From here on the chapters are going to be substantially longer, because if I kept them at the 4 pages or so that they were for the first 20 chapters, it will take me forever to finish this fic. And that is all.

Also, if you haven't read the updated Chapter 22, I suggest you do so before reading this chapter. I replaced the Author's Note that was previously there, so I don't know if it informed everyone when I replaced it with the proper chapter. So there is a real chapter there now, not just an Author's Note. Be sure to read that chapter first, otherwise some of this might not make sense. :)

Disclaimer: None of these characters or the universe in which they live belong to me. They all belong to the fantabulous J.K. Rowling. Only the plot belongs to me.

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For the next several weeks, nothing really changed from when Draco and Hermione had only been dating. Hermione did notice that Draco watched her even more closely now. Now that he knew that it was a supernatural creature that was after her blood, he seemed more concerned than ever about her safety. Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that he had privately spoken to Ginny about keeping an eye on her, because the younger girl clung like a burr to Hermione. Harry, on the other hand, kept well away from her. It was starting to be the talk of the Gryffindor common room. Whenever Hermione sat down with Ginny and Ron, Harry would kiss Ginny briefly and leave the table with a muttered excuse. While it hurt Hermione, she could tell that it was also rapidly starting to irritate Ginny. Ron looked both annoyed and bemused, and Hermione could tell that brother and sister were both growing rapidly tired of Harry's childish behavior.

It was one Saturday when they were sitting outside that Ron finally lost his temper. When Hermione joined the threesome after her bout of studying in the library, Harry started to rise to his feet. "I've got to go talk to Madam Hooch," he mumbled under his breath. Ron leaped to his feet.

"I'll go with you, mate," he said through gritted teeth. Then he stalked off, with a confused and irritated Harry following him.

Ginny glanced up at Hermione and saw her eyes were dark, but she said nothing. Ginny jumped to her feet and gripped Hermione's wrist. "C'mon. Let's go watch," she told her friend, and saw Hermione's wry smile. The two women stalked cautiously after the boys, keeping out of sight.

Surprisingly, Ron led Harry over to the willow where Hermione had mended the boys' scrapes after Ron had fought with Draco. The boys vanished into the cover of the branches, and Ginny and Hermione circled the perimeter of the tree so that they weren't visible from Hogwarts. Their backs were to the lake, and Hermione glanced over her shoulder once to make sure that the squid wasn't around. She had no desire to be eaten. It was such a beautiful day. Didn't want to ruin it with being consumed for a quick snack.

To her relief, the lake's water was almost like glass. She quickly turned around when Ginny gestured to her, and they leaned closer, and they could hear the boys almost as if they were standing beside them.

"What's your problem with Hermione, mate?" Ron asked angrily. "This shit has been going on for weeks now. You leave whenever she comes around. What's wrong with you?"

"She didn't tell you?" Harry asked furiously.

"Tell me what?" Ron demanded, his voice rising rapidly.

Hermione could almost hear Harry's sneer. "That she's fucking Malfoy," he growled, and there was a frozen silence for a moment.

"Yeah, I know." Ron's voice was bristly and very, very dangerous. "I've known longer than you have."

"You what?" Now it was Harry who sounded dangerous.

"Yeah. That's right. I've known longer than you have. And I'm not acting like a five-year old prat."

"You should be!" Harry retorted. "You honestly don't give a damn that she's Malfoy's whore?"

There was a sharp crack, and Hermione's hand flew to her mouth in shock. The sound was unmistakable. Ron had actually hit Harry! Her gaze went to Ginny, whose face looked stony. Hermione had half expected Ginny to storm in and tell off Ron for daring to lay a hand on her precious boyfriend. But Ginny just looked grimly satisfied, and with a start Hermione realized that Ginny was just as tired of Harry's behavior as Hermione was.

"What the hell was that for?" Harry snarled at his friend, and it sounded like there was a brief scuffle before there was silence again.

"Because you're acting like a complete jackass," Ron said shortly. "Obviously you've forgotten that Hermione has been your friend for six years. And if I didn't know how much my little sister has you wrapped around your finger, I'd say that you were acting like a jealous lover over Hermione."

"Don't be an idiot," Harry snapped. "I don't like Hermione like that."

"Then you better start acting like you like her at all," Ron said grimly. "Because pretty soon you're even going to lose her as a friend. For some reason, she cares about Malfoy. And you're supposed to care about her. So just keep your mouth shut and stop acting like a complete bastard."

