Cold, icy cold. Goose bumps rise on my flesh, violent shivers course through my body as tendrils of mist swirl through the gravestones. Green is the only colour in this wasteland of death; two pairs of green eyes, two figures standing back to back surrounded by faceless black and gold masks. Faint green light shimmering like malevolent halos about wands drawn and pointed ready to attack. Moss covered headstones, dull and fearsome leaning like ancient combatants, weary from age.
And then the circle moves, creating a pathway at the head of which is an impossibly tall figure, eyes like slits, a hole where the nose should be and snake like features that burn with hatred. The wand in his hand is raised in anger, a swirl of green light that embraces the darkness hovering around its tip.
A silent scream forms on my lips, as the boy with black hair and that highly distinguishable lightning bolt shaped scar surges forwards, a voice shouting out unheard. But then the older boy, physically faster and stronger rushes forwards and places himself between the bolt of violent green light and the boy with the scar. Another scream, a single word roared out over and over again.
No! No! No!
Silence, heavy and oppressive as if it were a physical entity pushes from all sides. Green eyes that had blazed with power just moments before briefly register shock before they dull to a lifeless void as the body seems to fall in slow motion.
The youth is dead.
I opened my eyes with a gasp and then flushed bright red, as the passenger at the side of me gave me a curious glance.
"Sorry," I murmured, looking down at my watch. One more hour and we should land. Why I had had to come via Muggle transportation was still a slight mystery to me. It took hours and was beyond inconvenient as I had had to send all of my luggage ahead via magic. There was no way that customs would have allowed my numerous magic books, potions and especially my wand through without a lot of questions. And I felt particularly aggrieved about my wand; feeling like I had lost a limb without it.
Something else I hated about Muggle transport I reflected; it was so cold, impersonal and let's face it downright rude. It was with some relief that I finally exited passport control and looked for the familiar bush of dark brown hair that would signal my beautiful hero of a cousin's presence.
"Bella!" Hermione's voice was the best sound I had heard all day and I rushed forwards into her embrace.
"Thank Merlin you're here," she murmured, softly, with more than a little emotion in her voice. "Come on, let's get you to Hogwarts and then I can tell you everything."
She grabbed my hand and rushed me through the airport, her eyes flitting almost nervously to the left and right. Even when the war was raging, I had never seen her look so agitated.
"'Mione, you ok?" I asked.
"Fine," she said, giving me a grimace that should have been a smile but which did very little to reassure me. She led me to the car-park and then rooted in her bag before triumphantly waving a set of keys at me. I eyed the white car doubtfully, but she smiled.
"I got my licence last year," she said. "Seemed sensible to have a toe dipped in Muggledom after everything..." She broke off with an apologetic smile and climbed into the car. Closing my door I fastened my seatbelt, nervously.
"You're sure about this?" I asked.
"Positive," she replied, as she deftly switched on the engine and put the car into reverse. "And it's automatic. An idiot could drive it."
"Right," I said, still unsure. Hermione smiled and we set off.
"Of course," she said, after a few minutes. "There are a few adaptations on the original model. This will get us directly to Hogwarts."
"You'll see." She grinned. She hit a button on the car and it seemed to fade around us before it suddenly lifted into the sky, making me gasp. "Brilliant, isn't it? Always amazes me it was Ron that developed it..."
Her voice faded and she swallowed hard. Reaching across I grabbed her hand briefly squeezing it. Everyone had heard about the annihilation of the Weasley family at the end of the war, just before Voldemort's demise and I knew that Hermione still felt the intense pain of it every time she mentioned his name, even after twelve months. She gave me a sad smile.
"Sorry. I guess some things will always hurt. Wars are terrible things, Bella. They change people; they wound more than just the flesh." She fell silent again and took a deep breath. "But I need to tell you about Hogwarts so that you are... ready when we get there." The pause before 'ready' made me shiver inwardly, but I masked it carefully and forced a smile on my lips.
"Can't be much different from Forks Academy of Magic," I said mildly. Hermione sighed.
"Bella, everything is a lot different now. The war changed people. Hogwarts is not what it was. It is still the most prestigious university for those of magical ability, but it is different... very different..."
"Different how?" I asked. Hermione took a deep breath; generally a signal that she was going to be speaking for a while. I settled back in my seat to listen to her, as she gave me a potted version of everything that had happened since the infamous war against Voldemort.
