Whhhhooooosh. Hermione released the breath she felt like she’d been holding for the last week and let the cruel December wind play through her curls.
She’d spent two days warding her parents’ house with every unbreakable, illegal blood ward she could find in a book of Dark Magic she’d taken from the restricted section of the library. She doubted whether some of the cuts on her hands would ever fully fade. Physically and mentally, she was exhausted. And tonight she planned on staying up late to try and develop her newfound elemental magic. No rest for the weary, she thought. Thank Merlin Christmas break starts next week.
She’d been invited to Ron’s for the break because her parents would be in the Alps, but decided to stay at the castle and get work done. Hermione was desperate to unlock the secrets of the book on Dementors and her own elemental power. A near-empty castle would be the perfect place to focus.
Turning to go into the Great Hall, she caught movement in her periphery. Someone was zooming around the Quidditch pitch on a broom. She frowned as she recognized the white-blond hair. Malfoy. ‘The trial!’ she gasped. With everything that was going on, she’d nearly forgotten. Lucius Malfoy was to be sentenced…was it today? Tomorrow? She didn’t know. For whatever reason the Ministry was keep the trial under wraps, with hardly any mention of it in the Daily Prophet. She watched Malfoy dive below the stands and felt her stomach clench. Judging by the speed he was flying, he was trying to leave worry far behind. She doubted it was working. Shoving a shard of concern aside, she wrenched open the Great Hall doors and slipped inside.
The next morning, an early morning chill crept across the old floorboards of Hermione's chamber. Her bedside window, looking out past Hogwarts grounds and over the Forbidden Forest, donned a midnight frost illuminated by what little light escaped the cold and familiar morning mist. Hermione stirred once the chill settled on her little toes poking out at the bottom of the bed. Reluctant to leave the comfort of her warm downy nest, she retracted under her blankets and silently wished the morning away, at least for another five minutes. No sooner had she done so than a soft knock beckoned her from her sleep.
"Hermione, are you awake?" She sat up to better hear the muffled voice behind the door.
"Who is it?" she sleepily replied, looking slightly bewildered while scratching her head through wild bed hair.
"Hermione, it's urgent," Ginny mumbled a little more loudly. “Harry’s looking for you.”
The remains of sleep quickly vanished as Hermione discarded her covers for her robe, opening the door to a pale-faced Ginny. Together they hurried down the stairs into the Common Room to meet Harry.
"They announced his sentence last night at midnight. Dumbledore's just sent word. We'll be the first to know before breakfast, before The Prophet's delivered. I'm sure it'll be front page," His jaw clenched as he spoke and he looked slightly past her, a little lost in thought.
Hermione couldn't tell if this was due to anger or something else…
"Yes, but what is it? What's the punishment?" She searched his green eyes, careful not to reveal any hidden worry she might have suppressed behind her own golden ember ones.
"They've sentenced him to the Dementor's Kiss.”
Hermione drew in a sharp breath. "When?"
"A week before Christmas." Hermione took in the news and immediately considered what would most likely happen this morning at breakfast; a commotion among the students, no doubt. But what about Malfoy? What will he do? A sinking feeling settled in her stomach. A week before Christmas? But that was less than a month's time.
"Is this right, Hermione? I want to feel happy. One less monster to fight when the time comes. But I can't help but feel…"
“…Sorry." She paused and fought off the last of her early morning weariness. Coherent but only semi-collected, she summoned her most recent run-ins with the younger Malfoy. How much more he seemed to hate her of late. Where was the scared, nervous boy from the library? The vulnerable soul in the infirmary? There had been something there beneath the gilded Malfoy name, she had seen it – a tenderness and an awareness. Where did it all go? Maybe it was never there in the first place.
Hermione snapped from her somber reverie in an attempt to save face, not wanting remorse to weaken the armor she'd spent years reinforcing.
"Sorry? Right," She said again, shaking her head in disgust. "He chose his fate when he became a Death Eater.” She ignored the tug of emotion she felt as she recalled holding his gaze in Potions, and the look he gave her when he'd said he wouldn’t betray her mission to ward her parents’ house.
"Right. You're right. Of course, he deserves it. They all do," Harry said with a vehement nod and a darkened stare.
"And what does Ron think of all this?" Hermione asked, already knowing the answer.
"Oh, you know Ron, he's ecstatic."
