenth letter doubled for the end.

 

A kiss is only four letters on paper. A small thing. A beginning. A friendly, familial, or frisky four letters depending on the people and occasions, but how grand and underrated did a kiss with Tom feel like for Hermione. A heated urgent press from him rolling into two into too many and not enough. The lowest, pleading noises pulled from her when his skillful tongue mined for her pleasure. The upper hand overwhelming his, and Hermione was happy to keep it that way so long as he kept his grip on her jaw, her shoulder, her hip to jerk her forward. The matter of how they first started not mattering to her so long as they didn’t stop. A second four-letter word sneaking out with Hermione's next shaky moan, and Tom's teeth tugged it off her lip. 

 

"What a filthy mouth you have," he murmured lowly, grinning against her, "though I am rather up for your suggestion."

 

Hermione pointedly dropped her stare towards his tented trousers.

 

“I’ll say you are.”

 

How crass. What a vulgar and obvious boner joke. The lowest hanging fruit, but high on each other, they couldn't stop grinning. A laugh shared before the next kiss, and there they went off again.

 

_________________________. 

 

“Okay,” Hermione sighed, “we should stop-”

 

“Definitely,” Tom gave her earlobe another suck, “we are stopping-”

 

“Okay,” Hermione gasped, grabbing his collar, “stopping in a minute.”

 

It took twenty minutes to get the hang of telling the truth.

 

A “one last time” always turning into pleading for a little more.

 

A half-hearted effort on both sides to do anything outside of touching and touching, but whenever Hermione finally placed her palm over Tom’s mouth to keep from pushing him between her legs, he nodded understandably instead of guilting her. A step back, a pump on the breaks. A display of courtesy over overpowering machismo when she could see how hard he was breathing, the rapid rise and fall of his chest, but his cheeky lick on her palm helped Hermione shoo away any fleeting feelings of the irrational awkward variety.

 

“Uhh,” Hermione lifted her hand, “you’ve made me wet.”

 

Tom dropped his chin to his chest, groaned.

 

“Whoops,” Hermione giggled, easing her bottom off her desk, “yeah, I totally sounded like the beginning of a porno there.”

 

“You really did.”

 

A too cruel Hermione licked her lips. “Maybe this is where I admit that I have a side job…”

 

“I’m trying to be good,” Tom playfully growled, framing her hips with his hands, “but maybe you don’t want me good.”

 

“Oh, I want you good,” Hermione stressed, sidestepping his touch, “but unfortunately, I’m calling it a night because I’m starting to see two of you, and I can barely control myself around one of you.”

 

Tom snorted, followed Hermione outside of the room.

 

As if she was Orpheus too afraid to look back and find that she’d lost her lover along the way out of Hades’ realm, Hermione kept her eyes forward on the treacherous journey to her front door. A wiggle or wobble here or there. The wine, and kissing the taste of wine off of Tom's sinful lips, leaving her light-headed enough without looking at him and falling more for him- or into something. However, she miraculously pulled herself together enough to face him at the door, Tom's recovered suit jacket retrieved off her chair, and in her hand.

 

A dozen questions perched on her tongue, but a surprising statement took the plunge after Hermione picked up on Tom’s cell vibrating in his pocket.

 

“Is that your friend giving you an earful for abandoning her at the show?”

 

“I wouldn’t worry your big, beautiful brain over Bella’s hurt feelings,” Tom rolled his eyes, plucked his phone out of his pocket to make a scolding face at the screen. “See, she’s letting me know that she bought me the tiniest Lovegood plaster penis as an upgrade for me.”

 

The phone buzzed again.

 

"And that, apparently, she will accept my getting her into an exclusive sex dungeon as repayment."

 

Hermione’s eyebrows shot up. “You know where to find secret sex dungeons?”

 

“I guess I better locate one by next week,” Tom quipped, infuriatingly casual with his eyes low as he typed, delete, retyped a response. “Honestly, the difficult part is just going to be finding some filthy chamber of secrets that she hasn’t already gotten herself kicked out of.”

 

“Will you go with her?” 

 

“With Bella?” Tom looked up, stopped his typing. “No, of course not. I don’t trust that madwoman anywhere near a bullwhip or anything sharp.”

 

“Oh.”

 

A third buzz shook the phone in Tom’s hand, but he remained focused on Hermione, assessing. “You sound relieved.”

 

In danger of coming off as possessive or presumptuous, Hermione shrugged. "Funny,” she laughed, nonchalantly handed Tom his suit jacket, “I just sound tipsy to me." 

 

It was a lie that neither bought and when his eyebrows nearly touched, Hermione worried that he was going to call her out for staking a claim on him too early. The exhale he took, too forceful. The subtle signs in body language aggressively signaling that he was one who didn't appreciate being leashed and led around, and why didn't he laugh off what she said? His pause before speaking again taking ages during Hermione's state of inebriation before Tom’s fine features settled from alert into relaxed. A decision made, and he tucked his phone back into his pocket.

 

“Do you still sell your paintings?”

 

"It’s been a while,” Hermione trailed off, her muddled mind stuck on asking herself why he'd redirected. “I dunno," she shook her head to shake it off, rubbed the heel of her palm against her eye, "I guess the last one I sold was to my dad, and one to my best friend," Hermione corrected herself, frowned, "former best friend."

 

“I’m going to buy one.”

 

How did he keep doing it? How did Tom knock Hermione off her footing with an intensity that didn’t feel rightfully earned to her? A promise from him to support her and her art stopping her heart in her chest, but her eyes narrowed with feminine suspicion since she barely knew the person grinning down at her. The taste of his mouth, familiar now. The identity of at least one woman who felt close enough to text him at midnight, now known by her too, but Prince Charming showing up to shove glass footwear on her felt like an unlikely fit for Hermione. A grand gesture more alarming than flattering after it again struck her that she had zero clues about what this sleek savior did outside of the one hour a day when he showed up at her work, and shouldn't that bother her more? It sure felt like they'd skipped some important steps before she'd invited a possible viper into her sanctuary, but an equally strong urge hit to drag him back to her room to coil inside her and keep him there for hours. Conflicted, she was.

 

"Y-You're going to buy a painting from me?"

 

"If you'll sell it."

 

“It won’t be cheap,” Hermione replied, shamelessly scavenging. “You might have to put in some overtime wherever your work- where-do-you-work-Tom?”

 

The end bit she slurred. A big glass of water in her near future, but Hermione gathered that Tom picked up enough when his grin dropped, and she suspected it had landed in her throat. Was that why it felt thick in there, so suddenly hard to breathe? Is that why her heart went from frozen to hammering to break the tension free from her body after she’d shifted the conversation down a swerve in the road that Tom clearly wasn’t expecting. 

 

A long beat for him before a closed-lip smile.  

 

“I work in antiquities."

 

"You work in antiquities?" Hermione skeptically repeated, laughing at the blatant fib, "Okay then." 

 

"I wasn't kidding,” Tom stated, his affable tone vanishing. “I assist in purchasing hard to find items for a buyer with unique tastes.”

 

“Nooo,” Hermione drawled, slowly blinked at him as her brain could not compute that information. “That can’t possibly be what you do.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“S‘cause I pegged you as a banker, or a big-time contract lawyer, or a something else fancy pants important that demands daily different suits and a side part.” 

