Next to You

Unexpected help

Note: This chapter contains a scene with threats of sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but obvious suggestions of vile intentions.

Chapter 12 – Unexpected help

When Hermione came to the office she stopped outside the door for a moment. Happiness flowed through her, so intense that it almost made her scared. What if it just was her imagination? Could this really be true? What was waiting on the other side of the door? Suddenly the door was big and terrifying, and she held her breath while opening it.

Draco was sitting at their usual desk, a book open in front of him, ink spots drying on his left hand and a quill in the other, hovering over parchment. When she stepped inside he looked up, and his serious face split up in a brilliant smile. She took a deep breath to compensate, and then another, because everything was like it was supposed to be. Her answering smile was totally content and radiating bliss. With a happy sigh she walked over to the desk and started to take out her books and writing material.

"I can see that you're not under house arrest at least." He waited until she had placed her last item, the brown quill, on the desk, and then leaned in and kissed the corner of her mouth. When she turned her head towards him and lifted her face in a expecting gesture he laughed softly and kissed her on the lips too.

"Much better." There was an aura of clear satisfaction about her. "And no, no house arrest. On the other hand I'll be happy if I'm allowed back in."

"Oh, that bad?" A frown formed on his face.

"Yes. Ron more or less said that I had changed into someone he didn't want to have any contact with, and then he just left. Ginny was a bit better, but not much. She said that she agreed with Ron, but admitted that it had been worse if I had been pure-blood. Then she said goodnight and left too. Harry was left, of course, and tried to talk me out of it as usual. Oh, and yeah, Ron wasn't really restraining his speaking volume, so a filled common room heard him shout about Death Eaters. Or at least a special one. I guess our friendship is out in the open for real now."

"Let's just hope you don't have any problems from it. I would hate it if something happened to you, I mean, it would all be my fault. I really don't like that I may have put you in harm's way."

"It's nothing to worry about. Who would be interested in picking a fight with me?"

"You're right. Celebrated hero from the war, respected mentor and best friend with Harry Potter. Hopefully that will be enough to keep you safe." He still seemed a bit doubtful.

"I'm much more worried about my friends than possible trouble with some unknown person."

"They are a bit troublesome, aren't they?"

"Yeah, talking about troublesome friends, did Parkinson tell you that she was close to obliteration today?" There was a small, slightly amused smile on her lips.

"No, what do you mean?" He looked worried.

"She got into a wand fight with Harry." Now the smile was definitely amused.

"What!" His eyes got big, and the worry turned to full alarm. "How... why, what happened?"

"It actually wasn't much of a fight, Harry disarmed her and then just enlightened her of the advantages of not pissing him off."

"But why did she have the wand out to begin with?"

"Oh, she was attacking me." She tried to look casual while giving the answer.

"She did what?" While cursing quietly to himself he reached out and put a hand on Hermione's cheek. "She'll be in so much trouble when I find her. Are you OK? Did she hurt you?"

"She didn't hurt me, she just held me at wands point and came with some threats. Then Harry showed up and solved it all. I don't believe she appreciated that." The amused smile was back.

"What kind of threats were they?"

"Oh, nothing fancy. Just that she knew what to do with people like me. I honestly couldn't tell if she was serious or not."

"Neither can I. She's not a star at curses, but her family was quite loyal to the Dark Lord. Who know what she's picked up. I don't think you should treat this as a joke."

"You say that I should be prepared for having your best friend cursing me in the back in the corridors?"

"She won't be my best friendNot [if she pulls a stunt like that again. I promise that I'll deal with her,] I'm pretty confident that I can get her to listen. She's quite easy to intimidate."

"You're going to threaten her at wand point too?"

"No, I'm going to threaten her with my arm." His face was grim.

Big eyes and a disbelieving face met him. "You're going to hit her?"

"No, stupid." He rolled his eyes. "But if I roll up my sleeve and shove the arm in her face she'll end up a shaking heap on the floor."

"It will affect her that much?" A disapproving expression could be seen behind her curiosity.

"Pansy was a loyal follower to the Dark Lord. She always looked up to me when we grew up, and when I got the Mark she was so excited and proud that she almost turned somersaults."

"She knew?"

"Yes. I had to tell someone, or I had gone insane. I knew she was perfectly loyal and would never expose me." He sighed and his face turned grim again. "I think she had romanticised me being a Death Eater, imagining me in charge. The greatest power there is to get, and implying that I was a great and ruthless wizard. And even though I am fallen, I still have those powers, right? At least in her mind."

