Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, merely this plot and some random OC Hufflepuff… yeah, he definitely owned.

Sorry for the long wait. School is absolutely horrid. But, let's get to the story!

Forever and Always
By Darkwing731
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((--Chapter Nine--))
Learning

-

Granger might figure it out.

Not her. Anyone but her.

Malfoy pressed his eyes shut, hoping to whatever cruel god that was still above him in the skies or well, down below conspiring in the pits of hell, that Granger was not the person to solve him.

She's the only one that cares, Draco… the voice was not his own, but Malfoy could just imagine his mother's calm, soft voice persuading him.

To have his mother back, he'd let the Mudblood anoint him if she really wanted. He would let her do anything.

But she's never—comingback

Ignoring the steady stream of tears on his cheek, Malfoy carved just one more into his wrist. He hated how they all looked the same… Eihwaz was not a very interesting rune to look at.

But it was the only one he knew could help him.

-

"The knowledge of healing is one of the most essential things that a wizard can know. If wandless, both potions and pastes can be made easily, provided the maker is not a complete imbecile and can work without magic," Snape drawled. "Already Madam Pomfrey has expressed that she is low on both pastes and medicinal concoctions. Would anyone like to hazard a guess at her most frequently used paste?"

Hermione's hand was not the only one in the air today; pleased that someone of his own house knew the answer, Snape selected Zabini.

"The one she uses for bruises, sir," Zabini answered. "The proper name escapes me."

"Correct. Ten points to Slytherin," Snape said, lips curling into an unpleasant smile. "And what medicinal herb is used in this paste?" The Potions Master glared at Zabini for not knowing the answer, and he was forced to call on Hermione.

"Very well, Granger," he said reluctantly.

"Arnica, sir," Hermione said eagerly. "It also reduces the inflammation in wounds, and helps sprains—"

"I didn't ask what it did," Snape cut across sharply, and Hermione fell silent, lowering her hand.

"Now, who can tell me what arnica alleviates?" Flabbergasted and annoyed, Hermione glared at Snape as her hand shot up. He smirked at her, and called once again on Blaise Zabini.

"It helps sprains and inflamed wounds, sir," Zabini offered, throwing Hermione a malicious smile, which she countered with a fierce glower.

"Correct again. Ten points to Slytherin." Hermione scoffed loudly, and Snape turned his attention onto her. "Is something wrong, Granger?"

Hermione opened her mouth to snarl, for the first time she could ever remember, a retort that would surely cause Gryffindor to lose more than fifty points, but the unexpected opening of the door stopped her.

Almost as if he had imitated Ron in his growth, a tall and gangly Colin Creevy entered, looking sheepish and nervous. The fifth year quickly delivered a note to Professor Snape, before giving Hermione a friendly smile and leaving as swiftly as he could.

Snape ripped open the note, read it over and crumpled it in his hand. "Malfoy, go to the Hospital Wing."

"Why should I?" Malfoy snapped back, hunched over in his seat and livid. Snape's lip curled.

"Your presence is requested," he said softly, dangerously. Snarling audibly under his breath, Malfoy gathered up his things, pushed over his cauldron in an act of recalcitrance, and stormed from the room.

When every eye had left the back of the room, the students settled their gazes on Snape, who looked as if he had been forced to drink a potion that Crabbe or Goyle had made. His sharp eyes rested on Hermione, who defiantly looked back at him.

"Five points for your cheek, Granger," he snarled. Hermione gaped at him, and before she could stop herself, "Professor, I didn't—"

"Interrupting my class? Five more points!"

Git, Hermione thought irritably.

-x-x-x-

"I swear, if I hear another professor lecture me about NEWT's—" Ron snarled.

"Give it a rest, Ron," Hermione sighed. "It's like fifth year. We can't do anything but study."

"Forced labor!" Ron cried, stabbing his dinner plate angrily; "I'm losing sleep over all of this bloody homework."

"God forbid you don't sleep well," Hermione snapped. "None of us are, if you haven't noticed!"

"I haven't noticed, because I've been too busy with homework," Ron growled at her, shaking a fork menacingly in her direction. "Don't make me add you to my list, Hermione."

"List? What list?"

"Of people I'll have to kill because they lectured me," Ron said simply.

"Ron—"

"Hello Hermione." Said girl spun around in her seat, but not after seeing a dark look cross Ron's face.

"Justin," Hermione greeted. She had to admit, it was a bit odd for him to talk to her during dinner, and only shared Ron's uneasiness.

