The green lit display on her dashboard shows midnight exactly.
She taps her fingers on the driver’s wheel impatiently as the bass of some trap song shakes her window and sighs.
Where is she?
Hermione Granger did not care for the club district, especially on Saturday nights with a pile of biology review waiting for her on her well-organized desk. Not to mention the organic chemistry test on Monday—she’d already been studying for two weeks prior of course, but some more practice questions couldn’t hurt. That is, if Ginny ever decided to show up.
“Come on, Hermione,” Ginny pleads, looking at her reflection from the large hall mirror as she put on an alarming pink shade of lipstick. “Let’s go out. Please? Pretty please?” She pouts when she shakes her head. “I have so much to do this weekend you don’t even—And you do too! Didn’t Browning give that journalism assignment for Monday?”
She shakes one hand dismissively as she rushes to her room to search under her bed, pushing aside t-shirts, bras and an errant lacrosse stick in a wild frenzy.
“Technically it’s due 11:55 PM Monday which is plenty of time—and I’m not even volunteering tomorrow so—aha!” She extracts a pair of glittery pumps from a gym bag of all things and throws her Adventure Time socks across the room to put them on.
“I mean…I’m not pressuring you or anything…But Cormac will be there.”
She scoffs. Would she ever let that go?
“Please. Why you think I have even an iota of interest in him is beyond me.”
“Oh c’mon you said the blind date wasn’t that bad! What was the word you used? ‘Interesting?’”
“Ok that was a euphemism for surreal and nightmarish. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings but—I mean all he talked about was his screenplay for forty minutes? And nearly put his tongue down my throat at the shrimp buffet—ugh god.”
Ginny throws her hands in the air.
“Alright, alright. No clubbing. But can you pick me up later? I’m super broke for the taxi—I’ll text you?”
She nods. Fine. It couldn’t take too long anyways.
“Ugh you’re a life saver! And don’t worry I’ll tell Cormac you said hi.” She rolls her eyes as she slowly closes the door behind her.
She’s starting to get annoyed now and she checks her phone for new texts. Nope.
Crowds of skimpily clad women pass by her, wobbling uncertainly on stilettos. She can hear a group of guys laughing loudly down the street. She opens Bluetooth audio and puts on a nice synthwave album.
Maybe she’s gone home already? Someone could have called her a taxi…
She was probably alright—heck, she certainly could defend herself. A memory of a fifteen-year-old Ginny beaming holding her black belt in judo flashes through her mind. They’d signed up for camp together that summer…She remembers her back throwing a kid in the mud in front of the canteen building after he’d pulled one prank too many and she smiles.
She’s fine. She’s definitely ok.
Nevertheless, she can’t help but worry. What if she’d fallen asleep in a random place again? Ginny had the impressive skill of sleeping through anything, anywhere but it was a different matter entirely if she’d passed out in a bathroom or something. She always drank a little too much—
Her hand is on the door handle and she’s putting one foot outside to search the club when the passenger side door suddenly opens and someone slips inside.
“Finally! What took you so—” She does a double take.
The man at her side smirks at her shocked expression before drawing his eyes back down to his phone screen.
“Expecting someone else?”
“Long…Who the fuck are you?”
He tuts. “Language, darling.”
She controls the urge to scoff. “Look I’ve had a long day and I’m actually waiting for someone so I can finish studying a shit load of orgo and start this amazing novel I got pretty recently—been looking forward to it all week actually. I don’t know who you’ve mistaken me for in some drunken fugue state but I certainly am not her so if you wouldn’t…mind...”
He’s staring at her ramble dispassionately, the glare from the phone on his lap washing his face in a pale glow. His hair is very dark and parted neatly in almost an old-fashioned way which is rather at odds with the heavy combat boots and ripped skinny jeans clinging to his long legs. Not to mention the bit of tattoo on his neck she can see peeking past his leather jacket.
Is that a snake? A skull? A snull?
There’s a Kavinsky song playing in the background. ‘I’m giving you a night call to tell you how I feel.’
“I think I’m right where I need to be, actually. Tell me darling, where are you off to?”