"So... she believes that you are going to Crucio her if she disobeys you? Or what?" There was definitely disapproval now.

"Maybe. She probably expects me to be more imaginative than that."

"And you're going to let her believe that?"

"If it keeps her away from you, yes."

"I don't like it." She looked at him with her lips tightly pressed together. "You're using the methods of Voldemort's terror reign against her. No matter who she is, that is wrong."

"I told you, there's very little I won't do for you, to keep you safe. I won't risk you getting hit in the back by a Crucio, there's no way I'll allow you to be subjected to that again. So if these kind of threats is what it takes to assure that you're safe from Pansy, then it's the course I'll take."

"But still..."

"Hermione, do you honestly think I will actually do those things to Pansy?"

There was a moment's silence before she slowly answered. "If you really had to, if we're talking like a life and death situation, I think you would. If you thought it was urgent enough." Her face was sad and almost apologetic.

"And where does that leave us?" An unreadable face was all that met her.

Yes, where did that leave them? This was Dark ways of handling things, the threats of using Dark curses. But what was really the difference between this and Harry's threat 'not to play nice'? And even Harry had used the Unforgivables, including the Cruciatus curse. Sometimes it was so hard to see the line between good and evil. They used the Imperius curse in their search for the horcruxes, but then it was in the name of good, for the greater good. The last part made her think of Dumbledore, and she got even more confused. But Draco did it to keep her safe, it was for a good cause after all. Who was she to judge him and call him evil? And somewhere in the bottommost part of her heart she must admit that the picture of a Parkinson scared half to death was appealing.

"I think it takes us back to the statement that nothing is black or white. I spontaneously believe that it is wrong, but thinking about it I can't judge you for taking that path. You don't have my blessing, but it will not come between us."

"Good. Because I really think that it's the most efficient way to handle it. Just let me take care of it." He reached out a hand and took hers. "We are different, with different upbringings and different friends and acquaintances. We will handle things in different ways. I think we must learn to deal with that, and pretty fast, if this is going to work." There was an amused smile. "And I think you need to realise that the shining white of good isn't always that white."

"I know that, I'm best friends with Harry." The look on her face clearly told that that wasn't supposed to be said out loud.

"What's that supposed to mean?" He watched her with a curious expression. "No, wait, don't tell me. I have a healthy respect for Potter as it is, I don't need to add anything to that."

"Please don't tell anyone that I said that, Harry will kill someone if that gets out."

"Like you?"

Her face was tired. "More likely himself."

"That bad? Now I'm really getting worried over here. Remind me again to never get on his bad side."

"I'm talking too much."

"And I will hurry to erase it from my memory. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."

"How about some Potions now, huh? I think it's time we switch topics. After, we can look at what we have for the trial?"

"That seems like a good plan. There's just a small detail I have to take care of." With a satisfied smile he pulled her closer and kissed her thoroughly.

o O o

It was Saturday morning, and they could be found studying in their office as usual. There was not the same air of concentration as usual though, and Hermione fiddled distractedly with the pages in her book.

"Would you please stop that? I'm trying to focus here." Her boyfriend gave her a disapproving look, but with a smile underneath.

"Sorry, I'm having a problem concentrating."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." He put down his quill. "There's no real flow today." With a sigh he looked out through the window. "Are we insane?"

"Probably." She thought about a song she listened to when she was younger, about Millie and her boyfriend, who was very much in love, and very much insane. She couldn't keep a giggle from emerging. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, it's brilliant sunshine and a blue sky outside, the first day of the year with spring in the air, and we're locked up in a room immersed in books."

"Yeah, definitely insane." With a tilted head she looked at him. "Do you want to go outside?"

"I think I'd like to." He looked down at his books hopelessly, flipping one shut with a sigh, "It's not like I'm getting anywhere here anyway. A walk would be nice."

Hermione nodded. "But do you know what? Today most of the students are in Hogsmeade. Why don't we go there too?"

"I don't know, it's our day in Diagon Alley next Saturday, and we're going to miss a whole day there."

"Oh, come on, it'll be fun. We have all night to study." She shook her head. "I can't believe it, I'm sounding like Ron."

"I certainly don't like that. And I wouldn't agree with you if it wasn't for the facts that I can't focus here, I really want to go outside, and I believe that I need to refill my stash of liquorice." There was a quick grin.

