Hermione Granger was seated at a table in the corner of the Three Broomsticks. She had a half empty, or to optimists, a half full bottle of Butterbeer in front of her, as well as a slightly yellowed parchment. She had her chin in her hand, and was staring at the parchment on the old oak table distantly. This was final. Hogwarts, fondly referred to by Harry Potter as ´the madhouse´, had given her a diploma, certifying her as a graduate of one of the most honourable magical schools in the world. And now she was sitting in a pub in Hogsmeade, drinking Butterbeer to celebrate this graduation day. Alone.
Harry himself had gone to the Burrow with Ron, to live there until he could find a home of his own. Of course, she had been invited, but she felt she had to say goodbye to Hogsmeade first. After all, that was where they had spent most of their weekends since Third year. It had become a part of her, just as much as the castle itself. Leaving would be shutting that door for an undetermined amount of time, maybe forever. And she didn't want that.
The tables around her were filled with Hogsmeade residents, chattering and generally making a racket. Many seemed to be talking about the spectacular graduation day at Hogwarts. Of course it had been spectacular. The Boy Who Lived Twice had graduated after all. The magical world's residents weren't probable to see something like that more than once in a lifetime. The great Harry Potter, saviour of the magical world. That was how the tune went these days. No one cared that there had been several other people involved in the Dark Lord's downfall than just the green eyed teen. But they'd had precious little to celebrate these past three years, so she really couldn't blame them.
Harry Potter. Saviour of the magical world, international celebrity, soon-to-be Quidditch professional, and her best friend. A friendship formed seven years ago, developed over many trials and hardships, and it wasn't about to break now. But it seemed to have fallen into the background. He had so much going on in his life that he didn't have time for her anymore. Ron was fine; they had to look for jobs together after all, since both wanted a career in Quidditch, but she didn't seem as important now. It hurt, and it should, seeing as it was mostly her effort that got them through their seventh year, but there wasn't much she could do about it.
She looked up from the table again, and was startled to see that she was one of the few patrons left in the pub. A quick glance at the clock showed that it was ten minutes to midnight, and that she really should be going. The Three Broomsticks closed at one o' clock, at least that's what she remembered, and she needed her sleep. She was meeting her parents in the morning. They were so proud of her. Their daughter, the brilliant witch. It was that brilliance that had lost her Ron's love. She could have been Ron Weasley's girlfriend had it not been because she had a habit of correcting him when he was wrong about something. He'd grown tired of it and decided not to bother.
The sound of the door opening startled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to see a tall figure enter. He was dressed in a cloak, as black as the night outside, and underneath it he had a black waistcoat with blue and silver trimmings. He seemed out of place in such a simple place as the pub. He looked like he had walked straight out of an old Shakespeare play, or Jane Eyre. But the hood pulled over his head made it impossible to see his face. He did, however, seem to recognize her, because he headed over to the table where she sat, not hesitating a moment. He pulled out a chair and sat down across from her.
"Who are you?" She asked, suspicious; two years worth of full out war had made her quite jumpy.
He pulled down his hood, revealing the black, softly curled black hair and one-blue-and-one-green eye of Blaise Zabini, a Slytherin year mate of hers. He had a sad half smile on his lips, as he leaned back in the chair, not saying anything. She watched him curiously, one eyebrow raised; she had never been close to a Slytherin, much less Zabini, and so his appearance now made no sense. He shouldn't even be in Hogsmeade; last she'd heard he'd been heading back to his family's estate near the Firth of Fourth. She'd overheard him bragging about it to his Slytherin friends. No, she corrected herself, not bragging; he wasn't one to brag, he'd merely answered a question.
"It's you." She acknowledged.
"It's me." He answered with a nod.
"Shouldn't you be home by now?" She asked, not really caring, but needing someone to talk to, even if it was just about the weather.
"I should." He nodded again.
"Then why aren't you?" She sighed, giving up on having a decent conversation with him.
"Because I didn't feel like it." He shrugged, "Why aren't you?"
"Because I needed to say goodbye." She sighed again, "I wasn't quite finished with this place yet."
"I don't think we'll ever be." Blaise agreed with her quietly.