There’s something unnerving about him past the absurdly good looks. She can’t quite put a finger on it.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business but I’m actually waiting for someone so—” Her phone dings twice in succession and she scrambles to pick it up.
(12:32 AM) Mione! Sorry 2 keep u waiting !!! Harry came 2 pick me up (got the Camry fixed early!!!) i fell asleep in the car lmao
(12:33 AM) so sorry !!! go home without me ill probably be @ his place tonite xxxx
She doesn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed. Both? Both.
“I trust that was your friend?”
She jumps as she remembers he’s still in her car.
“You’re still in my car.”
“Can you—oh I don’t know—”
“—Now this is what you’re going to do,” he crosses one leg as his phone makes a locking sound. “You’re going to put one foot on that pedal and you’re going to drive. You’re going to take Grosvenor and keep going until I tell you to. And you’re going to do it preferably…” He pouts in contemplation. “Within the next minute.”
“Do you think I’m some fucking uber?” Model wannabe or not she had to stick to her principles.
“I’m not giving you a free ride to wherever—”
He pulls out a gun.
“Do we understand each other?”
“I will not repeat myself.”
She keeps two shaking hands on the wheel as neon lights flick across her face, paint the inside in blues and pinks. Around her people spill out of clubs, restaurants, bars in the arms of friends, lovers. They laugh and stagger on unsteady feet, half in bliss half in regret.
They are unaware of her existence.
Unaware of the way her heart is pumping like it’s going to burst. Of the rush of adrenaline hitting her cells and making her head spin like she’s teetering on the edge of a long, long fall with nothing but darkness to catch her.
Of the fucking criminal in the passenger seat next to her, the shiny silver handled gun that casually rests on his thigh, pointed straight at her heart.
She’s already planned out every possible escape route, technique. The precise distance between her hand and the phone peeking out from the front pocket of her purse. Calculated the amount of time it would take him to pull the trigger—average motor response latency of 213 milliseconds for visual stimuli—
It’s all fucking useless. Because this isn’t a movie, this is real life and in real life people don’t get away unscathed when there’s a fucking bullet pointed straight at their right ventricle—
She wants to scream. She feels tears prickling at the corners of her eyes and the road becomes a blur of street lights before she blinks.
“Why are you doing this?” She chokes out.
There’s something inside you. It’s hard to explain—
“Trust me darling, I’m not so keen on this arrangement either” he replies, almost bored and not even bothering to look up from his phone.
“Arrangement? You took me hostage! Is this some thrill seeking rebellion thing? Because most people—”
“I…Borrowed your services. Temporarily.” He says with a hint of annoyance. “Although I do apologize for ruining your Saturday evening. None of this was my intention, trust me,” he gesticulates vaguely with one hand.
“What, you needed an innocent person to take hostage?” She struggles to keep her voice from cracking. “Threaten ever so eloquently pump full of lead unless they take you to some cryptic address all the while sitting back casually coding?”
She’d recognized the C++ code on his phone as soon as she’d spied his screen from the corner of her eye. What was he writing?
His fingers suddenly stop typing as a look of anger passes across his face, so quick she almost thinks she imagined it. It’s replaced by an unreadable mask. She is hit with the sudden realization of how deliberate every single one of his movements are, from the poised way he holds his shoulders, to the way he tilts his head to look into her defiant doe eyes. Elegant, yes. In a way her clumsy, self-conscious self could never hope to master.
But also unnatural.
It’s as if he’s practiced the moves one time too many in front of the mirror and forgotten how they’re actually supposed to look like, the obsessive construction of a form that’s almost classical in its perfection—
Yes, classical is the word—Everything from his posture to his accent screams grammar school posh and it’s a wonder she didn’t recognize it sooner under all that leather and metal and ink—
“What’s an Oxford boy doing playing Hot Topic hacker in the London underground?”
She has a surge of pure triumph watching his mask dissolve.
“You’re stumbling in the dark, darling” he drawls venomously. “You’re in hysterics.”
His voice is the film of ice over a winter lake—all cold and smooth and dangerous. It is the threat of slipping, falling under with one false step. The fear of drowning in darkness and silence with no way out.
An instinct tells her to tread carefully—that he can hurt her so easily he probably wouldn’t even blink.
