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VVVVVVVVVVV

DRACO

I fell on my face. That blasted girl got in after me and slammed headlong into my back. My wand had been halfway into my hand—now it skittered away across the stone floor and into the blackness. I swore in French and then Italian as I scrambled back to my feet, wincing at the pain shooting down my knees and elbows. I could see nothing—not even my hand in front of my face.

"Brilliant, Granger!" I shouted, my voice echoing off of towering walls. "You made me let go of my wand!"

"Why did you have your wand out?" she gasped, stumbling around somewhere to my left.

"To kill you with it."

"What?" she yelped. "You were really going to—"

"Oh, get over it," I snarled. "I thought I might just need a freaking light!"

"Oh," she said tremulously, and then her voice grew firm. "Lumos!"

Nothing happened.

"Lumos!" she repeated.

"Give it to me," I held out my hand in the direction I thought she stood.

"No!" I heard her bump back against a wall. That confirmed it: the door was gone.

"Do you not even know how to use the stupid thing?" I took three steps toward her, cursing this pitch blackness, and my hand brushed her shoulder. I grabbed her arm hard. "Give me your wand!"

"Draco Malfoy, you let go of me—"

She thrashed against my grip, but she couldn't see either. I fought her flailing, trying not to get hit in the face, and slapped my other hand down on her wrist.

"No!" she yelped as I pushed her back against the wall.

"Stop acting like an infant and give me your wand!" I roared, just as I snatched it out of her right hand. I spun around, held it up and took a deep breath. "Lumos!"

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not even a spark. It was like I was holding a stick from one of the trees outside. I shook it.

"What is wrong with your wand?"

"Nothing is wrong with my wand!" Hermione panted, her voice breaking with rage. "Give it back to me!"

"Fine." I tossed it in her direction. It struck stone, then fell onto the floor and rolled.

"Where did it go? Draco, where did it go?" she gasped, scrabbling around on the stones with her hands. I didn't answer. My eyes kept widening trying to catch some little ray of light, some shadow or flicker of a candle. But there was nothing. And from the depth of the echoes made by our screaming match, this room was completely empty.

"I can't find it," Hermione cried. "I can't find it!"

"I can't find mine either!" I barked, hands clenching.

"Are you even looking?"

"Looking? How could I look? It's pitch dark in here!"

"I know that! Are you trying to find it?"

"What's the point of finding it?" I retorted. "They don't work in here!"

"Why wouldn't they work?"

"How should I know?"

"What were you thinking when you came in here?" she demanded. I whirled around out of reflex, but I still could not see her.

"Listen, if you're trying to call me thick—"

"I'm not," she shot back. "I'm trying to figure out where we are!"

"The Room of Requirement," I snorted.

"I know!"

"Stop screaming!"

"You stop screaming!"

"Granger, if you don't shut up I am going to—"

"Sh."

"Whatdid you say?" I started, offended.

"Shhhh!"

"Hey, I don't appreciate being—"

Her hand clamped down on my wrist. I jerked, tried to throw her off—

"Listen!" she hissed. I went still. For a moment, I heard nothing, and was about to fling her across the room…

When an orange glow bloomed far off at the other end of the room—a room that was apparently three times as long as any of the halls in my house. I squinted, for my eyes had tried to adjust to the dark. Hermione did not let go of my arm.

"What is that?" she whispered, suddenly quiet. I said nothing. Sounds issued from that glow—scuffling, scraping. And then, a high pitched, whistling howl soared up to the ceiling.

All of my blood went cold. A deep shudder ran through my whole body. I tried to control myself, but I could only swallow convulsively and take a step back.

"Draco, what is that?"

"Mountain goblins," I said through my teeth. And then all my muscles locked in place and I went stiff as a board.

"Mountain goblins?" Hermione repeated, baffled. "What? In the castle?"

I literally could not answer. I could not even move.

