No blinding pain shooting through her every nerve and fiber. No fire burning in her lungs. Nothing but the absence of feeling and the overwhelming presence of something good, wise, and powerful.
The heat of the fight faded as everything came to a standstill. The air was thin and cold. Hermione tried to look around her, but realized she was paralyzed, face-to-face with Zabini. She couldn't even look away from his twisted expression. All they could do was stare at one another and listen as a voice pierced the silence.
"Isn't it amazing what a group of talented and driven students can accomplish given the right amount of fear and hate? A lethal combination – and dare I say, effective. Not even half a minute has passed and you've managed to nearly destroy each other; a very impressive feat. The Dark Lord should be most proud."
Hermione caught a glint in Zabini's eyes at the mention of Voldemort.
Dumbledore's voice continued to quietly disperse throughout the room.
"The world, as we know it now, is in a dark and dangerous place. These castle walls will be one of the last safe havens when war visits this country, and yet you choose to squelch the remaining light we have for the sake of rivalry. To say I am disappointed would not suffice. I am saddened and heartbroken to see the brightest stars fall so far and so fast from grace; to bear witness to this civil war."
His voice grew closer and warmer, as if he were only inches away.
"Your courage has been marred by pride, your thoughtfulness tainted by submission. Your knowledge wasted by selfish impulse and your cleverness morphed into something that is simply…unforgivable."
She could see him, out of the corner of her eye, a blur of sliver and blue. He was right beside them. Dumbledore took the wand from Blaise's hand and held it up between the two students. The tip of the wand cast a bright emerald light over their faces. He twirled the dark mahogany between his fingers for a moment before extinguishing the green light like one would snuff a candle flame between two fingers. Dumbledore let the wand disappear inside his sleeve and spoke again, his voice now coming from the other side of the room.
"Those injured have been escorted to the infirmary. Those of you remaining will return to your dormitories to receive proper punishment for your barbaric actions this morning. Make no mistake, the consequences will be severe, as you will all be held to the highest degree of accountability. Hermione Granger and Blaise Zabini, I will see you in my office at once."
A cool wave of air rushed over the students as Dumbledore lifted the enchantment. The paralysis set Hermione's body tingling as she tore away from Blaise's gaze to take in the damage. Less than half of the students remained in the Great Hall, looking weary and beaten, their robes fringed and torn. Professor McGonagall was sternly gathering the Gryffindors and leading them back to their chambers. The other professors swiftly followed suit. Hermione saw that Snape had joined them. The tapestries burned, sending plumes of black smoke to the ceiling. A mosaic of blood, food, and shattered glass and porcelain covered the floor. All the tables lay overturned, displaying an array of splintery holes and shrapnel lodged into the thick golden cedar.
"What have we done," Hermione exhaled, letting the words drift out into the thin haze of smoke and disbelief.
"The worst thing you possibly could do, Miss Granger." Snape's voice caught her off guard and struck her with a wave of dread. She whipped around to confront the professor. He wore a mixed expression of concern and smugness; a combination only a man like Snape could display.
"The headmaster is waiting. If you are as intelligent as everyone thinks you are you will mind the position you are in and do your best to secure your place at this school; however undeserved it may be."
Hermione could say nothing in the face of expulsion. Blaise gave a snigger, prompting Snape to fix him with a deathly glare.
"One more ignorant noise out of you, Zabini, and the Headmaster will be the least of your worries." The coolness in his tone pierced deeper than his words. Hermione glanced at Blaise, whose color had all but drained from his face. Whatever his fate would be she hadn't a drop of sympathy for him.
Snape turned on his heel and led the students down the corridor.
Never before had the thought of a visit to Dumbledore's office been so daunting. The trio made their way up the winding staircase and entered the office. Dumbledore greeted them from the center of the room. The usual golden light that emanated from the tower windows was replaced by a dim bluish glow. The headmaster looked cold and indifferent beneath the frosty hue.
"Thank you, Severus. Leave us now. I believe you're needed elsewhere at the moment." Snape gave a curt nod and swept out of the office, leaving Hermione and Blaise subject to Dumbledore's final judgement.
"It would serve you well to hold your tongue at this moment, Miss Granger."
Hermione wavered at the sternness in his voice. She quickly nodded in obedience and prepared for the worst. Hold your tongue, know your place - Do NOT get expelled!
‘But I haven’t done anything,’ a stronger voice in her head whispered. She’d deflected most of the curses, and didn’t actually duel Zabini…although she would have, if it had been allowed to come to it.
Dumbledore turned his attention to the corner of the room, where Blaise stood cloaked in shadow.
"Step forward, Blaise Zabini." Blaise remained rigid for a moment before yielding to the Headmaster's command.