"When Harry disappeared, you know, before he killed... Vol... well him anyway." She paused for a moment, collecting herself. "We thought we had lost the war and despair acts like a magnet for the Dementors. They attacked, taking so many people that should never have died... that wouldn't have died had Harry not vanished like he did. Ron... he was one of them and Harry has never forgiven himself. Once the initial euphoria that he was truly dead and gone had passed things started to change. It wasn't immediate like I said; it was gradual. Harry withdrew for a long time; he had lost his best friend, his girlfriend and the family that had become his own; well our own actually. And he blamed himself; I think he still does. Neville has tried to talk to him, tried to reassure him, but he won't listen. He won't listen to anyone."
"Not even you?"
Hermione was silent for a long time and then she cleared her throat.
"Harry and I haven't spoken for the last eighteen months," she finally said. My eyes widened. Harry and Hermione had been as close as siblings; the very best of friends and I could not fathom how they could be separated.
"Oh, Hermione, you never said. Why? Why would you and Harry not speak?"
"I've tried, Bella. Believe me I've tried so hard to make him listen; to make him see reason, but he just shuts himself off from me. He's even managed to arrange it that we don't have any lectures together." She sounded so desperately sad that I reached across and grabbed her hand, squeezing it tightly. "Merlin, I've been so lonely." The last was breathed out and my heart ached.
"I wish you'd told me," I said.
"I didn't want to worry you; not with how sick your mum was and everything. How is Auntie Renee now?"
"Better, thank you," I said. Mom had been really sick for a few months and the doctors hadn't been able to find a cause for it. She had been losing weight at a ridiculous rate and couldn't seem to eat. I had begged her to go to a magical hospital, but she refused. After Auntie Jean and Uncle Dan had been sent to Australia, with their memories altered due to the war, Mom had sworn off magic, saying it was far too dangerous. Though now the war is over and she had to endure a Muggle operation to remove her gall bladder, when they finally discovered that she had gall stones, she seems happy enough to make a fully fledged return to the world of magic. "How are your parents?"
"Safe," replied Hermione, quietly. I knew that the powers that be had decided that for the next seven years, her mom and dad would be left in Australia, with no memory of their daughter or the world of magic. This was to keep them safe in case any of the Death Eaters made a play for power and war broke out again, though after eighteen months this seemed unlikely.
Reflecting on the fact that she had lost Ron and the Weasleys, her parents and Harry, I realised that my cousin must be utterly forlorn and I sighed deeply, determined I would give her the friendship and companionship she must crave.
"We're here," she said, suddenly brightening a little. I looked below us to see Hogwarts University in all its glory. It occupied a site close to the school and as we soared over it I saw the beautiful building below and my mouth gaped in awe.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" she said.
"Yeah," I murmured. "It's hard to believe there was a war here. And that He Who Shall Not Be Named actually died here."
Hermione shivered slightly and I was glad I had not used his actual name. Even though he was dead and gone, it seemed his name still sent a shiver run through her body every time someone said it. Landing the car with practised ease, Hermione opened the boot and took my stuff out, before leading me to the front entrance.
I stared about myself, awe-struck; Hogwarts University was just as beautiful as the school, set in a stunning castle, somewhat newer than the school building, with turrets and a drawbridge. There were flaming torches at either side of the enormous wooden door and sculptures of winged angels leaning down as if reaching out to touch us. Somehow I wished they would as we moved up the path; I felt like we needed a blessing.
As we entered through the doorway, my eyes were everywhere, taking in the stone walls and the flags hanging from the walls. All four houses were represented in the colours that flew above us, but I noticed that there were several flags that had all four logos sewed in together. These were clearly new and intended to promote unity. The entrance hall was cavernous, but warm, the slabs of stone at our feet radiating impossible warmth.
"This way," said Hermione, briskly, leading me towards a flight of stairs on the right. "Our dorm is just up here. We'll be sharing an apartment; I hope that's alright?"
"Fine," I said, a little breathlessly. I followed her up the stairs and found that we were on a corridor, with doors off to the right and the left. She reached a door with a picture of a phoenix which blazed in red and gold.
"Philosopher," she murmured and the door swung open, as the phoenix watched us enter through fiery eyes. At first all I could do was gape at our surroundings. There was a large living room area, with two settees in front of a roaring fire. One wall was entirely made up of floor to ceiling bookcases, which were filled with books. A large window filled the other wall, which allowed plenty of light into the room, making it feel bright and airy. A faux sheepskin rug in front of the fire added to the cosy factor though and the heavy gold velvet curtains gave the room a feeling of luxury. Hermione smiled at my reaction and led me through to my bedroom, which had a four poster bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers. The bed was tastefully made up with shades of gold, with red curtains hanging from the posts. A door in the corner led through to an en-suite bathroom, with shower cubicle, bath, toilet and sink. After I had dropped my bag on the bed, she showed me that her room was the same as mine. Back in the living room, I saw that there was a corner dedicated to study, with plenty of ink and paper on a large desk with chairs at either side. A door to the right led into a small kitchen area, which I was surprised to see could have passed for a Muggle kitchen, though the cauldron hanging from a hook on the wall suggested its dual usage.