"I'm not going to lose her," Harry said dismissively. "She just needs to get rid of Malfoy. He's going to hurt her."

"Is that so?" Ron retorted. "He's going to hurt her, is he? Like you're hurting her now. Haven't you been watching her lately? Every time you walk away from her she looks like she's about to cry."

There was a long moment of silence. "Hermione doesn't cry," Harry muttered.

"Well you're damn close to changing that," Ron snapped. "She's been your friend through all the stupid stuff you've done. At the first test of her actions you call her names—for which I hope you profusely apologize to her—and totally ostracize her. I'm surprised Ginny hasn't yelled at you yet."

"She has," Harry mumbled.

"Well then," Ron said curtly. "I think that you're being an idiot. And if you can't listen to your own girlfriend or one of your best friends, then I think you should think about it yourself. You've hurt her, Harry. I hope you make it up to her."

There was the soft movement of footsteps, and Hermione took a rapid step back, ready to bolt so that neither boy saw that she has eavesdropped on the conversation. Fortunately, it was Ron who emerged. He saw the two girls, but he didn't look surprised at their presence. He gave Hermione a wink and an encouraging smile, and patted his sister on the shoulder before striding off towards the castle.

Hermione was watching him, so she didn't hear Harry come up behind her. All she heard was his tentative voice. "Hermione?"

Shocked, she spun around and saw him looking miserable. Ginny stood off to the side, watching with narrowed eyes, then shook herself and strolled away to leave them alone.

Hermione bit her lip. "Hi, Harry," she said quietly.

He sighed and raked his hand through his hair in a movement that she recognized as one of frustration. "Look, Hermione. I know I've been a complete bastard—"

"Yes," Hermione said firmly. "You have. And with no provocation, I might add." Harry glared at her, his penitence forgotten for the moment. "No provocation?" he asked incredulously. "You're going out with Malfoy, and you don't think that's provocation?"

"No," Hermione said quietly. "It's my life, Harry. My behavior doesn't reflect upon you. You're not an ex-lover or anything else to act so jealous."

"I'm not jealous," Harry said hotly. "I just can't stand the thought of that slimy git touching you!"

"But it shouldn't matter to you," Hermione said quietly, but firmly. "I know it distresses you because there's animosity between you, but I'm in love with Draco. And I want you to accept that. Accepting our relationship doesn't mean you have to go drinking with him or suddenly be best friends. It just means that you don't have to avoid me and call me a whore."

Harry winced. "About that, Hermione—I wanted to really apologize. I was completely out of line."

"You were," Hermione said, her eyes flashing. "Not only was that completely out of line, but I'm shocked that you would think that you could ever apply that label to me. I am no one's whore, Harry Potter."

Harry hung his head. "Yes. You're absolutely right. I'm sorry."

Hermione let him stew in his penitence for a moment, then touched his cheek gently. Startled, he looked up at her, and saw her smiling wryly at him. "Friends?" she asked softly, and saw the sunshine break into his face again.

He leaned closer and kissed her cheek nonchalantly, with all the interest of a brother. "Friends," he said roughly. "I'm really sorry, Hermione."

She squeezed his hand. "I know. It's all right."

Harry smiled and squeezed her hand back. "Thanks. You always were the best."

She smiled back at him. "And you were always a flatterer," she teased, withdrawing her hand from his, conscious that he might feel the smooth band of her wedding ring on her finger, although there were illusion spells on it.

Just as her fingers slipped free of Harry's, she saw something dark flash from the corner of her eye. A breath later, something slammed into her, sending her flying. She dimly heard Harry's shout of alarm, but then the creature in the hooded cloak was on her. She twisted viciously beneath the creature's weight as it pinned her, its cold hands wrapped around her upper arms. Fetch, she thought briefly, then twisted her body and sent them rolling down the hill toward the lake. All she could think was how to get out from under the fetch. It was too strong to muscle away.

She only had a mere second to gasp for air before as they plunged into the water. Immediately she opened her eyes. The water gave everything a green tinge, and she saw the fetch floating across from her, frozen just as she seemed to be. The black cloak moved slowly in the water, the hood moving away from its face. She had to suppress her gasp as she saw the creature's features. As Dumbledore had said, it was an exact replica of her. Down to the stubborn tilt of the mouth and the freckle on her left earlobe.