"I fear I have overestimated you. You came to Hogwarts with such potential. Such a quiet but passionate First Year you were. You had such a thirst for knowledge and, unfortunately, an unbridled hunger for power." Dumbledore spoke to the boy with regretful discontent. "The path you are on is full of darkness and hate. I cannot change that now. How very badly do I wish I could set you straight, alas, you have made your choice. I will not allow you to realize your final destination within these walls."
Blaise narrowed his eyes as he processed Dumbledore's condemning words.
"Ha! You mean to expel me, then?" He stood tall in his arrogance, squaring up to the old Headmaster.
"And let you turn to the Death Eaters to aid Voldemort's cause?" Dumbledore challenged.
Blaise stiffened. His features hardened. The air turned volatile as the energy shifted around them. Hermione felt the adrenaline creep into her veins. She adjusted her position to be at the ready. Her eyes fell on Blaise's left arm and she watched as he clenched and unclenched his fist, thinly holding on to his steely composure. Through a darkened stare Blaise flashed a wicked smile, hissing through bared teeth.
"For the wizard who thinks he knows everything, you don't know anything …" Blaise tore at his sleeve, exposing a smooth and flexed forearm and the all-too familiar mark; a burning black skull and winding serpent etched deep into his skin. The Dark Mark of a Death Eater. Hermione's eyes widened at the sight of it.
"I already joined the Death Eaters, you old fool. I WILL do Voldemort's bidding, inside or outside these Merlin-forsaken walls. I HAVE NO LIMITS!"
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow at the seething youth and sighed heavily, hanging his head in fatherlike disappointment.
"Ah, but you do, Mr. Zabini. You will stay here at Hogwarts, exiled to the old greenhouse on the outskirts of the grounds where you will finish the term under strict surveillance. The arrangements are made; your belongings have already been removed from the dungeons. Remus and Arthur will escort you to your new quarters."
Dumbledore motioned towards the two figures emerging from the corner of the room. Arthur Weasley and the always-disheveled Remus Lupin marched towards Blaise.
Blaise faltered, looking both furious and bewildered at the sight of the two men. He reached for his wand, forgetting it was still in the Headmaster’s possession. In a fit of desperation Blaise lunged at Arthur, only to be apprehended by translucent silver ropes. The shimmering lines synched his arms at his waist and coiled about his ankles, sending him sailing to the cold stone floor in an awkward heap. Blaise yelled and struggled against his bonds as they tightened on his body. Remus brandished his wand and levitated Blaise towards the tower door.
Over the thrashing and screaming Remus clucked, "Come now, Blaise. Let's not make a fuss."
"You think you can imprison me, cage me up like some DOG!? You'll never get away with this, Dumbledore. He's coming for you and your flithy Mudblood pets," Blaise spat at Hermione as he drifted passed her. Hermione locked eyes with him as he muttered under his breath, "I'll come back for you, Granger, you stupid dirty bi-"
Blaise's voice cut off unexpectedly, leaving him mute and dumbfounded. Mr. Weasley gave Hermione a knowing wink and looked rather unapologetic as he returned his wand to his inside pocket.
"Thank you for that, Arthur," Dumbledore rubbed his temples in relief. "Mind his temper, will you? And whatever you do, do not underestimate what he's capable of," he added in a much graver tone.
"Not to worry, Albus. He won't move a muscle unless we say so. Let us know if you need anything else," Mr. Weasley replied with a reassuring nod before following Remus and their charge out of the office.
Soon as the doors closed behind them a warmth pervaded the room. Sunlight filtered down through the stained glass window above Hermione's head. Hermione watched as fragmented bits of color swept across the floor and danced along the golden walls. The colors revived her senses and rekindled her Gryffindor courage. She considered Blaise's exile. Dumbledore couldn't possibly hand her the same fate. Hermione looked up at him, suddenly struck by how gaunt and tired he looked. He wasn’t even bothering to hide his blackened hand.
These last few years had been hard on everyone; even with her youth Hermione couldn't ignore the exhaustion of constant strife and ever-present danger. She couldn't imagine aging nearly two lifetimes and facing, once again, such a dark horizon.
Dumbledore retreated to his desk and sat down heavily in his large leather wing-backed chair.
"I do appreciate your concern, Miss Granger, but as you can see there are greater matters at hand than my well-being. I may be past my prime, but I assure you I am well. I think we have all learned by now to never underestimate a wizard's will to live."
Hermione caught the reference and shuddered as a snakelike image of Voldemort flashed in her mind.
"But wouldn't you think that some of them deserve to die?"
"I'm surprised vengeance is something you now believe in, Hermione." Dumbledore glanced over his crescent moon glasses. " As I recall, you were once the girl that fought for good at the expense of none."
