Hermione had a good life. She had friends, more than she knew what to do with. Hell, she even had fans and a fanclub with official badges. Being a war heroine would do that to you. She a cosy little home where she felt safe and a dream job that took up most of her time. Nothing could have been better, she could think of nothing she could want or need to make her life more perfect at that point.
And then, she died.
Of course, she did. Harry had been right all along. Life was a bitch and she had just been waiting for the most inopportune time to slap her silly. Hermione would be miserable... if she wasn't dead. No, she would be raging at the injustice and… breaking… She wanted to break something. Destroy something whole and make it as shattered as she felt.
But there was nothing here. Just… darkness. Harry had told her of being at King's Cross station when he'd died. But here, there was nothing. Why? Because she wasn't special? Because she wasn't a child of prophecy that even the stars spoke of? Or so the Centaurs claimed. So what? She would just err into nothingness for all eternity. If she had known this is what death was all about… Well, she couldn't believe she was even thinking it, but maybe Voldemort had been right about fearing death after all.
"He did not so much fear death as loath it," a voice whispered in her ear.
She tried turning around, her eyes wide. Only, everything was so dark, she couldn't differentiate top from bottom, left from right.
"But he went about it all wrong," came the voice again, from right in front of her this time.
Hermione extended a hand forward but there was nothing there. Nothing she could touch or see. Nothingness was reading her thoughts, whispering to her in riddles and playing hide and seek. Being dead just got even more annoying. She crossed her arms over her chest and huffed.
"Please forgive me," the voice said again and a blue light shimmered into view. "I so rarely get visitors, I forget my manners."
The light brightened, becoming more white than blue now, and Hermione took a step back at the vision standing in front of her, although, seeing as she had just died… well, she should have expected it, really.
"Indeed. I am Death," said the shrouded skeleton facing her. "Hello," it added unnecessarily with a rattling wave of its bony fingers.
Hermione would have preferred to pass out. Just swoon, black out and when she would have woken up again, everything would be back to normal and she wouldn't have to deal with… this. But to faint, you apparently needed a pulse, which she most certainly lacked, so she was left with only one option.
"Hello?" she replied, cursing herself for sounding so pathetic.
She'd wanted to say that like she was strong and brave, like the Gryffindor she was. Instead, she'd sounded like a scared little girl.
"Not so, not so," Death said, reading her mind once more, which was starting to run her the wrong way. Death was apparently not up to date on the notion of either private space or violation of privacy. "You're holding up admirably well. I knew you would. That is why I chose you."
"Chose me?" Hermione muttered. "Is that why I died?"
Death laughed, or she supposed it was laughter, but the sound was rather drowned out by the rattling of its bones as it shook from head to foot.
"No, foolish child. I do not kill. I am but a collector. You killed yourself."
"I did not such thing," she protested in outrage.
"You were experimenting with a dangerous mechanism which resulted in an explosion that killed you, ergo, you killed yourself."
"You… You make it sound like it was suicide. It was an accident. A stupid accident!" she exclaimed burying her head in her hands.
Merlin! She couldn't believe she had survived a war only to die doing her everyday job at the Ministry. It was so unfair.
"Yes, most young souls like you feel I come too early."
"So what now?" she asked bitterly. "I move on to the 'next great adventure'? Is that it?"
"You could," Death answered, waving his bony hand in the air and clutching the gigantic scythe that appeared there. "Most do."
Hermione looked warily at the very sharp blade that curved a bit too close to her neck. She knew she was dead but Death must have a reason for having summoned it. Did he need to literally reap her soul then? And would that
"Does that mean I have another option?" she asked, as suspicious as she was hopeful.
"I could be persuaded to offer you an alternative."
"Well, go on then. I'm listening."
Hermione was expecting something horrendous, that she could not agree with. Maybe this was just a way Death had to amuse itself: tease the dead, dangle hope in front of them only to realize it is not something attainable at all, unless you agreed to sell your soul. Maybe this was a test, to judge whether the souls were worthy or not to go on the next great adventure. Either way, there wouldn't be another option. Just deceit. But she listened carefully to Death's offer.
"I need a mortal to accomplish a mission for me in the world of the living," it explained. "Someone with integrity, courage and intelligence, yet who is powerful enough to overcome the challenges along the way. But also someone who knows the objects I seek. This, you understand, considerably reduced my potential candidates to next to nill. I have been waiting on you, Hermione Jean Granger."
Hermione's eyes widened at that. Death wanted her to seek his Deathly Hallows?
"But I can't… Harry destroyed the Elder wand, he threw away the stone and he'll never part with the cloak. I can't take it away from him by force and I won't steal it from under his nose. It's all he has left of his father."
