Trial by Fire

Pain seared her. Instantaneous. Excruciating. But when she opened her mouth to scream, the smoke choked her, and no sound emerged. She gasped, willing her lungs to expand, fighting for precious oxygen. But all she inhaled was heat. Heat and pain.

Looking down, she saw the flames licking over lobster-red meat – her legs. She could see her skin blister and burst. And oh, God, she could feel it!

Again, she yelped for breath, her lungs bursting with the effort, causing a different kind of pain, a sharp stab into her heart, deep inside her body. She jerked against the bounds that tied her to the stake, her body contorting in agony and with the desperate need for air.

Through the haze of the fire, she could suddenly make out a familiar silhouette: a gangly young man with a shock of fiery red hair.

Suddenly, the flames did not only surround her.

Fire erupted out of her skin, exploding her flesh, flinging skin and torn muscles and strangely clean, white fragments of bone into the blaze that enveloped her.

Ron turned to Hermione. He rolled his blue eyes in an exasperated manner. "Are you a witch or what?" he asked in that impertinent tone that just begged for a flock of canaries. "The flames can only tickle you. Seriously, get a grip!"

He didn't draw his wand or move a limb to save her from the fire.

At last darkness came and devoured her screams, and she was grateful for it.

oooOooo

Her body curled up rigid in the aftermath of her nightmare, her mind numb with imagined pain and terror. She was beyond crying, beyond screaming. Her throat spasmed, but Severus could make out no words, only strangled, cut-off wheezing.

"You can touch her now," Muriel Mugwort said calmly behind him, although her hands, holding fractured chi-stones, broken under the onslaught of Hermione's magic, were shaking. "The outburst is under control. It's quite safe."

Fear and frustration tempted Severus to turn and snarl at the Healer. Instead he stumbled to the chair next to Hermione's bed. Slumping down, he felt a wail rise within his throat, choking him. But no; that was not allowed. He could not break down.

Hermione needed him.

The children needed him. Barret Cruddace needed him to withstand the whisperings of a demon. Alina Petrel needed him to be taught the power of Death. The students at Hogwarts needed him; especially the ones who were still children and thus prey for the coming Darkness. Potter – Harry – and Draco needed him. Daredevils and imbeciles, the lot of them. Minerva, too … who was willing to entrust the very foundations of Hogwarts into his care.

Something Dumbledore would never have dreamed of.

Or would he?

After all, he had gifted him with a phoenix.

But the bird belonged to Alina now.

Severus shuddered. For a moment he stared at his knees, hidden as they were under his teaching robes. He stared at the threads making up the fabric. One tiny filament had been torn loose and—

"I promise," Muriel repeated. "My spell is working. She is slipping into peaceful slumber now. Touch her, for Merlin's sake. She needs you now, more than ever."

oooOooo

When Hermione woke, she was alone.

For a second panic gripped her. As paralysing and dreadful as the blurred memories of her nightmare. A faltering, fearful heartbeat sent her mind back into the cursed cell of the monastery. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, stripped of her magic, of all her defences, of all that made her who she was –

But her magic sizzled in her veins. Thrummed in every beat of her heart.

With a gasp and a cough she inhaled. Deeply. Exhaled. Again. Again. And again.

"I'm not there anymore," she whispered to herself. "I'm in St Mungo's. I'm not there anymore. I'm …"

She trailed off. Lay completely still for a moment and stared at the ceiling. Lay there. Motionless. Passive. Merely reacting to the pressure of dreams and memories.

The problem is, she thought, that a part of me is still there. Or thinks that I'm still there … Obviously Muggle therapy is not enough. Why? Because the violation of my Self was too great? She frowned. No, she didn't believe that. She felt too … alive for that. Too rational.

"Then what's wrong with me?" she asked aloud.

"Magical imbalance," Muriel Mugwort answered as she entered the room, carrying a tray with a bowl of soup, a small basket with bread, and an array of potions phials.

The Healer helped Hermione sit up before putting the tray over her lap so she could eat supper before taking her medication. To keep her patient company, she pulled one of the visitors' chairs close to the bed.

"Magical imbalance is more common than you think. It's one of the most dangerous complications of Dragon Pox. Pregnancy often causes magical imbalance, too. Some witches never recover. Trauma – due to accidents or disturbing personal experiences – is another trigger for the condition. Sometimes magical imbalance even occurs naturally. Teenagers are prone to temporary imbalance while their magic changes and grows until it settles with adulthood. There's a reason we keep you all far away from civilisation in the Scottish Highlands. And it's not the beauty of the local scenery." Muriel winked at her.

"Oh." Hermione stared at Muriel.

"If you stop eating, I stop talking," the Healer warned.

Quickly, Hermione took another bite of bread and spooned up more soup.

Muriel smiled. "In your case the reason for the imbalance is clearly trauma. The problem in your case is how bloody powerful you are. You were already powerful to start with. But the attempts of your magic to overcome the leeching curse have increased your base powers tenfold." The Healer sighed. "Therefore, traditional therapy has failed."

"What …" Hermione coughed. "What … does that mean?"

"We develop a new kind of therapy," Muriel said simply.

"We do?"

Muriel shook her head and smiled. "No, actually. You do."