He was right. For years she carried the burden of being the virtuous and thoughtful Hermione Granger; the brightest witch of her time with the biggest heart and the greatest weakness – mercy. She couldn't be that girl anymore. For the sake of her friends and family she had to hate the other side. No one could be forced to die because she wasn’t strong enough to save them. She would kill a hundred other Mulcibers if it meant peace for the rest.
"I believe in justice and I know that comes at a cost. It's a price I'm willing to pay if it means the end of Voldemort and his scum followers."
"And what of the price of injustice? Do you think Draco Malfoy is willing to pay for that?" Dumbledore leaned forward in his chair, a look of deep concern etched into his brow. Hermione's heart raced and she swallowed hard at the thought of Malfoy, wherever he was at this moment, suffocating under the weight of his father's fate. She couldn't bring herself to answer as her resolve to hate him continued to waver every other time he crossed her mind.
"Have you ever lost a father, Miss Granger?" Hermione looked down at her feet and cursed him under her breath.
Damn you for making me feel so guilty.
After a long pause she answered, "No."
Dumbledore smiled slightly and sat back once again. "You're a kind soul, Hermione. Don't let hate take root in your heart. It will consume you whole. Whatever amount of it I saw in you this morning, I suggest you dispel."
Hermione couldn't help but object. "But I didn't do anything!"
"No, but you wanted an excuse to retaliate, didn't you? You taunted that boy and you almost got your way." Hermione couldn't believe him. How could he make such accusations? She wanted to stomp the floor in protest, tell him he was wrong. Blaise was the villain here; he was the Death Eater. He used the Cruciatus curse, not her! It took everything in her not to counter his offense but she knew, once again, he was right.
He's always so damned right!
Hermione retorted in frustration, "Am I to be exiled, too, then? I didn't realize taunting was grounds for such a dramatic punishment." Her hand shot to her mouth but couldn't quite catch the words as they flew out like rapid-fire curses.
Hold your tongue, remember your place…Merlin, what has gotten into me?
Dumbledore shook his head, ignoring her indignant tone. "Oh no, my dear. If I were to exile you I fear I would be the one suffering the consequences." He stood up and turned to the bookshelf, scanning his wand over the rows of ancient texts. On the top shelf, in the left hand corner, a modest black book quivered from between two giant encyclopedias. After a bit of a struggle it popped out of the bookcase and followed Dumbeldore's wand down to the desk. He let it drop with a flop and a fine cloud of dust flew off the cover. Hermione's acute sense of curiosity was peaked. The book looked so familiar…
"What is tha-"
"Miss Granger, you must listen to me very closely now," Dumbledore waved her attention from the book. She tore her eyes from its simple cover, yearning to flip through its pages. "I know I have asked much of you over the years, but I'm afraid I must trouble you with one last request. In order to succeed you must be patient, you must be humble, and above all you must be kind. Are you following me so far?"
"Patient, humble, kind," Hermione echoed. "You're asking me to join the sainthood, then?" She was careful not to sound too annoyed, and smiled sweetly to veil her irritation. This is not the direction she wanted to go due to current events. Fearless, strong, ready to fight – these things she wished to glean from her lengthy repertoire of abilities. Obviously she wasn't in a place to be so choosy. But what could he possibly be asking of her that required such…sensitivity?
Dumbledore looked amused. "Good to know you have a sense of humor, my dear. I suppose you'll need that, too." Hermione had had enough of these games. She hated chasing around his ambiguous answers and loaded comments. Approaching the foot of his desk, she shot for the heart of the matter.
"What exactly are you asking me to do, Headmaster?" The old man beckoned her to lean in closer and she gripped the desktop with equal parts curiosity and fear.
"I need you to look after someone, someone who is in a very dark place right now. He will need you now, more than ever." His voice emptied into the space between them, filling the void with a heavy austerity. Hermione's burgeoning expectation slowly began to unravel as she calculated the Headmaster's words, his expression, the events of that morning and the bold-faced headline that started it all.
Five little letters slowly emerged from the back of her mind – at first just shapes severely out of focus, then a row of symbols making out a word.
No, not a word.
A name that forced it's way from the pit of her stomach and tightened around her lungs, so much so it surfaced on her tongue in just a whisper.
Draco's eyes fluttered open and an overwhelming cold pierced his sight, forcing him to squint through frosted lashes. The world around him was white and silent and dead. A numbness consumed his body as he struggled to bring himself to his feet. The sun was just beginning to break through the distant horizon, but the sky fought back with rolling grey clouds and a dampening mist. Draco surveyed his surroundings and looked down at his bare feet, shockingly pale – almost blue against a brand new skiff of snow. The whiteness stretched out and out before him, and just beyond the gloom he could make out Hogwarts' towers.