"Professor Dumbledore informed me that our Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is arriving tonight," he told her. Hermione scanned the staff table, realizing for the first time which seat had been empty.

"I completely forgot!" Hermione said. "Who is it, do you know?"

"Someone named Tonks," Justin said offhandedly. "I dunno her, but—"

"Tonks?" Ron spluttered. "Tonks is our Defense Against the Dark Arts professor?"

"What, do you know her?" Justin asked, at the same time swinging a leg over the Gryffindor bench and squeezing in next to Hermione. She watched as Ron's eyes narrowed, but he ignored the Head Boy's actions.

"She's a bloody brilliant Auror! A bit clumsy, I have to say, but she's a member of—"

"Ron!" Hermione said warningly. She turned to Justin; "A member of the Auror department." Justin quirked an eyebrow.

"So if she works in the Ministry… how do you two know her?" Justin asked slowly. Ron and Hermione exchanged hesitant glances.

"Erm…"

"Anyway, Hermione, I came over because I was wondering if you'd like to get together soon," Justin continued, smiling. Ron coughed loudly and started choking on his pumpkin juice.

"To work on—on rounds and prefect meetings?" Hermione asked quickly, hoping to keep Ron's anger at bay.

"Yes," Justin agreed, and Hermione deflated in relief. "That and other things."

Ron's indignant comment went unheard as the great hall's attention was diverted to the doors. There was a loud bang, a shriek, boisterous laughter, followed by Harry, Ginny and Tonks entering as calm as day.

The threesome parted, and Harry and Ginny rushed over. "You'll never guess—"

"That Tonks is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?" Ron asked, grinning.

"Had to steal my thunder," Ginny said. She spotted Justin next to Hermione, and observed the Head Girl's discomfort. "Hello, Justin."

"Ginny, Harry," he greeted warmly. As the couple sat down, Justin stood up, placing a hand on Hermione's shoulder, his fingers too low to be interpreted as friendly. "Think about what I said, and we'll make a date."

"F-For prefects and things," Hermione squeaked, flushing. The Head Boy nodded, squeezed her shoulder and left, fingers trailing on her shoulder before he walked away completely.

"I cannot believe him," Ginny blurted out, giggling.

"I'm going to set him straight the next time I see him," Ron snarled, now brandishing fork and knife in the air. Harry frowned at Hermione as he pulled food onto his plate.

"Haven't you told Justin about Ron, Hermione?" Harry asked, and her already scarlet cheeks turned darker.

"We never got around to talking about it," she choked out, wincing a little at Ron's furious gaze.

"Well get around to it, or I'll get around to hexing the living hell out of him," Ron snapped.

"Ron, please don't—"

"I don't want him fancying you, Hermione," Ron interrupted flatly. "You're mine, not his!"

Hermione immediately flared up at this comment. "I don't belong to anyone, Ronald!"

"You're my girlfriend!"

"I'm not your property!"

"But you're my girlfriend!"

"Attention, students!" Dumbledore's strong, venerable voice echoed across the hall, all conversations ceasing at the sound, and Ron and Hermione's argument halted for a moment. "Whether it has gone unnoticed or not, I would like to introduce to you our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Tonks!"

Tonks stood up with a wide grin, and waved vigorously to the students, knocking McGonagall's hat in the process. Her hair was lavender purple and curled around her ears, giving her the appearance of a small violet flower.

"I am terribly sorry about the absence of a teacher. For the past month, everyone has enjoyed an extra class in which they could do what they pleased," Dumbledore said. "This will change, starting on Monday, so in the meantime your Head of House can fix your schedules." His speech was met with groans and disappointed whispers. "Thank you for listening, you may return to your delicious meals!"

"At least we'll have fun this year," Hermione said thoughtfully as the conversations picked up again.

"I wonder what she'll be teaching us," Harry inquired.

"Disguise, stealth, fighting tactics, a combination of everything we've learned in that class. This is the year we'll actually be dueling each other," Hermione informed him at once.

"Hopefully Finch-Fletchley's in our class—I'll have an excuse to hex him!"

"Don't start with this again…"

Their bickering continued for the rest of dinner, through the halls and into the Gryffindor common room. It was only when Ron began repeating that Hermione 'belonged' to him did the Head Girl pivot on the spot and leave the common room.

"Empathy," Hermione spat to the portrait, entering the head tower as Ron ran up behind her and started snapping at her. "And don't let this redheaded fool through!"

