The Gauntlet


Gauntlet: /gôntlit/

Noun

To go through an intimidating or dangerous crowd, place, or experience in order to reach a goal.


I


The first thing Hermione felt was a fierce but numbing pain spreading through her entire body. It inched its way painfully through every vein and limb, so intense and so thorough, she could have sworn the very strands of her hair reeled from it. In an attempt to release some of it, she tried to scream, only to find that she was unable to move her lips.

Or those aching, throbbing limbs.

Or open her eyes.

Panicking now, pupils darting frantically behind closed eyelids, Hermione became aware of muffled voices in the distance. But before she could try to distinguish them, fatigue crept its way up alongside the pain, seeping into her very bones.

No! Hermione tried to fight it, tried to focus on the voices that became less and less distinct as each second passed. But she was so tired and it was just so much easier to…

to…

…..

When Hermione next returned to consciousness, the light behind her eyelids were a lot brighter. Her mouth felt like her tongue had been used to grate cheese and that woodpecker knocking against the inside of her skull was still hammering away.

But at least the mind-numbing ache in her limbs was gone, leaving behind only fatigue. Fatigue Hermione could deal with, so she was grateful for at least that respite. However, not wanting to push her luck just yet, she didn't try to move anything, choosing instead to take in as much as she could – still blind - from her surroundings.

She didn't know how long she'd been out (though she assumed it was enough time for the pain to go away), but the voices from earlier were slightly more distinct. If shestrained hard enough, she could actually –

"This is ridiculous," a man drawled, a ring of concern in his voice. "It's been two weeks and she still hasn't woken up. Enough is enough. We're having her transferred." There was barely a moment before another voice spoke.

"Over our dead bodies! Tell him, Harry! Hermione is staying here and that's final."

St. Mungo's? Well, that would explain a lot. Hermione had noticed the unmistakeable 'hospital' smell of sickness and bleach earlier, but, for whatever reason, had thought she was back in the medical ward at Hogwarts. Which, looking back, was a little strange considering she hadn't been a student there in almost six years.

"We gave you a chance, Weasley." The first man's voice returned. "Time's up." At that moment, Hermione heard the sound of a door swinging open, followed by hurried footsteps.

"Fuck you, M-"

"There is no need for that, Weezley." Hermione stiffened at the strong, recognisable Bulgarian accent. "You can haff one more day – then ve vill be moving her." Viktor? What was he doing there? And who had given him the authority to move her anywhere?

Irritated at her boys' behaviour, Viktor's unexplained involvement, the as-of-yet unidentified man's ridiculous suggestion (Hermione didn't even feel like getting up to go thetoilet, let alone put up with a transfer, presumably to another hospital) and her still pounding head, Hermione opened her eyes for the first time in a fortnight.

Squinting as the reflection of the room's white walls almost blinded her, Hermione took in the open windows and the two wide beige sofas on either side (the room's only furniture aside from her bed – the only one in the room), before her eyes came to rest on the four men standing in the middle of the room.

Harry Potter stood slightly apart from the others, a look of slight irritation marring his handsome features, green eyes glittering dangerously. Slightly in front of him was her other best friend, Ron Weasley, whose hands were clenched tightly at his sides, knuckles white. Her Bulgarian ex, tall, lean and broodily good-looking with a swarthy complexion, full lips and dark eyes, was eyeing the hot tempered redhead warily.

When Hermione's gaze switched to the silent man beside him, however, she froze. How could she have not recognised one of the most distinctive voices in wizarding Britain? Someone who had tormented her (and numerous others) throughout her Hogwarts' years? What the hell was Draco Malfoy, continued bane of her existence, doing in her hospital room?

Finely carved aristocratic features graced a pale, chiselled face, topped by a full head of almost-silver hair. Broad shoulders, a wide chest, tapered waist and strong legs followed, all encased in a shirt and a pair of muggle jeans. Frowning at that, Hermione's eyes returned to the other three men – all of whom had yet to notice that she had returned to the land of the living.

She cleared her throat, loudly, noticing that it still felt like used sandpaper. At the sudden noise, all four turned, startled. Seeing the former Gryffindor wide awake and alert, there was a brief scuffle as they fought to her bedside; each clearly wanting to be first.

Confused at Viktor and Malfoy's behaviour, Hermione inched herself higher onto the cushy pillows behind her as the two men won out and hurried to her side.

"Mila." Viktor's usually grave eyes were alight with what looked like relief as he seized her hand. "You are awake!"

"Er, yes." Hermione's confused gaze switched between him and Draco's widely smiling face.

"So, you decided to return from the Land of the Living Dead?" The former Slytherin quipped. Hermione's eyes narrowed in confusion. A muggle phrase? Malfoy?

But before she could ask him about where he had learnt it (Heaven forbid a Malfoy ever associated with muggles), Harry and Ron pushed their way past the other two men and seized her, forcefully.