"So we're going?"

"Yeah, let's do it."

"Sweet! Entrance Hall in fifteen?"

"Sounds good," he agreed.

They packed down their things and parted outside the classroom. Hermione hurried up to her dormitory and got changed. After a couple of minutes of her waiting at the big outer exit doors, he showed up.

"Sorry if I'm late, I had to have a discussion with Pansy."

"Nothing serious, I hope."

"She was just having some 'you spend a lot of time with her, so you never have time for me any more' kind of arguments'."

"Oh, I see. Well, let's get out of here."

They walked the way over to Hogsmeade, enjoying the nice weather and the soft air flavoured with a taste of spring. The only thing missing was the possibility to hold hands, but they didn't dare to. Instead they walked close and talked with their heads together. Maybe not so innocent, but not giving anything away for sure.

Once they arrived at Hogsmeade, they strolled down the street in a leisurely manner. They both looked at Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop, then at each other, and started to laugh.

"Promise we'll never go there. Never." Hermione still had a laughter in the corner of her mouth.

"That's a promise I'll be happy to keep." His face turned thoughtful. "Do you want to be taken on dates? We never really had any."

"Maybe our night under the stars can count as one?"

"That was nice, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was." She smiled. "We can call this a date if you like. Honeydukes is a much better destination than Madam Puddifoot's."

"Let's go there then." With a sweeping gesture he pointed her towards the sweet shop.

Inside there was a lot of students, and they had to push their way through all the people. They found the coveted liquorice, and then Draco turned to her.

"I want to buy you some chocolate too."

Her smile was thankful but she shook her head. "You really don't have to."

"I know, but I want to. Come on, what flavour should we get you?" He took her in the arm and dragged her over to the chocolate bars. "Bilberry? Or what about ginger?"

"I don't know." She couldn't help laughing.

"Honey crisp?"

"I think bilberry will be fine." The laughter was still in her eyes.

"Are you sure? It isn't a bit boring?"

"No. Sometimes they're just trying too hard finding new flavours. Best to stay classic."

"Bilberry it is then." He picked up his purchases and went to the counter to pay.

Hermione looked at him as he waited for getting to pay, and noticed how happy he looked, even though there was a lot of people around. Usually he was quiet around people, making sure not to take more space than absolutely necessary. He didn't have this posture and expression in the start of the year. Now he looked more free and relaxed. She smiled to herself. If buying her chocolate did this to him she had to let him do it more often.

After a while he came back, giving her the chocolate, which she took quite happily, "I don't want to go back right away, let's take a walk first." He turned towards her when he went out the door, backing so he could keep the door open. And by doing so, he managed to knock into the next person going into Honeydukes. That next person was Ron Weasley.

"Oi, what are you..." Ron fell quiet when Draco turned around and he saw who it was.

"Oh, I'm so..." At the same time Draco stopped in the middle of his sentence when he saw Ron. "I'm sorry." His happy face had turned to stone.

Hermione stepped out the door, seeing Ron with Harry and Ginny behind him. When Ron saw her next to Draco he lost it. He grabbed the front of his clothes, pulled him down from the doorstep and threw him out in the street where he fell down. Harry stepped forward and put a hand on Ron's shoulder.

"Let it go, Ron. It's not worth it."

"I'm going to show that little worm what..."

Now Hermione left the doorstep and run down to Draco, who was slowly getting up from the ground.

"Are you all right?" She looked worried between him and Ron, who just looked even angrier.

"Only thing wounded was my pride. Hopefully I can live with that." It was obvious that he longed to get back at Ron, but something held him back, Harry's presence definitely a chilling effect on him.

"Let go of me!" Ron tried to get out of Harry's grip, obviously aiming for Draco. "I'm going to show him what happens when trash like him believe they are worth the same as the rest of us."

"Ron, calm down." Hermione started walk over to him with an outstretched hand. "There's no need to be so— "

"I'm not talking to people like you. Get out of here." He didn't condescend her with a look, just talked straight into the air. "And let go of me Harry!" After a couple of hard pulls Harry changed his grip and took hold of Ron's right upper arm instead.

Ginny stepped up and took Ron's other arm, then turned to Hermione. "You better get that thing out of here, or we will have a fight on our hands. I'd tell you to send him away and stay with us, but I don't think Ron is really in the mood for that."

"True that," she said bitterly, sending a sad smile to Harry, nodding to Ginny and going back to Draco. She grabbed his arm, and started walking, fast.

