A/N: So sorry for the horrendous delay. Two words: Writer's block. For some odd reason, I found it incredibly hard to get something down on paper that I was happy with. But, I finally got something. So, I hope you like it. Thanks so much for your continued support. It means a lot to me! Oh, and PLEASE read and review. I thank all of you who have done so. I'm also so thankful for those who have put this story on alert or added it to your favorites, but I find it so much easier to continue with my work when I can hear your thoughts Thanks again, and enjoy.
Disclaimer: You all know that I don't own the characters. Wish I did, but the world's not perfect. Oh, and there's some language this chapter. Hopefully it doesn't offend. Onward.
How Do I Loathe Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.
Hermione heard the shout, but it hurt too much to open her eyes.
Her head was swimming and nausea flooded over her with each painful breath she took.
Cracking an eyelid, she grimaced as her head throbbed in protest.
She wanted to slip back into nothingness—wanted the comfort of unconsciousness to take away the pain, but just as she was once more slipping away, another one of Draco's angry shouts ripped her from her sanctuary.
She was still laying facedown—dirt crudely coating her lips and invading her mouth.
Lifting her head a fraction of an inch, she attempted to spit, but as lights exploded in front of her eyes she was only able to muster enough strength to have the spittle drip messily from her lips and trickle slowly down her chin to the dirt-covered floor.
Sighing dejectedly, she slowly lowered her head back to the floor. Unmoving, she lay there for a few minutes until she couldn't stand the smell of the ground invading her nose. So, gathering her strength, she took a deep breath and gently rolling herself over onto her back.
Instantly, her body screamed in pain and a new wave of sickness hit her like a ton of bricks.
With her eyes tightly closed, she focused on her breathing, and waited for the nausea to subside. Then, she slowly allowed her eyes to open. Staring upward, she saw the hole from which they had fallen. The imperfect circle of broken earth shone through the darkness, high above her head—like the Gods had taken a cookie cutter and removed a section of the midnight sky, allowing the light to break through.
But the sky looked different—darker . . . overcast—and it was obvious that the sun in the sky had changed position—
How long have I been unconscious?
—and, as an involuntary shiver rippled violently through her body, she was also suddenly aware that the wind had significantly picked up.
She felt disoriented.
Her head was swimming, and it hurt to think.
So instead, she merely lay there, staring blankly at where they had come from.
The uneven sphere—shining like a demonic halo—blurred in her vision. At times, it felt as if the light—their exit . . . their salvation—was mere inches above her head, and she had to resist the urge to reach her hand up to try and grab at the sun. Yet, at other times, it stretched and pulled—pushing to the outermost boundaries—until it appeared farther than humanly possible to obtain.
Staring upward, her mind began to drift. Breathing evenly, she felt exhausted—her eyes heavy with fatigue. She was in so much pain—mind, body, and soul—and it was becoming harder to focus on anything.
The light above her began to dance methodically in front of her eyes, and she stared at it, mesmerized. Trancelike, her eyes began to roll slightly.
If she could just shut her eyes for a brief moment . . . then the pain in her head would stop and she could think clearly.
Waves of tranquility started to wash over her, and she didn't fight them.
The light above her was no longer a reminder of something bad . . . instead, it was a comfort, and she watched it in fascination, silently asking it to take her away.
There was a sudden rustling sound to her right, and Hermione reluctantly tore her eyes from the dancing light. Slowly, she let her head fall to the side so she could see.
Draco was struggling to stand.
Already, Hermione had forgotten that he was with her.
He was almost 20 feet away, breathing in pain on his hands and knees. His cloak was dirty, a strip torn from his waist to the hem. The material dripped with liquid, and Hermione could make out the gathered moisture that he had unceremoniously landed in. His sleek, blonde hair was mussed, falling messily in his eyes. Dirt looked out of place streaked across his right cheek. And a line of dried blood trailed from his nostril to his lip, contrasting gruesomely against his porcelain skin.
It was almost dreamlike as, unmoving, Hermione watched Draco. Carefully, he moved his right foot from beneath his body and positioned it flat on the ground in front of him. Then, pressing his hand on his knee, he pushed himself up with pained effort.
After resting briefly, he attempted to take a step, but cried out in pain as soon as his left foot connected with the floor. Swearing loudly, he jerked his foot back as if the earth was scalding. The movement caused him to stumble, and he reached out blindly for something to steady himself. When his hand met nothing, he fell forward—hard—onto his hands and knees again. Lowering his head in anger, he released a primal scream inches above the dirt.
The sound reverberated loudly off the walls, and Hermione shrunk back in pain as her head throbbed between her temples.