 

Unfortunately for Hermione, the Pinot Noir made her hands swishier than she preferred when gesturing to his shoes his hair and his general rich as sin aura. And not even halfway through her speedy, stammering confessional, she realized that Tom was holding back a laugh. She might have deserved it.

 

“Do you usually make a habit of running down a fellow’s career path?“

 

“No, I don’t," she swore, rolling her eyes at herself, "and I’m sorry. Oh bugger, I always spew out the most ridiculous rant-y things around you that I get to groan about later when I'm replaying them in my head." A thoroughly humbled Hermione sheepishly looked away, opened the door to free Tom when she no longer felt captivating but did worry that he thought she was an obsessed nutter holding him captive .“And I’ll bet the antiquity world is probably fascinating since you're into it, and I’m certain that you’re successful at whatever, um...you do with them.” 

 

To the disappointment of Hermione’s deflated ego, instead of walking out in a huff, Tom flashed a smug dimple. “You replay our conversations?”

 

“See,” Hermione pouted, shook her head, “this is why I called it a night. I knew I was going to say something, and you were going to listen, and I should really not be talking right now.”

 

“If it’s any consolation,” Tom placed a hand over his heart, deadpanned, “you’ll probably only remember portions of this tomorrow.”

 

“That is reassuring!” Hermione laughed. “Is that also when you’ll reveal to me what your secret suit-wearing side-hustle is?”

 

“You are the most relentless skeptic, and yes, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”

 

“Why not now?”

 

Tom traced his finger along her dress strap.  "Because I like how you look at me today."

 

__________________________

 

In the middle of the night, Hermione's eyes followed the slow-spin of her ceiling fan, her mouth parted, and it dawned on her that she didn’t have his number.

 

Her lips knew his.

 

Her fingers could apply similar pressure over her body. The feel of her hair roughly bound in his closed fist. His kiss bending her back. His strong hands gliding down her side before grabbing hold, and beneath the covers, she knew him. He was there under her skin, in her bones. He was steering an orgasm with her hand frantically circling between her thighs, but she didn’t have his number.

 

________________________

 

In the morning, a halfway hungover Hermione picked up her car from Luna’s pop-up gallery. The coconut water in her hold not up to the Herculean task of replenishing all her electrolytes, but she chugged it down while shooting up prayers to all the -hopefully- merciful gods in the world from before and after who felt like possibly indulging the prayer of a disbeliever who desperately begged for her stomach to stop spinning. A carousel not as much fun around her spleen, and Hermione rubbed her belly to slow the ride. The churning demand to get back home and into bed coming from deep inside, and she sloppily yanked her keys out of her purse but they rattled between her fingers after she happened to glance back. The first time that she noticed a half dozen people milling about inside the bathroom fixtures shop for a smaller art showing, and her breath caught, her eyes searching.

 

“Shit.”

 

A day later, Hermione would see the humor in her reaction and her particular location, but her teeth nervously sawed over her bottom lip.

 

A distracting tightness stretching across her chest, and she missed the footsteps behind her before a couple of fingers touched her arm, and Hermione's coconut water took a flight out of her thrown up hand. Her instincts choosing flight too. Her muscles ready to spring, her poor mouth distorted into an o before spinning around gave Hermione the answers to her who, what and why the devil did someone touch me? 

 

“You can relax, babe,” Luna softly said, a sea of calm with similarly-colored eyes that Hermione thought looked far too perceptive for someone who went about startling people in parking lots. “He’s not coming, you know.”

 

Hermione blanched. 

 

“I-I wasn’t looking for him.“ 

 

She was.

 

“I-I wasn’t looking for Harry,” Hermione repeated, acting as if hearing it twice meant believing it once. “I don’t care if he comes one way or another. It’s your show.”

 

“I know it is,” Luna said, “and that’s why I didn’t invite him.”

 

“Because of me?” Hermione squeaked, rambling while wringing coconut liquid out of her tank top. “You shouldn’t have done that on my account. He’s filthy rich. He could buy all your penises...your peni?”

 

“That thought process looked painful.”

 

Hermione's nose scrunched up. “It seriously was.”

 

“I’m sorry about that, but you honestly shouldn’t worry about a loss of income for me.” Luna tenderly pet the intergalactic themed fanny pack she’d worn over a chic purple, chiffon jumpsuit. “All the stars have been in my favor, Mercury is no longer in retrograde, and I promised to send Harry pictures of any pieces that don’t sell...pieces that I might price higher.” 

 

“Ah, good.”

 

The front of Hermione’s chest dripped pitifully. Her cold nipples pushing against the soaked cotton to say hello, but the most mortifying part of the conversation for Hermione was the tiny relief she felt over not seeing Harry versus the monumental disappointment. The evidence that all of Luna's thoughtfully engineered plan to keep them apart was nothing but a useless waste of anxiety on her end when anyone could tell how much Hermione had briefly looked forward to seeing her old friend. A masochistic view from afar better than nothing at all, and she deeply inhaled, accidentally ran a wet hand through her curls.  

 

“Ugh, fuck.”

 

“I know you don’t want to hear it hon,” Luna said, forcing Hermione’s attention back on her, and imploring her to listen, “but the problem is that you’re a fully formed individual. You know what you like, who you are. You’re already twenty-four karat gold while Harry’s flaky pyrite. He’s moldable. He’d prefer that someone think for him, so he doesn’t have to take full responsibility for his actions. That’s why he’s a flash in the pan person: he’s not reliable. How can he be counted on when he’s so easily shaped by others, and you deserve something solid and real.”

 

To keep from crying in a toilet shop parking lot, Hermione laughed.

 

“Well,” she sniffed, her head pounding from the force and farce of it all, her lips trembling, “I did make out with a near stranger last night. That felt pretty real. Do you think that’s something solid?”

 

“I don’t know,” Luna cooed, excitedly clapped her hands together, “oooh, it could be though- do you know what his sign is?”

 

“I don’t even know his middle name!” 

 

Hermione whined, giggle, whined.

 

The impact of Tom and booze in her brain turning Hermione into a blubbering contrast of goofy and freaking out, and Luna shared a startled giggle before schooling her floored expression back into appropriately sincere. Her cool hands circling Hermione's wrists to apply calming pressure on her pulse points. A grounding circling of her fingers around and around.

 

“In all seriousness,” Luna softly said, “it’s hardly the end of the world to not know someone’s middle name after a first date- those things take time- but you should try to find out quickly if he’s a Sagittarius.”

 

Chapter Text

In an emotionally fragile moment, Hermione did the dirty deed on her bed.

 

Her feet in the air. Her lip sucked between her front teeth after she'd typed his name in the search bar. The results taking forever to load thanks to her condo’s wonky wifi, and Hermione's finger hovered above the backspace bar to stop the madness before it went too far. A split second away from clear-headed restraint since this impulsive action was beyond a bad idea. A betrayal to herself, really. An obsessive mistake, but before Hermione inhaled a breath of sanity, his maddeningly familiar features popped up on her laptop screen to drop her stomach to the floor.

 

The mayor of the city on one side of him in the picture. 

 

His beautiful wife on the other.

 

Harry Potter And The Opening of The New Chamber of Commerce

 

_________________

 

“Okay.”