"Of course he is," Hermione mumbled as she looked back towards the girls' chambers. "Well, we'll have to deal with this at breakfast. Let's rest up a bit more. Meet me back here in half an hour?"
"Yeah, good idea Hermione. I'm still pretty tired. I don't even want to go to breakfast now. I think I'd rather head straight to Potions," he added with a half-hearted chuckle. "See you soon."
Harry left Hermione at the base of the dormitory stairs. She stood rigid, her arms held close to her chest in attempt to combat the coldness closing in on her.
He deserves it. They all do.
She closed her eyes and searched her thoughts for further validation of Harry's remark.
And then it all rushed to the surface. That awful word she wished never hurt so much. MUDBLOOD. The sneers and the hateful spats – those cold grey eyes casting pompous judgment. She could conjure every memory just as easily as she could conjure a spell. That aristocratic bastard with his intolerable greed and gaudy mansion, his impeccable disdain for all those "beneath" him, his perfect hair and that stupid cane; evil incarnate complete with a black heart and a black cloak…the same cloak he draped over her shoulders that night in the forest with Mulciber.
He deserves it.
"The man who saved my life…"
"Who saved your life?" Luna suddenly appeared at Hermione's shoulder. Hermione jumped at her presence, nearly taking a tumble down the steep stone stairs. She blinked to find that she must have walked up without noticing.
"Merlin, Luna! You can't sneak up on me like that. Are you trying to kill me?" Hermione was exasperated and all of a sudden a little embarrassed. She hadn’t even realized she was thinking out loud.
"Oh no, I would never try to kill you. But I'm sure if I did the man who saved you before would save you again," Luna answered with her usual sweet smile and slightly blank gaze. Hermione just stood and stared at her. An awkward silence passed a few beats before Hermione realized where they were.
"Luna, how did you get into Gryffindor tower?!"
"Neville let me in. He was asleep in front of the entrance, said he forgot what the password was after studying in the library late last night. Good thing he remembered it just now. I was following some Meeble tracks in the hallway and they led me up here, to the top of the stairs." Luna spoke softly as she tilted her head to one side. Hermione struggled to take her seriously.
"Meeble tracks…right. Luna, do you have the time?"
Without as much of a glance to her wristwatch Luna replied, "It's seven forty-two and eight, nine, ten seconds. Almost breakfast time."
"Care to join me, then? I'm meeting Harry and Ron downstairs in a while." Hermione took Luna's half-nod-half-smile as a yes and ushered her into the bathroom, where she finished getting ready for the morning. She fussed with her intolerable hair in front of the mirror for all but half a minute before giving up and turning her attention toward her papers and bookbag, sorting pamphlets and re-organizing pages of last night's homework. She struggled to suppress the lingering thoughts of the current duress of Malfoy Sr. and readied herself for what she anticipated to be an unusually stressful day at Hogwarts.
A quarter-hour later Hermione met up with the boys downstairs, quickly shushing Ron and his excitement over the sentencing. She exchanged a discreet and concerned glance with Harry who, in turn, distracted the eager redhead with mindless chatter about Quidditch and girls. They filed out of the portrait hole one by one, with Luna zig-zagging close behind. Focusing on the boys’ conversation, Hermione attempted to quell the barrage of thoughts in her head. As they made their way through the castle the scent of pastries and the warmth of active bodies permeated the hallways, beckoning them to the Great Hall.
A heavy mist hung from the enchanted ceiling. It gradually dissipated as the world outside grew older and brighter. The trio sat themselves at the end of Gryffindor table, Hermione making sure to situate herself with a discreet view of the Slytherin troupe, most importantly of Malfoy, who had yet to show up to breakfast.
The usual morning chatter simmered as more and more students sat at their respective tables and busied themselves with tea and juice. Hermione barely touched her food despite her hunger – quite opposite of Ron, who was already helping himself to a second round of sausage and biscuits. Only huge mouthfuls of food could ebb his frustration with his friends’ lackluster reaction to Dumbledore's latest news.
"I mean, waf's wong wif celebratin'? He's a bloody deaf eatah," Ron grumbled almost inaudibly after shoveling a few large spoonfuls of potato cakes into his mouth. Harry was too lost in thought to pay attention and Hermione couldn't be bothered to entertain the question, torn as she was.