"Hey!" Ron said indignantly, but his angry expression was wiped from her mind as the portrait snapped shut, throwing a comfortable silence over Hermione's ears.

"Thank Merlin," she muttered. Meandering around the couch, Hermione pulled out her quill and inkwell, parchment and textbooks, and began her homework. She worked well into the night, only pausing a few times to fetch a drink or a snack, before returning to assiduously finish her work.

While Hermione could appreciate Ron's protectiveness, she just couldn't handle how overbearing he was. He wasn't controlling, Hermione mused as she scribbled down facts for Arithmancy, but he could be if pushed too far. The head girl was well aware how strongly Ron felt for her, for it was mutual. But she could sympathize with his raging jealously, because when Lavender had been around…

Hermione's Arithmancy paper had just been completed when she heard a loud disturbance outside the Head Tower. Setting down her quill, Hermione pulled out her wand and approached the main portrait, her frustrated thoughts of Ron pushed aside.

"Stop treating me like I'm bloody four!" The livid scream had become all too familiar, and Hermione gasped sharply and jumped away from the portrait as if Malfoy had been hiding right in front of her.

"If you continue to act so irresponsibly, Draco, then the staff has no other choice!" Hermione clutched at the couch, trying to make sense of Snape's concerned, albeit sharp voice as he quarreled with Malfoy.

"I'm not a child! I can handle responsibilities, and I can take care of myself," Malfoy snarled, his voice slightly muffled by the portrait, but still amplified due to the corridor outside.

"Clearly you cannot," Snape said coldly. "Madam Pomfrey has informed me of your physical state—"

"I'm fine!" Malfoy screamed, but it wasn't strong; his voice cracked, sounding feeble and desperate. There was silence in which Hermione thought her heart might break free of her chest because it was pounding so hard.

"Draco, let me help you." It was almost impossible to discern what Snape had said, but Hermione was sure the Potions Master had said it with a rare gentleness.

"I don't need help," Malfoy snapped sourly. "I'm perfectly fine."

"I can understand if the death of your mother—"

Hermione scrambled to grab up her things and run up to her room as swiftly as possible as Malfoy started bellowing at Snape; curses were thrown, screaming howls ensued and, just as she was able to shut her bedroom door did the portrait finally slam open.

"Don't ever come near me again!" Malfoy was screaming; Hermione involuntarily started applying protective wards over her door, yet she could still hear all the atrocities Malfoy hurled at his professor.

"If you think you can interfere… Don't ever talk to me like this again! What makes you think you'd do me any good? You're so incompetent you can't even help the Dark Lord—"

"Enough!" Snape roared, a loud crash following his words. Hermione jumped away from her door, trembling, listening in horror to the fighting below.

"If I can kill, why can't you, Snape? Why is that?" Malfoy screamed.

"You are not a killer, Draco!"

"I murdered her!" Malfoy shouted hoarsely. "And it was exactly what he wanted, wasn't? Weren't you ordered to kill too? But you couldn't, you let Androm—"

"That was not incompetence, it was a mistake!" Snape spat. "The Dark Lord forgives what was out of my hands; I couldn't help—"

"So what makes you think you can help me, huh?" Despite the fact that Malfoy's voice was sonorous and vicious, she could hear the sobs that lay high in his throat, barely suppressed. Snape, apparently, could hear it too.

"You are not healthy, Draco," Snape stressed with a forced calm. "Mentally or physically. We can help you. You can heal."

"Nothing can heal me," Draco said bitterly. A moment later, Hermione heard the slam of a door, and a heavy silence. She pressed her ear against the door, listening for the smallest of movements, but heard nothing.

After the surge of terrified adrenaline ceased, and her thumping heart quieted, Hermione began to step back towards her bed, wanting nothing more than to collapse into sleep and forget about the nightmare that was becoming her seventh year. However—

"Granger!" There was no mistaking the sharp, cold call of her name. Hermione, suppressing a small whimper, removed the wards on her door and timidly opened it, stepping out onto the landing.

Snape stood, looking oddly misplaced against the comfortable setting of the rest of the common room, at the bottom of her stairs. His beady black eyes glared up at her.

"You will speak nothing of this situation to anyone, including the Headmaster. Am I understood?" Snape growled, lip curled into a sneer.

How could he prevent me from doing so? Hermione still could not help but nod obediently. Snape narrowed his eyes at her, as if he could read her thoughts. Nervously, Hermione took a step back towards her room, but not before terror overwhelmed her as Snape drew his wand in one fluid move.