Then the fetch reached through the water for her, its face curiously blank. Hermione treaded water frantically, trying to head back toward the surface. Hard fingers encircled one of her ankles, dragging her farther down. She saw precious air bubbles from her mouth moving lazily toward the surface, and she nearly panicked as the fetch towed her downward. Every second that she was underwater was another second that it would take her to reach the top. And she was rapidly running out of breath.

She kicked hard, but the water impeded her movements, and it didn't even rattle the fetch. Her lungs started to burn, and she twisted and bucked frantically in the water, her eyes scanning the area. Where were the merpeople? She wondered frantically. Surely they would come to her aid. She remembered Harry's account of their fierce faces and spears from the Triwizard Tournament.

Inexorably, the fetch towed her deeper and deeper beneath the water. Desperately, she watched the light fade from the surface of the water as they went deeper. She treaded water, then twisted so she could stare down into the face of her attacker. Looking into her mirror image was unnerving, but she was desperate. She reached down and clawed at the fetch's hands, and it released her abruptly. She didn't take a moment to wonder why it had released her so quickly. She started to swim upward, her lungs tightening. She desperately wanted to take a breath, but kept her mouth clamped shut.

She was staring upward, stroking towards the top, but her vision kept wavering. Just the water, she told herself groggily. The water seemed to darken. Am I still going up? She wondered absently, just as her world went dark.

************

When Hermione woke, everything was dark. She sat up abruptly, dragging a full breath of air into her lungs. She ached everywhere, as if she had been beaten. Then strong hands were on her face, hands she immediately recognized. "Draco!" she gasped, almost ready to hyperventilate. "Draco—I can't breathe!"

"Hush," he soothed, conjuring up a paper bag. "Breathe into this, darling." Her trembling hands reached for the bag and pressed it against her face, her wide eyes on Draco's. He looked haggard and worn, and his hair was mussed as if he had run his hands through it repeatedly. When her breathing slowly calmed, she dropped the bag into her lap, feeling shaky.

"Draco?" she stammered, nearly ready to cry. "Draco, what happened?" She looked around, and saw with a great deal of relief that they were in the darkened infirmary.

Draco seemed to age before her eyes, and he raked his hands through his hair again. "The fetch attacked you," he said wearily. "It dragged you into the lake."

"The lake?" she repeated, and then jerked as the memories rushed back. Strong hands pulling her under. The light fading. Desperation mounting even as her lungs strained for air. Her chest feeling as if it would explode. The shock of seeing her face on the creature. Struggling upward even as her movements became slower and slower. The vague sensation of chilled hands on her arms, pulling her upwards.

Hermione shuddered violently and tried to calm her hammering heart. "How—how did I get out?"

Draco sighed. "The merpeople. I know barely enough Mermish to ask them to help you."

Hermione blinked. Surprisingly, it wasn't the fact that the merpeople had indeed come to her aid that caught her attention. It was the fact that her husband knew Mermish. "You know Mermish?" she asked in surprise.

His mouth tilted slightly into a wry smile. "Yes, dear. I'm not fluent, or anything near to it. But I know a few words. My father thought I should have a passing knowledge of pretty much everything."

"Well thank God for that," Hermione murmured. "At least that's something we can thank your father for."

"That and nothing else," Draco muttered under his breath. Hermione smiled slightly and slid to the edge of the bed. "Come up here with me," she invited softly, and was surprised to see Draco hesitate before he climbed up beside her. He pulled her close against him, his arms tight around her.

"We almost lost you." His voice was nearly toneless, but his arms were hard around her. She nearly winced from the force of his grip. "You weren't breathing when they brought you up, Hermione."

Hermione shivered, and his arms tightened around her again. She didn't protest his bruising grip because she could only imagine what agonies he had been through while she was unconscious. "But I'm all right," she whispered, pressing a gentle kiss to the only place she could reach: his collarbone.

"This has to stop, Hermione," he said jerkily. "I'm not sure if I can go through that again."

"Me either," she said dryly, and his arms jerked violently.

"Don't joke," he said harshly. "I'm serious, Hermione. I—I thought you were dead. I went a little mad, I think." His voice was bleak.

Hermione bit her lip. She wanted to ask if anyone had seen them, but knew that it would be an idiotic question. To wonder if their marriage was still secret in the face of Draco's terrible fear would to make light of it and insult him. Draco sighed. "Go ahead," he said, his voice resigned. "Ask me. You know you want to."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Hermione muttered, nuzzling her cold nose into the hollow of his shoulder.