“Maybe I am,” she whispers with a lift of her brows. But it’s funny because only three weeks ago a girl at her school had been kidnapped, her face plastered all over the news before her dismembered body had been found by the riverbank a few kilometres away. The man who did it had been laughing on the news being taken away—his fingerprints, they’d said, was all over her bruised skin, her broken throat—laughing and laughing saying he wouldn’t even have noticed her if not for the short skirt, the bit of cleavage. How, sure, he’d do it again, “doesn’t every man have those thoughts? Just a bit of fun really—”, and she couldn’t even think past her fury. At this entrenched violence this fucking entitlement that came so easily without even a second thought, without any sense—
She knows her name could be decorating the headlines tomorrow, another university girl found dead—disposed clumsily in some river or back woods plot of dirt after her use had been spent.
Why does she not feel like the victim? Why does the man next to her with the dark eye circles and knife-sharp words feel more like a puzzle than a threat? Surely he would have hurt her by now if he’d really wanted to.
Why does she catch herself wondering about him? Wondering at the desperation exuding from him, barely concealed behind an aura of impeccable civility. Wondering at his stillness, at his silence at the fucking meaning of that infuriating tattoo on his flawless skin she wants to trace with her fingers—
Why does she keep forgetting to be afraid?
“Take a right turn here.”
They’re in the Square Mile—glittering skyscrapers decorating the skyline past rows of blocky office buildings, asphalt, noise and traffic. The streets are filled with bleary eyed people in suits and backpacks just coming out of overtime.
She maneuvers through the tight traffic and takes a right turn from a car park then left and left again until he tells her to stop in front of the sleek black skyscraper.
They make their way across the open walkway towards the main doors, bright spotlights shining down on them from the beams above. He keeps the gun in the pocket of his jacket, pointed at the small of her back.
Past the revolving doors is a large carpeted lobby with windows extending up to the ornate high ceiling. Neatly dressed people stand behind a long marble counter typing while other people scurry around with luggage carts and trays of coffee and desserts.
She notices the chandelier in the center—a two-ton monster of sparkling gems and candelabra dangling precariously over her head.
An expensive hotel.
She’s startled by him linking an arm through hers.
“If you scream I will have you gagged.” He drawls in the same bored voice. “Don’t underestimate my influence here.”
She wonders at why a punk ass criminal with a penchant for cryptic remarks would ever have an inkling of influence in a place like this—the playground of the douchebag name dropping sons of bureaucrats and tabloid celebrities and upstart real estate tycoons. A category he certainly does not look like he belongs in, no matter what presumptuous school he may have accidentally slipped into.
He pulls her towards the side of the lobby where plush couches litter the floor space next to windows overlooking the glittering lights of downtown. He ignores the middle aged woman eating a large salad as well as the group of businessmen laughing boisterously in the center and heads straight towards a woman in a colourful fur coat by the side. She looks up from her phone when she sees them but doesn’t bother sitting up, keeping her stiletto clad feet hanging over the arm of the love chair.
“So you came.”
“I wanted answers.” They stare at each other with equal disdain before some understanding seems to flicker across the woman’s face and she smirks.
“You got played.”
“We had a deal.”
“Hmm” she inspects her immaculately manicured hands. “No you had a deal with him. And if I decided I wanted out…Well.”
“I suppose you know I won’t hold back now” he replies neutrally, one hand slipped casually in his pocket.
“As I said,” she suddenly stands up, her heavy bejeweled necklace and bracelets clanking with the movement. “I’m. Out.” She says exaggeratedly before finally noticing her.
“And this is?”
She twists a strand of pink highlighted hair on her finger and smiles as she assesses her black tracksuit, frizzy hair and general state of anxiety.
“Don’t let him catch you, love.”
Before she can even begin to figure out what that means two burly men in suits arrive by her side.
“Are they bothering you, Miss. Park?”
“Yes,” she sniffs, throwing one last glance in her direction.
“See them out.”
They walk back to the car in static silence and when he breaks down in the passenger seat she forgets to run.
The cool night air rushes in from the open windows, whipping tendrils of her hair around her face. It smells like rain and for a second she lets herself get lost in the heady fragrance—forget the foreign stretch of highway she speeds on with the more foreign boy beside her.