The force of the curse sent her staggering against the back wall, clutching her throat as she found herself momentarily bereft of her voice. Hermione's gasping prompted her speech again. "You—you cursed me!"

"A Forbiddance Curse should keep you quiet," Snape growled, and a squealing, terrified cry escaped Hermione.

"You are Forbidden to speak of the murder to those who know not," Snape thundered, wand aimed, and Hermione's throat seized up again; her body convulsed, and she fell to her knees on the front step, clawing at her neck desperately.

"You are Forbidden to reveal that which you know to the likes of Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter!" Hermione twitched in agony as her lungs screamed for air, and it felt as if a hand was crushing her throat.

It was not gasping that conquered, but her terrified screaming that managed to break through; Hermione was writhing in pain on her landing, consumed by the fear that she would never be able to speak again, that all means of communication would be lost, that the world had turned upside down, and Snape was indeed evil—

"Hermione! Hermione!"

All sound came to a screeching halt within her, the chaotic fright in her mind wiped out completely in that instant. She remembered all that she had to, all of those people who loved her, who would care for her if she could not ascertain a way to live in society—

"J-Justin?" Hermione found herself cradled cautiously in his arms, tears staining his sleeves that dripped from her cheeks. Touching the wetness sent a jolt through her body, making her remember what had happened.

A chill fell down her spine, and with a tremble that echoed through her body, Hermione fainted against Justin's chest.

-x-x-x-

Three days later, Hermione found herself still apprehensive about stepping outside the Hospital Wing. Not only had Ron, Harry and Ginny plagued her with questions, but everyone was officious and determined to get through to see her.

But the worst… was Justin.

The head boy had seem to take the event too smugly; Ginny assured Hermione that the Hufflepuff had been bragging to anyone that would listen that he had been the one to save her, and that Hermione ran into his arms when she had seen him.

"That is not true!" Hermione shrieked as Ginny sat back with a smirk. "I-I was having a fit, and I couldn't see anything, let alone walk!"

"Well tell that to him, not to me," Ginny said snidely. "He's not going to listen, you know."

"Of course he's not going to listen!" Hermione trilled, fluttering her hands nervously.

"What're you going to do?" Ginny asked after a long, tense moment. The two girls stared at each other.

"I don't know," Hermione admitted in a whisper.

Ron was certainly not taking Justin's actions very well, either. The Weasley was itching to force the head boy off of his high horse before someone got to hex Justin first.

"It's like he doesn't even know I'm here!" Ron growled one night, clutching Hermione's hand in a painful vise-grip. "Word must have gotten around to him!"

"Boys can be… ignorant, Ron," Hermione murmured quietly, stroking the side of his hand with her thumb to placate him. "I'll tell him as soon as I get out of here…"

"Can I tell him?"

"You mean, can you murder him?" Ron stared into Hermione's eyes fiercely, and her heart seized up. She cupped the side of his face lovingly, but frowned.

"I don't like it, Hermione."

"I'm with you, Ron, you have to remember that. Even if… even if Justin managed to accomplish something, I'd hex him before you even heard about it," Hermione whispered. Ron's figure was suddenly closer than before; he settled next to her on the bed, leaning over her.

"I can't help wanting to strangle him," Ron sighed after a long moment. Hermione's hands moved from his face to the back of his neck; she pulled him closer.

"I can't help wanting to strangle you for not trusting me," she murmured against his lips, as he stroked the side of her neck.

"I trust you," he whispered, lips against hers in a feather-light touch.

"Then let me deal with it."

"Not the same way you dealt with Malfoy, I hope."

Any hope of intimacy and expressing their affection for one another vanished in seconds. The serene, relaxed air had instantly fizzled, leaving behind an extremely irate girl and a suddenly bashful boy.

"Good night, Ron," Hermione said coldly, pushing him away. She pointed to the Infirmary doors in a frosty manner.

"I didn't mean—"

"Out," she hissed, eyes narrowed. Ron sighed with a forlorn look, but stood and exited without saying goodbye, or, for that matter, without apologizing.

And if Hermione hadn't known better, she would almost say that Harry was indifferent to everything. He sat almost raggedly in a chair and looked everywhere but at her. Hermione, however, was not trying not to meet his eyes either, fearing that if she did, she would be left gasping for air again as her body lost control.

Harry asked general questions, slowly, quietly, and reluctantly, it seemed.

"What happened?"