 

At the end of forty clicks worth of self-destructive behavior, Hermione closed her laptop. A long pinch of the bridge of her nose between her fingers required to release the mass of accumulated tension in her kooky cranium after internet stalking. A firm press, but she couldn’t push away what she’d seen. No, a frenzy of facts and flattering photos flashed in Hermione’s head. A whole two year's worth of catching up on her former best friend finished in fifteen minutes, but it was enough time to deliver a kick to her gut since all she’d managed to dig up about Harry Potter was the same information that any random person could have learned too.

 

A horrible confirmation that he and Hermione didn’t mean anything to each other anymore. That they shared no unique bond. That he'd call someone else his closest friend, and as a sob rattled in the back of her throat, she uselessly wished that she’d stuck to fantasy.

 

Hermione sniffed. She ran a hand down her face.

 

“Why? Why did I do that?” she groaned against her pillow. The answers to her questions not voiced out loud since mocking responses already screeched in her head, and they all repeated the same thing. In spite of everything he’d done- all the rational reasons she shouldn’t- she missed Harry Potter. 

 

Oh goodness, did she miss him. 

 

For the most part, Hermione successfully refrained from dwelling on Harry and her. A week, or month, could pass without second-guessing where they’d gone wrong, and ready to move forward again, Hermione set off to the kitchen for comfort cocoa. A tornado of tiny marshmallows soon swirling around the spoon in her mug. The smallest something good to look forward to. And oddly enough, it was the little things she missed most about Harry too.

 

The sharing of her floral quilt after he’d passed out again in her bed during their teens. The need to call his self-absorbed aunt and uncle for a check-in considered an excessive action since they cared more about keeping up appearances than keeping up with their nephew. The implied agreement between them that as long as he didn’t snag police attention, he could pass out wherever he desired. So, he’d wind up again and again in the Granger household with a due-the-next-day essay he’d hastily wrote soon marked up with Hermione’s helpful hints before the papers ended up shoved into his bag. A sleepy thank you murmured to his friend as he took up half her pillow. His dark black curls tickling her cheek before she lightly jabbed him with her elbow, muttered that he was doing it again. The answering sleepy chuckle from him warming her skin, and it was already too hot in the room, but she couldn’t pull away to save herself.

 

He was her best friend.

 

He took her for granted, but he equally took her out of her comfort zone. 

 

Oh yes, wherever magnetic Harry Potter was welcomed, socially clumsy Hermione Granger was guaranteed entry too. The joined at the hip friends accepted as a two for one deal although he magically put people at ease while she was prone to rambling about Isaac Newton. A most mismatched pair who somehow complemented each other, and even it was only a two-person singing party inside his hand-me-down car on a deserted country road, he'd always make wherever he was the place to be. 

 

The moon his disco ball when he threw his head back for a laugh. 

 

The songs he performed somehow better off-key as he'd encourage Hermione to let loose into silly, and he'd always win. 

 

The high notes and high points with him offsetting the selfish lows.

 

Yes, it was the minuscule moments that stuck around to eat at adult Hermione. A remembered snippet here or there slowly carving out cave-sized hollows in her heart until she ached for something she’d lost, or possibly, never truly had to begin with. A battering of her ego whenever she tried to separate what they’d had and what she’d built up into something meaningful.

 

It hurt to doubt herself, and them. 

 

For years and years, she used to be able to giggle whenever she pictured their first meeting. A twelve-year-old Harry Potter casually dropping into the seat beside her on his first day of boarding school, a roomful of suspicious eyes locked on his lanky frame. The usually grumpy teacher shockingly suggesting that the new kid pick anywhere he wanted to lay down roots, and when Harry could have sat with any of the pretty girls giving him googly eyes with crushes ready to land, he parked his bony rear beside Hermione. A nod of his head. A whisper for a pen to borrow, and instead of rolling his eyes whenever Hermione’s hand flew up to answer a question, he sent her impressed stares.

 

“Bloody hell,” he’d mouthed, jet black eyebrows nearing his haphazard curls. “Is there anything you don’t know?”


“I’m not entirely sure that it’s tuna fish in the tuna fish sandwiches at lunch,” Hermione whispered back, feigning serious and he cracked up until the teacher clucked her displeasure.

 

Yes, it was the littlest things in their past that twisted Hermione up in the present.

 

The first laugh with him. That last laugh that she never saw coming.

 

A difference of six months from Harry meeting a chatty, popular auburn-haired girl in college to him shutting out his best friend when she needed him most. The tragic loss of Hermione’s parents in a freak car accident more than understandable to Harry since his mother and father passed away violently too, but he didn’t check in on Hermione as he should have. No, a few months after dirt hit the top of the Granger graves, Harry cut Hermione off from the comforting glow of his presence. The years of carefully cultivated nostalgia between them revealed as no match for a freckled, fierce femme who'd frowned at innocent texts between Hermione to Harry. The repeated promises to Ginny from him that Hermione was only his friend never sinking in as believable when his best friend's curls framed her face so prettily, and he quickly grew tired of arguing with his girlfriend.  

 

In time, Harry’s responding texts to Hermione dried up.

 

In even less time, the invitations to meet in person for a casual coffee or future business brainstorming sessions stopped entirely.

 

The first of too many lame excuses supplied by him for why they couldn’t spend holidays together when he knew damn well that he was her only family left. Her brother in everything but blood, but he was in love, and there was only so much he could give.

 

“We’re fine, ‘Mione,” he’d repeated outside his apartment, shoulder resting against the doorframe. The entry blocked. The distance between the outside world and his inner sanctum beyond Hermione’s reach, and she’d emphatically shook her head. “I swear.”

 

“If it’s fine then let me in.”

 

“I can’t.” Harry scratched the back of his neck, looked away from the tears he wrung out of her. “I uh, I want to, but I’m busy. It’s a rough semester.”

 

Hermione swore under her breath. “Is that the genius line that Ginny coached you on?”

 

To anybody else, Harry's infinitesimally small jaw clench confirming her accusation would go unnoticed, but Hermione knew him too well. Oh yes, she knew all about his dreams and nightmares, the way he took his coffee in the summer versus winter. The sound of his chest-rattling cries on the anniversary of his parent’s death, and how hard he squeezed when he tearfully clung to her as if she were the only one in the world able to keep him grounded. The anchor for him until he cut her adrift.

 

A cast-off right before his trust fund kicked in and he graduated, and Hermione finally accepted that all she had left with Harry Potter was pain to look forward to. A loss of friendship without a fallout even harder to get over if you’re someone who lives for rationally answering questions, but happily existing without his intoxicating brand of toxic sunshine in her life was Hermione’s problem to solve.The hard work shouldered by her. Again. 

 

The numbers never rounding up to why she wasn’t worth the effort, but after a couple of years, Hermione learned to work better alone

 

____________________________

 

In the morning after her tumble down masochistic memory lane, Hermione perused Japanese news articles before following up on European developments from the week before. A series of neat notes from her typed into a stock spreadsheet as she sat cross-legged on her comfy couch. The rising itch to trade resisted because Hermione understood her role as a partial owner of the companies she invested in, and how you don’t throw out a building with good bones at the first sign of a troubling pest in the foundation. No, ma’am. The numbers might dip, the temporary setback sting, but she kept faith in her stocks long term returns.