Behind them, she could hear Harry and Ginny trying to drag Ron away from them, and he was not happy about it. With a sigh she looked up at Draco.

"What do you say about going back to the castle? I don't want to see Ron any more today."

"That seems like a good idea." After brushing off his clothes for the last time he started to move. They walked in silence for a couple of minutes before anyone said anything. "Do you realise how lucky I was there?"

"Ron isn't really that dangerous, I don't think you had managed to do that much harm to each other without wands."

"No, but how do you think it would have looked on my trial if I had been in a fight recently?"

"That... would not have been that lucky, no." She reached out a hand and put it on his arm momentarily. "But it was sad that we had to cancel the rest of our trip. I was having a good time."

"Your ex-boyfriend sure is refined in his ways of communicating. I only hope that his verbal skills were a bit more evolved with you."

"He never tried to hit me, at least." A wry smile appeared. Maybe she was supposed to defend Ron now, and not follow Draco's lead, but at the moment she was a bit mad at him. He had misbehaved after all. Not only in how he treated Draco, but also the perfectly condescendingly way he talked to her back then. Well, actually, how he had acted around her all the time lately. She got it that he was disappointed, but he could act a little bit more civilised.

"Well that's good to hear. Otherwise, I might have to go looking for him and straighten a few things out."

"Not now anyway. We'll get you through that trial first."

There was a deep sigh. "That's right." He looked at her, panic rising in his eyes. "What if, in two weeks from now, I'm at Azkaban with my father? Two weeks!"

"You won't be, Draco. I won't allow it."

"And what will that have to do with anything in the real world?"

"Harry said that if anyone could keep you out of Azkaban it was me. He trusts me, and if he can do it, you can do it too."

"But if no one can keep me out of there? What if they already decided and the trial is just a formality?"

"We've worked hard for this, and we have a lot of time left. We will present a positive case, and they will realise that those parents just overreacted. You will come back to me, and everything will be fine." With a smile she reached out for his hand, squeezed it once then let go again.

"I dearly hope you're right." There was silence for some time, and then he reached out and touched her hair for a moment. "If you are perfectly impartial, do you think I actually should be in Azkaban with the other Death Eaters?"

"Are you kidding me? You have done nothing to be thrown into Azkaban. You've done things, sure, but not out of free will. They can't charge people with what they did under the Imperius curse, why are you different?"

"I just wish that I could believe you. Sometimes I wonder if I deserve to be there."

"But you're wrong. You deserve to be with me."

There was a long stretch of quiet before he answered. His voice was low and a bit uneven. "Do you know how much I want to kiss you right now?"

It was tempting to give up, throw her arms around him and kiss him, not caring who was watching. But something held her back, and all she could do was smile. She ached to touch him, and cursed herself for her cowardice. Slowly she took his hand and pressed it hard for a couple of seconds.

"Maybe we should go back to our studies?" There was an open invitation in her face. "I've heard that the mentors' office is a very good place for... studies."

He laughed, the earlier gloom was repressed for the moment. "I love you."

The moment stretched out, both listening to the silent echoes of what he just said, when she didn't say anything, he smiled and shrugged.

"Well, I do. You're a marvellous person. Brilliant. I would be stupid not to." His smile turned very soft. "And I guess that I've felt that way for some time now."

"I didn't understand anything until that night when you kissed me the first time. It was like opening a floodgate. After you left I just stood there, realising that I was very much in love." She smiled at him, a bit shyly. "That I love you."

"I still don't understand what I did right to deserve you."

"Maybe making friends with one of the persons you detested most in the whole school was a good way to start?"

"Maybe. It's so strange, I'm so afraid and out of hope over the trial, and at the same time I'm happier than I've ever been."

"Let's enjoy that happiness as much as we can, then."

"Like hurry to get our books and then meet up in the office?"

"You read my mind." Her smile was big and content. As Draco said, there were more than enough things to worry about, but that didn't mean that they couldn't enjoy the moment too. And she was planning to.

o O o

The days went on and the students soon got used to see the two mentors together, there were no raised eyebrows or surprised looks any more. It took a couple of days, but Ginny was slowly coming around. She sometimes sat with Harry and Hermione at the table in the Great Hall, and she had even talked to Hermione a couple of times. It was promising, and she felt that it was just a question of time before they were back as friends.