You know what happened; it happened to you, Hermione wanted to throw at him, but could only manage to choke out, "I had some kind of a fit. Madam Pomfrey wasn't sure…"

"But why were you screaming, then?" Harry inquired after a considerable pause. Hermione noticed how much he was fidgeting, how sharp his breathing was.

"I…" She hadn't had to answer that question before. "I'm not sure."

"But you were awake," Harry murmured slowly. "Was it in your head?"

He's so close to knowing, Hermione thought desperately. "It was all in my head."

Harry's vivid eyes closed slowly, and he wet his lips; Hermione could tell something was wrong automatically as he hunched over and wrung his hands. Fingers clenched and jaw taut, Harry opened his mouth to speak to his shoes.

"Who was doing it to you?"

And Harry's question verified her fears of his presence; it was like the hand of the devil, a thousand pounds of crushing weight, was wrapped around her throat. It tore her vocal cords and knotted her tongue, slamming all oxygen out of her lungs as soon as the surprise attack had come.

And like before, the only thing that saved her from the Reaper's hands linked together around her throat was the thought that if she didn't live, the people she loved would be devastated, that she would never take the NEWT exams, nor get her scores, that she would never become a healer, never take care of patients, and she would never, ever be able to heal Malfoy—

"Potter, get away from her!" Hermione's hoarse screaming had alerted the nurse, who was frantically gathering potions and her wand. Madam Pomfrey shoved Harry away and with a great sweeping motion, Hermione lay still as the Nurse tucked her wand aware.

Hermione lay trembling, terror ripping through her insides, before her mind offered her a still, blissfully dark corner that Hermione crawled into.

-x-x-x-

Three days in the Infirmary would've been a week if Hermione had insisted leaving. After the terrifying reality that speaking to Harry could easily turn her into a screaming, jumbled mess, Hermione's return back to the school population didn't seem real, because she was scarcely seen outside of classes.

Hermione managed to avoid the panic that managed to trickle down her spine as frequently as the questions came. She threw herself into homework, narrowly evaded everyone that wanted to see her—including Ron, Ginny and Harry.

It was a constant fear that Hermione struggled to gain control over; meals were eaten in the miniature kitchen, homework was completed in her bedroom, and sleep… Hermione tried not to sleep. Encountering nightmares of that magnitude put her off slumber like a heroin addict seeing the affects of the drug.

However, this charade only continued for a week. Hermione situated herself in her kitchen, eating breakfast and finishing leftover homework hastily, when she simply fell asleep.

She had been in the middle of making a sandwich when Hermione suddenly felt lightheaded.

Putting down the butter knife, she blinked away the neon dots and stumbled for a stool. "I just need food," she mumbled to herself. She leaned over and clutched the sandwich that was still incomplete, and crammed some into her mouth.

Hermione managed to wolf down the small meal, but she felt as if she were hundreds of feet in the air on a broomstick. Moaning, she cupped her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to ward off the vertigo that was slowly overwhelming her.

The next thing she knew, Hermione was being tapped awake by her head of house, Professor McGonagall.

"Miss Granger?" The voice seemed thin and distant, as if they were shards of a dream. Hermione groggily lifted her head from the table, limbs heavy and resistant of her desire to move.

"Miss Granger, are you alright?" McGonagall's voice was suddenly sharp and piercing, and Hermione could only moan in agony; jolts of pain struck her temples, and she pressed her fingers against her eyes.

"I'm sorry," the Head Girl found herself apologizing. "I-I must've fallen asleep…"

"You've missed all of your classes," McGonagall informed her, sounding slightly disappointed.

Pain was shoved aside as horror washed over Hermione's mind. "I've what?"

McGonagall sniffed, "I was notified by Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley that they hadn't seen you all day, and nor had Madam Pomfrey. The only logical conclusion was that you were here."

"But why didn't someone wake me sooner?" Hermione spluttered hysterically. "I've missed everything—all of my notes, all of my assignments, and—and what if I've missed a test? Or—or a vital grade? What if—"

"I was also informed that you have not been acting yourself lately, Miss Granger," McGonagall cut across sharply. "I can only assume this is because of what happened… last week."

You must mean Snape cursing me. Well yes, that is why I've fallen asleep, though it seems bizarre, Hermione thought irritably. Rubbing her wearing eyes, she nodded.

"I've been having awful nightmares about it, and I suppose I haven't been sleeping because…"

"You wanted to avoid them. I see," McGonagall sighed. "Well I'll have Madam Pomfrey supply you with a good stock of Dreamless Sleep potion."