She felt him jump at her cold nose, then his arms loosened their hard grip on her and settled her more comfortably against his long body. "No, no one saw me," he said with a sigh. "No one knows about us, my dear. Except for Dumbledore, and now McGonagall. She was the first one to find us behind the willow. Weasley had run for help."

Hermione frowned, her brow furrowed as she tried to search her foggy memory. "Wasn't Harry around?" she asked musingly, trying to remember.

Draco stiffened. "Yes," he said shortly. "He was."

Hermione tried to crane her neck back to look at him anxiously. "He didn't give you any trouble, did he?"

Draco sighed. "No, he didn't. We were both too worried about you to worry about each other."

"Good," Hermione murmured, muffling a yawn. She felt groggy and hazy, and wanted nothing more to fall asleep in Draco's arms. It seemed that that was the only place she really felt safe anymore.

His callused hands smoothed down her wayward curls. "Go to sleep," he murmured, his baritone voice rumbling his chest beneath her cheek. "I'm right here." He raised her left hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to the finger that housed her wedding ring. She pressed close against him, and his arms swept around her. She slowly relaxed, then fell down into sleep.

***********

When Hermione came awake, she was instantly aware that she was alone in the bed. Her eyes fluttered open, but it was a moment before her vision cleared enough to look at her surroundings. Warm sunlight streamed through the windows, making the infirmary seem almost. . .cheery. Hermione wrinkled her nose in disgust at her own description. It was an infirmary. Cheery was never a descriptive adjective.

And it was also apparently deserted. She couldn't hear footsteps, or anything else for that matter. Frowning—someone was always here—she swung her legs toward the edge of the bed. Just as she did, she heard someone's voice. "Mr.Potter, I don't believe that Miss Granger should be disturbed right now. She needs her rest." Hermione immediately recognized the voice of Madam Pomfrey.

Hermione bit her lip, then raised her voice. "Madam Pomfrey? I'm quite all right. I'd like to see Harry, if that's all right."

A moment later, the healer came bustling to Hermione's bedside with Harry hot on her heels. She tutted under her breath as she summarily examined Hermione, then gave Harry an eagle-eyed glare. "Ten minutes, Mr.Potter. I'd like to inspect her more thoroughly afterwards." While the healer's back was to her, Hermione grimaced at that statement. She saw Harry's lips twitch once, then he was nodding solemnly to the healer.

"Yes ma'am," he said soberly. "I promise, no more than ten minutes."

Muttering to herself, Madam Pomfrey bustled away. Harry and Hermione shared a wry smile over their resident healer before Harry took the seat that was beside Hermione's bed. Hermione glanced around, half hoping that Draco was hovering somewhere nearby.

"He's not here," Harry said unexpectedly, and Hermione turned to look at him in surprise. "Draco," Harry said unnecessarily. "He's not here. He left before daybreak."

Hermione frowned. "How did you know he was here?"

Harry shrugged negligently. "Ron and I took turns as sentry outside the door."

Hermione blinked rapidly. "Beg pardon?"

Harry's mouth curved wryly. "You're a smart witch, Mione," he chided gently. "Did you think we'd leave you to guard yourself?"

"Well—no, I never really thought about it, but—"

"But nothing," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "I know I've been a prick lately, Hermione, but you were attacked. In broad daylight, right in front of me. Of course I was going to take precautions with your safety."

"But I'm sure Dumbledore set up wards," Hermione sputtered. "He's obviously aware of what happened. You were there, and Draco knew what was going on."

Harry frowned slightly. "Yes," he mused. "Malfoy did know what was going on. Why didn't you confide any of this to anyone else? Not even Ginny?"

Hermione shrugged restlessly. "I don't know. I guess I never really thought about it."

Harry sighed heavily. "Malfoy doesn't have to be your sole support, Hermione. We've been your friends a lot longer than you've been with Malfoy. Don't think that we've abandoned you."

Hermione sighed and reached out to take Harry's hand. "I'm sorry about that," she said hesitantly, and he waved it away with his other hand even as he squeezed hers reassuringly.

"Don't apologize, Mione. I haven't been a very good friend lately. I suppose it's natural that you'd feel that way. Speaking of feeling—how are you? Feeling, I mean?" His smile was wry, and Hermione's heart swelled. It was a smile that she was familiar with. She had seen it on his face thousands of times over the years.