Keeping her eyes squeezed shut she waited for the ache to retreat.
When she was finally able to open them again, she noted that Draco was once again on his feet, but was standing shakily, and bizarrely like a flamingo—with his left foot tucked up underneath his body to keep the weight off.
Hermione swallowed thickly, trying to moisten her tongue. "Are you alright?"
Her voice was soft and sounded weird in her head.
Draco jumped slightly at the sound and instantly jerked his head in her direction. As their eyes connected, a look of pure malice covered his face. "Do I bloody look alright?!"
Hermione shut her eyes in pain and breathed evenly through her nose. She could hear Draco struggling to move—swearing and mumbling under his breath.
Taking a deep breath, Hermione slowly pushed herself up onto her elbows. Her head was swimming, and she had to pause before continuing. Carefully—ignoring the pain—she sat up. It took all of her strength, and as soon as she was fully erect, she swayed dangerously. It took all of her effort to remain upright and not crumble back to the floor—even though that's what her body was screaming to do.
Draco stumbled once more—kicking rocks noisily across the floor—and hissed in pain.
Hermione opened his eyes just as he steadied himself. "Do you need help?"
"From you? Right." Draco scoffed and continued his shuffling movement forward.
"It's better than no help at all."
"You know, I wouldn't need any help at all if it weren't for you!"
Hermione's eyes widened. Suddenly, she forgot about the pain in her head as anger boiled through her veins. "Me?!"
Draco had somehow made it to a boulder and was now leaning his hand against it, resting from his exertions. "Yes, you." His words dripped with venom. "If you have acted like such a child by throwing that fucking rock . . ."
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "Oh, I acted like a child?! We shouldn't even be here in the first place. But, you're the one who just had to go your own way!"
"And you're the one who just wouldn't let me go!"
Hermione clenched her jaw. Angrily, she took a deep breath before speaking again. "You know what, Malfoy? I wish I would have let you go!"
"So do I! Then, I wouldn't be stuck down here with a goddamned Mudblood."
Draco was yelling and Hermione's head was beginning to pound again. Shutting her eyes, she turned her head away from him.
Taking a breath, she sighed heavily. "Malfoy, this is pointless . . . . Just shoot up red sparks and we can put this whole thing behind us."
Carefully, she cupped her forehead in her hand, trying to sooth the ache she felt between her temples. And it was only at that moment that she realized that her hair was wet—matted to her forehead. At first, she thought that she had landed in some sort of puddle as well, but as her thumb gently slipped over the liquid that originated from her hairline, she realized with sickening comprehension that it was far too sticky to be water.
She felt dizzy—nauseous. Carefully, she wiped at the side of her head before pulling her hand from her forehead.
Slowly, she turned her palm toward her body—positioning it in the quickly dimming sunlight—until she could see what covered it. In shock, she stared blankly at her hand, her heart beating wildly in her chest. And then her stomach twisted as she registered the thick, coagulated blood that painted her light skin red.
Hermione began to hyperventilate.
It looked so dark . . . and suddenly, the coppery smell of blood wafted up to her nose.
She choked back the bile that threatened up her throat.
She was dizzy . . . her vision beginning to blur.
Realization hit her abruptly like a ton of bricks and she although the sight of blood never bothered her before, she suddenly wasn't able to handle it. Panic welled up in her chest and frantically, she rubbed her hand across her cloak, her robes, her shirt . . . anything to wash away the blood on her hand.
She could feel blood slowly trickling down her cheek.
Bringing her arm up, she scrubbed her face against her bicep.
But, she could still feel it on her skin.
Hysterically, she began to wipe her hands over her face, trying to erase any signs of the offensive substance.
Finally, her frantic movements ceased, yet her hands remained glued tightly over her face. Panting, she slowly rocked back and forth, whimpering quietly.
"Did you hear me?" Draco sounded annoyed and very far away.
Hermione stopped rocking and slowly spread her fingers. Keeping her hands on her face, she stared at Draco through the cracks. "What?"
"I said: I can't find my wand. You'll have to do it."
Hermione's heart plummeted in her chest.
Suddenly, she found it very hard to breathe again as she sat frozen on the floor, her hands stuck to her face.
Seconds ticked by in silence.
Finally, Draco cleared his throat irritably. "Um . . . Earth to Granger. I didn't realize red sparks were too advanced for you."
"I don't have my wand either." She could hardly muster a whisper.
Draco pushed himself from his rock wall and raised an incredulous eyebrow at her. "What?"
Hermione's hands dropped lifelessly into her lap. "I lost it . . . when we fell."
"So, you mean to tell me . . . we're stuck down here . . ." Draco gestured wildly, "without our wands . . ."