Surprised he'd even said something without mocking her for her overly sentimental statement, Hermione regarded him with her head tilted to one side. He was different from the other Slytherins, and he always had been. He didn't go out of his way to ridicule students of other Houses, and was on the whole much more polite and soft-spoken than many other students, regardless of House. He was, for lack of a better word, a gentleman.
"So what will you do now?" His question brought her back to reality.
"Now?" She answered, "I guess I'll go on studying. Even before I got my Hogwarts letter I knew I wanted to go to university. After that, who knows?" She shrugged. "You?"
"Oh, I expect I'll follow the good old Pureblood tradition, and live off my relatives' money." He flashed a quick grin, "Unless I can make some honest money of my own, that is."
"Good luck." She said.
They lapsed into silence. Seeing as neither one knew the other well, they really had nothing else to talk about. Blaise shifted in his seat, catching the attention of Rosmerta, who quickly placed a Butterbeer in front of him, and flashed him a smile. Hermione forced herself not to snort; Rosmerta was a shameless flirt, and although Blaise might be attractive in a strange, skinny sort of way, this was just too much.
"Anyway. We've graduated now." She said, watching the diploma again, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?"
"Alive?" He joked weakly, "No, seriously, I hope I'll be having some position to do with Defence." He didn't even need to tell her which sort of defence; he'd had the best grades in Defence Against the Dark Arts in their year group. "It would be fun."
"Yeah. It would. I'm not sure what I want to do," She admitted, "There's so much left that I want to learn first, so much more to know."
"Maybe you'll become a researcher. A scientist." Blaise commented.
"Maybe....." She trailed off, unsure of what to say. "But I would like to teach. I've always respected and admired teachers."
She smiled quickly, sadness in her eyes. It was strange, sitting here, pouring her heart out to a practically unknown Slytherin, who did nothing but listen, something she wished Ron and Harry would have once in a while. Blaise didn't seem to think she was silly when she talked about the future, like her friends often did. Right now, he was watching her with interest in his expression, his mismatched eyes gleaming in the dim light of the pub.
"And...." She trailed off again, but continued at his nod, "And you might think it silly, but I want to come back here. I want to see Hogwarts again, and not as a parent of a new student. I want to return here, if nothing else, then to see it one more time before I die."
"Macabre, aren't you." He smiled. "You'll see it before you die. I promise."
"Promise?" She asked, hesitant.
"Swear it." He nodded.
It was definitely one of the strangest moments in Hermione's life. Blaise had just sworn she'd come to Hogwarts one more time before she died, promised it to her, as if he'd make sure of it himself. It was sweet, in a very unnerving, crazy sort of way. Suddenly, a thought hit her. He had been acting civil all night without reason to. What did he want?
"Are you ill?" She asked, seemingly out of nowhere.
"No, why do you ask?" He answered, smiling slightly.
"You've been acting strange." She shrugged.
"In what way?" Now he looked honestly confused.
"You've been nice to me for one. You've never been before." She pointed out, "And you come all the way down here when you should be home, and now you're sitting here talking to me, of all people."
"Ah. Well. I was supposed to go home, but I missed the train, because I went for a walk here in Hogsmeade, and I don't want to go home just yet in any case. As for being friendly to you; has it ever crossed your worried mind that I might not have anything against you?" He smiled. "You're not too bad; you've got a mind on you, I'll give you that, and you're not deliberately insulting, like most Gryffindors are when dealing with Slytherins."
"Well," She raised her bottle, "let's just say I've dispensed with the House afflictions tonight."
"Hear, hear." Blaise said, raising his own bottle, and taking a swig.
It wasn't until the sun painted the sky a lovely shade of red that they stepped out of the pub. Blaise had shed his cloak and was wearing only a pair of black slacks and his waistcoat, white shirt peeking out around his neck, giving Hermione a good idea of how thin he really was. Honestly, they boy must have lived on carrot sticks for the past seven years. He ran a hand through his permanently messy hair and smiled at her. She smiled back, and waited for him to say something. She didn't really want to go; truth to be told, she'd had more fun in the last few hours than she'd had in a long time.
"Well, I wish you well in life." He said, "Hope you get your wish."
