Hermione blinked her eyes, suddenly confused. A feeling of disorientation assailed her. One moment she was battling for her life. All around her was the heat and dust and stench of battle. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Harry dueling Voldemort. She heard the Dark Lord taunt her best friend. Harry answered back; although she wasn't sure, it sounded like he said something about Draco Malfoy.
Malfoy? She wondered.
Why on earth would Harry mention him? She couldn't hear Voldemort's response, but he looked murderous. Then a brilliant light flashed, illuminating the carnage on the ground. For a moment, all Hermione could see were spots. Black spots, growing in size and number until they covered her field of vision. It was like someone had redacted the world. Some time later (Hermione never could figure out how long it took), light began to grow along the edges of the nothingness. Her sight slowly returned. But what she was seeing now….
Hermione sucked in a breath. Surrounding her was a blue fog. It hovered in the air, the cold wisps undulating lazily. She exhaled; her breath didn't make a cloud of water vapor in the chill. The air was heavy with frost…..yet she, in her thin jumper, felt no discomfort.
Another realization hit her….it was too quiet. Eerily so. Where was the noise? The cries, the moans of agony, the sharp clang of hexes meeting in the air were gone.
She began to feel a creeping dread.
Had she been hurt? Was she dreaming?
She didn't know.
Hermione began to move in the direction where she'd last seen her best friend. She was astonished to find no broken stones, splintered beams of wood or charred grass in her path. Or bodies either, thankfully.
Am I still at Hogwarts?
Hermione wasn't used to not knowing the answer to things. It disturbed her. She continued to look around, trying to gather information on what happened and where she was. After some minutes, or maybe hours, or maybe no time at all, she sat down on the damp ground. She couldn't find enough clues to give her any hint of her whereabouts. An unwelcome thought began to relentlessly pound against the walls of her sanity.
I'm dead. I'm dead. I'm dead.
She didn't know how long she would have sat there if it hadn't been for the shout that rang like a bell in the air. She wanted to sob in relief. It was a human voice.
"Can anyone hear me?"
Hermione scrambled to her feet in answer to that strangely familiar tone. Not wanting it to vanish, she cried back, "I'm here! I'm coming!"
She took off racing in the direction of the voice. A few moments later, she heard footsteps other than her own. The sound was getting louder. She turned the corner of a building that looked exactly like and nothing like the herbology greenhouse at Hogwarts. As soon as she did, she nearly plowed into a body. A moving, living body. A male one, wearing all black. She looked up to see the face of Draco Malfoy staring down at her in astonishment.
"Granger? What in the devil are you doing here?"
If she didn't know better, she would have thought him angry. But after all these years, she knew him.
He was just as frightened as she.
"What did your precious Order do?" he bellowed.
"The Order?" her voice rose with incredulity. "If anyone did something, it was your Master."
Draco glowered. "Don't call that psychopath my master."
Hermione snorted. "You arm would say otherwise."
That made Draco see red. "Shut. Up. You know nothing. You have no idea why I did the things I did!"
Hermione paused, tempted to yell back at the wizard, but something in her hesitated. Whether she liked it or not, Malfoy was the only person she'd found thus far in this alien blue landscape. She didn't want to take a chance of provoking him. He might leave her then, and although Hermione was a clever witch and could take care of herself, she couldn't bear the thought of being left alone in this strange place.
Before she could change her mind, she blurted out, "I'm sorry."
Draco looked startled for a moment; then the smirk she knew so well bloomed across his face. "The great Hermione Granger is admitting she was wrong about something? I must be dreaming."
"Oh, shush. You're just as relieved as I am not be alone."
Draco arched his brow. "Been scared, eh? Not very Gryffindor of you."
Hermione ignored that. They had bigger fish to fry if they were going to get out of….wherever they were.
"What's the last thing you remember before you found yourself here?" she asked.
Draco scratched at the short hair above his ear. "I'd just watched Molly Weasley kill Bellatrix." Noticing Hermione's features freeze at the mention of his insane aunt, he hastily added, "I….I was wishing...hoping….she'd gotten some of her own back." An embarrassed look passed over his features at that admission. "I just…..I thought she deserved to feel pain after all she'd done…..particularly to you, Granger."