"Should we run?" Both of her hands gripped my wrist now. The glow grew, spread out to show the walls of the room—which were not walls at all, but the jaggedly-hewn rock of a cave. And then, sharp shadows of lurching, crawling figures danced across the rock; and throaty, gurgling laughter and growling slithered toward us.

"Draco, should we run?"

The growling rose to a primal shriek.

They'd seen us.

But try as I might, my muscles were like lead—my heart beat so hard the veins in my neck hurt.

"Draco?"

"Mhm," I managed, but I could not budge.

"Then come on!" Hermione yanked my arm, spun me around, and dragged me forward. The next instant, the goblins broke into a frenzied run, right on our heels, skittering, snarling, stamping and gnashing their teeth. I forced my frozen legs to work, even as I stumbled forward into total darkness, lead by nothing but that mudblood's fingers.

"Come on!" she urged, and I pumped my legs faster. The goblins snatched at the back of my loose shirt—I felt a claw strike my back—and my breathing sharpened like I was sucking in knives. I squeezed my eyes shut, for it made no difference, and ran as hard as I could.

And then, behind me, ghoulish, resonating singing snarled and bubbled from the seething ranks.

"Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down, down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!
Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho, my lad!"

"Draco," Hermione gasped, just as I almost tripped. I felt goblin breath right behind me—smelled their stench.

"Draco, I see something!"

"Where?" I yelped, opening my eyes again.

"There!" she said—and far, far ahead of us, I glimpsed a little light. And that moment, my feet struck something that was not stone. It felt like earth, and pine-needles. And then, trees rushed past us on either side. We were in a wood.

The goblins kept coming.

"Swish, smack! Whip crack!
Batter and beat! Yammer and bleat!
Work, work! Nor dare to shirk,
While Goblins quaff, and Goblins laugh,
Round and round far underground
Below, my lad!"

"Almost…there…" Hermione breathed, tightening her hold on me. Now I could see the path ahead of us—it was wide, covered with pine needles. The glow was different, not like the goblin hole. Somehow brighter, more open…

Jaws clapped together right in my ear. I bit out a strangled cry and batted my hand backward, striking leathery goblin flesh. Then, one of them sank his teeth into the back of my leg.

I howled. Burning pain lanced up my leg and back. Hermione threw me toward the opening—

I broke through, out of the woods. I soared into brilliant golden light. The pain in my leg vanished. For an instant, I saw blue sky, and yellow grass. Then I thudded to the ground.

Silence. A restless wind rustled through tall grass over my head. I lay for a moment, paralyzed, my heartbeat thundering in my ears. The wind whispered. I opened my eyes.

I lay on my stomach on top of crushed stalks of barley. The golden strands stood thick by my face and my hands. I took a deep breath, and closed my fingers through the crisp grass. The earthy, sweet scent of hay filled my lungs. I frowned, then slowly sat up.

The warm breeze caught my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut a moment, as brilliant, unobstructed sunlight struck them. I reached up and rubbed my face, then looked around.

I sat in a golden barley field, a cloudless sky up above, waving stalks as far as I could see. Except one thing.

In the distance stood a tree. Beautiful, but out of place, an ancient weeping willow leaned to one side atop a hill, its long branches hanging down to the ground. My eyes narrowed. Had I been here before…?

I glanced back. Behind me stood a black forest—like a wall of iron. There was the path we had just taken, looking like a tunnel through a mountain. Beyond it, darkness and quiet waited. The goblins weren't following.

I climbed to my feet, then stared out at that weeping willow. The wind ruffled my shirt, but no birds sang. The only sound was the rustle of the barley. I glanced down at the back of my leg, expecting to see torn cloth and a wound. But there was nothing wrong with my leg, and my trousers were intact.

Something crashed against the barley to my right. I whipped around—

To see Granger shoot into a sitting position, hay in her hair, her sweater and tie all disheveled. She looked all around, then behind her at the forest, then back at the distant willow. She frowned.

