Hermione Granger was in the library. It had most certainly come to characterize her existence at Hogwarts over the duration of her time as an eighth year student. Stationed at her favourite table, books, parchment and other assorted oddities spread across the surface, Hermione found herself completing a potions essay, dangerously close to falling behind in her work.
Which of course, by her standards, would mean she was no longer a full week ahead of her assigned deadlines.
She glanced to her beautiful, colour-coded homework and NEWT revision schedule, feeling a twinge of anxiety. She was due to have completed this essay the night before.
Now that she was well into January, the year nearly half gone, Hermione found it difficult to focus on much else other than her schoolwork.
While it was technically only her seventh year at Hogwarts, given she had missed her actual seventh year, Hermione had been classified an eighth year student, with the others from her year who had returned – there were around a dozen of them in total.
Many had chosen to pursue various forms of employment instead, including Harry and Ron, already deeply entrenched in their Auror training, having been granted an exception to the NEWT requirement.
But Hermione had never been particularly interested in becoming an Auror. The dreams she chose to venture after were with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The department was in dire need of some modernization in policy and Hermione felt she was the best for the job. Or would be, anyway, once she completed her school year.
Though she had always loved Hogwarts, she had felt oddly disengaged since returning in September. For one, it felt absolutely bizarre going to classes, eating her meals in the Great Hall without Harry and Ron nearby. She had a handful of other friends who had returned, of course, including Ginny and Neville, but it simply wasn't the same.
She had owled back and forth regularly with the pair of them at the start of the year, but the post had steadily begun to decline, until the few letters she did receive were brief and rushed.
That said, things between her and Ron had been awkward since they had decided to remain friends, following a brief and uncomfortable three weeks in which they had attempted to be more. It had turned out that the circumstances around being on the run had greatly exaggerated anything that may have existed between them. That flickering flame had been quickly doused once things had returned to normal.
For another, it was unsettling to remember the things which had occurred in those halls, only months before. The way Hogwarts had been under the control of Death Eaters; to recall that Albus Dumbledore had died on school grounds.
At least, returning to Hogwarts had been a distraction. Following the end of the war, Hermione had been advised by numerous mind healers that she could potentially cause permanent damage if she were to attempt to reverse the memory spell she had cast on her parents.
It seemed as if they were to remain in their alternate existence in Australia forever. It had been a bitter pill for Hermione to swallow, who had held the tiniest sliver of hope that she may have be able to bring them back home.
Following that revelation, staying in London had become a stifling and painful reminder.
She had opted not to stay at the Burrow, and while Harry had been excited for Hermione to stay at Grimmauld Place, after a short time, she felt as if she were constantly interrupting him and Ginny, who seemed to be there more often than not.
So while things at Hogwarts no longer felt as they always had, Hermione appreciated being there nonetheless.
At a quarter to ten, Hermione returned to her dormitory in Gryffindor Tower to drop off her bookbag. With a heavy heart, she made her way to the third corridor where she was to meet the other seventh and eighth year prefects for patrols.
Hermione had unfortunately been stuck with Malfoy back in September, who had surprisingly, in her opinion, returned to complete his schooling. It wasn't until two weeks later she had learned that returning to Hogwarts was a condition of his acquittal by the Ministry.
While Hermione had initially been of a mind to protest her being partnered with the blond Slytherin, she soon noticed he no longer seemed to hold a place within the hierarchy of the school. Treated as a traitor in Slytherin and a pariah by the rest of the school, Malfoy had barely spoken two words to Hermione for over a month.
While she certainly would have preferred a more friendly prefect partner, Hermione was relieved to find he was no longer interested in ridiculing her for her blood status and the company she chose to keep.
With a sobering thought, she realized she had probably been paired with him because no one else would have accepted him. She had instantly decided not to say anything to McGonagall and went along with the imposed silence on their nightly patrols.
For a brief few weeks early in the year, Hermione had attempted to make conversation, which he had steadily rebuked. It had become apparent that while he no longer chose to instigate arguments between them, he clearly had no interest in her friendship or her empathy.
Doing her best to put the past behind her, Hermione had come to accept it.
She quickened her pace, realizing she was running behind in arriving at their designated meeting point. Typically, Hermione was of a mind that the sooner they began patrols, the sooner she would be able to leave his presence.
"You're late," he said, haughty and aristocratic as always.
Indignant, Hermione looked to her watch. She was late by a minute. Rolling her eyes, Hermione turned to tell him so, but he had already left to begin their route. Shaking her head, she followed after the tall blond.