She smiled back at him. "I'm all right. Just feeling a little battered."

Harry's green jeweled eyes hardened. "No wonder," he said, his voice clipped. "It seemed like you were down there for forever. I had to restrain Malfoy from going in after you."

Hermione blinked rapidly. "Draco tried to go in after me?"

Harry raised his eyebrows. "Didn't he tell you?"

Hermione shook her head slowly. "No, he didn't. We didn't talk for very long. Why don't you tell me what happened, Harry?"

He arched one eyebrow. "I think that will eat up most of our ten minutes, Mione."

She waved her hand restlessly. "That's fine. I won't stay here much longer anyway."

Harry smiled slightly. "Oh really? Planning on escaping, are you?"

"No," she retorted stubbornly. "But I don't need to stay here. I'm perfectly fine, just a little sore."

Harry snorted. "If you say so."

She wrinkled her nose and glared at him. "Just get on with the story, Potter."

He chuckled, then started out. "I was talking to you outside the willow when something in a cloak attacked you. You were writhing around on the ground with it, and I was running toward you. Then you both rolled into the lake. Just as I was going to go after you, Malfoy shoved by me and tried to get in the water. He was about waist deep before I grabbed him back. Ron and Ginny came running up—I guess they had seen Malfoy running past them. Malfoy punched me, and we scuffled for a minute before Ron came in to help."

Harry shook his head, stopping the flow of his story for a minute. "It was a little scary, Hermione. He was crazed. I almost didn't recognize him. He got away from us and swam down into the water. He didn't come up for a minute, then he came back with his hair all sticking up. He looked almost as if he were in shock—his eyes were so blank and dead. He was shaking so hard I thought he might collapse. Then we saw two merpeople come up to the surface, carrying you. Malfoy said something in Mermish—I didn't know he knew Mermish—and then vanished back down again. He swam out and got you, then brought you back up the shore.

"He didn't let any of us near you, Hermione. Not even Ginny. He just kept shaking you and mumbling to you, and completely going nuts. Ron shoved him out of the way and used a few anti-drowning spells on you, and you started coughing up water. Just then McGonagall hurried up and carted you off to the infirmary. Draco followed her, and so did the rest of us. Madam Pomfrey shooed everyone out, and Draco stayed in the hallway, pacing up and down. He looked like hell, Hermione. Honestly. I guess I was a little shocked at the way he was acting."

"Why?" Hermione asked acerbically, almost shivering from Harry's account of what Draco had gone through. "Did you think he was just using me? That he didn't care about me at all?"

"For a while," Harry admitted bluntly. "But obviously that's not true. If that bloke's not head over heels in love with you, I'll eat my socks."

Hermione smiled wryly. "Well luckily for you, you won't have to. Your socks are horrendous, Harry. You shouldn't make bets concerning them. You'll poison yourself one of these days."

Harry made a face at her. "My socks aren't the issue, Hermione. Malfoy is."

Hermione sighed. "Harry, I'm in love with Draco. Did you think I would love someone who didn't love me back?"

"It happens all the time," he told her shortly. "Ginny loved me for a long time before I realized that I loved her too."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Well that's not the case here. Draco loves me, Harry, so you don't have to worry about that."

"Don't tell that to him," Draco's baritone voice came from the end of the bed, and Harry and Hermione glanced over at him in surprise. Draco eyed Harry for a moment before he smiled slightly at Hermione. "I don't want him thinking I've gone soft."

Hermione snorted, a very unladylike sound, as Draco came to the opposite side of her bed from Harry. Her hand reached for his, and he laced his fingers through hers, his other hand coming up to gently rub one of her soft curls between his fingers. "I don't think that's possible," she told her husband tartly.

Draco smiled slightly down at her. "Bossy wench," he said fondly, and she pursed her lips at him.

Chuckling, he gave her a gentle kiss, and his fingertips lingered for a moment on her cheek. "How are you feeling this morning?"

Hermione rolled her eyes, but her eyes were soft as she reciprocated Draco's gesture—touching his aristocratic cheekbone in a tender caress. "Between both of you, I'll answer that question several more times this morning. I'm feeling just fine, love. Don't worry so."

Draco snorted. "You're so damned accident prone, I can't help it."

Although she knew that he was baiting her, she scowled darkly at him. "Accident prone? I am not accident prone! I was attacked, Draco Malfoy!"