She knew it. Death had just been toying with her.
"Foolish mortal. Do you think you can destroy or lose one of my hallows. They will be found and whole again, and morals will continue to toy with them. I cannot allow this moquerie to continue."
"So what do you propose?"
"You know of the artefacts' history, of where to find them and who owns them. I will send you back to the world of the living to a time most appropriate for you to retrieve them. You will not need to steal the cloak from your… friend. You need only gather them and bring them back to me, then I will send you back where you belong."
"To where I belong? Could you be any more vague? I'm not falling for that."
Death grinned, or she supposed it was because it always looked to be grinning but there was something about its posture that made it look like it was happy.
"This is why I chose you. Your mind is sharp, mortal, more than most. I will bring you back to just after the moment of your departure and you can stay amongst the living after that, I will not disturb you again until you meet the natural end of your life, that is, if you accomplish the mission. Do you think yourself capable?"
Hermione was sure she could pull it off. Not that she wanted to boast or anything, but she was smart and powerful, and she had the necessary knowledge about the Deathly Hallows. Yes, she could do it. But was it worth it? She would get her life back and die of old age with her friends and family according to Death. It was worth it. The Hallows had not brought about much happiness. The cloak hadn't even been that vital during the war, they could have used concealment charms or another "normal" invisibility cloak, if absolutely necessary. Yes, they could have done without. Harry would just have to suck it up. Surely, he'd choose her over his stupid cloak if the choice came to that? Wouldn't he? He'd understand.
"So I find your Hallows, return them to you and you let me go back? It's that simple."
Death nodded, his neck giving an alarming creak. Hermione thought it over, of where she would need to go, what she would need to do.
"Can I use your Hallows? While I'm still on the mission? They might come in handy, especially the cloak."
Death seemed to ponder this since his reply did not come out as quickly as usual.
"You may, but only one at a time. I will not have you become the Master of Death by accident or treachery. That title will die at the close of your mission." Death hissed, raising one finger in warning. "I will be watching you, little mortal. If you try to deceive me, you will regret not having let go of your grip on life sooner."
Okay, that seemed fair enough. She wouldn't be using the stone anyway, and she could juggle between the wand and the cloak if she really needed to, although she'd rather avoid using the wand altogether because of its miserable past. She didn't want to become known as the latest owner of the Elder Wand to be found in a pool of blood.
"All right. I accept," she declared, with a sharp nod of her head.
No sooner had the words left her mouth that she felt the ground give way under her while her body became heavier, more real than what it had felt like during her discussion with the grim reaper and before she knew it, she landed hard in a pack of snow with a dull thud.
Hermione let out a small cry of surprise. Merlin's beard! Hermione took in her surroundings as she got other feet, coughed up snow and brushed the mess off her robes, but there was only trees and snow as far as her eyes could see. And it was freezing! Like winter in Scotland freezing. She was wearing what she had at the time of her death… her temporary death, she reminded herself, meaning just her Unspeakable robes, that, despite their thickness and length were far from enough to keep the cold at bay. Not to mention highly impractical to move about in the snow, she soon discovered as more and more clues of snow clung to the brim of her shirts to hitch a ride. She took the time to transfigure her attire into something more adequate for the weather: a tight white leather ensemble with high boots that made walking around easier but kept her camouflaged, and a large hood with a thick scarf to keep her warm. Transfiguration being what it was, she would have to find real clothes at some point but it would have to do. One warming charm later and she was ready to rant.
"Death! Why the hell have you sent me in the middle of nowhere? You haven't even told me which Hallow I'm supposed to look for! Death?!"
She knew she was screaming to the sky like a lunatic but right then, she couldn't care less. She felt like he was mocking her, but why would he want to make her mission more difficult. If anyone wanted to get their hands on the Deathly Hallows, it was Death himself. They were a constant reminder to him that he had been outwitted by mere mortals.
"All right, don't answer. See if I care," she muttered after a while.
Hermione stomped the ground in annoyance. The problem was that she had no idea of where she was. She wasn't even sure if she was in England, or even anywhere in Europe. She could be in China for all she knew. Maybe Death could not choose where he'd sent her… No, that would be ridiculous. The chances she would have landed in the middle of the ocean would have been far too great if that had been the case. So, he knew exactly where he'd sent her and was indeed having a bit of fun after expense.
"And thanks for the head's up, you git" she added, thinking of her clumsy landing in the cold snow.