Hermione nodded wordlessly.
Hermione jumped at Draco's sudden outburst and a burst of fear flowed through her.
Draco ignored her and continued his rant: "Oh yeah . . . this is great. This is just fucking GREAT! The sun is already setting. We have no food, no water, no shelter . . . and now, no way of making any . . . ."
He had started to pace. Well, he attempted to pace, but taking his injured foot into account, it was more like a limping shuffle.
Silently fuming, Draco ran an angry hand through his hair. "Oh, and let's not forget, nobody knows where we are!"
Hermione eyes narrowed as anger scorched through her once more. "And whose fault is that?"
Draco skidded to a halt, heat radiating from his silver eyes. "Do you really want to do this again?"
Hermione felt a flush rush to her cheeks and quickly averted his glare by looking down at the ground. "I'm just saying . . . we should have followed the map."
Draco growled low in his chest and Hermione cowered.
An uncomfortable silence filled the space.
With a sigh, Draco finally tore his eyes from her and slowly slid down the boulder and sat heavily on the floor. Cradling his head in his hands, he sat in silence.
Slowly, Hermione lifted her eyes. They fell upon his hunched frame, and silently she studied him. He looked small, young,—weak even—and it scared her. He was supposed to be the strong one . . . and if he couldn't be that now . . . .
She didn't want to think about it.
Hastily, she turned her eyes from him and froze when she finally took in their surroundings.
They were sitting in the center of a large cave-like hollow. It encompassed them like a sphere, almost closing above their heads, save the small hole that they fell through. Staring straight up, she tried to assess the distance. The small amount of sunlight seemed to originated around 100 feet above her head and, with a sudden sense of dread, she realized there was no humanly way of getting back up to it.
Tearing her eyes from the light source, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness before slowly taking in the rest of their surroundings. The cavern was approximately 50 feet wide and flat, vacant of everything except a scattering of random boulders—Hermione realized with sickening reality—they were both very lucky not to hit as they landed.
Looking to her right, she noticed a small, shallow puddle of condensed liquid. Shifting her eyes, she realized that nearly identical puddles were formed all over the floor. Reaching out, she dipped her fingers in the fluid and brought it to her lips. As soon as she tasted it, however, she spit it out in disgust. The water was tainted with the cave's bottom. It was dirty—undrinkable.
The sun had shifted in the sky once more, and it was quickly becoming increasing difficult to see. Squinting through the murkiness, Hermione noted darkened spots along the perimeter of their prison. Leaning forward, she stared in confusion, trying to make any sense of them.
"Malfoy?" Hermione's voice was hesitant.
Draco sat, unmoving, his head still in his hands.
Quietly, Hermione cleared her throat before speaking louder. "Um . . . Malfoy?"
"What?" His annoyed response was muffled from behind his fingers.
"What are those . . . over there?"
Draco peeled his hands from his face and glanced over to where she was looking. "How the hell should I know?"
Hermione shook her head. "No . . . I'm serious."
Gently, she stretched forward onto her hands and knees. Painfully, she crawled forward a few feet. "I think . . . are those tunnels?"
Draco rubbed at his temple tiredly. "So what if they are?"
"Well . . . don't you think we should check them out?"
Draco waved an absentminded hand. "Knock yourself out."
Hermione looked at him in surprise. "You're not coming?"
"But . . . why?"
Draco's mouth hardened. "What's the matter, Granger? Need me to hold your hand?"
Hermione glared at him. "No."
Hermione glowered in his direction, but bit her tongue.
Angrily, she rocked back onto her heels. Using her hands, she pushed off the ground and rolled up onto her feet. Her body screamed in pain, but she hardly felt it though the absolute contempt she felt for Draco. Taking a breath, she took a confident step forward.
Her head swam—the room blurring in front of her.
Dizzy, she stumbled, and reached out for anything to steady herself.
"Sure you don't need that hand?" Draco's voice was sarcastic.
Lifting her chin, Hermione gathered her strength and took a second step. "Piss off, Malfoy."
Focusing, she slowly made her way toward the darkened tunnels.
They were at most only 30 feet away, yet they seemed impossibly far away. But, there was no way she was stopping now—not with Draco watching her every movement.
So, struggling, she forced her feet to move—one in front of the other—until she was finally in front of two openings that were hardly taller than she was.
Her heart was fluttering against her ribcage as she turned her eyes first from one, then to the other.
In one final attempt, she turned back toward Draco.
He was still sitting on the ground, his hands draped lazily at the wrists over his raised knees, watching her.
"You're really not coming?" Hermione pressed her hands to her hips.