"How well I know," he muttered, and she kissed his knuckles and held his hand to her face for a brief moment before Harry cleared his throat pointedly.

Startled—they had forgotten Harry was even there—Hermione and Draco turned to look at Harry. He smiled wryly. "I guess my fears have been put to rest." He rose to his feet slowly, his thoughtful eyes on Draco, who held himself very still and tried hard not to glare venomously at Harry.

"If you hurt her, Malfoy, I'll cut you into little pieces and feed you to the squid," Harry said deliberately.

Both men ignored Hermione's sharp reprimand as they stared challengingly at one another. Slowly, the fine tension in Draco's muscles relaxed. "I wouldn't expect any less," Draco drawled, and Hermione saw Harry's smile flash quickly.

"We'll see," was all he said. He kissed Hermione's cheek quickly, ignoring Draco's low growl of displeasure, then strolled out of the infirmary.

Just then, Madam Pomfrey bustled back over to Hermione's bedside. She eyed Draco, but didn't protest his presence. Obviously Dumbledore's alerted the staff as to our marital state, Hermione thought with a sigh.

"Here now, Miss Granger," she said briskly. "I want to examine you. Mr.Malfoy, will you please take a seat?"

To Hermione's surprise, Draco didn't protest. He slid into the chair as Madam Pomfrey had requested, but his eyes were sharp as he catalogued everything that the woman did to his wife. When Hermione winced at achy ribs, his eyes shuttered and he wiped all emotion off his face. Guessing that it was hard for him to see her in pain, Hermione tried her best not to show how sore she was.

Finally Madam Pomfrey sighed. "I suppose you're well enough to leave, Miss Granger. You'll be sore for the next few days, and you should try to take it as easy as possible. But you're well enough to go to your classes and back to your House." She glanced over her shoulder and said quietly to Draco, "Keep an eye on her."

Draco's silvery eyes narrowed. "I intend to, madam."

Madam Pomfrey nodded curtly, then made a gesture toward the small dresser at Hermione's bedside. "Your clothes have been cleaned and mended, Miss Granger, and they're in the second drawer. While you're dressing I'll write you a pass back to your dormitory."

Hermione nodded. "Thank you, Madam Pomfrey."

The woman nodded shortly, then strode back toward her office. Draco rose smoothly to his feet to draw the curtain around the bed as Hermione slipped off the bed. She had to clutch at the sheets for a moment as dizziness assailed her, then she dug through the drawer. Her clothes that she had been wearing were folded neatly inside, with her wand sitting on top. She carefully pulled off the hospital shift, wincing at her achy bones. She glanced down at herself, almost expecting to be covered in bruises. But except for a circle of dark bruises around her ankle, she was outwardly unmarked. She slowly pulled on her clothes, then turned to face Draco.

His mouth was set into a hard line, his eyes like flint. Startled at the anger that nearly vibrated from him, Hermione made her way slowly to him. She smoothed her hand over his abdomen, feeling his muscles ripple and contract beneath her touch. "Draco? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said curtly. "Are you ready to go?"

Hermione frowned and propped her hands on her hips. "No, I'm not. What's wrong with you?"

He glared down at her. "There's nothing wrong with me, Hermione."

Hermione snorted. "Could have fooled me."

Draco glared at her again, his eyes flashing. "I don't have to tell you everything."

Hermione raised her eyebrows. "No you don't," she said equitably. "Never said you did."

"I'm not going to wrapped around your little finger," he hissed at her.

Hermione sighed. "Is that what this is about?"

He ignored her. "I'm not going to let you have your way all the time. Especially about your safety."

Hermione's brows lowered. "What does that mean?" she asked ominously.

He ignored her again. "I think we should tell everyone about our marriage. Then Dumbledore will give us private quarters and I can make sure you're all right all the time." Draco looked stubborn, but Hermione saw the terrible vulnerability in his eyes. She sighed. He was so afraid of losing her that he was desperately wanting to pick a fight with her. Trying to cover his more sensitive feelings with prickly behavior. Typical man behavior.

Hermione stood on her toes to kiss the underside of his jaw, letting her body lean against his. "You know we can't do that," she said softly. "You know why, Draco. And don't worry. I'm not afraid."

"You should be," he snapped, his hands coming to grip her shoulders firmly. "You almost died, Hermione."

"But I didn't," she said softly, her brown eyes steady on his. "I didn't. You saved me."