"Honestly, maybe I can try without that," Hermione said hastily. "If I could just—"

"You've missed an entire school day due to exhaustion. This cannot happen again, Miss Granger, not if you are Head Girl," the Professor reminded her sharply, and Hermione shrunk in her seat.

Thus, the next day Hermione found herself carefully arranging several bottles of Dreamless Sleep potion on her bathroom counter. They would leave no lasting effects if she strategically weaned herself off of them.

Having gathered all her missed assignments and notes from Justin, Hermione sighed and packed her book bag for the day. For the first time in the week, she would be eating breakfast around her friends in an attempt to normalize.

"Morning," Hermione said timidly as she stood behind Harry and Ron. Ginny was smiling at her from across the bench. Ron scooted over to make room for his girlfriend, and when she sat down next to him, he laced his fingers in hers with a squeeze.

"It's nice to have you back, Hermione," Ginny said.

It was then that Hermione grasped that she had missed them terribly, and felt like an imbecile for acting the way that she did. The week she had spent alone was filled with a constant fear, like a shadow that was forever blocking the light. She had fought the desire to be with friends simply to evade being strangled by the invisible hand of Death again.

But Hermione could see now, it wasn't worth it.

The situation was similar to the situation with Malfoy. At first, Hermione had cowered at the thought of being in the same room with him—but now, weeks later, she was bantering just as strongly, forcing pain onto him instead of the other way around.

"And I'm glad to be back," she said quietly, but they could all hear the sincerity.

-x-x-x-

"What's all this?" Justin's curious voice broke through Hermione's euphoric reverie; she blinked and looked around.

"Presents… well, belated presents," Hermione murmured, glancing at the tags. Ron, Harry and Ginny had meant to deliver her birthday presents earlier, but due to the events of the prior week, that had been next to impossible.

Ron had given her a gleaming silver necklace embracing an iridescent sapphire; Harry had supplied her with a new edition of Hogwarts: A History, and Ginny had given her the best gift of all: A Pensieve.

"When was your birthday?" Justin moved around the couch and sat down next to Hermione, too close; a brief thought crossed her mind, illustrating Ron screaming and shouting, and Justin's defense shattering as the two boys got into a fist fight. "Hermione?"

"Sorry," she said hastily. "The eighteenth of September."

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked with a grin, placing a hand on her arm. "I would've gotten you something."

Hermione glanced at his hand, flushed, and shook her head quickly. "No, no… it's not a big deal, they went out of their way anyway…"

Justin shifted on the couch, and their knees were touching. "No, honestly, I'd love to get you something. What do you like?"

He's leaning forward, oh dear Merlin… "Err, nothing. Please—please, don't get me anything. It's not worth it! I-I don't need anything—" Hermione's voice climbed higher as Justin leaned towards her.

Paralyzed and forgetting even the simplest of movements, she could not help but feel relieved when Justin simply brushed her cheek and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Jewelry? Earrings?"

"Stop, Justin," Hermione advised, relief flowing through her body. Taking his hand, she placed it back on his leg with a friendly squeeze. "Thank you for offering, though."

Justin stared down at their hands, and for the infinitesimal second that the head boy locked eyes with her, Hermione recognized her mistake; she withdrew her hand as fast as she had regretted squeezing his.

"And thank you for the notes from a few days ago," she said quickly, hoping to steer away from an awkward conversation. "I would've been lost without them."

"It's my pleasure," he said warmly. "Anything I can do to help."

… The Hufflepuff had been bragging to anyone that would listen that he had been the one to save her, and that Hermione ran into his arms when she had seen him…

"Actually I need a little help with something else," Hermione began slowly, crossing her arms. Justin seemed to recognize the subtle change of attitude, and regarded her cautiously.

"What can I do?"

"I'd like to know why you've been telling everyone that 'I ran into your arms' when I had that fit," Hermione hissed. "You know very well that I didn't!"

Justin's cheeks flushed a pale red as he stared at Hermione's shoes. After a tense moment where Hermione glared at him, grinding her teeth audibly, he mumbled uncomfortably, "I suppose I was just livening up the story."

"Livening up the story?" Hermione repeated, seething. "Do you think that my uncontrollable, possibly life damaging fit is an interesting story to tell, Justin?"

"No," he uttered, scarlet creeping up his neck.

"Then why?" she growled.

