A/N: Hi folks, I'm not dead. I'm sorry for this long delay, writer's block hit me like a stack of bricks. Thank you so much for your continued reviews and encouragement, it means so much to me. Hope you like this ( slightly filler) chapter. The painting Hermione and Tom are looking at is called "A Young Man and a Girl playing Cards" by Rembrandt, which can be found at the National Gallery in London. Here's to more frequent updates.
The red in the painting drew her eye inexorably. It was the sort of red that made one thing of the marrow of things, the little red seeds inside a rotting fruit. She stared at the woman dressed in that fine, sultry gown and was slightly disappointed. She was a goose of a girl, gauche, unfit for the dress. She wore it badly, her expression sulky, stupid, focused mulishly on the cards in front of her. Short-sighted parody of a nymph. She was decked with pearls in her hair, in her ears, at her throat. Pearls cast before swine, she thought meanly, and felt bad about her nasty thoughts. Still, the man in the picture was far worse. He wore a gently bovine, self-satisfied expression, utterly idiotic and harmless, yet cunning too. He was pathetic. He was only playing cards with this goose in order to get her out of her dress. Hermione could already see it.
Tom came up behind her.
"Ah, Rembrandt certainly knew how to paint depravity. Notice the bulge in her dress? Very faint, but there."
Hermione frowned. She took a step closer to the painting. Tom's hand ghosted over the small of her back. "Do you see it?"
She wrested her body away. "Barely."
"You know what it means, don't you?"
"She was already pregnant with the man when Rembrandt painted them."
Hermione stared over her shoulder at his sharp profile. "What are they playing for, then?"
Tom smiled. "The coins, of course. Does he want to buy her silence or does he enjoy deceiving her with the promise of wealth?"
The coins shone a dusky, buttery yellow on the brown table. They had spilled out of the man's bag. Hermione thought of his seed spilling inside this dolt of a woman, short-sighted, naïve, perhaps secretly kind, but tricked out of her innocence. She shuddered.
"How awful," she remarked.
"Yes," Tom hummed. "There's a stink to it, isn't there? Worse than any carnage. The smallness of people."
Hermione tilted her head, examined the painting again. "Maybe. Or maybe the child in her belly isn't his. But she still wants his money. And she'll take it."
Tom looked at her looking at the painting. "Do go on."
Hermione shrugged. "She only cares about the game, while the man stares at us, thinking he's already won. But his money isn't safe just yet. He isn't safe."
Tom leaned closer, inhaling her words. He was always hungry for her observations, those valiant betrayals of the self. She did not realize how much she gave him that way.
He spoke close to the shell of her ear. "The beauty of it, of course, is that we shall never know who wins."
Hermione folded her arms defensively, but did not step away. "I know."
He examined the beating pulse at the back of her neck, quick, quick, confident. Rembrandt would have painted her wrapped in a dark white sheet, waiting by the side of a stormy cliff.
"All right then," he spoke casually, breaking the spell. "How do we kill your toady teacher?"
Hermione glared at him. Her mother was only a few feet away, snapping a few photos of one of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
"Are you mad?"
"She can't hear us," he spoke softly next to her.
"She could walk past."
"She'd think it's a joke."
Hermione shook her head. "For someone so impossibly clever, you are very stupid."
Tom sank his hands in his pockets with graceful carelessness. "What makes you say so?"
"You can't talk about this in the open," she hissed.
"On the contrary, the more you talk about it in the open, the less people believe you. We all plot murder in broad daylight, darling. That's how it's often done."
"That's how you do it. I'm not going to follow your ludicrous methods. Besides, I haven't agreed to anything specific –"
She heard her mother's steps behind them and she clamped her mouth shut.
"I don't know about you all, but I've had enough of art for a day. Spot of lunch?"
The day at the museum had been her idea, and Jean looked animated enough, yet there was a film of exhaustion over her eyes. She started telling a complicated story about one of the nurses who'd accidentally chucked a patient's passport in the toilet and the great ruckus this caused in the ward, but halfway through she started mixing the facts until she was too confused to continue, and so she simply laughed, shrugged and asked Hermione how she'd liked the paintings.
Hermione stroked her mother's hand in mild concern. Her thoughts scattered like feathers to costly paintings, red damask, coins, babes out of wedlock, murder. She still wanted to hurt Umbridge and Tom knew she wanted that, but did she want to go that far? Certainly not. She only wanted to scare the woman a little, make her think twice about stealing her work. Of course, she could appeal to a higher court. She could go to the headmaster and tell him everything. She could, but she had a niggling doubt regarding its efficacy. Teachers sided with teachers. Besides, she might get in trouble too.
And this won't get you in trouble? she asked wryly.
She watched Jean eat her slice of kidney pie. She had to think of her mother. Tom was getting antsy. She needed to give him something in exchange. She watched him carry two mugs of tea over to their table.
"Bless you darling," Jean muttered as he sat down and pecked her.
Tom took a packet of sugar and began to pour it into her mother's tea. Hermione watched the white powder sink and dissolve. She thought about poison, about sweet decay, Professor Umbridge taking a sip of tea and dropping dead at her desk, her carefully coiffed curls falling into disarray. It did not disturb her, this image. It did not attract her either. She cleared her throat.
"I forgot to buy a souvenir for Lavender," she said, excusing herself. "I'll be right back."
Tom did not find her in the gift shop.
He found her in front of the painting again. He knew he would.
She was staring at the red dress, worrying her thumb with her teeth. Something about the painting did not give her peace.
Tom sidled next to her. "That's the problem with killing. You discover it does not take as much effort as you thought. Yes, it takes something from you. And as I told you, many aren't willing to give it. But once you do give it, you find you can live with it. It's small, after all. Picture them, these two insipid fools, dead before their time. You would not lose sleep over it."
Hermione shivered. She felt violent, like violence itself. "They're already dead. That's just it. They're dead."
That's what it was, she thought to herself. These people in the painting had never lived, they were fictions, but beyond that, it felt as if Rembrandt had painted them already dead. All life was over before it began.
She found she was already mourning Umbridge. It made her feel horrible. It made her feel generous.
Tom regarded her with pride. His little murderess – her mind was already in the future. She was acting like she had already killed. She learned without ever being taught.
He made sure he was hidden from sight by a pillar as he parted her hair, pressing his lips to the hollow of her throat.
Hermione stiffened, but she couldn't quite deny the thrill that ran through her, the little current from his lips to her belly.
But, unlike him, she was staring at her own deck of cards. She was focused on winning.
You're already a corpse to me, she thought, not only of Umbridge, but the beautiful man behind her whose mouth made her feel horribly good.
Tom's teeth scraped the side of her throat for a split second before he pulled away.
Hermione shivered. That's all it took. Merely the impression of teeth. An unraveling.
She stared at the painting and said to him, "we'll follow her home one night. I want to see her cats."
Tom adjusted his tie. "I suppose it's a start."
Hermione allowed a small smile to flower on her lips. Yes, she'd play her hand while it was hot. She had power over him. She'd be a fool not to use it. She would get him to hurt Umbridge. She would get him to do it in broad daylight. And then she'd get him caught. She'd arrange it like a painting. The police finding him with the poor woman's blood on his hands. The red would be seedy, the color of meat between bones.
You're already a corpse to me, she thought again, as she let him lead her back to her mother, fingers playing on the small of her back.