Draco sighed dramatically. "I really hate repeating myself . . ."
"I just don't understand why you—"
"Look, I'm not going okay?" Draco's voice rose angrily. "Besides, I don't need to go feeling my way down some dark, disgusting, probably rat-infested dead end."
Hermione's mouth went dry, but she forced her voice stayed strong. "And what makes you say that?"
"Because my father's coming."
Hermione snorted. "What makes you so confident?"
Draco's eyes darkened defensively. "Because he is. He's probably on his way already . . . so, just go."
Hermione clenched her jaw but didn't press the issue anymore. Turning, she studied the two entrances again.
Her eyes shifted from left to right, as she attempted to figure out which one was her better option. Finally, she decided on the left one and took a step.
"You do realize that you're wasting your time, though. Don't you?" Draco's nonchalant voice shattered the silence once more.
Hermione stopped mid-step and turned irritably. "And what makes you say that?"
"You have no wand." Draco glanced up toward the small opening of sky. "And the sun is almost gone. You won't be able to see enough to find anything . . . that is, if there even is anything to find."
Hermione shook her head. "You don't know that. If you help, we can search twice the area. And if we find even one of our wands, it won't matter that the sun is gone."
As the words spilled from her mouth, she felt weak as she realized that her anger was quickly being replaced with pleading.
"I already told you . . . I'm not moving until my father comes."
Draco pressed his knuckle gently beneath his nose and inspected it briefly before turning his icy glare back to her. "So I've been told."
Hermione felt angry tears pricking the corners of her eyes. Pulling back her shoulders, she took a confident step toward the left tunnel.
"You're not going to find anything." Draco's voice was hard, yet there was a hint of laughter—mockery—behind his words.
Hermione glared at him. "Oh, I will . . . and when I do, I'm not coming back."
"Am I supposed to be scared?"
Angrily, she pointed her finger toward him. "I'm not coming back."
"I can only be so lucky."
A single tear fell from Hermione's eye and she turned quickly before he could see it reflecting in the dimming light.
Without another thought, she turned and disappeared into the murkiness of the tunnel.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, she had to pause. It was darker in there—darker than she anticipated—and she had to wait for her eyes to adjust.
Patiently, she waited, but her eyes remained unfocused. Blindly, she stared into the obscurity until her head began to swim from the strain.
The adrenaline she had felt with Draco was quickly subsiding, and pain was quickly taking its place.
But, she was determined not to let Draco win.
She started forward—her hands stretched out in front of her—trying to feel her way down the depths of the tunnel.
Yet, her fingertips only hit air.
She was dizzy and felt sick.
Slowly, she moved deeper, her feet shuffling in front of her.
Bile rose in her throat and she had to fight it back down. Breathing heavily, she leaned on her knees. Rotating her head, she looked behind her. She could hardly make out the small opening that lead back to the cave—and Draco.
Torn, she looked to the darkness and then back toward the small hint of light.
She didn't want Draco to win, but this was suicidal. He was right. She couldn't see anything . . . and it wasn't going to get any better if she tried to move forward.
There was a greater chance that she would get lost . . . or hurt . . . or both before she found a way out.
Tomorrow was another day . . . with sunlight . . . and potentially with a wand.
Her head throbbed and she swayed dangerously.
There was only one option: She had to swallow her pride and make her way back toward the openness of the cave. It was the only way she would be able to survive through the night.
Decidedly, she turned and boldly walked toward the entrance.
Although the sun was setting quickly, Hermione still blinked in pain as she reentered the cave.
Draco looked up in surprise when he heard her feet shuffle across the ground.
Slowly, a victorious smirk crossed his face. "I thought you 'weren't coming back?'"
"Shut up, Malfoy."
"No, seriously . . . shouldn't you be back at the castle by now . . . wand in hand . . . letting me rot down here alone?"
Hermione passed him and crossed to the opposite side of the cave. Haughtily, she sat down on the ground and brought her knees up to her chest. "I hope you freeze."
Draco laughed. "Unlikely."
"Oh yeah. That's right. Someone whose heart is already made of ice can't possibly freeze."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'm done talking to you, Malfoy. So, why don't you do us both a favor and just go to sleep."
Hermione wanted to argue, but her head was beginning to pound again. And, although it felt like Draco was winning again, she had to admit that lying down sounded awfully good.
So, turning her back to Draco, she ignored his hostile glare and gingerly lowered herself to the ground. Wrapping her cloak tightly around her, she bent her arm under her head and attempted to get comfortable.
And as the final rays of sun disappeared from the sky, cloaking their prison in darkness, she finally closed her eyes and slipped silently into a painless oblivion.