The next morning I awoke from a restful and dreamless, almost comatose sleep. I opened my eyes and was awake within seconds, figured that it was almost half past eight and that I hadn't slept so long in months. Unfortunately, the memories of yesterday hit me all at once and the realisation of what I had done came back to me. In hindsight it seemed like a bad, obscenely macabre horror movie to me. Did all this really happen or was it just my wanton imagination?
My hand travelled to my left side tentatively. I could feel the bandage, so it was not a nightmare, rather nightmarish reality! Great, really great. I had really walked through the city with a knife sticking out of me, and I owed the professor my life. Professor Severus Snape had saved my life! Oh Goddess, I had almost died the day before, damn it! If I hadn't been training for months, I wouldn't have survived yesterday's attack.
Arrrrrrrhh, this realisation, it was making me crazy. Stop, I had blocked out the other side:
I not only would have almost died, I had also killed yesterday. Taken a human life, and not in a particularly nice way either. It had been horrifying and dirty. With this revelation, I raised my hands to my face and looked at them in the glow of the summer sun shining into the room through the curtains of the window. These delicate little hands had actually murdered someone. They were still slim, long and white, but had been fully coated with dried, red blood yesterday. But now they were clean again. No one would see what I had done, what I was capable of. I had washed them, but in doing that, was I really clean again?
But just as my hands were tainted, I was now tainted too! I no longer had a clear conscience. I had done something that none of my friends would approve of, since it was said that you should not kill. But hell, if I hadn't, they could bury me now. In their preconceived notions of morality, would they really be so harsh with their judgment? Everything forbidden that I had done so far - stealing, breaking in, blackmailing, breaking the school rules - felt like a joke in comparison. But know I had done it, had broken the ultimate taboo, and how I had done it! So, how did I feel, now that I had to bear this guilt - justified or not - my whole life. Whilst reflecting on it, I breathed in deeply, closed my eyes and thought about it, went deeply inside my mind: I was a murderess!
No matter how this story ended, whether the light or the dark side won, I had already lost. Lost because I would never be pure or good again. Too much had happened, too many taboos had been broken. This occurred to me with brutal clarity. I had made a decision that could never be reversed again. As I said, a long time ago I was given the choice of how I wanted to be, how I wanted to go through life. Now to start doubting it or to fight with fate would be unfair, as I had made my choice with my eyes wide open.
I would learn to live with it!
I could imagine very well, what my friends would say if they knew. Firstly, they would never expect me to do something like this, secondly, they would be shocked, and finally, they would turn away from me in disgust, in their just-unjust hypocrisy. This would be another dark secret of the Hermione Granger that Harry, Ron and everyone else could never know. I had to turn my heart into a killer pit, an even deeper one than before. And my mind would be made into a fortress that couldn't be taken, for even Dumbledore shall never - under any circumstances - get suspicious. I progressed well in Occlumency, but I wasn't a master yet, I would continue to do this with high pressure. After the shock I had just received, these were my first stringent thoughts this morning.
I rubbed my abused throat. Ah, better, much better. The potions had done a good job. Swallowing didn't hurt anymore, the swelling had also reduced, but I knew that even magic couldn't make bruised skin disappear. I had to be patient until I was in the bathroom to see what a sight I offered.
I didn't want to think about Sirius or Snape. I was so grateful to them, and at the same time terribly angry that they now knew what I had done. Once again I worried less about the professor, because I could see in his eyes that he understood and approved of what I had done, somehow! But regarding Sirius, I was once again astonished at my own brilliance, because, thanks to my spell, they couldn't say anything to anyone. It showed once again how beneficial it was that I was always so perfectionistic in my deliberations.
Yes, Sirius was different. I didn't know how he would face me, I just hoped that he would understand the necessity of my action. It was just unfortunate that we had to go back to Hogwarts today. But I already had an idea, which will make me forget this whole vexing subject about being a murderess or not. After all, it couldn't be changed anymore.. ah, how terribly cold that sounded, but here was my pragmatism again. So I cautiously raised myself, because unfortunately no miracle had happened and I wasn't yet completely healed. It wasn't comparable with the pain from yesterday, but it twinged dangerously in my side and I gasped as the pain pressed the air out of my lungs.