 

The kind of faith that she only wished that she also possessed when it came to predicting a future with one puzzling Tom Riddle. His curt and condescending behavior during his first diner lunch not resembling how he praised her now- the shift in his charm almost too good to be true- and for the third time that morning, Hermione dragged her thumb from one corner of her lips to the other. The invisible feel of his need for her remaining long after he’d stopped touching her. The taste of him right there, and it felt like going out on a limb for him was worth the leap of faith. But Hermione sighed. A drop of her eyes back to her financial sections. A banishment of Tom from her thoughts since it wasn't like she intended to write a love sonnet about his cheekbones, but funny enough, she couldn't keep from wondering when she'd see him again. 

 

For better or worse, he drew a reaction, and Hermione's mind strayed again and again as she struggled to figure out if that was positive or not. The scales not entirely tipped in his favor because she couldn’t easily trust Tom or anyone with her heart.

 

No, Harry Potter saw to that without the two men ever meeting.

 

______________________________

 

“Oh gross, he’s doing it again.”

 

In her corner of the waitress station, Hermione continued organizing sugar packets. “Who’s doing what?” she asked, glancing at Pansy.

 

The grumpy goth silently jutted out her chin towards the front of the diner.

 

The object of her unimpressed attention a cold drink of tall dark and handsome whose narrowed eyes skimmed over the room before catching Hermione’s. A lift of his eyebrows towards an empty table. A confirming nod from her as Pansy dramatically groaned behind Hermione after she'd correctly decided that Tom would be a dream of a tipper on a slow day, and Hermione turned away to practically put up the diner’s box of various sweeteners. Her goofy smile even more practically concealed, and she didn’t bother scooping up a menu before strolling over to Tom.

 

“I see you're back to wearing the apron,” he commented with a wry grin once she'd landed in front of him, his gaze drifting down her body before snapping up. “I’ve been thinking so much about you in that dress from the other night that I rather expected to see you in it today.”

 

In her home, they'd kissed. 

 

A lick, suck and intending to fuck drenching the passionate movements with her favorite patron who'd kissed her senseless on her desk. The needy thudding inside his chest mirroring hers, and Hermione blushed in remembrance of him, and her and what they'd done. A pretty little pink flash of flustered across her cheeks. The heated memories that he purposefully dug up needing to go cool off in her head if she had any hope of making it through her shift without jumping his bones in a booth and Hermione choose to diffuse the wild thumping in her chest with humor. "Uh, nope,” she chuckled, tying her apron strings in a bow, “sadly, the dress is gone. The clock struck midnight, the gown disappeared, and I’m back to my humble working-class apron.”

 

“Ah well,” Tom sighed, his mouth playful. “The color suits you, you know.”

 

“I’ll definitely let Luna know you’re a fan of the dress since she’s the one who whipped it up! It’s all her brilliant concept and execution, and my only contribution is to avoid spilling drinks on it.”

 

“I was referring to your cheeks.”

 

A saucy head cock from a cocky bastard sure didn’t help Hermione’s plan to avoid mounting him in public. In spite of her features appearing outwardly placid and cool as a cucumber in Copenhagen, she inwardly swooned. Her stomach swooped.

 

However, the kitchen bell ringing reversed Pavlov’d her. The salivating over Tom's cheeky comment mercifully stopping once she recalled that they were in her place of business where she had no business riding him like a stallion. A dash of decorum regained in the nick of time, and when Tom shamelessly winked, she swished a warning finger at him before backing away to grab him a glass of water for him to drink...or to pour on his head.

 

_______________________________  

 

At the end of a shift that dragged, Hermione carefully tucked her pitiful roll of one dollar bills inside her purse. A day’s worth of sweat and near tears from boredom wedged up against pepper spray and a pack of gum, and after a salute to Pansy who jokingly flicked her off, Hermione locked up the diner after lunch. A click. A double-check. A satisfied head bob before she spun around to head off to the bank and stumbled back in surprise. 

 

"Oh fuck! Tom!"

 

"I like the suggestion, but not necessarily the tone."

 

A short distance from Hermione, Tom Riddle appeared awfully proud of himself with his arms folded over his chest. The living embodiment of a breathtaking fallen star in a fitted suit as black as night. A slow-growing smile edging his mouth up. The, undoubtedly, witty punchline to a joke that only he seemed to know the answer to adding an elusive glint to his eyes, but Hermione bristled with irritated tinged embarrassment. 

 

“Why are you lurking around?”

 

“Oh, I definitely don’t love that tone either.” Tom's formerly casual posture straightened, his voice shifting from cool velvet running over her to crisp and clinical. “And to answer your blunt question, I was lurking around to satisfy your request.”

 

“What request?” 

 

“Do you not remember when you begged me the other night to tell you about my second job? For who knows why, I guess I foolishly had a mind to share that information with you, but you’re obviously in the mood to be pissed off. So, I’ll head out.”

 

The scowl from Tom made Hermione feel as if she meant less than nothing to him. A turn of his back on her sending her hand shooting out to grip his elbow and change his mind. “No, wait!” Hermione demanded, releasing him when Tom glared down at her, and she wanted to scream at herself for turning a fresh surprise into something bruised and rotten. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude- you caught me off guard.”

 

He cut a pretty picture in the sun. 

 

A heartbreaker face, a hard jaw.

 

A vexing man who dressed the part of refined and fine as hell, but for a split second, a warning skipped up Hermione’s spine. A primal push for her calves to bunch before sprinting. The oddest urge in her to seek out heat in the face of the coldest expression, and, to Hermione’s unease, Tom easily wore his lack of warmth even more naturally than his suit. It fit him like a second skin. The most feral curl curving his upper lip into disdain, but just as quickly, he blew out a long exhale and added a rueful smile. 

 

“Sure, I get it,” he muttered, flicked his head towards the opposite direction of Hermione’s home, “you coming then?” 

 

A whiplash-inducing reaction from a near stranger would normally prevent Hermione from skipping off to alone with him, but Tom's pulse rapidly thrummed against his neck. The impulse to cut and run from her bubbling right under the surface of his starched white collar. The shaking off of her impertinence a visible struggle for him, and certain that he’d rescind the possibly limited time offer to join him if she wouldn't stop gawking like a confused toddler, Hermione acquiesced- the very last of her self-preserving impulses going on vacation when she slipped her hand in his.

 

A promise to be good and trusting.

 

__________________________

 

“Is that a candy store next to a taxidermy shop?”

 

“It is,” Tom confirmed in his best apathetic tour-guide voice, releasing Hermione’s hand to avoid clotheslining an approaching elderly couple, “and that means you can have your fill of cotton or cotton candy depending on your luck.”

 

“Huh, morbid or maple- and oh my god!" she interjected, patting his bicep. "Tom? Is that seriously a record store with actual customers inside?” Hermione sputtered, craned her neck around. “Where are we? What time have I slipped into?”

 

“A time with women who are about to run into trash cans.”

 

“Oops!” Hermione laughed, comically side stepping away from danger before her jaw hung open again. “Wait, did you see that guy skitter across the street like a panicky crab instead of walking by us? It’s so much more open on this side. Why would he do that-”

 

“He must have seen you nearly take out the trash, and thought it the safest choice.”

 

“Ha-ha.”