Ron, on the other hand, was not so simple. He avoided her at all cost, never even hanging out with Harry if she was with him. If they were close to each other he just ignored her. Harry had talked to him, but still no improvement. Hermione suspected that it had less to do with Draco, and more was about her and Ron's relation to each other. She was aware that showing herself together with Draco wasn't making things better, but this time she wanted to stand up for Draco. A world without Ron was empty. She missed him, she really did.

Hermione had a free period, and now she was on her way to the office where she and Draco was working intensely with the material they managed to find as potential help with Draco's trial. They had asked McGonagall for a testimony, she had agreed, and Hermione had collected it before coming here. She opened the door to the office and found Draco waiting as usual.

"I have the testimonial from McGonagall." Sitting down she held it out for him to take.

"Thank you." He opened it and started to read. "But this... this can't be... Did you read it?"

"No, what's wrong?"

"To start with, listen to this: 'Mr Malfoy is a highly intelligent young man with good discipline and constant top marks, in many ways a model student.'"

"It sounds good to me?" Hermione asked, dumping her books on the chair.

"Well, yeah, that's the thing. Why is she so... nice?"

"Because she believes in you and doesn't wanna see you in Azkaban any more than I do." With a small smile she moved some hair out of his forehead. "I told you there are people who are willing to help you."

"But it's so much of it. How did she find so many good things to say about me?"

A soft smile met his confused face. "What did you expect her to write, about your years as troublemaker in the school, or maybe your sixth year as Death Eater?"

The only answer was a new quote from the parchment. "'Very skilful when it comes to helping other students, especially the younger ones.'" There was a short burst of laughter. "I am? She's certainly not counting those students who are cowering behind their desks, terrified of the big, bad Death Eater."

"But she's right you know, you are good with the children. Those who dare to ask you for help are always very satisfied. I've watched you, you are good."

He looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Have you been telling those things to our Headmistress?

"Some of them. Most of it are things that she has confirmed from other sources though."

"Other sources?"

"Teachers, students. I don't know, maybe she asked the ghosts."

"Hm." He kept on reading. "Listen to this: 'Always very polite and correct, both to teachers and fellow students.' She obviously wasn't there when I talked to Pansy the other night."

"I never asked you about that, did it go well?" Her curiosity couldn't be fully covered.

"For me, yes. For her, not so much." He shrugged. "But I suppose you can feel secure now, the probability that she will attack you again is pretty small."

"Did you..?"

"Did I what?"

"Did you actually show her..?"

"The Dark Mark? Yes, I did. Short story goes like this: I made sure that we would be alone for some time, and then I showed her my arm and asked her if she knew what that was. She was pretty shaken after that, so when I told her how upset I would be if she ever tried to hurt my girlfriend again she was very perceptive."

She knew she shouldn't like the story, but she liked Parkinson even less, and hearing about her getting put in her place was sweet. "Good. Now maybe she can keep herself down where she belongs."

Draco coughed something that sounded like 'Hermione of Slytherin'.

"Hey! Be nice, you."

"Always." With a mischievous smile he leaned in and kissed her.

"Are you trying to bribe me?"

"Is it working?"

"...Yes."

"That's good." He kissed her again, a bit more seriously, but then they heard voices outside the door, and then the door handle rattled. They jumped apart and stared at the door. Mandy and Lisa entered, nodding at them and headed for their desks. With the other two girls there they were finally forced to start with their work.

After some time Draco looked up, and started to collect his parchments.

"Are you leaving?" Hermione talked in a hushed voice.

"Yes, I need to meet up with Theo and Pansy." He used the same hushed voice as she did.

"I'll leave too then if you don't mind? I'm just going to finish this one."

"Of course. See you tonight?"

"I have no other plans." Her smile was a little too happy to explain if Mandy or Lisa was looking, but she couldn't stop herself.

"See you later then." He winked at her and left.

Hermione read the last part and made some notes, before packing her things too.

"So, when do we get to see you two as a couple?" Mandy had an amused smile with a trace of malice, and Lisa giggled next to her.

"What?" Just staring at the other girl, Hermione tried to look casual and still think fast. Did they know? Was it already out?

"Yes, it must be the natural next step for you two, don't you think?" Yes, there was definitely some malice in the smile now.

Finding some composure she rolled her eyes. "If you say so." She picked up her things and went for the door. Behind her she could hear the Ravenclaw girls giggle. She didn't believe that they actually knew anything, it was only Mandy trying to be funny. Or mean, not easy to tell with her.