"Where are we?"

"Why do you think I am the one that would know that?" I demanded, starting forward.

"Where are you going?" I heard her get up and stomp after me.

"Away from you."

"Until what? You find the door?" she countered. "How do you propose to do that, without even having a wand?"

"The traditional way," I answered. "By looking for it."

"We're in the middle of a field!" she cried. Her feet halted. "Draco, stop."

"No."

"Draco, you must tell me where we are!"

"No, I mustn't," I retorted, whirling around and giving her an ugly look. "This is your fault anyway—if you hadn't been following me and confused the room, we wouldn't have wound up in this nightmare."

I spun back around and stormed toward the willow, not allowing myself to wonder why I was going there.

"Wait."

My footsteps slowed, and I frowned. I glanced over my shoulder and raised an eyebrow. Hermione stared at the ground.

"What?" I questioned. She met my eyes.

"I've heard that song before."

I glanced around, nonplussed.

"What song?"

"The goblin song," she said.

"Keep lots of company with goblins, eh Granger?" I sneered.

"Don't be ridiculous. I've heard it somewhere else!" she insisted. Then she gave me a bewildered look. "I think it's from…a book?"

That stopped me. I swallowed hard.

"It is, isn't it?" she took a step toward me. "Tolkien?"

My eyes flashed.

"He's a wizard," I snapped. "How would you know anything about—"

"The Hobbit?" she finished. I stared at her. Her face lit up.

"Yes! It is from The Hobbit! When every one of them but Gandalf is captured by the goblins, when they were sheltering in a cave because of the thunderstorm!"

I tried to give her a withering glare, but it didn't work. So I just turned back around and kept marching through the barley to the willow.

"Don't you understand?" she persisted. "The Room of Requirement has access to our thoughts—that's part of its enchantment! It knows you read The Hobbit." She caught up to me, and I could feel the weird look she was giving me. "Why were you thinking of goblins?"

"I wasn't!" I insisted.

"Well I certainly wasn't," she said. Her voice lowered. "It's like the room knew what would scare you…"

"I was not scared," I bluffed. She wasn't listening.

"The question is…" she mused. "Why would it want to scareyou?"

"It's a room, Granger," I said. "It doesn't want anything." I shook my head and laughed at the empty sky. "Typical Muggle. Can't seem to grasp the concept that magic just has rules."

"What do you mean?" she trotted up right next to me, peering at my face.

"You're insufferable, you know that?" I glowered at her.

"What. Do. You. Mean?"

I stopped walking. It didn't seem like I was getting any closer to that willow, anyway.

"Listen, little girl," I grunted. "The Room of Requirement takes your thoughts and transforms them into reality, right?"

She watched me keenly, her brown eyes bright, her brow creased. I gritted my teeth.

"Usually, when people find it, they are thinking about one, focused thing," I explained, feeling like Professor Snape trying to get a concept into Potter's thick skull. "But if you start out thinking of one particular thing, and then a thousand other things crash into your head while you're going through the door, you're going to blunder into something like freaking Alice In Wonderland." I jabbed a finger at her face. "And that's if you're only dealing with one person's unfocused head, not two people bashing in here with no time to get a clear idea as to what it is they actually want."

"Wonderland," she repeated, as if letting that sink in.

"Or Neverland," I muttered, charging toward the willow again through the tall, crunching grass. "As in Never-going-to-find-the-blasted-door."

"Why do you keep walking that direction?" Hermione called. "The door is back there."

"Does that way look better to you?" I gestured broadly back toward the deep, dark path into the woods. "Feel free. I'm not stopping you."

She said nothing for a moment, then shouted after me.

"Fine! That's where my wand is, anyway." She paused, then tried again. "Malfoy, it doesn't make sense to go where you're going."

"Listen, Granger," I stated, turning around to face her. "You can do whatever you want—but nothing is going to entice me to go back that way through all…that." I pointed. I shooed her with my hand. "Ta ta."