 

In under fifteen minutes, Tom had managed to direct the lollygagging- and gagging- waitress down a narrow street that she didn't previously know existed, a blink and you miss it kind of knocked down turn in the road. A hole in the wall in street form filled with bars and mom and pop shops that ran low on customers although the winding pavement remained lively. A patch of city life appearing unscathed by the recent boom in development that had ripped up and replaced too many unique neighborhoods to count, and it lifted Hermione's spirit to see some rare charm in bloom. In the three years that she'd lived in the city, Hermione had noticed the exchange of affordable food and quirky housing for sleek, boxy, chic condominiums and gastropubs. Who could blame her then for excitedly grinning up at a row of Victorian-era office awnings, painted in matching green with silver stripes, as if she'd discovered a lost world? 

 

A quaint touch. 

 

A bit of Bohemia even before gas lights came to life down the street. The mellow yellow glow adding an extra dash of too cool for Hermione to handle. A step into the past that she never expected but did distract her feet from following Tom’s abrupt stop.

 

“Is that an old printing press inside there-” 

 

“Hermione?”

 

“Wha-” Hermione cut herself off, walked back eight steps to Tom. “We stopped.”

 

“I did.”

 

The light teasing and a closed ten-foot-tall oak door kept Hermione outside the mysterious shop without a sign, but she took everything in as an amused Tom studied her observations. Her first wave of curiosity flicking over to the quaint bell above the door. Then the massive display windows earning a closer inspection from Hermione as the luxurious curtains inside only revealed a teasing view of black leather-covered shelves on each side of the door. The quest to see more tipping up Hermione's chin and she hummed with enchantment when appraising the filigree heavy jewelry on the shelves with the gem orbs beside them faintly glowing thanks to backlighting. Her anticipation to continue exploring the intriguing space soaring through the roof, and judging by Tom's little smug mouth twitch, he could tell.

 

“I can’t help but notice the lack of signage,” Hermione stage whispered, teasing before Tom could. “It’s a tad ominous.”  

 

“Ah, good.” Tom cooed, pressing in a code on a bronze keypad above the doorknob.”I think my boss was aiming for posh exclusive, but spooky works too if it causes frightened old biddies to toss their expensive jewelry at us in their panic to leave.”

 

Hermione laughed, covered her mouth as she followed behind Tom.  

 

A fortunate choice for her because when they entered an impressive showroom with twinkling chandeliers above locked displays cases, she didn’t cause an embarrassing echo upon arrival. A bit of a relief but it hardly seemed to matter as there didn't appear to be any other customers around the timeless space, but Tom dutifully stepped behind a long counter. He whispered something to an older clerk who looked as ancient as a displayed pearl inlaid dagger that Hermione eyed and couldn’t imagine any practical use for, but suddenly desperately wanted on her hip. The impulse purchase only just reluctantly saved for another day, and when she glanced up, she noticed that only Tom remained near the register.

 

A small adjustment of his tie until it hung perfectly straight down the front of his black dress shirt.

 

A form of fabric foreplay that Hermione wasn’t aware was definitely her brand of debauched, but how could her skin fail to tingle when Tom looked smooth as silk and in his element.

 

A near royal presence even before he pointed to a silver bracelet on a shelf. “I want you to pick that up,” he calmly instructed Hermione, holding her gaze, “and then walk over to me.”

 

Why did her stomach twist? Why did her exhale shudder on the way out? A silly series of aroused reactions to a perfectly ordinary request, but it felt like performing for him. The top marks in the class available for Hermione's winning if only she danced her heart out first, and you bet her hips swayed on the way over to Tom. The requested bracelet placed carefully in front of him. The lead part in their scene remaining his when she obediently followed his orders, and she silently waited for her prize. A humbling realization hitting her then that if he demanded that she wear only the bracelet, she just might.

 

“Good afternoon, Ms,” Tom said in a voice so low that Hermione had to lean forward to hang off every word. “I see that you’ve returned to finally let me take that exquisite heirloom off your hands and leave you satisfied.”

 

Oh, how Hermione longed for just that.

 

A low internal tug pulled beneath her belly, the words he used not overtly obscene, but when his eyes brightened expectantly, Hermione had a notion to climb over the counter and slide her cunt over his mouth. A public bit of indecency seeming worth the night in jail if only he kept appraising her as if she had something special to offer him. The added teasing torture of his fingers grazing the inside of her wrist when he picked up her bracelet to hold it to the light, and a low noise of want fluttered in the back of Hermione’s throat.

 

Tom hummed back, tilted his head.

 

“Do you remember letting me down,” Tom unclasped the bracelet, circled it around Hermione’s wrist. A tremble in her hand when she wondered if maybe they hadn’t moved on from their unpleasant exchange at the diner, but Tom didn't read as bothered as he deftly attached the cold silver to her- a weight keeping her from skin to skin contact. A tiny hatred for the denial of his touch and Hermione frowned. “Ah yes, I see that you do recall me offering you a fair amount for this piece seeing as there’s that scratch from the third to fourth setting and we already have another in mint condition, but you turned me down. I must confess that I was quite beside myself with disappointment.”

 

“I um,” Hermione cleared her throat, forced herself to play instead of overthinking. “I-I’m sorry, but it wasn’t enough for this priceless family heirloom.”

 

“I see that now,” Tom nearly whispered, nodding in understanding as he lifted her hand. “I suppose that’s because I hadn’t seen it on you.”

 

“You flatter me.”

 

“I speak honestly,” Tom brushed his fingers over the bracelet- her. ”You see, you sell the jewelry far better than I ever could, but I do hope you’ll allow me the honor going forward.”

 

Hermione blinked.

 

“How much?” she shakily exhaled, drew her hand back towards herself. “How much better can you do?”

 

As if they were partners in crime, Tom casually rested an elbow on the counter. His chin propped up by the back of his hand. The distance between buyer and seller cut in half, and he added an intimate eye roll towards the back room. “If it were up to me, I would offer you loads more, but I’ve been firmly instructed by my bosses to go no higher than one hundred. Also, the old stick in the muds aren’t exactly keen on me purchasing anything from you after you already left the shop once. It gives them pause.”

 

“Oh-”

 

“However,” Tom flashed a conspiratorial grin, “I could offer you my discount if you desire anything else in the shop.”

 

“I came to sell and not to buy.” 

 

“Well, you and I both know that, but how about that lovely pair of topaz earrings that match your eyes? Or, perhaps, I keep my twenty-percent discount, but I offer you ten percent more for the bracelet at a small loss to the store but with a promise that you’ll give me first look at any other jewelry going forward.”

 

“I….I,” Hermione wracked her brain for an excuse, sighed after coming up empty. “Okay, that sounds fair.” 

 

In a fluid movement, Tom removed the bracelet from her wrist to deposit it behind the counter. The register opening and closing to remove dollars and change before Hermione changed her mind, and she couldn’t say that Tom had come off as having driven a hard bargain. On the contrary, he kept pleasant and amenable to making her as many offers as possible. The hidden backroom bosses remaining the jerks in the transaction. The money in her hand laughably insignificant if she’d once turned him down for ten dollars less, but Hermione grinned up at him. 

 

“Oh, you’re good.”

 

The register dinged open again, the money from Hermione’s hand deposited back inside again, and Tom winked.

 

“I have five seconds to hook you.” 