Such a knife was nothing to be scoffed at!
I saw the potions on my bedside table and thinking of Snape's instructions, swallowed the necessary potions with a look of self-sufferance at their disgusting taste. Nonetheless I felt a bit stiff and immobile.
When I had made it to the bathroom, I was content with a sponge bath and an intensive cleaning-spell for the day, because I didn't want to remove the bandages. I put on a black Empire summer dress, which was nicely flowing around my body - not too tight, that wouldn't be a good idea - and I snorted like a walrus. In the mirror, I watched myself attentively and what I saw... I still looked the same, my brown, long, curly hair fell softly over my shoulders today, a clean skin, the teint today reminding me of a noble, unhealthy paleness and the big, fawn-colored eyes that almost jumped out of my face. Yes, in their depth one could see that they had seen terrible things, for their expression was infinitely solemn. But only those who looked closely would recognize it!
Today I grabbed for the paint pot to breathe life over my stiff and lifeless face, so I put a light pink glimmer on my eyelids and slightly painted over my lashes. The most important thing, however, was to put a little color onto my cheeks, to not look as deathly pale. Some lipgloss on my dry lips, which now shone brightly, and suddenly my face had very soft, lovely features, which had previously seemed somewhat hard, angular and slightly haggard. After the terrible horrors of last night one couldn’t expect anything different, something like this left deep marks.I had heard something fitting. The faces of the people were canvases, and life drew the lines of life on these. Well, that matched my experiences perfectly.
Only now, when a lively face looked back at me, which no longer looked like a rigid mask, I dared to look at my neck.. and what I saw made me swallow hard. It.. how did I deserve that. It looked terrible. The skin, there was no white left, only blue, violet and yellow bloodshot spots that provided truly perfect fingerprints of Boles' broad and large hands. Apparently, I had been closer to death by asphyxiation than I had realized, as it seemed now. It looked terrible. If anyone would see this, unimaginable! They'd freak out, it was a surprise that I was able to swallow at all! Ok, I would love to freak out again. If I hadn't already slashed open that son of a bitch, I would do it right now! I couldn't go out and show myself like this. I summoned a long, black-and-white silk scarf from my suitcase, and wrapped it around my neck several times. Yes, I would leave it like that, it had a certain style.
So I went back to my room and took my daggers, which I fastened to my thighs under my dress. I'd always wear them from now on. Then - as I was alone - I spoke a packing spell and let my suitcase float to the corridor with a 'locomotor'. After all this, I just wanted my coffee, because my head still felt as if it were wrapped in cotton wool.
I heard voices from the drawing-room on the first floor, where a huge tapestry hung over the whole wall. On the carpet, the Black family tree was immortalized with golden, ornate embroidery. The family tree had been recorded over the last 700 years, and here and there dark burnt spots could be seen, members of the family that were undesirable, since according to the family motto ‘Toujours Pur’ the tree was kept eternally 'pure'. When I walked around the corner, I strained my eyes and could recognize Harry and Sirius. They were hugging each other. I was always happy when I saw the relationship Harry had built with Sirius. It was nice that he finally had something like a family.
Harry turned to leave the room, so I slid into the shadow of a doorway in the unlit dark corridor, hoping that Sirius wouldn't leave the room immediately. Looked like I was lucky. Harry, calling for Ron, rushed down the stairs, and I quickly slid into the room and quietly closed the door. Sirius was standing in front of the embroidered family tree, looking at his burnt out name with a sad look. I didn't want to know his unpleasant thoughts about his past. He had certainly lived a non enjoyable childhood here. I stood next to him, stroking over his arm, thinking that he had felt that I was there because he wasn't surprised. He turned to me, smiling, tenderly took me by my neck and pulled my lips eagerly to his and began to kiss me incredibly gently and affectionately. Our meeting couldn't have gone better after yesterday night.