Their patrols had been unusually quiet. Hermione found herself grateful for the relative ease of the task, having had an arduous study period in the library. She hoped they might even be done quicker than they were accustomed to.
Malfoy trailed behind her, making it evident he had no interest in forced conversation.
Hermione paused, hearing an ominous sound coming from a dark classroom further ahead. She walked towards it, pushing the door ajar. A shiver passed the length of her spine.
"It's just the Bloody Baron," she informed Malfoy who shrugged noncommittally. She walked back towards him, falling into step once more as they continued their rounds. "I always thought he was creepy, but now that I know the circumstances around his death, it's so much worse."
Malfoy continued walking in silence, not sparing her so much as a glance.
"Do you know the story?" she questioned, turning to him. "About the Bloody Baron and the Grey Lady?"
"No," Malfoy said sharply, "and I don't particularly care to."
Sighing, Hermione carried on in the uncomfortable tension that had come to characterize their time spent together. As if after four months of working together as prefects he still had no interest in breaking the silence. Hermione really did prefer this to the intentional goading and antagonistic name-calling, but still. At least no one could say she wasn't trying.
"Did you hear that?" Hermione asked, freezing on the spot. She was certain she had heard a buzzing sound. "Coming from the courtyard, I think."
"And what was I supposed to have heard, Granger?" Malfoy drawled, arching a pale brow.
Hermione held up a finger to silence him as she inched toward the sound, the snowy grass crunching softly under her feet. Malfoy rolled his eyes but followed along obligingly.
"Yeah," he said after a moment, his expression that of mild surprise. "A buzzing, yeah?"
"Yes," Hermione whispered. She came to a narrow alley running away from the courtyard, lined with cobbled stone. "It's coming from this passageway."
"I've never seen that passage before," Malfoy said suspiciously. "I'm not going into it but you can do as you please."
"Oh come on, Malfoy," Hermione said, disgruntled. She grabbed his arm, ignoring the slight recoil. "Reach deep down for your inner Gryffindor, will you?"
"No, thank you," he said delicately, withdrawing his arm from her grip with distaste. "Unexplained corridors which appear out of nowhere do not bode well. But go on, then."
"I will," she huffed, folding her arms across herself as she carefully crept forward into the entrance of the passage, lighting her wand with a muttered 'lumos'. She felt a shiver creep down her spine as the strange sound grew louder. She glanced back at Malfoy who was looking at her with extreme annoyance. Finally he sighed, exaggeratedly, and followed along.
"If I die tonight, you're responsible, Granger," he said waspishly.
"You're overreacting," she hissed, shaking her head. "But if you die, chances are good I'll die too, so I won't be bothered over it, will I?"
Malfoy did not grace her with a response. He merely sighed again and trailed after her. The corridor closed in tighter as they walked, the walls increasingly overgrown with vines and lush greenery, so thick they blocked the light of the moon. The air became damp and heavy; the buzzing sound growing ever louder still. Hermione didn't say so out loud, but the sound had begun to feel as much a part of her as it was around her. As if she felt it within herself as she heard it.
"It's a dead end," Hermione said with surprise as she came to the end of the long corridor. "I can't say I was expecting that."
"Granger," Malfoy said quietly and she turned to where he had stopped a few paces back. She noted he was standing in front of a heavy stone door that looked so ancient it had almost blended into the stone walls around it, vines covering the vast majority.
"Open it," she whispered, her mouth feeling suddenly dry.
"That's a hard fuck no, Granger," he responded sharply. "I'm quite certain that's the sound of a chimera."
"A chimera?" she asked, alarmed. "Why would there be a chimera in Hogwarts? Where did you hear that?"
He shrugged, eyeing the wall darkly. "For the same reason there was a basilisk I would suppose? Gryffindor and Slytherin wanted a pet together? Part lion, part snake." He snickered. "And it's widely known the sound a chimera makes."
"Part goat," Hermione added but she had backed away from the door and found herself pressed against the cold wall on the opposite side of the passage, her heart racing. "And a chimera does not make a buzzing sound."
"Of course it doesn't," Malfoy said, smirking. "But I got you all the same."
"You're incorrigible," Hermione huffed, rolling her eyes. She supposed she should have been grateful he was in a talkative mood, but she was particularly fatigued. She found herself wishing they had skipped this particular area of the castle. She walked towards the door again, inspecting the old, rusted latch. "Open it, then, if it isn't a chimera."
"I'm not opening it," he stated flatly.