 

“I did want to give into you stupidly early on,” Hermione begrudgingly admitted, “even if I didn’t already want to bang you.”

 

The second the words left her mouth, Hermione’s jaw dropped. 

 

“Oh my god,” she squawked, holding up her hands,” forget I said that last part!”

 

“Never!” Tom chuckled, abandoned the counter to join her in front as equals. “I can’t remember the last time anyone said they wanted to bang me. It’s quite violent- I like it.”

 

“Oh. My. God.”

 

The impulse to run through the nearest wall struck Hermione as a sensible plan, but Tom blessedly redirected the conversation. 

 

“In those first five seconds,” Tom seamlessly picked up where they’d left off, his delighted dimple sticking around, “I have to tell you what you want to hear, and not why I can’t give it to you. For as far as you know, I am irreconcilably disappointed to have lost your sale before. I knew I shouldn't have played hardball, I beat myself up over it, and now I desperately want to cut a better deal for you as the shop looks slow, and I work on commission. I need to buy from you. It's you who has the upper hand, and if I’m successful with my pitch, you’ll leave here believing that I allowed you multiple options when before I only brought you disappointment. Heck, I just made your day."

 

"You did." 

 

"But," Tom drawled, "I left out the part that a jeweler we know can easily buff out the scratch and that a buyer is currently seeking out a set of these same bracelets. A ridiculously wealthy man who last week offered me an extra two hundred and fifty dollars if I added one more bracelet to the one we already own, and I just bought it off you for near nothing when my bosses would have definitely gone higher.”

 

“Fuck,” Hermione sharply exhaled, “I am both swindled and swooning.”

 

“That’s the hope.”

 

A thin and cunning smile from him didn’t much help Hermione with sorting her thoughts in order of importance and horniest. The transaction and Tom’s light bragging doing a number on her hormones, but she couldn’t comprehend why shooting up the sale would be considered a second job. The exchange all seemed like normal selfish salesman behavior, and it was hardly Tom prostituting himself out to hold her wrist. There was nothing to be ashamed of…

 

“What else do you do, Tom?” Hermione softly asked, switched pressure back onto him. “I know what you taste like and who texts you at midnight. I now am pretty sure that you could convince a fish to buy a sweater, but unless you’re selling snake oil to terminal patients, there’s nothing morally bankrupt playing out here.”

 

“How many gaslights did you notice outside?”

 

The redirect startled Hermione. “What?”

 

“How many gaslights on the street?” Tom repeated, strolling over to the nearest display case. His fingers tapping on the top. A slow, bored walk of skin to glass before he offhandedly looked over his shoulder. “Knowing you, I’m sure you counted them.”

 

Hermione nonchalantly shrugged. 

 

“C’mon, how many?”

 

“I dunno,” Hermione retorted, “thirty-six.”

 

“How many green and silver striped awnings?” Tom pressed, circling a fingertip over a lock.

 

“Three.”

 

“And how many times did I say your name?”

 

“Ten,” Hermione reluctantly admitted, frowning. “God, you must think I’m nuts to count that up.”

 

“You’re wrong,” Tom stopped fiddling, ending her miserable groan with an admiring tone, “I think that you and I are some of the only people here who pay attention to the world around them. I mean, did you read about the idiotic sale of Slytherin Street by gullible owners?” 

 

“It sounds familiar.”

 

“For two years, the greedy, ambitious landlords there sold and sold their ramshackle properties before realizing that all their buyers were the same person who wound up bulldozing everything and turning their former homes and history into mixed-use shops and restaurants that nobody working in the area can afford. A culture destroyed in under ten months. The world tipped into something different by someone who paid less than market prices to force out poor tenants from the area who didn’t know any better, but if you and I lived there, I can’t imagine that would have happened without notice.” 

 

“Is it grossly proud if I agree that we probably would have figured it out?”

 

“No,” Tom insisted, stressing, “we see patterns in people and things, and we would have damn well demanded more for the last two houses in the area. I bet you anything that we would have made the man with deep pockets pay heavily to take what was ours because if it were up to you and me, he’d have suffered instead of walking over us.”

 

For as much as Hermione adored probability, she leaned more naturally into doubt, and at various points in their former meetings, Hermione had asked herself if Tom was more silver-tongued over serious. As a sign of the times, it made sense to her when a handsome man teased her at work to feed his ego as she fed him. The cruel pastime of insecure prats cleverly mining for a woman's reactions not unfamiliar to a gal who internet dated and waited on people hand and foot, but when Tom spoke of what they shared in common and what they could do together, his tone shifted to near radical. He didn't sound like he was trying for cool and hipster unattached to win points with her. No, an open fire lit up his features, and Hermione stopped feeling hoodwinked or suspicious. Instead, she felt seen. She felt appreciated and believed in if he paired them together in his thoughts. A rare jewel with value and he held her in the palm of his hand.

 

“What other patterns do you see, Tom?” Hermione crossed the room to his side again. “What do you do with them?”

 

He tucked one of her wayward curls behind Hermione's ear. A believable reason to dip his head, lean closer to her. The softest, disarming familiarity between them before he shrewdly rattled off, “I see worn shoes from a job that keeps you on your feet, and circles under your eyes that signal another sleepless night. I see ragged cuticles you’ve anxiously picked at, and the second that you approached the counter with a forced swagger, I identified a broke woman with no other option to survive but to sell the bracelet that possibly belonged to someone beloved like a grandmother. A gift that you wouldn't easily part with, but you're putting your all into the pitch as rent's due and this is your only thing of value. It's all you can give me, and that’s why I didn’t make you a different offer for my other job.”

 

“What other offer would you have made?” Hermione breathlessly asked, big brown eyes rounded with concern and intrigue. “What could you have asked if I wore flawless heels and looked perkier and richer?”

 

“I would have asked if you’d like to make a bet to win back what you sold me.”

 

Chapter Text

At a tucked away pub corner booth, Hermione and Tom sat across from one another. The other patrons in the dimly lit hole in the wall ignoring them entirely. The local game on the big screen far more exciting than a couple who hadn’t conversed since arriving, and Hermione’s lips quirked to the side as she doused her piping hot fish and chips in malt vinegar. 

 

“Okay, lay it on me.”

 

“What?” Tom grimaced at her third splash. “Lay what on you?”

 

“The whole shebang.”

 

“The whole shebang-” Tom distractedly repeated, cut himself off. “Hermione. At this point, your chips are more vinegar than potato.”

 

Tom,” she popped a sopping chip into her mouth,” stop changing the subject, and start explaining your morally murky bets.”

 

Tom shot a glare up to the ceiling.

 

A beat passing where Hermione anticipated some snide, stalling comeback, but he pushed the salt and pepper shakers to the middle of the table. A beckoning flick of his fingers for the malt vinegar bottle in her grip, and after a petulant sigh, Hermione handed it over. Two birds with one stone in Tom’s favor. 

 

He arranged the salt, pepper, and vinegar in a line.

 

“At the shop, there is a wide range of people purchasing rare antiques, but only three who sell.” Tom nudged the vinegar aside. ”The filthy rich heir, or heiress, who’s bequeathed another something priceless that takes up room.” 

 

Tom lovingly slid his finger along the pepper in the middle. “The stressed out about-to-be borderline rich person in a tight spot.” 