"I'm so glad you're alive, Hermione. How are you?" He whispered tonelessly at my ear, after he had dragged me into a long hug. "I was so worried, I.. the picture of, how you.. this will haunt me for the rest of my life," he told me in a throaty voice, while he kissed my hair. "Don't do that to me again, I won't live a long life like this," he said sadly.
"Sirius.. I.." I whispered to his chest. "Hush.. don't say anything dear, I wasn't finished yet, how you looked yesterday, just what those bastards had done to you. You. Had. A. Knife. In. You. Damn..." he hissed softly, furiously. "If you hadn't finished them off, I would've hunted them until I had personally killed them, so please, Hermione, don't blame yourself, you had every right to wipe that scum off the earth!" he said truthfully, almost imploringly and looked very deeply into my eyes, so that I could see the earnestness in them. I was speechless, for I hadn't expected such approval from his side.
"Sirius, it means a lot to me that I find mercy before your eyes, for what I have done. Thank you, Sirius and before you want to interrupt me, I'm fine, physically much better than yesterday and mentally... well, I've already forgiven myself because I didn't really want to end up in a coffin yet", I looked intensively at him. "I live and I can live with what I did, too."
"That's good!", he grinned and winked at me before pulling me once again into a tight embrace. "That you can stay so calm is really good. I must say I am very proud of you, that you were able to defend yourself so well, even when you really shocked me...", he winked at me again and showed me that he didn't take anything too seriously. He was a former Marauder, it showed itself in his whole, easy-going attitude, which made him so charming.
"Thank you, I appreciate your approval. Well, yesterday went really bad, Sirius. I had imagined our last night here differently... but I wanted to make you a suggestion anyway..." I grinned at him too, and circled my index finger playfully on his bare chest, which was visible through his not completely closed shirt as usual.
"As always, I am asking for your secrecy, Casanova. I wanted to ask you if you were free on Tuesdays at 9 pm for a lonely young woman who could come to you for a few hours?", I said, licking my lips seductively. He stared intently at my mouth. ".. how, but you.. Don´t you have to be at Hogwarts?" He seemed perplexed.
I smiled mischievously at him. "You, as a Marauder, must know that there are some ways out of the school. And don't give yourself any hopes, because I would sneak out on Tuesday anyways. I don't know yet if I can be here at nine, or a little later, I can only promise you, I'll come. Now, what's your decision? Yes or no, Sirius?" I said stiffly, because I had expected a different response to my offer. After yesterday, I felt an absurd desire to feel alive.
"Hermione, you must know at least since yesterday how dangerous that can be. I beg you, be sensible, don't," he downright begged me, looking at me with disapproving grey eyes.
I released a short, dry laugh. "Oh, Sirius, I already knew that before, yesterday just encouraged me to do it even more... and you know as well as I do, how much you like it when I come to you!" I said almost contemptuously, approached him really closely and took a firm grip at his crotch. Ah, I could already feel the opinion of his body part. Yes, this was good, it did take me away from all the negative thoughts I had, because I lived and I wanted to feel that I was alive.
He closed his eyes obediently and laid his head back as I caressed the big bulge in his pants.
"You're gonna do what you want regardless!" he growled bitterly.
“I am looking forward to Tuesday,” I said as I stood up on my tiptoes and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. “Come, let us join the others.”
I gripped his hand and pulled him downwards, his expression melancholic all the while. Sirius and I stood in the hallway next to Mrs. Weasley, who tried to bring order into the chaos, a truly unrewarding task. My trunk was right next to me, packed already in the early morning, a feat none of the others had managed. As I was not in the best of states thanks to my injury, irrespective of the potions I had taken today, I wanted to take it easy. Because of that, I sat on my trunk with a cup of coffee - which I regarded as essential for my survival - and tiredly watched everything, shaking my head from time to time.