Hermione swallowed heavily. "Why me especially?"
Draco cleared his throat but said nothing. Then he shrugged his shoulders. "Because I knew you, I guess. It...it made it more real."
Hermione made no comment, but in her mind an inconceivable thought was forming.
Before he found himself here, he'd been thinking of her.
"What about you? What's the last thing you remember?"
Hermione paused. She dreaded answering; she didn't want to say it aloud; it would make her hunch all the more real. "I remember Harry and Voldemort confronting the other. I….I heard Harry say your name. He told Voldemort something. I was wondering what it was."
"He was talking about me? To the Dark….er...to You-Know-Who?"
Draco stood there, thinking. "Why?"
"That's what I wanted to know. I was thinking through everything I knew about you to try to puzzle it out. Then I saw a flash of light. Next thing I knew, I was here."
Hermione bit her lip. She knew Draco was smart. He would soon connect the dots. She saw it when it happened; his face drained of the little color it had.
"We were…..thinking of each other?"
She reluctantly nodded. "It would appear so."
"Are you trying to make me believe our thoughts produced…...this?"
"I'm not trying to make you believe anything. But doesn't it strike you as odd that we're the only two people here?"
Draco's face became stony. "You don't know that."
"Well, go on then," Hermione said as she motioned with her hand. "Call out like you did before and see if anyone else answers."
Draco gave her a glare before he raised his voice. "Hello! Is anyone out there?"
"Oi! Somebody say something!"
The silence following his cries was deafening.
He ripped his hand through his hair. "Great…..just freaking GREAT!"
Hermione watched as he turned, snarling, to kick the side of the building. Shaking her head, she sighed. "What do you think that's going to accomplish? I don't need you going off in a fit of rage. We have to think logically if we want to get out of here."
Draco twirled around, a wild look in his eye. "Out of here? We don't even know where here is! How are we going to get out? I don't know! Do you? Well? DO YOU? NO, YOU DON'T!"
Hermione's jaw dropped. She had never before seen him so unhinged.
He continued to rant. "This is a bloody nightmare! I'm stuck in some alternate reality with you. I'm being punished!"
As soon as the words left his mouth, Draco stilled. His eyes lost their wildness; they became vacant and staring. He stood for moment, a perfect frozen statue. The only thing moving on him was the pulse point on the side of his neck. It was beating wildly. Hermione absently thought he needed to get his blood pressure checked the next time he saw a healer.
When he finally turned his head, she could see the beginnings of horror lining his features. In a soft voice, he said, "That's it…..isn't it?"
Hermione, not understanding the question, frowned. "Sorry?"
"I'm in that place muggles talk about. This is hell, isn't it?"
Is he serious? she wondered.
"I must have died. And gone to…..that place. That's why you're here…...as a constant reminder...so I'll never forget what I was."
Hermione stared at him blankly for a second. Then she averted her eyes so he wouldn't see them twinkling. She wanted to laugh but controlled herself. Just barely. "So, am I being punished, too?"
Draco reddened when he noticed her futile attempts to smother a grin. Grumbling, he mumbled, "Forget I said anything."
"Rather hard to forget that, Malfoy."
Draco narrowed his eyes at the merriment plainly showing on Hermione's face.
"I panicked, okay? Let it go, Granger."
"I just find it ironic that you would think you would end up in a muggle place of punishment."
Draco cheeks flushed an even deeper pink. "I said let it go….okay? Please, Granger."
It was his please that wiped the laughter off Hermione's face. Eyeing him contemplatively, she held out her hand. "Alright. Let's make a pact. No more unnecessary teasing of the other."
"Is there a necessary kind I don't know about?" he countered.
Hermione rolled her eyes, but kept her hand outstretched. "Shall we shake on it?"
Draco stared down at her palm. Hermione studied him. What was he thinking? He lifted one of his hands above hers. Hermione sucked in a breath. He looked like he was debating whether to take her hand with his own. But the moment passed. He lowered his arm. Giving her a half-hearted imitation of one of his former sneers, he grunted, "A wizard's word should be good enough for a mud….muggle-born."