 

Tom knocked over the last shaker. “And that random salt of the earth blubbering fool who’s frantically selling the only thing of family value for about a hundred dollars cheaper than they should.”

 

Hermione cracked a smile. 

 

“I have a sinking suspicion that I came off like that last one.”

 

“Indeed.” Tom slyly ran his tongue across an incisor. “But, if it makes you feel better, you have around forty-four percent others in your blubbering company.”

 

“I don’t know if that’s reassuring.” 

 

“It is what it is.” Tom shrugged, shifted his adoration back to the pepper. “But, oh, do I love that piggy in the middle best.”

 

”Why?”  

 

 “‘Cause that’s the arrogant bastard who’ll take a bet even though being a greedy, spectacular loser is what brought him to me in the first place."

 

A flash of smug, superiority gleaming in Tom’s dark eyes caused Hermione to plum forget that she’d raised a chip to her mouth. The unplanned knot in her throat turning swallowing into a lost cause anyway. The chip dropped back to her plate after hunger had clearly abandoned her, but she leaned forward instead of running for the hills.

 

“What bet do you make, Tom?” 

 

“I make a reasonable offer for his antique, and then I let it slip that I hate seeing him leave with a frown. I ask if maybe he’d care to pick a card for it, and if he picks the higher card than I’ll pay him double, and if I come out on top, he owes me double.”

 

Hermione’s eyes widened. 

 

“Do you cheat?”

 

A raspy laugh rumbled Tom's chest. The most infuriating reaction to her shocked whisper, but Hermione’s clenching jaw wore his amusement down. “No,” he swiftly insisted, clearing his throat, “I uh, I don’t have to. For every guy that manages to win, I make triple from the next. It’s a long game with large rewards.” 

 

“I don’t understand how that works.”

 

“The stressed out rich guy desires everything- but nothing more than to stay rich. It’s a devastating blow to his ego to part with anything he bought. If he had any other choice, he wouldn’t step into my shop. But, he’s run out of options. He can’t afford to pay me double if he desperately needed this money in the first place, and so he’ll make another bet when he loses. A bet that I won’t take, but I will generously wait two weeks to collect his debt, or add interest.”

 

“And if he can't pay after you add interest?”

 

Tom lifted a shoulder. “He will, one way or another.”

 

A draft slid between Hermione's ribs.

 

A reflex hitting to hug her arms around her chest.

 

Her body’s last-ditch effort to protectively shield herself from the horrid chill that his loaded words carried through her, but only Hermione's stare shifted to make sure nobody was listening to them.

 

“Do you-” Hermione swallowed, pushing down her nerves and summoning up the courage to confirm her worst suspicions. “Do you injure them?”

 

“I do my homework." Tom casually waved over the bartender, another round of pints ordered as if Hermione’s head wasn’t stumbling around enough. “I don’t have to physically injure anyone because I figured out early on that if a rich man has one filthy secret that's got him in trouble, he usually has a few others stashed away to keep it company. So, I do my due diligence. I inquire around until I hear something else he doesn't want me to know, and then I mention that I’m bloody terrible at keeping nasty secrets from families, bosses, clergymen, wives, and mouthy hidden girlfriends on the sides." 

 

The ease of his explanation threw Hermione’s brain into a blender. A whipping spin around and around and around until she lost sight of what was up or down. The accepted rules of proper behavior obviously obliterated to a soupy, abstract pulp if Tom could openly discuss morally bankrupt manipulations as if they were calmly chatting about the weather. The rational, law-abiding side of Hermione's conscience certain that he should at least look fractionally ashamed or fearful of her reaction, but he graciously nodded towards the bartender after he'd set down their drinks before gruffly departing again.

 

The ale in front of her ignored, and Hermione finally crossed her arms over her chest.

 

“You’re saying you’re a bookie.”

 

“I guess you can call it that.”

 

“That’s what it is,” she huffed.

 

“If you need a label, I suppose yes,” Tom drawled, lazily held up one and then two fingers, “I work in antiquities, and I’m occasionally a bookie.”

 

In the aftermath of his blasé boldness, the table fell quiet enough that Hermione swore she heard her pint glass sweat. A wayward drop after a storm. A streak of wet to remind her of the once warm, rushing blood in her veins now congealing into heart-hardened honey as Tom’s mouth curved into disappointed.

 

“I thought you’d take this better.”

 

“W-Why?” Hermione stammered, smacking her palms down on the table. “Did you just assume some cheekiness and killer cheekbones would instantly buy you a Get Out Of Jail pass with me? That this is freaking Monopoly, where the point of our existence is to hoard what you think you deserve, and I’d just be over the moon with awe after hearing about your money-making schemes that screw people out of their savings? I mean, do you seriously see the word sucker stamped across my forehead like you clearly do with everyone else?”

 

Tom flinched. 

 

“No, of course not. I thought,” he started and stopped, spoke quickly but carefully. “I thought that you’d understand because we think alike and you’re practical and thoughtful, and you can empathize with that feeling of churning frustration fermenting inside of you when you're working your ass off for people who make more than you and look down on you for serving them.”

 

“Oh, I see where you got confused," she mockingly overemphasized, eyes narrowing, "but none of your flattery is going to earn you a thumbs up from me for doing the wrong thing to weak people.”

 

“I respect that,” Tom conceded, nodding. “I hope you can perhaps also appreciate that when you asked about what I did, I took a chance on telling you the truth.”

 

“Ah yes, your honest about dishonesty.” Hermione snorted, rolling her eyes. “What’s not to appreciate?”

 

Tom fought off a smile, took a sip of his beer. His eyes never leaving hers while they had the nerve to twinkle over the rim. A lick of foam off of his lip when he had no right to enjoy anything about this moment.

 

“I also respect that you have a way with words when you’re worked up.”

 

“Tom!”

 

“I know, I know.” Tom set down his drink, held up his hands. “You’re upset. I’m sorry.”

 

“Fucking flirting.” Hermione dropped her forehead into her palm. A drawn-out groan. “I think I’m supposed to feel repulsed,” Hermione softly spoke to herself, drumming her fingers against her temple. “I should get up. I should really get up.”

 

“But you haven’t yet.”

 

“I’m blaming it on the curiosity.” Hermione blew out a long exhale, looked up. “But, just so we’re clear, this has nothing to do with your charms. I don’t find you the least bit cute or charming right now.”

 

As if to make her doubt herself, a dimple deepened in his cheek.

 

 “Okay,” Hermione muttered, scowling at his defiantly handsome face even while offering him a temporary reprieve. “Two questions, and then I decide if I’m getting up.”

 

As he couldn't trust his mouth to keep him out of trouble, Tom silently gestured for her to go on.

 

“Have you been arrested?” she asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Did you apply for your job with this scheme in mind?”

 

“It was the farthest thing from my mind,” Tom insisted, pinching his bottom lip between two fingers before abruptly letting go. “I’ve just always had a knack for weeding out the valuable among the ordinary. For some reason, my focus zeroes in on things that others overlook, and if you couple that random talent with my history major, the position seemed like a natural fit.” 

 

“You have a degree in history?" Hermione chirped, straightening in her seat. "Did you want to be a teacher, or a historian, or-”

 

“I was studying to become a history professor,” Tom cut off her enthusiastic rambling, smiled at the end to soften the impact. “But, my scholarship fell through one semester, and I was unfortunately drafted into the war during the lapse. I never finished my degree. It, um, felt rather impossible returning back to life as a student eagerly discussing battles after what I’d seen...I’d done.”