What utter chaos. For five years we had been attending Hogwarts, but every year the same drama occurred. Every year they packed at the very end, not the evening before, not in the morning, no, one hour before departure.
Calm down, Hermione, don’t think about it. Take a deep breath, you are above that. Chaos is good, chaos distracts. This way you don’t think too much. The only thing positive was that Sirius was stroking my neck reassuringly as nobody paid us any attention in the hurry.
When everybody had assembled, I stood up carefully. The twins hadn’t been the last to arrive and every time they felt that no one was looking they threw me a covert glance, assuming that something had happened. The adults stood together in a cluster and us students had gathered at the bottom of the stairs when I was suddenly faced with an interrogation. And after I had nearly successfully suppressed the thought that this was still waiting for me.
“What was that about yesterday, Hermione?” the demand sounded firmly from three different throats. Their glares were almost as deadly as the knife from yesterday. Only Fred and George bestowed pitiful and worried looks upon me and were nice enough to occupy themselves. They didn’t get on my nerves.
“What do you mean?” I asked innocently. “I told you I had an appointment,” I defended myself.
“Why did you leave on your own, in times like these?! Are you mad?! Don’t you know what could have happened…?” Ron yelled loudly.
Hell, I knew what I did most of the time and unwanted company was the last thing I needed at Gringotts. I hated to justify myself. And for heaven’s sake, I had experienced first hand yesterday what could happen! But still I was alive!
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you calling!” I brushed him off. I could downright feel my strength ebbing and my fatigue grew by the minute.
“Hermione, where have you been the whole day?” Harry asked calmly. “... You hadn’t shown up for dinner. We were worried for you and... and then we go to your room and you are sleeping like a log.”
He sounded honestly concerned and looked at me accusingly.
“Oh Harry, I had my final course yesterday and they made a right event out of it. That’s why it took longer than usual. And when I got home I only wanted to go to bed. I dropped directly onto it,” I explained myself. It was just as well that I can lie without blushing.
“You didn’t hear us?” Ginny inquired incredulously and gave me a doubtful look.
“No, I slept like a log!” I said seriously. And it technically was the truth. After Sirius had helped me to bed, he gave me the potion and I had been under its influence immediately, essentially dead to the world.
“I am sorry, but I wanted to go there alone... and as you can see nothing happened,” I reassured them, lying through my teeth. The interrogation would have continued if they hadn’t loitered that long, because now the group consisting of the adult Weasleys, Mad-Eye Moody, Tonks, Remus and Sirius joined us.
“We will leave now. Unfortunately we will have to go by foot this time, as the Ministry is at odds with us and won’t provide vehicles for our use, though King’s Cross isn’t far,” Mrs. Weasley explained busily. She seemed to be quite agitated and fretful.
“Look out and constant vigilance!” resounded Moody’s deep voice from the background while his eye rotated wildly in its socket. Suddenly Sirius transformed into a big black dog.
“Sirius, what … what are you doing? You can’t come with us!” Remus stuttered, taken by surprise. Sirius only bared his teeth and growled.
“Oh, please, pretty please! Nobody will recognize him this way! Please!” Harry begged promptly, unashamed. The others all exchanged unhappy glances and shrugged their shoulders.
“Never mind, but remain discreet. Understood, Sirius?” Moody decided grumpily and received a growl in response from the dog. And so we departed to the train station, totally inconspicuous if you asked me, but mind you we were after all... let me count for a second… six children, five adults and a dog. We appeared more like a bulwark. I asked myself once again what Dumbledore had been thinking when he revised a plan like that. Clearly, he couldn’t be doing much of it. I would have chosen otherwise, but I couldn’t care less at the moment, as I had to concentrate on the walk. It was unexpectedly strenuous for me and left me short of breath. I wouldn’t say I was fit in any way.
Just as well that it was only physically, as my mind was clear and sharp as always. I forbade myself from engaging in self-doubt or criticism and, to my own astonishment, none crossed my mind!