Slowly she started to walk towards the Gryffindor Tower. There was still a good amount of time until the next class, and she wanted to leave all the parchments about the trial before then. She was thinking about herself and Draco. She had hated him so fervently just a year ago, how could she be so very much in love now? They were different, just as he had said, and how to live with that, well, it scared her a bit. But she was decided though, they could make this work. Both of them would have to make compromises, but it was worth it.

But, there was this slight, gnawing anxiety, that some of the things she would have to agree to were things that she never would have compromised about a year ago. She thought again about the song about Millie and her boyfriend, both so much in love, which was saying 'love makes you do funny things'. It was true. Now, the couple in this song had been criminally insane, so maybe it wasn't the best example. She couldn't help smiling. Hopefully she wasn't that far gone. No, she wasn't really like Millie. Yet. An amused giggle sneaked out when she reached the stairs. Hopefully Draco wouldn't drive her totally insane. But then again, being insane together with him could be fun. No more tiresome inhibitions.

On the top of the stairs were three boys, and when she had reached half way up, they started to walk down. When they met the boys slowed down and stopped in front of her.

"Hermione Granger." The tallest of them seemed to be the group's spokesman.

"Yes?"

"From the brave house of Gryffindor." All three of them kept watching her with serious faces.

"Yes. Can I help you?" The confusion turned to irritation and back to confusion again. She did recognise them, but couldn't place them.

"Harry Potter's best friend." He didn't move a muscle, and an ominous feeling started to creep up her back.

"Well-known fighter in the last battle against the Death Eaters." The calm voice that kept coming with those statements was unsettling. There was definitely something wrong here. She took one step back, but the boys followed her, one of them moving down beside her.

"The honoured mentor and representative of Hogwarts." There was a strain in the voice now.

He lowered his voice, but was still talking very clearly. "The betrayer."

This last statement seemed to lift the calmness from them. The tall one and one of the others looked condescending and slightly disgusted, but the last one, which she remembered now was a Ravenclaw, looked really pissed off.

"What's that supposed to mean?" She tried to show some courage she really didn't have.

"I think you know that." The second boy, standing next to her, narrowed his eyes and looked at her. "You're supposed to be extremely clever after all."

"Supposed to. You haven't shown that lately though, have you?" The former spokesman gave her a searching look.

"You are talking a lot of nonsense, let me through." Hermione tried to force herself between them, but was stopped and pushed back to her place. Fighting down the fear she turned to the first one. "What do you want from me?"

There was a laugh, a low, creepy laugh. "Well, that depends. We haven't really decided that yet. We have some different ideas on how to teach you your lesson." He lifted his hand to her shoulder, and used the backside of his fingers to stroke down her arm.

She knocked his hand away.

"Don't be like that, girl." His smile made her inside turn cold. "I'm sure that you've been giving much more than that to your Death Eater."

"So this is what it's about? It's about Draco?" A slight anger grew inside her, and she tried to use it as much as she could.

"Yes, it's about that filthy Death Eater that you hang around with, as if you have no shame." The Ravenclaw boy had balled up his fists and glared angrily at her.

"Of course she has no shame." The tall boy gave her a significant look and stroked a finger down her jawline.

With a bit more force, she knocked away the hand again. "You don't know Draco as he is now. You're judging him without reason." It was hard to cling to the anger when there was so much fear inside her. She thought about running, but she really didn't want to turn her back, especially not while on a flight of stairs.

"Oh, but we're not judging him, honey," he sneered, the word sounded so dirty in his mouth. "We don't have to. We're judging you. You're the one who betrayed all that we believe in, all that is great and good." His voice was almost tender, and he was watching her with a burning intensity. "And I think you understand that you need to be punished."

She tried different things to say inside her mind, and the thoughts went round and round. But what to say that didn't just made things worse for her? She wished for someone to come by, but all students were either in class or in their common rooms. There wouldn't start to come students on their way to and from class here in a good time. But there must be something she could say or do.

"You're thinking about this the wrong way." She had to try something. "You believe that Draco influences me badly, but it's the other way around, it's me who is influencing him."

"Nice try, but you shouldn't have been consorting with him in the first place. Shame on you." The intonation of 'shame' made Hermione shudder.

"And stop calling him Draco!" The angry boy took a step closer.

"Well, I'm sorry, but that's his name."