“It was a trap,” he’d stated reluctantly. “It was…A sort of last chance for my father and I.” There’s an odd irony to his voice—the hint of some more complex history he isn’t sharing.
“But he didn’t show up—sent his goons instead” he spits. “I was foolish. I let myself forget who he is—who I am.”
“And who is that?” She hears herself whispering.
The dying embers of his eyes come afire once more, takes her breath away with a vivacity like she’s never seen—as of promising to possess everything the gods had dared deny him. The very moment Prometheus understood fortune doesn’t favour the virtuous or the just—no of course not, fortune favours who it will—and if fortune alone isn’t enough you must take by force.
The air between them crackles, crackles, splits and when he speaks it is as if it’s as much a discovery as a confirmation.
“I’m Tom Riddle.”
“May I help you officer?”
The man sloppily chewing the gum assesses her through the car window with one hand leaned above the door. There are no street lights in this back woods road and his face melts forth from the darkness like an apparition.
He looks at her pale cheeks, the nervous bite of her lip before glancing over to the passenger seat where only the shadow of a figure can be seen.
“A little late to be out in this part of the woods, ma’am.”
She senses him tense beside her and it suddenly dawns on her that she must lie.
“Ah, yes. Well I’m just heading back home now.” She does her best to appear sheepish. “Late shift, you know?”
His laugh is hoarse. “Don’t I know it. Say—” Her heart skips when he squints towards the passenger seat again. “There’s a routine check going on I’m afraid I’m gonna ask you to turn on the li—”
Two things happen at once.
The headlights of the cop car go off, immediately washing the interior in a white glow.
A gun is fired.
She vaguely registers his body pressing against her as he leans over towards the window, followed by the jerky movements of scuffling, the friction of cloth on cloth, the the tang of blood on her tongue.
‘Norepinephrine is released by post-ganglionic sympathetic neurons onto adrenergic receptors—’ Her brain recites in the background. ‘It is a key component in the fight or flight response—’
She ducks with a shout as the bullet shatters the window into a thousand pieces and clutches her head between her trembling knees. The only thing she can hear beyond the ringing of her ears is muffled cursing and the closing of a car door. Footsteps. The sound of crawling on gravel. More ringing. Her deep breaths. She lifts her eyes to the windshield.
The cop scuffles to get away crawling, one hand clutching the bleeding side of his face while his silhouette walks towards him leisurely. Predatorily. She can only see the outline of his lithe back through the dark, the gloss of his jet black hair, the whiteness of the nape of his neck. The way he puts one boot on his chest and pins him on the ground.
When she glances at the worn carpeting of the car her heart skips. The gun is gone.
She sees the man on the ground try to lift his neck, blood pooling with more and more urgency in the movement. She sees the look in his eyes and the tremble of his mouth. She can’t see his expression but he presses his boot down more forcefully.
She puts a hand over her mouth when she sees the gun in his hand. And he—he—
He tosses it to the side, delivers a single kick to the man’s temple before strolling back and slipping in casually in his seat. He runs a hand through his disheveled hair before taking out his phone again.
Her eyes are hollow as they trace a path from him, out the windshield, back to him.
Only headlights illuminate the man’s still figure in front of them.
“So I just could lead the way
There’s nowhere to ride around me
No one around, it’s amazing
Elevating as it seems to you”
His tongue draws a long line tracing the fullness of her bottom lip before slipping inside. She clutches him against her body by the lapels of his jacket, her back pressed against the rough brick wall of the club corridor. Something at the back of her mind is aware of the irony of ending up precisely where she’d meant to avoid but the thought quickly dissolves altogether. Was it the strobe lights punching the backs of her eyelids or the pounding bass? Was it the five shots of grimy vodka she'd thrown down with something akin to relief as they entered this seedy place or the lips of a more intoxicating boy on her?
Because she feels out of control—like the collision course of a driver who awakens with just enough time to feel the impetus, the exhilaration but not enough time to escape their fate—
The falling and the crash. The crash and the burn.
