***** HERMIONE *****
The rocking of the train had a familiarity that was oddly comforting. It had been years since I had travelled on one, the Hogwarts Express being the last time, but the familiarity was what I needed.
The train was scarcely half full, and while no one knew who I was, I was grateful. The constant intrusion into my life over the past two weeks had driven me to the point of insanity and out of the city to a place where I could hide. I had caught the earliest train I could, leaving before anyone would notice my absence, and was travelling towards the coast, where I hoped that the rocky cliffs and small stretches of sand would bring the peace and serenity I was seeking.
I could have simply disapparated out of the city. It would have been quick and easy, and I could have been gone instantly. But as the miles slipped by, I knew I had made the right choice. I felt my shoulders relax, felt the tension slowly seep away and I felt the horror that had become my life fall behind me.
I sat staring out the window as the scenery slowly changed from that of the loud and frantic pace of the city to the quiet rolling hills of the countryside. I needed the time, needed the hours it would take on my journey to the coast to clear my head. I didn't want to arrive angry. I didn't want to be in the murderous mood I was in. I wanted to be calm – at least calmer than I was - and the passing scenery was having that affect on me. The open fields, the small villages, the cottages that dotted the landscape were like salve on a cut; soothing and able to take away some of the pain.
But the small wave of calm that was slowly washing over me wasn't nearly enough. I needed to bathe in my surroundings. I needed to dive in head first and not come back up until the pain and anger had left me. And I truly did not care how long it took, I would happily spend an eternity out here, if it guaranteed me some peace.
The dark clouds that were forming overhead indicated that weather was turning, but I didn't care. All I focused on was where I was headed. The description of the cottage that I had booked last minute was "private" and "isolated" and "quiet" and it was exactly what I needed. I needed time away from everyone and everything. I needed time to think. I needed time to reset and readjust my life.
There weren't enough words to describe what had happened.
But I didn't want to think about that. I simply wanted to hole up in the little cottage and shut out the world.
With a deep breath, I shoved the ear buds of my iPod (the last gift I received from my parents) into my ears and closed my eyes. The music shut out all my thoughts and the cliffs and the beach and the isolation flittered across my vision.
No one knew where I was going, which meant no one would find me.
And that was exactly what I wanted.
The cottage was further out of the village than I realised – although, Cliff-Top Cottage should have been a dead giveaway – and I hadn't given a thought to just how I would get there from the station.
I had walked the short distance into the small village and when I explained to Frank Connelly, the kindly shop owner that I was staying at Cliff-Top Cottage and that I was there to pick up my key, he graciously offered to give me a lift. He did, however look puzzled at my smallish bag, not having any clue as to the fact that I had magically enlarged the inside of it.
At his suggestion, I did stock up on supplies, so I wouldn't have to trek the six mile round trip to town and back because I had forgotten in my haste to leave to actually check how far I was from the nearby village. And with the village being so remote and open, and with the townspeople most likely being wary of strangers, I didn't want to risk being seen if I chose to apparate.
I wandered through the shop; it was well stocked with what I assumed was local produce, which was confirmed by Harriet, Frank's wife, who stood smiling at me from behind the counter.
"All things local," She told me with pride, "We're out of the way here, and that's how we like it. We look after each other."
I smiled and nodded, not sure if it was a threat for an outsider like me to keep this place a secret when I went back to the city, or if she was letting me know that she understood without me telling her that I needed space.
"You're not staying long then?" Frank asked me, still eyeing my bag.
I shook my head, "No I plan to be here a while. I just pack light."
He looked at his wife and grinned, "She packs light."
I snorted a laugh at the look on Harriet's face, "Psh." She flapped her hand at him, "She probably has her entire wardrobe in there, look how tiny she is."
My cheeks flushed and I lowered my head at her words. I had hardly eaten in the past two weeks, and I could only imagine what Mrs. Connelly was thinking about my appearance. It was just one more thing I had been constantly hounded about, and another reason for me to get away. I continued around the shop, picking up things I thought I would need and would last me a week or more, so I wouldn't have to come back so soon.
"You're here alone?" Harriet asked when I dropped my purchases on the counter.
"I am," I nodded, "I just wanted to get away for a while."
"Ah," she said knowingly, "The city is no good. Fresh air is what you need. And maybe a fresh start, hmm?"
"Now Harriet," Frank cut in, "Leave the poor girl alone. It's not our business why she's here." He picked up the groceries and nodded towards the door, "If you'll follow me, Miss Granger."
I smiled, "It's Hermione, please."