"You saved yourself," he said curtly. "You had already gotten away from the fetch by the time they merpeople saved you."

"I would have never gotten to the surface without you," Hermione said simply, and saw his mouth tighten. She continued inexorably. "I'm not afraid of the fetch, Draco. I can take care of myself. And when I can't, I know you'll be looking after me. And so will Harry, Ron and Ginny. I'm amply protected."

"Obviously not well enough," Draco said, but his voice had lost some of its heat and now sounded weary. He dropped his forehead to lie against hers. "You just don't realize—" his voice trailed off, and he closed his eyes.

Hermione kissed him tenderly. "No," she said softly. "I don't. God willing, I'll never have to know what it feels like to have you in such danger. But I'm safe now. Let's not worry over it anymore, okay? We'll figure out what to do."

Draco sighed, and released her shoulders so he could wrap his arms around her. He held her in a desperate silence, his cheek pressed to her head. When he finally released her, he was quiet. Hermione looked up at him in concern, but he just gave her a faint smile. Hermione gathered up her things and let Draco escort her out of the infirmary.

He kept his distance from her, and Hermione almost told him that it didn't matter if people knew about him—she desperately wanted him close. But she knew that it did matter, so she kept her mouth firmly shut. When they reached the Gryffindor Tower, Draco leaned against the wall, his mouth turned up into a familiar sneer. Hermione's heart gave a little thump as she saw it. It had been a long time since Draco had looked at her that way. Even though she knew it was only for appearances—appearances that she insisted upon—it still caused a little pain in her heart.

"Well, I'm done with babysitting," Draco said curtly. "See that your friends look after you better, Granger. I don't want to have to walk you back again."

"Neither do I," Hermione retorted. She turned quickly on her heel and went into the Common Room before she gave into temptation and kissed him. To her surprise, as soon as she stepped into the Common Room she was nearly bombarded. Most of the Gryffindors were there, anxiously awaiting her arrival.

She was barraged with questions from almost everyone, and it took her a moment to adjust. Just as she opened her mouth to start answering questions—or at least make her way to a chair—Harry and Ron bustled through the crowd. They took up positions on either side of her, looking for all the world as if they were her bodyguards. Hermione blinked at both of them. "What on earth are you doing?"

Ron grinned at her. "We're your bodyguards, Your Majesty."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Ron. I don't need bodyguards."

"Watch," Harry said dryly, as the crowd of anxious Gryffindors seemed to surge toward them. Hermione blinked in surprise, then rolled her eyes again. "For goodness sake, boys," she said in exasperation. She cleared her throat, then raised her voice so that it rang through the room. "Everyone, please—back off and be quiet!"

Silence quickly fell in the room, and Ron and Harry exchanged amused glances over Hermione's head. Hermione nodded to herself, then smiled wryly at her two boys. "Now see? Bodyguards weren't necessary. I'm perfectly capable of handling myself," she said sensibly, then made her way to a chair.

Colin Creevey was the first to ask her a question. "Hermione, are you all right? What happened? We heard you fell in the lake! Did you see the squid? Who attacked you? Was it the same person as before?"

Or several questions, Hermione thought with a sigh. The boy seemed to speak in strings of multiple sentences. She didn't think she had ever heard him utter a single sentence by itself. She raised her hand with a imperiousness that she found came almost naturally. She was almost surprised at herself, although it didn't show on her face. Maybe I'll be better at being Lady Malfoy than I thought, she thought to herself in secret amusement as Colin fell silent.

"First of all, I'm quite all right. I've already been checked over by Madam Pomfrey, and she's given me a clean bill of health. Yes, I did fall into the lake, and yes I was attacked. Unfortunately, we don't know who my attacker was, or if it was even the same person." To her surprise, Hermione found that she could lie to the crowd of Gryffindors without batting an eyelash. Draco is rubbing off, she thought sourly. He's a very bad influence. One she'd have to put up with for the rest of her life. The thought almost made her smile, but she held it back.

Obviously her terse and brief explanation satisfied the Gryffindors, because they began to slowly dissipate, chattering excitedly among themselves. When the Common Room was mostly cleared, Ron, Harry and Ginny seated themselves close to Hermione's seat.

"Now," Harry said without preamble. "Tell us what really happened."

Hermione sighed. "Harry, you saw it all. Much better than me, actually."

"Well we didn't," Ginny said firmly. "So indulge us."