"What- why am I…How am I so far away from the castle?" His words worked their way out of his lungs and he bit down against the cold as it crashed against his teeth.
Draco stepped forward, but something shifted beneath his weight and a stinging fear shot through his core. He knelt to his knees and brushed away the snow. The surface beneath was so dark and green – almost black. A web of fine white lines splayed out from beneath him and his eyes widened in horror as another deep crack split through the ice, cutting his reflection in half.
The lake. I'm in the middle of the lake…
A not-too-distant plummeting feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.
A flame flickered in his mind, emerald green, taking shape. His mother's voice. What did she say? He could see himself now. He was screaming at the fire. No, not at the fire, at his mother. She was speaking to him through the flames of the fireplace in the Slytherin common room and all he could do was scream back. He closed his eyes.
How did I get out here? I must be dreaming.
Draco clutched at himself and pinched his side, but the cold rendered him so numb he couldn't feel a thing. He focused on his hands and suddenly noticed the frozen blood on his knuckles. He remembered the pain of his skin tearing against a stone wall.
I was screaming, and then I hit the wall…
His mother's words broke through his clouded mind: "Your father…Dementor's kiss. Draco, listen to me…"
Draco dug his nails into the ice and mumbled breathlessly, "No…no, no, no".
He tried to fight off the images from the midnight message, but they assaulted him with painful clarity. He had run from the dungeons, from his mother's words. The sound of his feet hitting the ground as he sprinted through the hallways resounded in his chest. He had fallen into the wall. Draco touched his shoulder and felt a tender patch of mangled skin through the ragged hole in his shirt. He turned and looked back towards the lakeshore.
I ran outside, to the edge of the lake, but...
Draco could see himself approaching the water, gasping for breath and shivering violently. It had been snowing. He remembered the shock of the icy water biting at his toes.
…the water wasn't frozen.
Draco heard a splash from behind him. His heart pounded in his ears as he turned to face the noise. Only ten feet from where he stood the black lake water ate away at a jagged edge of ice. Draco sprawled out onto his stomach and dispersed his weight over the temperamental surface. He inched his way toward the water, focusing on the unrelenting cold as it coursed through his veins. Then he slowly reached over the edge and dipped his hand into the frigid lake.
Just as his fingers broke through the surface the air began to hum and a warmth returned to his lungs. Suddenly, a chorus of cracks and pops echoed across the lake and Draco stared in amazement as the water glazed over and hardened beneath his touch. A thin crystalline path extended out over the dark water. His heart rose in his chest and beat against his ribs. A terrifying feeling: powerful and exhilarating all at once. The dark, gleaming path beckoned him to stand. It begged to be followed. Draco stared out at his creation. He could escape from everything; just walk away and never look back. He could disappear into the cold misty morning, burn away with the snow as the sun broke through the blanket of white and grey. His world was already ending at an alarmingly rapid rate. A couple of weeks, a handful of days and his father would be a soulless shell. His mother – what would she do without the Malfoy pillar, her protector, her love? The image of his parents blurred his vision. Draco fought back the tears, save for one that made a quiet escape. It silently rolled down his cheek and froze to his chin. Draco took a heavy resolute step out onto the path.
It was the familiarity of her voice that stopped him in his tracks. He held is breath and waited for a second call.
"It couldn't have been her…" He swallowed hard took a two more steps away from shore.
He stumbled forward, almost losing his balance and smashing into the ice. He instantly replayed the voice in his head, just as he had heard it: a low, soft note with an underlying warmth. He knew it so well, but had never heard her sound so sad.
"What – what is it? Please, speak to me." Draco frantically searched the water and looked down the icy path. Was she here? She said his name, he heard it. Could it have been an echo or was his mind just playing tricks? She sounded so near, so present.
"DRAAACOOO!" He whirled around and faced the shore. This voice was different, deep and rolling. It struck him with a wave of urgency. He trained his eyes on the shoreline and saw a black-cloaked figure fast approaching the edge of the lake. Professor Snape. Draco glanced over his shoulder at the ice path stretching out into the unknown and he felt his thoughts tear in two. He could still walk away. He didn't have to fight anymore. But how could he leave them all behind?
"COME BACK DRACO!!" Snape begged from the shoreline. His voice cracked in the bitter cold.
Draco opened his mind to his mentor.
I can't save him, Professor.
Snape spoke softly, knowing his thoughts would reach the desperate young man.
"There’s still time.”
Draco felt the certainty of the professor's thoughts filter through his mind. A budding hope ignited within him despite his potent despair.
Suddenly he knew whose voice he’d heard on the ice, and the bright golden eyes, full of fire and fight.