Hermione Granger’s fate was never to crash and burn. She had been too meticulous for that. She had always been in control, planned years in advance and yet—
She moans as he sucks on a particularly sensitive spot on her neck and feels rather than hears his sharp intake of breath in response, as if he too can’t believe this is real and she finds herself wondering if he feels this same sensation of weightlessness. If he feels anything at all really—
One hand moves up and down her waist and when he grinds his hips forward her mind goes blank for a split second.
“The gun never had any bullets” he mumbles against her skin, barely audible in the noise.
“I know” she says hoarsely.
“He wasn’t a real cop.”
“I know” she repeats. Because she’d already figured out exactly what he was the moment he stepped out of that hotel lobby. Seen the way the car had been trailing behind them for two blocks in a way that certainly didn’t fit with standard procedure. She’d seen the grazed skin, the split ear lobe and known the shot hadn’t been fatal—
No, he certainly wasn’t a common criminal.
“Who are you?” He whispers hoarsely, barely audible in the noise. But she can hear the amazement, the sheer wonder.
She reaches terminal velocity.
[2 weeks later]
“—and that’s what she told me! You should have seen her face after practice it was hilarious—” She shakes her head.
“Although,” Harry interjects. “Not as hilarious as Seamus when he realized he’d been wearing the shorts inside out the entire time. When he saw those doodles I thought he’d actually kill Dean.”
Ginny laughs a warm throaty sound and Harry looks up at her with an adoring smile as he cuts into his filet mignon. Sounds of tinkling cutlery and polite chatter fill the background alongside sharply dressed men and women. Hermione watches a waiter manoeuver around three tables carrying at least six plates of what looks like marinated lobster. They did not usually frequent places like this (they were all students, for goodness sake) but she was surprised to find she actually enjoyed getting the chance to wear impractical dresses every once in a while to go eat food she couldn’t pronounce the names of. It was certainly a nice change from the usual routine.
As if anything had been usual since that night.
She’d tried her best to forget. To block out the dirt road and the blood and the darkness. So heavy and dark. Like ink suffocating the very air.
And if a pair of equally dark eyes flashed through her mind every once in a while it absolutely had no meaning.
Except ever since she’d had a feeling she couldn’t explain itching at her subconscious. The feeling she was missing something. A nagging dissatisfaction bordering on a madness she couldn’t even define.
“—officials have not confirmed the source of the attack but the damage has been attributed to the voldemort virus as spokesperson Jeremy Pratchett clarified in the press conference just this morning—”
Her gaze shifts to the plasma screen above the bar in the corner. What had it just said?
“—say this is the first attack of its kind and will result in a loss in billions of dollars of revenue following the infection of over one million servers since only this morning. R Corp. has confirmed it will be filing for bankruptcy—”
Her eyes follow the moving band of headline at the bottom as a short woman in a business suit talks urgently into a microphone. She stands in front of a tall building with dark paneling, next to dozens of other reporters and cameramen crew fussing over their equipment, making phone calls, elbowing each other to get footage.
“—outside the R Corp. building right now waiting for the CEO to add to the statement. Now, what we do know is the attack occurred early this morning and is what experts are calling the biggest malware attack in the last thirty years and that the virus likely gained entry via a fake software—but here comes Mr. Tom Riddle Sr. now!” The camera pans to the main doors the crowd is gathered around as a man’s silhouette approaches behind the tinted glass.
The door opens. A man steps out, and she nearly gasps because he’s almost a carbon copy of him—everything from his hair to his features to the easy smile that’s frozen on his face. And yet he’s much older, and the more she watches his movements—the heavy stance, the exaggerated and slightly stilted laugh—the more she realizes no. Not the same at all.
When she checks her bank account three days later there is an anonymous deposit of 1.5 million dollars. She yells. She cries. She spills her tea all the way through to her camisole. Her e-mail shows a red (1) next to the inbox and she nearly breaks the trackpad clicking.
Thank you for your…Graciousness on such a taxing evening. I do hope the sum is enough. I’m certain you’re more deserving of it than the embezzling imbecile it last occupied the Swiss account of, though to be fair, it doesn’t take much.
By now you’ve most likely pieced together what I’ve done. Perhaps you even think you know who I am. But don’t waste your time, darling—you don’t. Not yet.
P.S. Are you free next Saturday?