Hermione sighed again and briefly related what had happened. When she finished, Ginny narrowed her eyes at her. "Did Madam Pomfrey really give you a clean bill of health?" she asked suspiciously.

Hermione laughed. "Yes, she really did. She said I should take it easy for a few days, though."

Ginny sniffed. "Thought so." She glanced over at Harry, and they seemed to communicate with only their eyes for a moment.

"Don't do that," Ron said irritably. "It's weird."

"Weird?" Hermione asked him, arching her eyebrow in amusement.

Ron scowled again. "Don't do that either. You look just like Malfoy."

Hermione laughed. "I don't doubt it. He's a bad influence on me." But then she smiled, ruining the effect of her words.

Just then Crookshanks sauntered into the room and leaped into Hermione's lap. Despite his indolent demeanor, Hermione saw that his hair was standing on end. Hermione stroked and soothed him for a moment, smiling inwardly. Even her cat couldn't openly show that he had been worried about her. Typical of the males in her life.

Just as Hermione got Crookshanks settled down, the portrait slid open again, and McGonagall stepped into the room, her expression solemn. Hermione's smile of welcome slid away when she saw the professor's mouth pressed into a line of displeasure.

"Professor?" she asked anxiously, "is there anything wrong?"

McGonagall sighed. "As a matter of fact, Miss Granger, I think there is. Would you please accompany me to the Headmaster's office?"

There was a chorus of protests from her friends, but McGonagall's curt gesture silenced them. "That is enough out of you," she said sharply. "This is a matter of serious business. Miss Granger, if you please."

Hermione rose slowly from the couch, concern darkening her eyes. From McGonagall's demeanor she somehow doubted that Dumbledore wanted to see her about the lake incident. So what else could there possibly be? She made a small gesture. "I'm ready, Professor."

McGonagall nodded shortly and strode out of the portrait hole. Frowning slightly to herself, Hermione followed closely in her professor's wake. When they came to Dumbledore's office, McGonagall mumbled the password. When the gargoyle slid away, she strode briskly up the stairs and to the door that led to Dumbledore's office.

She opened the door after a perfunctory knock and stepped inside, Hermione a step behind her. Dumbledore was seated behind his desk, and Fawkes was dozing on his perch. Upon Hermione and McGonagall's entrance, the phoenix woke and eyed them in what Hermione could have sworn was a considering manner. Dumbledore made a gesture toward the two seats that were before his desk. "Miss Granger. Professor McGonagall. Please—both of you take a seat."

The two women seated themselves, McGonagall more stiffly than Hermione. Glancing sideways at her Head of House, Hermione could only surmise that McGonagall was quietly furious. But what confused her was why.

Dumbledore eyed Hermione over his half-moon glasses. "I have heard the reports of the incident today, Miss Granger. Are you feeling well?"

Hermione nodded slowly. "Yes, Professor. Madam Pomfrey said I was well enough, just needed to rest for a few days."

Dumbledore nodded solemnly. "Poppy would know best, I suppose." He was silent for a moment, and to Hermione's surprise, Professor McGonagall burst out, "Come out with it, Albus! This charge is a serious one!"

Dumbledore gave her a compassionate look. "I am aware of the severity of this situation, Minerva. You must let me take things at my own pace."

Hermione blinked in surprise as she saw McGonagall slowly subside. Then Dumbledore pinned her with his steady blue eyes. Suddenly they didn't look so grandfatherly anymore. "I dislike to bring up this topic after your recent scare, but I find that it is necessary."

Hermione's brow furrowed. "Of course, Professor. What's wrong?" Her heart fluttered in her chest. Dumbledore's reticence was only making her more nervous. What charge had Professor McGonagall been talking about?"

Dumbledore sighed and folded his hands on his desk and pinned her with a steely blue stare. "Miss Granger, someone has accused you of cheating."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Reviewers:

Thank you so much for everyone who has reviewed! You all make me very happy, and I'm glad that you like my story. I'm sorry about the infrequent updates (or infrequent for me, at least). My computer is being a pain, and school is winding down, but the teachers see fit to give us even more work. But it will be done soon, so expect updates to increase in a few weeks. :)

ArtemisGirl- Thank you for your lovely review! I'm really glad that you like it, but the cliffhangers probably won't come all in one chapter, as Blaise and Pansy are starting to each have their own agendas. But I'll do my best not to space them out too far. :)

Coolgalpotterfan- Also, thank you for your review! I'm quite flattered. *blushes*