She glared at me a moment, just standing waist-deep in waving barley. Then, she spun around and strode back toward the woods, her long curls bouncing and swinging behind her. I rolled my eyes, grateful to finally be rid of her.

I kept stomping toward the lonely tree, the barely whispering and rustling all around me. My frown deepened as I studied the bright landscape, and the softly waving, drooping branches of the willow. Had I been here before? Or had I just imagined a place like this?

Finally, I drew closer to the willow—which turned out to be larger than any I had ever seen. It looked about twice the height of the Whomping Willow out on the school grounds. But this one showed no indication that it was going to swat me. Its green, winsome branches draped down to the ground, forming a curtain all around its trunk. Memory stirred again. I hesitated, then reached out a hand to push some of them aside and step into the quiet and shade.

A scream tore the air. I twirled around, my heartbeat leaping. It came again, rending the silence, bouncing off the gray, leafless trees of that black forest. A horrified, primal, desperate shriek—like someone was being killed.

Granger.

I gripped the low hanging branches and stared at the ring on my right hand. The sun glinted off the silver of the crest. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and squeezed the branches hard.

She screamed again.

VVVVVV

HERMIONE

"This is ridiculous. Absolutely absurd," I muttered, slapping a branch out of my face as I stormed into the shadows of the wood. "The door is this way. Why wouldn't he—"

Something moved in the deep shadows in front of me. I slowed to a halt. I listened.

A low slither, like a long, smooth, heavy body moving through underbrush, filled the silence of the forest. Chills raced over my skin. And then, I caught sight of a form.

It was lengthy—perhaps ten meters—and moved like a steady black river toward me. I swallowed.

"Hello?" I tried. My parents would think I was barking mad for addressing things that crawled on the ground, but in my experience, they answered half the time. "Hello? Is someone there?"

Hssssssssssssssssss…

"Oh, no…" I breathed, taking a step back. I trod on something squishy.

I yelped and jumped forward, spinning around—

To see that all of the ground around me was covered in black adders. They swarmed in and out, over and between each other—piles of them, slithering and sliding and hissing. I could not move, I could not step anywhere, for they surrounded my feet like I was standing in a simmering puddle of tar. Dozens of them swept slowly by and turned their heads, staring up at me with black, glittering eyes. I went ramrod straight, clamped my arms to my sides and forced myself to look up. My mouth tightened as my arms and hands and knees began to shake. My stomach turned, and my blood went cold. I had not been afraid of snakes when I was little. The basilisk had changed that.

"This can't be real," I said through my teeth. "It can't be. Draco's goblins weren't real. They were from a book. This isn't real, it isn't real, this isn't…eeeeeeyyyyyyy!" My words turned into a whimper as one snake, a very large one, began to wrap its cold, smooth body around and around and up and up my ankle, then my calf. I wanted to kick it off and run howling, but I bit my tongue and forced myself to stay still. If I moved, it would bite me.

"Oh, get off, get off, get off!" I begged it, my throat convulsing. "Please get off! Please—" Its thick coils tightened around my leg. I screeched and smacked at it.

It sank its teeth into my skin, right on the back of my knee.

I let out a scream like I never have. Burning, searing, raging pain flared through my whole leg. I reached down and ripped the snake off of me. Blood got all over my hands. The snakes' simmering rose to a boil, and their hiss became a roar—like angry wasps. I tried to jump over them, to run back toward the barley field, but they leaped up my legs, tying like ropes, coiling around my ankles. I tumbled to my knees. My hands landed on another snake. He lashed out and bit my wrist. I screamed again, my throat tearing, and tried to knock him off. He clamped down, and pumped me full of venom. Then another one bit my elbow. Another my thigh. Tears streamed down my face and I thrashed on the ground, kicking and slapping with all my strength. The swarm of snakes began to pull me under.