"Mhm. Same to you. Maybe we'll be where we want when we're 25." She replied, smiling still.
"You've got an eight year deadline. What do you say we meet back here in eight years, same time, same place, and see if we got our wishes?" He asked casually, looking at her with those strange eyes of his.
"Sure." She smiled.
He gave her one last smile, and then vanished with the familiar crack of Apparating. She stood staring at the point where he had been standing for a while before turning and walking towards the train station. It was time to go home, and time to see if she could make her dreams come true. Failing that, she could always find a comfortable bed and catch up on her sleep.
As the morning train left Hogsmeade station, she stared out the window as she watched Hogsmeade and Hogwarts disappear around a bend in the rail, obscured by a large hill. In eight years time, she'd be sitting in the Three Broomsticks, with a Butterbeer in her hands, waiting for Blaise Zabini to show up. That would be a graduation day to remember, just as this one had been. She suddenly felt an acute sense of loss. She wouldn't be coming back this fall. This was as far as she got. The literal end-station for her. And it hurt, damn it. Like she had lost an arm, or a leg, or something equally important. But in eight years she'd be back. Only eight years.
Graduation day. Students left the school by train, just as they always had. The only difference was that now, she wasn't going. She'd never leave again, unless she was forced to. Eight years had passed since her graduation, and it had been an eventful eight years. A degree in Charms, a certificate to teach later, she was back, back where she'd always wanted to be; at Hogwarts. She smiled. Filius Flitwick had retired last year, and she now held a position at Hogwarts, something she'd dreamed about for a long time. Charms teacher and vice-Head of House for Ravenclaw.
The students had long since left, and it was once again, only ten minutes to midnight. It had rained earlier that day, and the streets were still wet. Nursing a Butterbeer in her hands, Hermione was waiting. All the other patrons had gone home – all but Madam Rosmerta and the drunk in the corner. Many things had changed in the near decade that had passed since the last time, and just as many things had stayed the same.
The Three Broomsticks was empty, but she was still waiting. She was a teacher, not a student, but she still sipped her Butterbeer. Many things had not turned out like she planned them – at twenty-five, she was supposed to have a husband or a steady relationship, not be the reject short-lasting ones, she was supposed to be a researcher, or a writer, or a famous scientist. She was neither. She was eight years older, had accomplished her modified dreams instead of being on the edge of them, but it was still ten minutes till midnight on graduation day.
The door opened, and a man in a black cloak and hood stepped inside, dripping water on the floor. He pushed down the hood and ran a gloved hand through his hair – unruly and wild as she remembered it – and she smiled. Eight years on and he hadn't changed at all. Still tall, still looking as if he had lived on carrot sticks his whole life, still one eye blue, the other green. But he had grown up – the awkwardness of adolescence had left him, and he no longer moved hesitantly, but with extreme confidence. Such confidence was rarely even found in the movement of royalty.
He spotted her in the corner, and crossed the floor quickly. Pulling out a chair, he divested himself of the cloak, hanging it over the back of the chair.
"Good thing we're ones to plan ahead," he smiled, "If I hadn't had this planned eight years in advance, I would never have gotten off work this month."
"They running you ragged, then?" she asked, smiling back and taking another sip of her Butterbeer.
"Not worse than usual." he shrugged, waving Rosmerta over for a Butterbeer of his own. "I'm usually in bed by four."
"Not quite what you imagined at seventeen, was it?" Hermione asked, leaning back in her chair. "Never getting sleep, working odd hours."
"No, not quite my dream, but close enough." he sipped his Butterbeer. "You? I see you're wearing the Hogwarts' insignia, and I never picked you out as the sentimental kind."
"I took up Charms when old Flitwick retired." she smiled proudly. "I've been teaching for four years now. So I got my dream – or as close as I can get - what about you, did you get yours?"
"Don't know – my dreams were never that detailed, you remembered. But I did get to use my Defence-skills," he shrugged and leaned back in his chair as well, wincing when a joint made and audible crack. "I got to see the world, Hermione – all the corners of the world. Too bad it hasn't changed much in eight years. Everyone's still fighting, still dying like they used to. There's a lot of things I've seen that I wish I hadn't, a lot of things I've done I want to take back but can't. I wouldn't say my dreams are broken, but things sure as hellfire didn't turn out the way I thought they would."