Did that mean there was a Hallow nearby? She'd just have to explore the muggle way until she had at least a little more information. She followed a direction at random, or more or less at random. She wanted to get out of this forest, it was dark and unnaturally silent. She'd came long enough in various forest during the war to know forests were never silent. She found it creepy, which was saying a lot since she had just met Death. She went in the direction where the trees appeared to thin out a bit in the distance, towards the light. O, the irony. Walking in the snow was exhausting and she had no experience with it. Didn't people walk with rackets? No, that sounded ridiculous, even to her, so she just plowed on ahead and cried out in joy when she found a road. A real man-made road! A dirt road, admittedly, but it meant there was civilization nearby. However, she once more had to choose a direction at random, and what were the chances she'd get it right twice in a row. This was definitely not the way she liked to do things: groping around in the dark, leaving everything to chance, but she kept on walking. What choice did she have with Death being such an unhelpful handler. The sooner she accomplished her mission, the sooner she'd be home. A half hour later or so, she heard a rumbling, a voice, many voices, laughing, some singing… Puzzled, she waited in the middle of the road, she could always pass off as a muggle after all. However, she was not prepared for the sight that greeted her. Not at all: soldiers, tanks, guns… muggles, all of them, but they all looked so… old fashioned, especially those uniforms. As if… her eyes widened. It was like the movies she'd watched with her parents about historical films set during World War two but… that would mean she was in the 40s.
Please let it be after the war. Damn you, Death! I've seen enough war as it is. And why now? Damnit, that probably meant she was not in England either. She tried recalling her history lessons but she could be anywhere in Europe as far as she was concerned. On the right side of the enemy lines though, because that man at the front was wearing a costume that was without a doubt inspired by the american flag with the stars and stripes.
"Don't move!" the man on question shouted while his companions aimed their weapons at her.
Hermione froze. Even if she'd been willing to show her magic to muggles, she couldn't very well take on a full battalion of soldiers alone while avoiding being shot at. But she couldn't disapparate discreetly either because she knew no location close enough to disapparate to. Not to mention, these were the 'good guys', she didn't want to hurt any of them... But she was still far enough away that she could run. She wasn't a great athlete by any stretch of the imagination but she had enough distance between her and these men that she could run and hide somewhere. Thank Merlin she'd thought of turning her clothes into a colour that could easily blend in.
Without further hesitation, she spun around and ran, clinging to her hood in her mad dash up the road. She'd put some distance between them and then go off at a tangent into the woods further up. She heard shouting and cheering behind her but only had time to think of how strange that was before she was pinned to the ground, as if a buffalo had charged then landed on her. Flitwick had always warned them against that, but she'd never thought it would actually happen.
Stunned she was pulled up to her feet and her hood was wrenched back with enough force that the seams ripped. It was the man with the stars and stripes costume. He was staring at her as much as she was him. In fact he seemed just as surprised as she was. How in the world could he have caught up to her? That was impossible… he'd been so far back. Was he a wizard? Had he apparated? No, she would have heard that.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
He had an American accent, she'd guessed that right, at least. But what was she supposed to answer? Oh, I'm just a Brit taking a stroll on the lovely frontlines somewhere in Europe. Would you be so kind as to give me the current date and location? That was not going to go over well.
"Qui êtes vous?" he tried in French this time.
She'd remain silent for now and escape as soon as an opportunity presented itself. And she had to do that without using magic to avoid the intervention of magical authorities. She had no idea how they'd handle someone who didn't even exist in times of war and they didn't take kindly during that period to witches and wizards meddling in the affairs of muggles.
"Wo bist du?" he asked, more uncertain this time and she thought it might be German.
Out of options, she raised her hands. That's what you did to surrender, right? He scowled at her lack of answer but seemed to accept her capitulation and after a slight hesitation and a mumbled "Sorry Ma'am.", he checked her for weapons, taking out her wand with raised eyebrows. He pocketed it instead of throwing it away, for which she was grateful, then kept a strong grip on her arm on their march back towards the troop of soldiers. There wasn't far to go since they'd continued their march forward, which was for the best because the man in the costume was unbelievably tall and she'd had trouble keeping up with his long strides, even more so because she had to do so on tiptoes given his grip on her. It was as if he didn't realize their size difference, or maybe he didn't care.
"Only you would find a bird in the middle of a battlefield, Steve," a man teased.
He looked sickly, his skin clammy and his eyes bright. Hermione itched to cast a healing spell at him. She'd done it so many times to her boys when they'd been on the run during the war, the wizarding war that is, that it had become a reflex.
"Is she with Hydra, Captain?" another soldier with a big moustache asked. He was tall and muscular too, but in a normal human way, not like the one who still had a vice grip on her arm. Captain Steve from what she'd gathered.