Everything went very fast. The Ravenclaw boy took the last step in close to her and pushed her hard. She lost her balance and fell, just before she hit her head or caused serious damage to herself, she got hold of the banister and stopped her fall. But as the momentum swung her,her bag went down the stairs, sending books and parchments flying everywhere. Adrenaline was pumping around her body, and she wondered if she should run for it. But before she had the chance to decide anything a new voice could be heard from the top of the stairs.

"What the hell?" A well-known red-headed boy came into view, taking big steps down the stairs. When he reached the others he went straight for the angry boy, giving him a firm push. The boy fell over and rolled down half the stairs while Ron went down to Hermione. The Ravenclaw managed to get up though, and started to reach for his wand.

"You'll pay for this!" He pointed his wand at Ron.

In a single quick movement Ron drew his wand too. "Stupefy!" He looked down on the stunned boy, lying still in the middle of the stairs. "In real life you have to use a spell directly or not at all. The enemy will not wait and bow before casting the spell. Amateur." He turned to the two other boys, wand still in hand. "Did you want anything?"

"No, we were just leaving." The tall boy's voice was almost a mumble, and the both of them hurried down the stairs, taking a step over their stunned friend and disappeared down the corridor.

"Thank you." She started to actively feel through her body, making sure that she made the fall without injuries.

"Are you hurt?"

"No, I don't think so. I believe I will get a bruise on my back, but I think that's it."

"Good." Without further comments he bowed down and started to pick up her things.

"Um. You... Never mind." Deciding to be quiet for a bit, she started to collect all the parchments that had spread out over the stairs. She used an Accio to get one that had fallen down through the banister, but the rest was easy to reach. Soon she met up with Ron again, who was carrying her books and her bag.

"Thank you again. Both for the books and for the help."

"What did you expect me to do, stand and watch?" He looked a bit grumpy, but didn't seem to be in a hurry to get away.

"You could have done that. You don't like that I'm seeing Draco either."

"No, but I happen to like you, and I'm not going to let some lowlifes hurt you." When she just stared at him he went on. "What, did you think that all that would just go away over a night? That the fact that you are a bloody idiot would suddenly take away how important you are to me?"

"I... I don't know. You've been so angry. It sure felt like I had destroyed it all."

"Maybe, maybe not." Making a face he shot a glance at her. "I must admit that I was up there listening at first. I had no idea that he would push you, in that case I would have broken in on it earlier. It felt kind of strange to hear those boys tell you all the things that I've been thinking. I got some perspective on it."

"Can't we talk about it? Maybe not now, but when we have time. Sit down and talk it through, you get to ask your questions and I will answer as good as I can."

"I don't know. I just feel like I don't want to have anything to do with you right now. But I guess I just have been proved wrong."

"Should we move before that guy wakes up?" She made a gesture at the stunned boy.

"Good idea. Were you heading for the Tower?" When she nodded he started to walk up the stairs. "I have been very angry, you say?"

"Yes, haven't you?" It felt very good to walk next to him again. As a friend.

"More disappointed. And yes, betrayed too."

"Why not take some time and talk about it. Maybe we can make this work, in a weird way?" She was almost holding her breath now, what if Ron could be swayed back to friendship?

"Yeah... Maybe. Maybe with Ginny too then? She also has questions and things she wants to ask you."

"It sounds fine. What about Harry? If we have a meeting the rest of us, can't he be there just as well?"

"Yes, I think Harry should come too. Even if he is scarily much on your side. Unbelievable."

"When do you have time?"

"For all of us to be free? I'd say it will have to be after class. And there's no reason to wait around, what about tonight? Or do you have anything scheduled?"

"Yes I do, but I can change it. This is more important." Draco would have to study alone, at least to begin with. She would just have to send him a message about it.

"Blimey, something is more important than Hermione's studies."

"It happens."

He looked at her with an estimating expression. "There's just one thing I'd like to ask for then."

"Shoot."

"No more lies. No more hiding. No more intricate excuses."

"Sounds fair." Her heart rate quickened, this meant telling them about her and Draco, and then it would all start over again. Not to talk about the risk that it spread all over school.

When they reached the portrait Ron stopped. "Was that slime correct by the way?"

"In what way?"

"Is Malfoy your lover?" The wall was closely studied while he was asking.

"No, I wouldn't say that." She hesitated for a moment. "But he is my boyfriend."

"I thought so." With that, he entered the door and left her outside with her thoughts.