"I-I guess I sort of did it, because… well…" In that moment, Hermione wished she hadn't asked, and wanted nothing more than to go back and snatch the question from his mind. Justin slowly looked up, staring into her eyes, and did something that she knew would haunt her entire year. "I wanted everyone to think that you liked me, because…."

Hermione's thoughts vanished as her body seized up in alarm. Her mouthed formed a perfect 'O' of a horrified surprise, of dread that weighed down her body. Noise ceased to exist in her throat for that moment, and bereft of speech, she couldn't even begin to think about what to say.

Justin had put a hand on her knee.

Hermione's heart nearly jumped out of her chest when the main portrait door slammed open. Both heads flinched, and watched with wary eyes as Malfoy stormed through the common room, muttering "Mudbloods," under his breath, and shut himself up into his chambers.

She had never felt more grateful of Malfoy's existence.

If her voice hadn't been unreasonably high, Hermione wouldn't have realized that she was talking, pushing Justin's hand away in the same moment.. "I'm just going to take these gifts up to my room."

Snatching up the parcels like a starving man would clutch at bread, Hermione's feet flew up the stairs, and her back was pressed up against her door before she could even gasp.

Justin just touched me in—in a suggestive way. What do I do? How do I tell him to sod off? How—how can I make him leave

Gifts dumped unceremoniously onto her bed, the head girl dived for her book bag, hastily retrieving a piece of parchment and a quill. Breathing unevenly in shaking pants, she quickly wrote out her name before rolling up the paper and sealing it.

She clutched the scroll in her hand and opened her door, descending the steps as if she were sliding down them. "I've just gotten a letter from—from the headmaster." She waved the scroll for proof, although the blurred object was moving for quickly for him to read. "He'd like to see me in his office. I have to go," Hermione spluttered in a rush.

Making quickly for the Gryffindor portrait, she ignored Justin's cry of, "But that way is longer!" before slamming herself into a Hufflepuff-free haven.

"Hermione?"

"Oh Ginny, thank God," Hermione choked, lunging forward to grab onto the youngest Weasley. Ginny shied away from the head girl as her fingers latched onto Ginny's shoulders. "Justin—he's-he's gone and—and—!"

"Gone and what?" Ginny asked slowly, prying Hermione's fingers off one by one.

"Touched me knee!" Hermione hissed hysterically. "I don't know how I escaped—but he's never going to leave me alone after this!"

"Ron," Ginny suggested simply.

"He'll make it worse," Hermione predicted darkly, knowing it was true. Ginny stared back into Hermione's wide, anxiety-ridden brown eyes, before a slow smile snuck across her features.

"I think… I know what to do."

A few hours later, Hermione found herself following Ginny, more reluctant than curious, to the Room of Requirement.

"Honestly, I don't know why you won't just tell me," Hermione groaned.

"I like surprises," Ginny pointed out. "Trust me, you'll love this." Hermione rolled her eyes, but continued forward as Ginny opened the plain black door to the Room of Requirement.

"Who's here?" Hermione asked suspiciously, and frowned in confusion as she observed Seamus and Dean longing and laughing on what looked like gymnastic mats.

"Hey Hermione, Ginny," Dean greeted warmly. Ginny grinned.

"She's so unaware," the redhead said, and the boys laughed.

"We're going to teach you how to wrestle," Seamus said to Hermione's puzzled expression.

"Basic moves. I know them," Dean informed her. "With my brothers, I've got to." The boys laughed. "Ginny told us about your abusive cousin."

"My what?"

"You know, the one that you see on Christmas?" Ginny stressed, glowering at the head girl.

"Oh. Erm, yes. He's very… physically violent," Hermione agreed, throwing an uncertain glace at Ginny.

"We're going to show you how to take him down," Seamus said with a mischievous grin.

Hermione and Ginny exchanged a look; Hermione looked uncertain, but Ginny, on the other hand, looked eager.

This… will not be fun.

-x-x-x-

"So… so a single leg and a sweep single are the same?" Hermione repeated.

"No. They're very similar, but not exactly the same thing," Dean corrected as they walked in for lunch. "It gives quite the same result though."

"If applied correctly," Hermione muttered. "I'll never remember any of this."

"You don't have to know the names," Dean soothed. "Just how to do the moves."

"How to do what moves?" Ron's irritable voice demanding from behind the pair.

"Later, Hermione," Dean muttered quickly, and he was off before Hermione could even begin to protest.

"What was he talking about?" Ron asked suspiciously.

"Quidditch," Hermione snapped. Ron narrowed his eyes.