"The sooner we find out what this is, the sooner we can finish our patrols, Malfoy," Hermione said, crossing her arms.
"You do make sense," he stated as if surprised. "Fine. Just so we can leave this damn corridor. That sound is annoying as hell."
He drew his wand to unlock the door and Hermione's smug expression quickly fell from her face. The moment the door came open the buzzing intensified tenfold – coupled with ferocious gale-force winds and a stunning, bright light.
"What the fuck, Granger!" Malfoy shouted over the wind, clutching his wand with white knuckles.
"I don't know!" she returned, eyes wide with terror as the light expanded and surrounded them, pulsing. For the first time in her life, she instantly found herself wishing she had listened to Malfoy. She reached into her pocket, grasping her own wand defensively.
They watched, helplessly, as the light came in from all sides, carrying the buzzing with it, and encapsulated them both so that all they could do was wait…
Then, as if a switch had been flipped, everything ceased. Hermione blinked rapidly to adjust her vision to the sudden darkness as her ears grew accustomed to the silence once more and the wind dropped to nothing.
"Malfoy," Hermione whispered, frozen to the spot.
"I'm here, let's just get out of here," his voice came from the darkness, sounding uncertain. Hermione nodded, hastily backtracking down the passageway as he followed. "What in the name of Merlin's balls was that?"
"I have no idea," Hermione said, her voice sounding oddly small. She felt horribly shaken, each step back toward the courtyard uncertain.
"That is the very last time I am ever doing something you ask," he informed her, the irritation returning to his voice.
"Malfoy," she hissed, stopping all of a sudden as the greenery began to thin out once more. Behind her she heard him come to a stop as well, his breath hitching. "Why is the sun out?"
"I've no idea," he said, "it's half ten at night."
"Is it?" she asked, unsure. "It was." She crept carefully to the edge of the courtyard, finding it empty as it had been. Something felt wrong as she looked around.
"Has the courtyard always been so... lush?" Malfoy asked from behind her and it clicked what felt wrong.
"No," she said, shaking her head. She paled significantly. "And there were a few skiffs of snow here. Let's just get back inside… or something."
They made their way through the courtyard and back into the castle, stopping abruptly to take stock of the situation.
"Why is Hogwarts different?" Malfoy asked slowly, eyebrows raised with interest. "But… the same."
"We're definitely still at Hogwarts, right?" Hermione asked, not wanting to discount anything. That room had been one of the most bizarre things she had ever experienced, and that was saying something.
"Seems so," Malfoy responded. "But yet, it's somehow daytime."
"Something feels wrong," Hermione agreed, looking around. She ran a hand along the rough stone of the interior wall. She took a few steps, walking toward the empty classroom where she took arithmancy. Her eyes widened in shock as she looked inside. "Malfoy, the furniture - the room's different. Everything feels… new."
"What the fuck," he hissed as he looked into the room. Then he froze, perking up. He grabbed Hermione's arm, shoving her ahead of him into the classroom. "Someone's coming."
"Malfoy, we're prefects doing patrol. We're supposed to be stopping people," Hermione said, realizing even as she said it that if it wasn't after hours, then that wouldn't be the case.
"We aren't sure of our circumstances anymore," he said quietly. He left the door ajar, peering carefully through the crack. "Four people. Dressed quite… elaborately."
"What are they saying?" she said, looking absently around the room when a thought struck her. She reached into a deep interior pocket of her robes, realizing with a pleasant jolt she had yet to clear her pockets of the items they had raided from a pair of fifth years the night before. Silently she handed Malfoy the extendable ears they had confiscated. His eyes widened as he dropped the end beyond the threshold of the doorway, handing her one end as he inserted the other into his own ear.
"Another year at Hogwarts," a woman's voice was saying wistfully.
"Yes, it's just wonderful! Another new crop of students to sort," a jovial male voice boomed.
Hermione met Malfoy's confused expression with her own as they both listened in. She didn't recognize either of the voices as professors - and beyond that, it was January. The new students had been sorted months ago.
"Perhaps this year's group will have brains in their skulls," another male voice drawled, sounding distinctly displeased.
"They needn't arrive full of knowledge, Sal, that's why we teach them," a fourth voice broke in, a woman's voice with a thick Scottish brogue.
"Sal," Hermione whispered, eyes wide. Instinctively she reached a hand to grasp Malfoy's arm and he merely stared back, his brow furrowed in alarm.
"Salazar," he returned. He swallowed heavily. "Granger… I don't think the question is 'where are we'."
Hermione nodded, her racing heart lodged in her throat.