"Honestly, Ron, your ability to masticate your food rivals that of a troll's. Now pipe down and just eat," Hermione hissed, adding a threatening glare just as he opened his mouth to retort. Ron gave her the best eye-roll he could muster and continued attacking his plate. Looking away in disgust, Hermione scanned the room, anticipating that shock of pale blond hair to appear at Slytherin table any minute. What would she do if their eyes should meet once he came down for breakfast? Would he come down? Why did she have to feel this sorry for him?
She examined her haughty rivals, as sneering and pompous as on any other day – always ready to accost innocent passersby with verbal barbs or an impeding foot. They obviously hadn't heard about the sentencing. They wouldn't act so…normal. She shifted her gaze to the Professor's table. They all looked slightly tense, and reasonably so. Snape was the only one missing. Hermione didn't have to search for reasons to account for Snape's absence considering his close mentorship with Malfoy, but she was all-too curious (and suspicious) of how far his guidance went. To the Death Eater's circle, perhaps? She’d entertained the idea more often over the last few days, feeling less and less inclined to extend the benefit of doubt given Malfoy’s recent behavior.
A faint and familiar rustle of wings abruptly captured Hermione's attention.
Here they come.
She watched as a swift procession of owls swooped down over the long oak tables, leaving behind small packages, letters from home, and the much anticipated morning paper:
A Kiss Fit For A Death Eater: Lucious Malfoy Sentenced to the Dementor's Kiss
Hermione stared at the front page of the Daily Prophet. A slightly disheveled but otherwise collected Lucius Malfoy glared back. For being a moving photograph he remained so still, so cold, so unyielding to the looming fate boldly printed above his head. The conversational buzz from all the tables died down instantly as all eyes locked on the same bold-faced letters. Hermione held her breath and waited for the eruption. With wand firmly clutched beneath the length of her sleeve, she counted the seconds and weighed the rising tension as it pressed in on her from all sides. This headline boasted more than the fate of a Death Eater – it screamed riot. It bore the weight of an impending war; a new reality, a battle between dark and light, the gravity of which only increased the longer the room remained silent.
Either he was genuinely impervious to the present drama or just couldn't stave off the old ginger penchant for brawling; Hermione would later conclude that she didn't give a flying Snitch and that her dear foolish friend, Ronald Weasely, would pay for the repercussions, either by her wand or someone else's.
With a stupid grin and a quarter glass of orange juice, Ron gave a nod in the Slytherin's direction, accompanied by a toast:
"More like a kiss fit for a Slytherin, eh Harry? I'll drink to that."
Ron brought the glass to his lips just as the fist shot rang out.
An inaudible curse followed by a streak of red light pierced the tension between houses and shattered the glass in his hand, sending tiny shards in every direction, cutting up Ron's face and Hermione's right side. She tried to shield herself from the shrapnel and whipped around to see Blaise Zabini with his wand outstretched before him.
Barely a second passed before a storm of spells and hexes showered every table in brilliant rays of red, green, and blue. Every wand let loose a wild curse followed by screams of pain and terror as some hexes met their targets and others struck cowering First Years.
Students dropped to the floor, vomiting slugs and pus. They clutched at arms and legs covered in stinging hives and burning boils.
Hermione deftly cast disarmament spells and counter curses. Ron lay on the ground howling and clutching his mangled face. The blood ran into his eyes and down his cheeks as he blindly thrashed about. Harry received the brunt of Slytherin fury as he stood in front of his fallen friend.
"Expelliarmus! Incendio! Dermorti!" Harry's enchanted words rang out over the frenzy. Amidst the chaos Hermione locked eyes with Blaise. His face contorted into a dark and sickly grimace as they stared each other down. He stalked toward her with swift and confident strides, leaving behind a wake of rage and wreckage. Hermione's hatred for him climbed as he closed in on her. She knew what was coming. She knew what he wanted to do. She had seen this demon before at the Quidditch world cup and she wasn't afraid to face it again.
"Do it, Blaise Zabini, and I will slit your throat myself soon as this is over!" Hermione lowered her wand just as he came within arm's reach. She could see the tendons in his jaw flex and his eyes flicker. He lurched forward.
"You dare taunt me, Granger?" Hermione hardly flinched as he pressed his wand into her ribs and bent down to whisper in her ear.
"I'm going to enjoy this, you filthy Mudblood."
Hermione felt every muscle in her body tense as the forbidden word seeped from his lips in a low steaming hiss.