"You're lying," Ron accused.

"And you've got red hair," Hermione shot back. "We were talking about football, actually. You know how Dean supports West Ham?" Ron grunted in conformation. "Well, you see, I've got a cousin that plays it, and I'd gone to watch his game. We were discussing tactics." Hermione miraculously didn't trip over her words at the lie.

"Oh."

How did I accomplish that? Hermione mused to herself, but proudly.

After that, she and Ron continued up the path to the castle for lunch. Hermione excused herself to visit the Nurse—ever since the fit, Madam Pomfrey had been giving her a week's supply of Dreamless Sleep potion.

Hermione pushed open the Infirmary doors, wishing she hadn't a second later.

"I don't see the use in these bloody potions!" Malfoy's scream of rage would certainly echo across China if his voice bellowed just a little louder.

"Your body is still in the condition that it was last week—not only are you resisting taking these potions in my presence, but you refuse to eat!" Madam Pomfrey seethed. "Drink these or suffer the consequences."

"Go to hell," Malfoy spat, arms crossed so tightly across his chest it seemed they would never come undone.

I've got to leave, Hermione thought nervously, but just as she went to step back out of the doors— "Miss Granger, come right back in here."

Malfoy's positively going to murder me, she thought, her body filling with dread. Avoiding Malfoy's piercing, irate glare, the head girl followed Madam Pomfrey to the Potions cupboard.

"I think you should start weaning yourself off of these, Miss Granger," the nurse advised. "In the short term, dependency is rare, but if you take this consecutively for about two or so months… sleep won't come naturally."

"I'll keep that in mind," Hermione promised, stowing away the vials. "Thanks."

Hermione rushed out of the ward, ignoring the chill of fear that trickled down her spine from Malfoy's sharp eyes. He would corner her again, she knew that he would.

But thanks to Dean and Seamus… I'll be ready.

Harry, Ginny and Ron were discussing Defense Against the Dark Arts enthusiastically when Hermione finally sat down for lunch.

"Her class was bloody brilliant," Ginny gushed. "She gave us the rundown of the school year, and then she did some demonstrations of what to do and what not to do for non-verbal spells…"

"I heard she hexed someone," Ron said.

"It was by accident!" Ginny defended. "Although it was a Slytherin…"

"With her grace, she could've gotten away with it," Harry pointed out, and they guffawed loudly.

"When do we have it?" Ron asked Hermione, eager for Tonks' upcoming lesson.

"Last today," she answered. "I'm really looking forward to it."

Lunch went by quickly, and while her friends debated over what would be more exciting—Tonks hexing someone on purpose or letting the students do it for practice—she mulled over what she had seen in the Hospital Wing.

Something about Potions… Madam Pomfrey said something about lack of nutrition and plain neglect to Ginny and I before. And today she said that he wouldn't take his potions willingly. And I knew he wasn't eating, but now he's going directly against the professional help of the staff…

But he's taking them! Hermione's mind argued fiercely. If he's taking them, albeit unwillingly, he's still taking them! How can the effects of the potions not set in? Unless he's—

Hermione's sharp gasp of realization broke through the animated conversations of the Gryffindors. While Harry, Ron and Ginny clamored to pull the truth from her, their cries fell on deaf ears. Hermione was hurriedly packing away her things, a horrified hand over her open mouth.

He's doing it on purpose! How could he?

Dashing from the great hall, Hermione tried to recall the nearest bathrooms—

He wouldn't go to a frequently used loo. He's not that stupid, Hermione understood. The only place he would be—Moaning Myrtle's.

And sure enough, as Hermione collapsed against the wall outside of Myrtle's bathroom, gasping for air, she could hear retching and vomiting from within.

I can't let him do this to himself! Hermione thought fiercely. First he won't eat, but now he's purposefully vomiting the only help they can force him to accept? He's going to kill himself!

A melancholic truth washed over her mind, and Hermione eyes fluttered closed as her chest seized painfully. The crushing comprehension of Malfoy's actions made her nose sting and her throat dry up as if she hadn't had any water in days. Her body trembled, though she wasn't cold at all.

That's what he's trying to do… he doesn't want to be alive.

-
-x-x-x-
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Author's Notes: Yeah, so um, how long was that update? I'm really sorry. I've been extremely busy with schoolwork and life, and I have barely enough time for homework, let alone fanfiction. I'll try to work on this more often… but I can't promise anything.

A huge thanks so Weirdly for betaing this for me!

Please review!