"She won't talk," the Captain answered. "Maybe she's just lost and we scared her. Get her up on the tank."
He let go of her arm and she fell back on the balls of her feet with a sigh of relief then rubbed her arm to get some feeling back into it. The Captain looked down at her, puzzled at first, before a blush colored his ears, as if he had forgotten about his own height and strength.
"Mademoiselle," another soldier said with a slight bow as he offered his hand. "If you would kindly follow."
Hermione ignored his hand and walked past him, going straight for the tank behind them, but she was quickly caught up by two of the soldiers and her dramatic exit was somewhat spoiled when she stood at the feet of the tank, craning her neck to look for a handhold to help her climb up. The Frenchman smirked and jumped on top, using a handle that was too far up for her to reach and offered his hand once more to help her up. She scowled at his smug face but took his hand and was heaved on top of the metal beast. The other man was British, she recognized that much from his uniform and red beret, and sat beside, snapping a pair of handcuffs over her wrists without a word.
"Is zat really necessary?" the Frenchman asked. "She's just a woman."
The red beret rolled his eyes and made himself as comfortable as possible for a kip. How he could even think of sleeping on a tank when it was so loud she could hardly hear the rest of the men walking around them, she didn't know. She looked up front, her eyes naturally falling on the captain who had captured her. He stood out like a sore thumb both because of his height and flashy costume. She realized he even carried a shield, a tacky one at that, which seemed really strange because shields had fallen out of fashion since medieval times.
All too soon, they arrived at a camp, and the hundreds of men that walked behind her seemed very little in comparison to the sprawling base in front of her. Their procession was being applauded so she surmised they'd come back victorious from some battle. They looked happy, all of them, despite the cold and difficult living conditions out here in the open. Hermione, however shrank back, it was going to be much more difficult to escape than she had first surmised and she flinched when she caught red beret's sharp look. Very difficult indeed.
The Frenchman pulled her up gently and looked over the edge of the tank.
"Very clever, James," he said mockingly, nodding at her handcuffs. "And how do we get her down with zat."
"Throw her down, I'll take her straight to Colonel Phillips," someone shouted from the side.
Throw her down? What was she? A sack of potatoes? Hermione stiffened when she looked over the oversized vehicle. She'd never liked heights. Riding a dragon hadn't cured her of that, on the contrary.
"You sure, Cap'?" the Frenchman asked, looking over the side, as reticent as she was.
Without warning, the red beret pushed her forward and she lost her balance, a cry escaping her. Her eyes had closed of their own accord but she opened them upon the lack of falling or hurting.
"All right, there?" the Captain asked and she did nod this time, if only because she was grateful he had caught her.
He tugged her by the arm towards a bigger tent, central command probably, but his grip was more lax and his strides smaller this time, which meant she could at least walk with dignity instead of being pulled along like a rag doll. The captain stopped in front of an older man and saluted sharply. This had to be Colonel Phillips.
"I've come to surrender myself to disciplinary action," said the Captain.
Not what she'd been expecting to hear. Hermione wondered what he could have done to warrant disciplinary action and looked at him like he was an idiot for asking for it himself. Whoever heard of anyone asking for punishment. Except Hufflepuffs. Maybe he was a Hufflepuff.
"That won't be necessary, Captain," the colonel answered and looked quizzically at her and her handcuffs. "Prisoner? Hydra?"
"I wouldn't know, sir. She's not being very cooperative. Found her alone fifteen miles down the road."
"Are you sure she's not one of your dancers who got lost wandering off?"
"For fifteen miles, sir? And no, I would have recognized her if she was. Besides, she's a bit on the short side to be one of the girls."
Hermione scowled at that. She couldn't help it if she was so tiny. Blame genetics. She was as much a victim here.
"She seems to understand English well enough. She'll talk sooner or later. Jenkins!" he shouted, his voice surprisingly loud. A soldier stood to attention. "Take her to the cages with the others. You might have to shift them around a bit so she has her own, though."
"Yessir!" Jenkins replied and saluted before grabbing her arm and pulling her away.
Hermione wasn't about to make a scene. For one, it would be completely useless, plus, she might finally get a chance to be alone and apparate elsewhere. She shot an accusing look at the Captain who had captured her though. If he hadn't run so goddamn fast, she might already have a Hallow in her possession, but now she was at least fifteen miles off course from where Death had dropped her off. He did look a bit apologetic, but then his attention was captured by the pretty lady officer who's been present in the tent and had all but undressed him with her eyes while they were discussing her fate. She snorted because it was so very typical of men, then let Jenkins prod her forward through the camp like a misbehaving hippogryph.