"Sounds like you life quite the life," she said, looking at him from over the rim of her Butterbeer-glass.
"I do. Given the choice, I would probably repeat my life exactly the way I have lived it so far," Blaise said, staring at his own glass, "My seventeen year old self would kill me if he could hear me now, but that's the truth. I won't lie to you, Hermione – you, of all people, is someone I can tell the truth – there is blood on my hands, by far more than I would ever have wished for, but if I were to retrace my steps, I would have made the same choices. I am no hired killer, no assassin out for blood money, but I dream only too clearly of those who have looked down the barrel of a gun and met my eyes."
Hermione was silent. What was there to say? Eight years ago, things had seemed simple, but even for her, there had been difficulties, tragedies, thought minor ones. Blaise had walked another road than she had, experienced different tragedies than hers, but for him too, there must have been choices like hers. Though she would never fully understand his reasons – killing for money was fundamentally wrong – she knew that war changed people. God knew it had changed her.
"It takes all kinds – we all came out of the war slightly more psychotic than we went in, you know," she said in reply to his lengthy monologue, "Killing is – of course – wrong, but there is such a thing that is worse than death. So our lives didn't turn out exactly the way we wanted them to, so we got more cruelty than we bargained for – life is cruel. Each choice is the death of all other options. I think that under the circumstances, we turned out quite well."
"Under the circumstances, we definitely did," Blaise agreed, raising his glass, "Cheers, then. Drink with me now, to days gone by, to the life that used to be. Here's to me and here's to you."
"Here's to me and here's to you," she agreed, "Here's to a better life for both of us."
"Hear, hear," he said, and downed the rest of his pint.
The rest of the night was spent amiable silence and the occasional conversation about life in general and Hogwarts in particular, seeing as she worked there. By four, Rosmerta was yawning so bad that she opted to leave them the key and telling them to lock up after themselves when they left. The sky was the silver grey of false dawn before they finally packed up and left.
It was like those night in summer, when she was still in school, having been out all night with her Muggle friends – sitting at some café or a park bench, for she was never the partying kind – and walking home after the last bus had gone. Though Blaise could have simply Apparated back home, since the last train left a while ago, he chose not to, and instead walked her back to the castle and the first, student-free breakfast of the summer.
Quiet laughs and whispered conversation creeping past Hagrid's hut, even holding hands at the edge of morning no longer felt awkward. Though their last conversation had been nearly a decade ago, though their first conversation had been after seven years in the same school, ten minutes till midnight, Hermione – at least – felt more comfortable with him than she truly ought.
In the morning mist, he took a promise from her to be at the Three Broomsticks come graduation day, and returned to the edge of Hogwarts' grounds. It was many hours before she actually arrived at breakfast.
Another year, another class of students passing by. No rain drying in the streets, no drunk in the corner. Only a cold Butterbeer in her hands in the summer's heatwave, ten minutes till midnight and waiting.
Madam Rosmerta was wiping down the counter, waiting to go home, a couple of villagers were playing Cripple Mr Onion in the corner with a battered deck of cards. All was silence and calm. In the year since the last midnight meeting, few things had changed in her life. The count of failed relationships were now up to six, the number of times she had battled with Severus Snape over trivial things uncountable. This year's Defence teacher hadn't lasted longer than the others – the rumour of a cursed position was spreading, even though it was entirely untrue.
This time, the door opened gently, letting in the warm breeze, and suddenly he was standing there again, still black hair and black clothes and thinness and paleness and strange eyes, and he was smiling.
"I didn't think you'd come," she said, gesturing for him to sit down and have a drink.
"I heard it's impolite to keep old friends waiting," he replied, pulling out his chair.