"Help!" I wailed. "Oh, help me, please!"

My whole body was on fire. Hundreds of snakes bit me once, then came back and bit again. I could feel my blood filling with poison. I was going to die.

"Get up! Granger, get up!"

The words came to me through a haze, and though I tried to obey, my muscles wouldn't move. Then, a strong hand gripped my upper arm and jerked me upward.

Snakes tumbled off me. I staggered forward. Someone caught me with his arm around my waist. Then, sharp strikes, each resounding with a crisp crack, shook me—but I was not being hit. The arm that held me moved with each crack, as if the other arm was busy making that sound.

"Blast. These. Snakes," the same voice barked in time with each crack. "And blast you for losing. My. Wand!"

The arm pulled me back, out of the swarm of snakes. Then, two hands shoved me back against the unyielding bark of a tree.

"Of all the…brilliant. Just brilliant," the voice muttered, and I felt something tear away from my cheek. I yelped.

"You want me to keep letting it bite you?" he snapped. I squeezed my eyes open to see Draco Malfoy standing right in front of me. He threw a snake down—a snake that had apparently been locked onto my face—and then he swiftly reached up and ripped one off of my head, whipped one off from around my neck, then bent down and wrenched that first long one off my leg—apparently, I had not gotten it off the first time.

"Get back!" he roared at the creatures, taking up a long stick and advancing on the swarm. They hissed at him, and that long one opened his mouth and let out a scathing snarl. Draco swung and cracked it in the skull. It squirmed for a moment, then lay still. The snakes, like a receding tide, retreated into the blackness. Draco, out of breath, watched them go.

The poison lifted from my arms and legs. I reached up to my face to feel my wound—

But there was nothing there. My skin was smooth. I stared at my hands, earlier covered in blood. From what I could see, they were clean.

Draco tossed the stick down, then turned to face me.

"You happy, now?" he bit out. "Satisfied that you're so smart? What did I tell you?"

"That nothing would entice you to go back this way," I whispered, trying to stop my shivering. He glowered at me. I swiped at my eyes, but tears still came away on my fingers.

"I don't understand this," I shook my head. "I never thought the Room of Requirement could be evil—"

"Are you really this ignorant?" Draco threw his arms in the air, then slapped his thighs. "Top of the class, yet you can't understand the most basic principle." He looked me up and down, like he was appraising a horse he didn't like. "Poor Mudblood. Some things just can't be fixed, I'm afraid."

"Well, then why don't you enlighten me?" I roared, my voice thick with the fear I was trying to swallow. Draco took a deliberate step toward me, his bright eyes pinning me where I stood.

"Magic is not good or evil. It's a tool," he said. "If I waved my wand," he pantomimed into the air. "If I had a wand, that is," his lip curled. "And said accio hemlock, and murdered you with it," he pointed at me. "Does that make the accio spell evil?"

I stared at him, then shook my head. He shook his head, too.

"It's not the magic. It's what you do with it."

"So…" I murmured, wrapping my arms around myself. "What did we do with it?"

He glanced at me, then around us at the wood. For a long moment, he said nothing. Then, he took a deep breath.

"I don't know."

My eyebrows went up.

"You were talking like you did."

"I don't, all right?" he shot back, glaring at me. "This has never happened to me before."

"Wait—you come here often?" I stepped toward him.

"As much as anyone else," he returned—but he was lying. He wouldn't look at me.

"Malfoy—"

"Sh."

I stopped in mid stride, then peered into the wood, off the path, the direction Draco was gazing. Just at the edge of my sight, I could see the edges of a door. A door that seemed somehow familiar…

"Looks promising," Draco decided, and stepped off the path toward it.

"Is that a good idea?" I winced.

"I'm trying to find the way out," Draco retorted. "But by all means, stay and have tea with the snakes."

I bit my lip started forward, stopped, then raced after him into the dark forest, leaving the path behind.

TBC