Fortunately we reached the train station unharmed. One had to be grateful for small wonders. Swiftly we passed through the entrance to the Hogwarts Express. Every step to the platform filled me with joy, as if the sight of the beautiful old train with the red engine heralded something special, like a great adventure.
As always the platform was dominated by chaos. It was overcrowded with students, trunks, animals in their cages, fussing parents with younger siblings. In short, it was a massive cacophony of sounds, a surreal scene. On one side was the muggle world with its modern face, which we left behind the wall. On the other was this nostalgic scene, underlined by the wizard’s robes and the old steam engine pulling old-fashioned compartments.
The awareness that I would enter a different world was overwhelming and a great experience for me every time. As always, I was filled with suspense and excitement when I made myself aware of it this plainly, and I was thankful to be part of both worlds. I threw a glance at our escort. Molly bid everybody farewell with a familiar abundance of emotions. If I hurried I might be able to escape her without being too obvious about it, for I was sure I couldn’t tolerate one of her bone crushing embraces in my condition. I looked down when I felt something cold touching my hand. Oh, yes, Sirius. I laid my hand on his head and started to tickle him behind the ears, bending forward slightly and murmuring quietly.
“You will see us on Tuesday, my dear!” He rewarded me with a wet lick across my hand. Very nice. I straightened quickly, nodded at the round and approached the engine. I swept my gaze over the bustling crowd and tried to get a thorough picture. While I watched the happy, ingenuous, innocent people around me with their friendly laughing faces, I experienced a feeling of utter isolation that hit me hard. I didn’t belong, not any longer... I felt isolated and that hurt so much that I physically flinched. I didn’t belong any longer!
What I had done had made me cross a border, something that wasn’t reversible and separated me from the others for good. I realised with crystal clarity and I became aware with a rush of panic that I had lost something incredibly valuable and would never be able to get it back. There were good people who would never get into a situation where they had to decide between life and death. Those are the majority and that is good and well. Then there are people who are neither good nor evil but had been in a position that required them to act, if they wanted to or not, and had been forced into a decision. Whether they could hope for the understanding of those who never had to choose is a different story. And then there is the last category, the so called evil, who simply did it and the actual evil who did it because they enjoyed it. All this passed through my head while I waited and I felt like I was of a separate race than all these happy and loving people.
I had already placed a foot on the step, ready to board the train, and was looking back, slightly lost, with Ron and Harry fast on my heels, when I noticed the arrival of a platinum blond family, who pulled off an impressive performance as always and captured everybody’s attention with ease.
Yes, they would fit well in one of those categories I had just mentioned, though it would be the ‘evil’ one, while the Weasleys would be called ‘good’. Okay, minus the two trailing behind Harry and Ron. The Twins, or Red Devils, were hustling close behind us. “Hey, Fred, George, finally, come in!” Lee Jordan’s voice called impatiently. Their best friend was seated in a compartment not far away and was waiting for them.
I turned to them. “We will see each other…,” I saw them off. “Until later, Hermione, be good and if you need us…,” they replied with a mischievous grin. I nodded gratefully as I had noticed the hidden meaning, they suspected something.
So we boarded the train and searched for a compartment, where we stored our trunks. Meanwhile I wished fervently to simply slump into the seat, but couldn’t allow myself the weakness. The painful throbbing in my side was increasing with every passing moment, but I grit my teeth.
“Harry, I am sorry. We have to go to the Prefect compartment to get our briefing. Do you mind much?” I asked timidly, as I could see how shocked he looked, but he tried to play it down. He had been hit hard when Ron had gotten the office in his stead and was trying to hide his frustration.
“No, no, go on, I will make myself comfortable, have fun at work!” he stated with pretend happiness. He was pretty good at pretending, apparently he remembered what we had talked about. I gave him a sad smile, turned away and already we were walking through the chaotic, noisy and crowded train. We hat to fight our way to the first wagon. There was an extra compartment for the Prefects and Head students. It was filled already.