Talking and laughing and sitting in silence – it was all the same as last year, though he seemed more troubled and less willing to talk about it this year. There was a shadow in his eyes, as there was a shadow in hers – though for entirely different reasons. She was beginning to give up on ever finding purpose in life, a purpose other than passing her knowledge, but he, he was hiding something. It was only after several pints of Butterbeer and half an hour till the false dawn that she got it out of him."Death was never pretty, Hermione," he said, staring blindly out the window. "Death was always blood and white faces of someone you knew, death was always broken necks and twisted bones. How did I ever manage to forget that? How could I forget the sound of the dying screams, how could I forget the restless hours, wondering for whom the bell tolls now? Oh, but I did – I forgot the stench of dried blood in the darkness, forgot that death was the sound of a switchblade in the dark. I forgot what hell was like. I forgot and I grew restless, constantly keeping awake, keeping busy, like a matchstick trying to outrun the flame. Knew what it was like to kill, but never wanted to find out what it was like to die. You know, after we left school, I just walked. Walked until I reached the end of all roads, and kept walking. I walked, but I never talked, and after a while I forgot."
She waited quietly – she knew he wasn't finished.
"For five years, I was like a ghost without a haunt – pale and gaunt and always on the run. I forgot, willed myself not to remember, and for five years, I lived without a life," he continued, still blindly staring, "But then, four years ago, I found a purpose in life. Exterminating what was left of the Darkness from the war. I did it with a glad heart and drawn wand, for there were so many things to avenge, but still I did not allow myself to remember. This year, I realised that it had been ten years since I walked into Hogwarts for the last time, ten years since all of my year mates were alive. And I remembered. I remembered the bleak hours of waiting, the shadows haunting my steps. I remember that last day when the sky opened and it rained blood. I remembered the earthquakes; how they broke the earth and gave it teeth. And I realised that now the teeth are mine, in the mouth of a wolf."
He closed his eyes, and she waited with baited breath, not daring to disturb him when he had spoken so freely. He opened his eyes and continued in a dead, calm voice.
"That wolf has since long declared a hunting season, but there is nothing left to hunt. The lingering remains of the Darkness are gone and dealt with. The Death Eaters are dead, buried, imprisoned. I'm trained for a job I can't carry out any more. Essentially, I'm worthless, and I can still hear the death-bell toll." he buried his face in his hands. "What am I to do with my life, Hermione? Is there anything left to save?"
"There is always something something left to save, Blaise," she said, speaking very quietly. "Always. I never forgot the death bells, I've lived with them for nine years of my life. I won't lie and say it's been easy, because what I hear in my dreams is not the soft laughter of little children, but the twisted screams of classmates, friends, hell – sometimes, I hear myself scream. Last year I said we came out of that war psychotic – it's true. We're all damaged somehow. You can't live like a normal person – you've killed and watched death more times than I'd care to count. I can't live in a normal relationship – not with someone who wasn't there those last, nightmarish months, because those who weren't there don't understand what it's like to live with the memories. Ron was mortally afraid of spiders – now, his boggarts turn to corpses. We're all damaged, Blaise. But we learn to deal with it. Your way of dealing didn't work out. Find another one."
"Will it take me five years this time as well?" he asked, looking at her, once more the seventeen year-old boy who had walked out of the Three Broomsticks nearly a decade ago.
"Honestly? I don't know. The only comfort I can offer is that you'll deal. Somehow and someday." she shrugged, feeling utterly unhelpful. "You can start by finding a new way of life."
"Any chance your Defence teacher left?" he joked, sounding half desperate, half I-wish-someone-would-kill-me.
"He did – with the four o' clock to King's Cross," she said. "Take it up with Headmaster Dumbledore in a couple of hours."
"You never did get used to calling him Albus, did you?"
"With a man like that? Not till the day I die." she laughed hollowly and drained the last of her Butterbeer, "We've both spilled enough blood for that twinkle in his eyes not to respect him to the point of the ludicrous."
Silence, for so it goes when words run dry. The Butterbeer was gone, and so were the patrons and Rosmerta. At five in the morning, the world had never seemed to large, or so free.
The key made a harsh, metallic sound as it turned, and she knew that next year, she wouldn't be waiting.
Ten minutes till midnight, and the world ahead.
Ending Notes: An old piece I never finished. One of the less cheerful BZ/HG's I've written. There's a multitude of quotes in it, which I only realised when I finished – whoever can tell me how many, where from, and what they are get a wonderfully imaginary cookie. Really.