 

Hermione’s face fell.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she gushed out, wincing inwardly. “I didn’t realize...it didn't even occur to me to ask if you'd served.”

 

Tom waved away her need for guilt, took a long drink for himself. 

 

“Wow," she muttered, "that's such crappy luck that you lost your scholarship then."

 

“Yes, well." Tom set his pint down. His lips thinned into an unforgiving line. "That’s the way it is, isn’t it? The rich and powerful start wars, and the poor and powerless suffer for it.”

 

Eleven.

 

Twelve.

 

Thirteen.

 

A solid thirteen inhales and exhales is what it took Hermione to process his statement. His earned bitterness. The vast difference between them that suddenly made it far harder for Hermione to harshly judge him as if they were the same. How could she possibly compare moral lines in the sand with someone whose government had likely asked him to cross a few for the good of the whole?

 

No, she couldn’t damn him yet.

 

So, she picked up a chip. The intent to stay put made crystal clear with a vinegar-spiked chew. A salty second chance. “Hmm, it’s no wonder you don't have much pity for wasteful gambling saps.”

 

“It sure doesn’t help.”

 

“I reckon it's like a slap in the face when you're watching people fritter away something that you’d never dream of losing.”

 

A ringing of bells above the pub door briefly stole Hermione’s attention, Tom’s reply, but when she glanced back, she found an expression of hope and wonder across the booth. A yearning. A reason for her not to pull away when Tom covered her free hand with his. 

 

 “I don't want you to think I'm heartless, Hermione.” He stroked his thumb across her knuckles, spoke as gently as he touched. “I want you to know me, to want me instead of some idealized version of me that could only ever let you down.”

 

The shiver that skimmed down her spine should have been a warning.

 

The parting of her lips after that should have been shock.

 

However, Hermione's self-preserving instincts had went and melted under his touch. The feel of their fingers lacing together short-circuiting her senses bit by bit. The rightness of them together making up for his wrongs when he gazed upon her with fiery, adoring earnestness, and in a cracked pleather seat, she took a leap of faith.

 

“You know,” she mused, “I suppose you’re not exactly seeking out strangers, holding a gun to their head and demanding they take the bet, huh?”

 

“Nope,” Tom held up her hand, brought it to his lips, “we all have free choice.”

 

__________________________________

 

It’s odd how detached you can be.

 

To sit by the pool in your sundress, the coffee shop in your coziest sweater, an ice-capped mountain lodge in your fluffy snow bunny gear, or simply laying out in your swimsuit on the lawn for the first kiss of spring on your bared shoulders as a bloody war rages halfway across the world to save your way of life that you’re convinced is seventy-two percent crappy anyway. The reality of sacrifice kept separate if you aren’t giving up butter, sugar, nylons, or cars like they used to. The ease of it all almost too easy. The violence secured to safely in the distance, but, of course, the news constantly compiles pictures and human interest stories about battles. The clickbait titles directing you to a list of nameless casualties if you don't skim too quickly, but how thoroughly modern to have an option to click on to something that makes you feel better. To tune out. To forget. To get that next hit of dopamine while thinking of your country's carnage as someone else’s problem.

 

For the first time in her life, violence-aversed seventeen-year-old Hermione had nodded her head when her government declared intent to fight.

 

The madman simply had to be stopped.

 

The political optics of it all paling when somebody was slaughtering those he considered inferior by birth, and nobody knew that the fighting would drag on for seven years.

 

A span of two-thousand-five-hundred and fifty-five horrific days while Hermione checked out books at Cambridge, made excuses to avoid parties, lived her life. The reality of a world ripped apart conveniently pushed aside except for those random days when she’d sign an impassioned online petition to her local politician, catch the end of a protest blocking her way home. Her part played in the glow of a computer screen, and a faintly guilty Hermione kept glancing over to Tom as they walked.

 

 A year.

 

Three-hundred-sixty-five days after she’d graduated, the war stopped.

 

The world moved on without her losing anything.

 

The draft ended before she’d even left school. That particular timing working out spectacularly in her favor after so thoroughly failing Tom, but the good guys had eventually triumphed in the face of sadistic adversity. The victory now five years in the past. The news back to political squabbling and shaming parents for everything they do and don't do, but why did Hermione's stomach keep hanging out in her throat? The right thing to say lost against her lead tongue, and the next time Tom caught her weary mind wading into gloomy, he lightly squeezed her hand.

 

“I’d offer you a penny for your thoughts, but they look kind of grim.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Hermione automatically replied, switched to a laugh after processing his comment. “Yeah, you definitely don’t want any of these thoughts.”

 

Tom suggestively arched an eyebrow. “If you’d like, I could distract them.”

 

Hermione sharply inhaled. “On the street?”

 

“No,” Tom purred, angled his head towards a hunter green door ahead. “I was hoping that maybe you’d fancy coming up to my place.”

 

“Wait!” An adorably slack-jawed and flabbergasted Hermione swung her head around to take in the street signs and neighborhood, snap her owlish gaze back to the door. Tom. The door again.” That’s your place? Did you lead us here? Did I lead us here?”

 

Tom laughed, punched in a code. 

 

“You definitely didn’t lead us here.”

 

“Oh, okay. Right. That makes sense.”

 

To stop herself from digging further into a hole of humiliation, Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. Took a breather, finally opened her big brown peepers when she felt good and ready to be sensible again, but that all went to hell once she noticed Tom scrutinizing her with a devastating smile that promised to help her forget about their problems, her problems, the world's many valid problems outside the red brick entrance. 

 

“So, up?”

 

__________________________________

 

He kissed her.

 

Her gasp of surprise lost on his tongue.

 

The door barely clicking shut behind them before he worked on her blouse buttons, worked for her moans. A touch to taste to tugging her hair in her grip when he dragged his teeth across her clavicle and poor Hermione nearly went ass over elbows over his retro entryway console table if it wasn't for Tom's hand gripping her rear. A squeeze that prevented her fate of becoming a mid-century modern casualty. The balance maintained when his second hand joined in to lift her up to gripping his waist with her thighs, and Hermione hung on for dear life.

 

“Oh, fuck,” she whimpered, writhed against him when her shoulders hit the wall. “Oh, fuck, your mouth-”

 

“Fuck my mouth?” Tom’s laugh hummed against her throat. A tease. A nip. A lower lick. “Okay. If you insist.”

 

How rude to make her drop her jaw when her lips were currently so busy. The breathy repeating of his name already a chant, a prayer, a pussy clencher. A purring pleading to continue kissing her right there, touching here everywhere until she petulantly whined when he eased her hold off his hips until her feet touched the ground. A complaint ready to launch off her lips before he dropped to his knees in front of her. The skillful shucking of her work skirt to the floor accomplished in seconds flat before Hermione remembered to feel shy, and by the time she’d recovered a blush, he’d already hooked her leg around his shoulder.

 

A peel to the side of intimate lace with his fingers.

 

A hit of cold on her exposed skin.

 

The glisten on it all for him even before he breathed against her. 

 

 “I want you to watch.”

 

“I want you to count my licks.”

 

“I want you to hear them tremble.”