"Hermione!" Ron's freckled face was stretched into a happy grin. "Oh, it's so good to see you!" Hermione's face was smushed against his broad shoulder, even as she raised a tired hand to pat his back, comfortingly. Harry's strong arms were clasped around her middle.

"It's good to see you guys, too." Hermione's voice was croaky; her throat still scratchy and painful, but her boys' enthusiasm seeped into her like rain into parched earth. After a moment of comfortingly familiar connection, they finally released her, with Ron holding her at arms' length to inspect her thoroughly. "I'm fine, Ron," she reassured him, a smile coming to her lips at his predictability.

"Uh huh. Well you can't blame us for being concerned. You've been out for two whole weeks," Ron continued, gaze clouding over with anxiety.

"I heard," Hermione answered, her attention returning to Viktor and Malfoy who stood at the foot of her bed, the latter's hands resting on her duvet-covered feet. Frowning, she retracted them, slightly, causing the blond's eyes to flicker up to her face.

"Viktor, I don't mean to be rude, but what are you doing here?" Hermione asked, eyeing the tall silent man whose eyes seemed unable to move from her face.

"Vhere else vould I be?" Viktor looked puzzled. Not quite sure how to answer that, Hermione turned to Malfoy.

"And what are you doing here, Malfoy?" Her tone was laced with irritation, both at the woodpecker's persistence and the current confusing state of affairs. There was a brief inexplicable pause during which she felt Harry and Ron shift beside her and the blond looked taken aback and, oddly, hurt.

"What's going on, Granger?" he asked, uncharacteristically carefully. His silver eyes rested on Hermione, a peculiar light in their depths.

"I think I should be the one asking that." For some unknown reason, Hermione's heart was pounding. "Shouldn't you be at work, Viktor? And, Malfoy, don't you havesome other poor soul to torment?" Her tone was half teasing, but Malfoy's strange expression didn't change, while Viktor continued on with his habitual frown. There was another odd silence.

"What's going on?" Heart climbing into her throat, Hermione quickly turned back to Harry and Ron. "Am I – am I dying?"

"What? No!" Harry rushed to reassure her as Ron looked down at the brunette, understandably confused. Well, join the club, Ron, we've got Jackets, Hermione thought.

"Then what are these two doing here?" Hermione asked, her attention once more on the two silent men at the foot of her bed. Could they blame her for asking suchquestions? Sure, she and Viktor were friends and had become closer since he moved to England a few years ago, but to lay down the law about her being potentially transferred? And just what was Malfoy doing there? While it was true that their relationship had improved in the years since they'd been working together at the Ministry (though, they couldn't possibly have gotten any worse), he was hardly the type to visit anyone in hospital - particularly someone he claimed he could still barely stand most days.

Hermione wanted answers and she wanted them now.

"What do you think they're doing here, Hermione?" Harry asked, tiredly. "They're hardly here to paint the walls; though, they've been doing a great job of climbing them."

"I – what are you talking about, Harry?"

"Oh, no, Hermione. Dating them was all your idea; it's a little late to ask for our opinion now." Ron interrupted, sniggering nastily. Hermione's heart stopped. A distinct ringing started up in her ear, drowning out Ron's next words. What had he just said?

The ringing suddenly stopped, sending its best friend, silence, screaming into her ears. A brief pause then peals of laughter replaced it. It took the four men's surprise for Hermione to realise that she was the one cackling like a witch of yore.

She laughed till her stomach hurt, till gasps were escaping her in an attempt to take in more air. Till tears streamed down her cheeks.

And not once during her semi-breakdown did Malfoy or Viktor's expressions join in, as she would have expected had she been slightly less distracted. In fact, if anything, Malfoy's face turned to stone, grey eyes glittering, while Viktor's dark brows remained hooded over his eyes.

It took several more moments for her to calm down, her hands coming up to wipe trails of moisture from her cheeks.

"Oh, I needed that." Hermione hiccupped, still breathless. "Okay, you two can come out, now." Harry and Ron looked at each other, confused.

"Who are you talking to, 'Mione?" Ron asked, bringing a hand up to her forehead. "Are you sure you're okay?" Hermione brushed away his clammy fingers.

"I'm fine and I'm talking to your awful brothers." She glanced around for any sign of disturbance. "Come on out, Fred and George!" There was another silence. By this point, Hermione was getting tired of these prolonged silences.

"Where are they? This was a good one; I have to admit. It goes up there with their best. So, have them come on out so they can claim their glory and we can all move on with our day."

"Er, Hermione," Harry started. "What are you talking about?" The brunette rolled her eyes.

"This whole 'Hermione-dating-Viktor-and-Malfoy' thing." She explained, long-suffering. "They're obviously the ones who cooked the whole thing up. It's not exactly something you two would come up with and I seriously doubt Malfoy would have okayed this, so it stands to reason that the infamous twins are to blame." Another pause. "Where are they?"