There were Ron and I for Gryffindor, Hannah Abbott and Ernie McMillan from Hufflepuff, the Ravenclaws Anthony Goldstein and Padma Patil and from Slytherin Pansy Parkinson and Draco Malfoy, all from Fifth Year. Additionally there were the Prefects from Sixth and Seventh Year and the Head Boy and Girl from Seventh. We were just standing in the rear of the noisily chattering crowd in the compartment, when Ron rushed over to Ernie and started talking about Quidditch with him.
I run my left hand over the bandaged wound on my side in an unconscious gesture and grimaced slightly, gnawing at my lower lip with unease. Hmpf, all the scrambling and walking had been more stressful than I had anticipated. I was in severe pain, but tried to breath it away, as I was used to by now. For a short moment I was standing in the middle of the room, lost in thought and was looking around with unseeing eyes, when I felt the skin on my neck prickling all of a sudden. Quickly I looked over my shoulder and directly into a pair of light grey eyes that stared back with piercing intensity. I didn’t show timidity either, as I had never been afraid of him, even when I was younger, his disdainfully uttered ‘Mudblood’ had never hurt me. I had been insulted, yes, but by now I was way above something like that and could use the word myself without caring much.
So I looked at him transfixed, without malice, just open and observant, asking myself why he took the time to examine me this obviously.
Slowly his right, softly curved, blonde eyebrow along with the left corner of his mouth raised questioningly. In this silent duel, in midst of the other Prefects, I imitated his expression, but not mockingly but just as questioningly as he. I could see the flash in his grey eyes. He had noticed that I was in pain, that I could determine when he tilted his head in thought. Damn, who had taught him to be so observant?
Stop, I knew that… the cocked head, the calculating expression… Snape… oh, wasn’t that neat… I had to be careful. That man was involved everywhere, I noted annoyed, before I returned my attention to Draco Malfoy and examined him thoroughly as well. He had changed. Outwardly he had grown like Ron, but while the latter was gangly now, Malfoy’s appearance was more manly. His close fitted, black jacket over a black shirt didn’t hide his muscles and it was clearly visible that his chest could no longer be called a pigeon chest. Did he train as well? Was he trained in combat?
I supposed so, as his father would want Draco to be prepared for everything and I didn’t judge Mr. Malfoy as somebody who closed his eyes against reality. He knew that a war was unavoidable. The logical consequence was that he would prepare his son as good as possible for the coming dangers and teach him everything necessary. Looking at Draco’s physical changes that was actually what he was doing.
The most notable changes were, firstly, his longer hair, which was no longer slicked back but falling openly. It makes him prettier, I thought and hoped that he was not versed in Legilimency, the thought was just too embarrassing. And secondly the expression on his face. His mouth was set in a stern way, maybe a bit bitter. HIS return had apparently left its mark on Draco, too, had made him grow up faster. I was sure Draco stood on the front lines, because of his father’s standing. But what was truly, intensely different were his eyes or rather, the expression and the message they conveyed. Apparently he had had exciting holidays and seen and lived through a lot of new things. When before they had contained a childlike, naive or simply ingenuous expression, it was now gone and had been replaced by one similar to the one I had found in my own eyes just this morning! My eyes widened dramatically after this realisation. Oh goddess, hopefully this didn’t mean that he had to .. kill as well, no, watch, … oh, I hope so, for him. Every one of us was too young for this shit.
But my near death experience and the realisation that not everything was as it seems had widened my horizon. Maybe everything Draco had done was done for good reasons and as I knew now first hand how quickly life could be over I wanted to handle things differently than before. The way he looked at me, yes, if I got the chance I wanted to talk to him, give him the chance to explain himself. That wouldn’t kill me, or him either. The war created exceptional circumstances. Friends remained friends, friends became enemies and enemies friends, you just had to find some courage. Well, I had already shown that I had courage in abundance.
So my thoughts strayed.