Hermione wasn't fooled by his near slip. Despite the slur that almost escaped his lips, she knew she'd seen a crack in his wall. First at the Manor. And now here. Draco Malfoy wasn't all he pretended to be. She took a chance. "Maybe I don't know what's good for me. Maybe you don't either."
He eyed her warily. "What are you saying?"
"Just…..we're by ourselves. There's no reason for us to fight. All we have right now is each other."
"I would get stuck with you," he muttered.
"Would you rather I be Ron?"
"I would rather this hadn't happened at all."
"So would I, but feeling sorry for ourselves isn't going to help us. What we need is a strategy to get out of here."
Draco snorted. "Brilliant deduction, Granger. Ten points to Gryffindor for stating the obvious."
"Could you be a little nicer?"
"I don't know," he drawled. "Could you be less of a swot?"
Hermione had a few weaknesses; having one of her strengths being twisted into an object of ridicule was one of them. She couldn't stop her reaction; she angrily crossed her arms while giving her foot a stomp, much like the way she'd done when they'd been first years. Draco chuckled. It was the happiest he'd been in quite some time. He forgotten how much fun it was to wind up the witch.
As she watched her former bully laugh at her reaction, the wrath that had risen in her heart fell to the wayside. Suddenly, she felt tired. Anger took too much energy to maintain. She'd not risked life and limb to find herself back where she'd been before all this started.
Taking a deep breath, Hermione reminded herself she was no longer a child. She was a battle-hardened witch now, and it should take more than a few jibes to get her blood boiling. Giving Draco a look of sad disappointment, she began to make her way toward where the Forbidden Forest would have been had they been back in their reality.
Her contrary companion didn't like that. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "But anywhere is better than just standing here doing nothing."
He quickly caught up with her. "This is utter madness. How you Gryffindors stay alive is a mystery. Striking out, having no…"
"Strategy? Is that what you were going to say?" asked Hermione sweetly, although her eyes showed a steely mettle. "I was under the assumption you didn't want to talk about that. So, fine. I made up my own plan."
"May I ask what it is?"
Hermione was surprised at the lack of venom in Draco's question. Maybe he realized he was tired, too. Too tired to continue the childish patterns they'd set for themselves so long ago.
"Well, like I said earlier, it looks like we're the only two humans here," she began. Draco caught himself before he started tapping his foot with impatience but couldn't quite contain the eye roll. "However, other sentient creatures may exist in this place. Creatures who could answer our questions."
"Oh, really. What kind of creature would do that?"
She looked at him, exasperated. "Well, like centaurs or, I don't know…."
"Vampires? Werewolves? Hate to break it to you, Sweetheart, but all they would do is kill us if given a chance. They hate our kind. Sorry, but your plan sucks, Granger."
"Can you think of a better one?"
Draco huffed, but shook his head. "No."
There was no more discussion after that. For a few minutes the only other sounds were their feet scuffling along a gloomy forest path. It was the soft quiet of growing despair. A few times Hermione had to catch herself from grabbing Draco's hand like she would have Harry's or Ron's. When his shoulder accidentally rubbed against hers, it was all Draco could do not to sling his arm around her petite form. The two teenagers were not friends; but here, in this place, they were not enemies, either. As Hermione had so succinctly pointed out, they were all the other had. After walking for what felt like hours in the silent woods, the sound of a horse's neigh shattered the gloom. Hermione jumped in fright while Draco swore. Soon after came other noises; Draco could have sworn he heard the pattering of tiny feet beside them. Hermione thought she heard the rustling of tree limbs. Before long, they came to a clearing. What they saw made them gasp. In front of them stood a huge arch of sorts, made of stone that looked like it had been taken from the oldest pyramids of Egypt. Runes too ancient for Hermione to decipher ran down its sides. Wild violets and petunias nestled around the base of the arch. But it was what was in its middle that caught their attention. Waves of what looked like the clearest water were on their side. Through the water they could just make out a distorted picture of Hogwarts in battle.
Looking just as it did when they had been taken from it.