"If there's anything you need, please just call us," Harriet called, "Frank will be happy to bring out anything you need."
I nodded and thanked her, waving as I followed Mr. Connelly to his car.
The storm that had been threatening, had finally set in, and the mad rush from Mr. Connelly's car to the cottage proved precarious, as I slipped and slid on the wet stones of the driveway. His hand grabbed my arm, saving me from falling on my arse and he steadied me as I climbed the few steps to the back door of the cottage.
How he was able hold me up and keep his grip on my groceries was beyond me, but he just laughed and made sure I had my feet before letting me go.
I slid the key in the lock and was surprised to find that the cottage was warm, the fire had been lit and a large stack of wood piled beside it.
"I came up here when Helen called to say you had rented the house." Mr. Connelly told me as he placed the box of groceries on the table in the kitchen. Helen Anderson, the rental agent I spoke to over the phone, had obviously made some hurried phone calls to get everything set up for me. "Storm's been threatening all morning and I didn't think you'd want a cold house."
"Thank you," I said, hardly able to take my eyes off the enormous picture window that overlooked the ragged cliffs.
"You're welcome, Miss Grang….Hermione." he smiled, "And Harriet is right, if you need anything please let us know. You don't have a car, so I'm happy to help."
I thanked him again and he turned to leave, before stopping. "Will you be alright?"
I heard the concern in his voice and realised that it was probably unusual for a single woman to be renting a cottage on her own, despite the small size of it.
"I'll be fine, Mr. Connelly. Thank you for all you help. I appreciate your kindness."
"And you're welcome." He said, his friendly smile warming my heart. He looked thoughtfully at me, "I don't mean to pry – my wife does plenty of that - but it looks like you're…"
"Running away? Hiding?" I asked and he nodded. "I'm not some famous movie star and I didn't break out of prison or anything," I assured him, "No one will come looking for me. The village won't be overrun by reporters or crazed mobs. I just needed to get away. Wake up somewhere different. That's all."
He nodded, "Well Miss…Hermione, there's plenty more wood on the porch, and again, if you need anything, let us know. And whatever it is that you need solace from, I hope you find it here."
I smiled, and thanked him again, and saw him to the door. The rain had set in, bucketing down in torrents that I was sure would last through the night, and I watched as he ran to his car and slowly drove away. I sighed, and closed the door, turning back towards the window and the rain distorted view of the cliffs and the water beyond. I bent and tossed another log of wood onto the fire, revelling in the instant warmth, and revelling in the sudden silence. I had heard nothing but noise for days, so as bracing as it was, the silence brought me the comfort I was after.
I picked up my bag and reached in. Mrs. Connelly had been almost correct. I had brought all my clothes with me, but I had also brought every other thing that I owned. I had no place for them now, not until I decided what I wanted to do.
I filled the small bookshelf with some of my books and then I made my way up the stairs. Two large bedrooms were located at the top with a bathroom separating them. I made my way into the room at the front of the cottage; a king-size bed took up a significant amount of space, with a large dresser set against the opposite wall. A comfy looking armchair with a matching ottoman was placed beside the window, and I was sure that on a clear day, the view from that chair would be spectacular.
I turned and walked into the closet, dropping my bag at my feet. I looked at the space; it was definitely designed for two. A two of which I was most assuredly no longer a part of.
I took my time, hanging my clothes, organising my shoes and filling the dresser drawers, and then left the bag, and the remainder of its hidden contents, in the corner of the closet. Closing the door I turned and looked at the bed. A king-size would hardly be necessary, but the window faced the sea and I wanted to wake up with that view. I had rented the cottage open-ended, the rental agent saying that it wouldn't be a problem at this time of year. The holidays were over and tourist weren't tempted to stay on the cliffs as the weather grew colder and the storms rolled in.
I trudged back downstairs and took in the room. It was warm and cosy and quiet. It was simple and clean and comfortable. And it was exactly where I wanted to be.
The walls were whitewashed and the floors were polished hardwood. Exposed wooden beams crossed the roof and lent to the cosy warmth. A large woven rug with a diamond pattern sat beneath the two large, comfy looking leather couches that filled the living area, with a roughened wooden coffee table separating them.
A small table made from what I suspected was the same wood as the coffee table was pushed against one wall near the kitchen, with four chairs placed around it, and the kitchen itself was spacious and well equipped.
I unloaded the groceries into the fridge and cupboards and filled the kettle. I made my way back to the window, seeming to be drawn by the ragged cliffs and the sandy stretch of deserted beach. The day had grown dull, the afternoon light fading as the storm continued.