"You like?" she said, with a small smile.
"I love!" I corrected.
"Good. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," I confirmed. Her lips curved into a smile.
"I'll make us some tea. Do you want a shower?"
"Tea?" I echoed and she rolled her eyes.
"Dinner, Bella. You'll have to get used to Englishisms! We are in the UK now," she said.
"Fine. I shall look forward to some tea then," I said, in my best attempt at an English accent, which only made her roll her eyes again.
"Shower, tea and then bed?" she enquired.
"Sounds like a plan," I replied, stifling a yawn at the mention of bed. Hermione smiled at me.
"Go on then," she said, waving me away and I headed into my bedroom, closing the door softly behind me. My cousin had unpacked my things for me and I found all my clothes hanging in the wardrobe. Taking out a pair of casual trousers and a t-shirt I laid them on the bed ready to change into when I emerged from the bathroom. Sometimes Muggle clothes were the only way to go. Standing under the refreshing jets of hot water, I rubbed my face with my hands and felt a stab of sorrow, as I thought about our conversation in the car. Hermione must have been so miserable in the last couple of years; I should have come here sooner.
The following morning, I woke early, as Hermione had given me a very effective potion for jet lag. As soon as I was dressed in my robes, I headed out to find Hermione already up in the kitchen making toast and tea.
"Did you sleep ok?" she asked. Ducking my head to avoid her gaze I nodded, not willing to share my recurring nightmare about a boy with green eyes dying at the command of Voldemort. After seeing the man she loved obliterated because of the most evil wizard in history I doubted she needed to hear about my nocturnal terrors.
"Sure did. Best night's sleep I've had in ages," I said, helping myself to toast.
"Good. I thought we could do a tour today? Most students won't arrive until tomorrow, so we'll probably have the place to ourselves," she said.
"Great," I replied. As soon as we had cleared away our breakfast things, she led me back out onto the corridor. There were about a hundred doors leading off and she explained that the university had the capacity for three hundred students; one hundred in each year, which made it a very intimate school. All of the students lived in accommodation along this corridor; living out was not an option. There were strict curfews in place for students' safety, in light of what had happened over the last seven years, but she said that this did not seem to curtail people's fun.
As we headed away from the accommodation wing, she led me back down to the main entrance and pointed to a corridor on the left.
"That leads to the professor's offices," she said. "And on the floor above is their accommodation. In term time all professors live in."
"What if they have family?" I asked.
"They don't," she replied. "All of the professors are single."
Before I could query this she led me down the corridor on the right.
"Lectures take place down this corridor. Each classroom is set up for the subject to be studied. To be honest you will see enough of the classrooms when we reopen on Monday." She led me to a corridor behind the stairs which I had not noticed and I stared wide eyed at the portraits around us. I noticed that Hermione kept her eyes trained carefully in front of her. "This leads to the library."
But I barely heard her, as I saw a portrait of the Weasley family hanging at eye level. They were all standing in front of The Burrow, waving at the camera, and wide smiles on their faces. Hermione paused, registering that I was not following her.
"Bella, please," she said, raw agony in her voice.
"What is this?" I asked, as my eyes took in all of the pictures along the corridor, each with an image of someone who had died in the war.
"It's a memorial," she replied, evasively.
"Why would they put it here where you have to see it every time you need a book?" I asked, incredulously.
"As a reminder," she replied, quietly, pausing to look directly at me with anguished eyes. "They are there to remind us that we cannot allow a war like that to happen again. You'll notice that there are pictures of everyone who died, not just those from our side. Again it is supposed to encourage unity, though why anyone would want to look at Bellatrix Lestrange in contemplation of unity is utterly beyond me... Bella?"
I had stopped, frozen, in front of a picture of a boy, slightly younger than me. He was smiling and waving, dressed in his Quidditch uniform, the Hufflepuff badge emblazoned over his heart. But then his smile faltered and it seemed he was looking straight at me, through dazzlingly green eyes. He was speaking, but I couldn't make out the words, just a roaring sound in my ears that made my vision blur, before Hermione took my arm to steady me.
"Bella what is it?" she asked.
"That's him," I whispered. "That's the boy from my nightmare."