There was still no sign of the twin proprietors and, for whatever reason, neither Malfoy nor Viktor had said a word for over five minutes. She turned back to them now, puzzled. Surely, these two would have reason to be annoyed at the twins' escapades. She highly doubted either one wanted to be connected with her in any romantic sense; Viktor already having a steady girlfriend and Malfoy being, well, Malfoy.

"Hermione, honey, this isn't a joke." Harry laughed a little, clearly stumped. "Are you sure you're feeling okay?"

"Yes, I'm 'sure' I'm feeling okay, Harry." Hermione was irritated, glaring at the green-eyed man beside her. "This has gone on long enough. Get the twins in here, now." Her heart picked up speed once more and all the moisture in her mouth dried up. Because there was no way this could be anything but a joke.

Absolutely no way.

"Hermione, you do remember that you are ours, no?" Viktor spoke up for the first time in what seemed like an age, his gaze serious. Hermione's heart chose that moment to skip several beats.

"This isn't funny, Viktor." Hermione's voice was quiet. "The boys and Malfoy are one thing, but I would have expected more from you." She ignored Malfoy's clearly feigned look of offence. Viktor fell into silence once more, his dark eyes boring into her.

"Trying to back out, now, Granger?" Malfoy sneered, grey eyes glittering. "Too fucking late." Hermione opened her mouth to retort, only to be cut off by Harry's next, soul-shattering statement.

"Hermione, you've been living with Viktor and Malfoy for over six months, now," Harry spoke slowly and clearly as Hermione stared back at him, sickened. Wait… what? Viktor and Malfoy? Both of them?

So, she'd become a brazen hussy and she had absolutely no memory of it? No way, Hermione reassured herself. No matter what had landed her in this hospital bed; no matter how long she had gone without getting laid (eight months and sixteen days, but who was counting?), she would never have slept with two men, let alone have carried on a relationship with them.

Clearly, this lot didn't know when a joke would no longer be taken as that.

"Harry, this is no longer funny," Hermione started, voice trembling and brown eyes stark. "I'm lying in a hospital bed; I just woke up after two weeks and the first thing you lot think to do is pull a stunt like this?" Her voice broke as a wave of hurt washed over her, pulling her under.

"But, 'Mione-"

"No!" Hermione almost shouted, using her little strength to push herself up from the pillows and glare at the four, clearly suicidal idiots standing before her. "I'm tired and I want you to leave." Harry and Ron rushed to convince her to change her mind, while Malfoy gaze remained fixed on her pale face and Viktor's eyes darkened even further. But Hermione wasn't having any of it. The woodpecker was refusing to pack his bags and make a welcome exit and fatigue was oozing into her limbs once more. There was only so much she could be expected to take before snapping.

Viktor took a hesitant step forward.

"Mila, surely you are rash in-"

"I said, leave!" Hermione snapped, eyes flashing, dangerously. There was a shocked pause in which all four stared at her, taken aback. But Hermione fiercely fought her fatigue and remained firm. When it became clear that the brunette was serious, Harry and Ron moved to hug her, only to be rebuffed by stiff shoulders and a cold glare. The two former Gryffindors quickly exited the room, tails between their legs. Hermione turned her attention to the silent men who had inched their way to the left side of her bed. Viktor stood in his usual way, hands clasped behind his back (something he did to hide his characteristic – yet well hidden – nervousness) and Malfoy continued to glare right back at the curly-haired woman lying on the bed.

"That means you, too," Hermione said, coldly. A stillness went over both men before Malfoy's eyes flashed once, almost in warning. Instinctively, against her will, Hermione drew back against her pillows and, seeing this, Draco froze, silver turning to dark grey and full lips thinning, before he turned to leave. With a final look of bewildered confusion, Viktor followed in his stead, shutting the door quietly behind him.

A robin chirped once from outside Hermione's window before silence reigned in the room once more.


So... thoughts, feelings?

This story is going to be a very slow build. As you can see from the above, Hermione isn't going to be easy about this at all. The Gauntlet shall deal with every aspect of a trio relationship and will most likely have 25-30 chapters. Most of them will be longer than this one and updated on a weekly (or, occasionally, even a bi-weekly basis); though it will of course depend on what is explored in each and where I think it is best to leave off.

Anyway, I'm excited about this one. I'm looking forward to peeling back the layers behind each character and the relationship itself. There will also be a solid cast of supporting characters, who I hope you come to love and root for as much as the core three.

Hopefully, I've started this off well; giving you an insight into each character and their potential motivations as well as the reticence of our favourite brunette.

Regardless, let me know what you think. Even if it's just one word, it truly does encourage me to write more and update more frequently. They make me happier than a clam in Bikini Bottom.

Till next time...

TBOF