From the back door, a small, covered deck extended across the rear of the house, and a set of steps led down the cliff to the sandy shore below. If the storm kept up, it would be days before I headed down. The driveway had almost claimed me, so I didn't trust myself on slick, wooden steps.
I looked up the hill and noted that there were only three houses along this mile-long stretch of coast. My small cottage; another slightly larger than mine sat in the dip of the cliffs; and the third sat high up on the bluff, large and imposing, and if the warm glow of lights from the expanse of glass that overlooked the water was anything to go by, it was clearly occupied.
I had hoped that I would have this small stretch of coast to myself, but I guessed that was just a pipe dream. But since the house was far enough away I concluded that I wouldn't have to see my neighbours.
I sighed, a feeling of contentment washed over me; a feeling that had all but deserted me. No one was here to judge me, or tell me how I should feel, or even worse, tell me they knew how I felt.
Because none of them did. None of them knew the hurt or the anguish or the nauseating feeling that gripped your stomach every time you let the picture flash in your mind. The picture that you tried so hard to push from your memory, the picture that you never, ever thought you would see.
No. They had no clues. They could only presume how I felt and could only sympathise with me as such. None of them had had experienced the heartbreak, nor the devastation, that I had been subjected to. Nor had they felt the gut wrenching guilt that I had instantly felt, and the absurd notion that I had that it was all my fault.
The kettle whistled, pulling me from my stupor, and I made myself some tea. I grabbed a book and settled on the couch. I closed my eyes. The sounds of the wind and the rain, of the waves crashing against the shore, of the fire in the hearth filled my senses and my idea of perfection settled over me.
I had run away. Run away like a child throwing a tantrum. My friends would be going insane, but I didn't care.
I had space, I had quiet, and I had my own company.
I needed this. I needed it more than I needed anything.
And right now, that was all I cared about.
I woke with a start, slightly disorientated. I sat up and took in my surroundings.
The room was cold and dark. The fire had died down to just glowing embers, and I was still on the couch. The sky outside was dark, the storm still raging, and the brightness of the flashes of lightening lit up the room. I glanced at the clock and was surprised to see it was almost nine-thirty, which meant I had been sleeping for almost six hours. The quiet was exactly what I needed, it seemed. I had barely slept that many hours in the previous two weeks, let alone one evening.
I stood, shivering and loaded up the fire with more wood. I found the light switch and the room was instantly bathed in light. And to no surprise, there were three sodden owls sitting huddled together, perched on my windowsill.
I hurried over and let them in, they all shimmied and shook, their feathers dripping water across the clean floor as they settled on the stair railing. Unrolling the parchment tied to each one, I wasn't surprised that they all were panicked messages from my friends, wondering where in the hell I was.
I scrawled a reply on the back of one, explaining that I was perfectly fine, that I was safe and no, I wouldn't tell them where I was. I would contact them if I needed anything, and could they all please just give me some space. I reattached it to Harry's owl, and sent them all on their way, knowing that it wouldn't be the last I saw of them.
I found a mop and cleaned up the wet floor, deciding that while I was here I would use a little magic as possible as a means to do all the mundane things that would take time and hopefully occupy my mind. I made my way back over to the window. The lights were still on in the house on the cliff, and I wondered if the occupants were surprised to see my little cottage suddenly lit up so late in the evening. I'm sure there was a reason that they had chosen that exact place along the high bluffs; it was even more isolated and private than where I was. And I hoped that meant they had no interest in making me feel welcome.
I didn't need questions as to why I was there, or why I was alone.
I scowled up at the house, at my neighbours, hoping that I could somehow telepathically let them know to stay away from me. To not see me and wave, to not drop in and assume that since we were neighbours, we should all be friendly.
And then I laughed.
I pressed my fingers to my eyes and asked myself what the hell I was doing. Not everyone wanted to know all about me. And I was sure that my neighbours would be the last people to even care who I was or why I was there.
I took a breath and turned to the stairs, making my way up to the bedroom that overlooked the sea. I pulled back the covers on the enormous bed and slid in, not caring that I was still fully clothed. I wasn't sure if I would sleep, considering my extended nap on the couch, but with the lightning and the rain, it didn't matter. I would have something to watch, something to take my thoughts away.
I pulled the covers under my chin, enveloping myself in the comfort of the warm bed. I took a deep breath – the first I had taken in what seemed like forever – and let it out slowly.
Tears pricked at my eyes, and for the first time since my life imploded, I let myself cry.