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The next morning was a total disaster. Neither of the sleeping teenagers woke on time for breakfast in the Great Hall, and it seemed that for once Harry and Ron noticed she wasn't present. Acutally, it was Neville who first realized Hermione was not at the long table with the rest of the Gryffindors. Once he spoke up, her two friends immediately grew concerned. Ron and Harry stood quickly, exiting the full hall with haste as they began their search for their friend. On the train, when they'd all talked, Hermione had given them the location and password for her new Head's quarters. Her negligent friends searced the library first, then the grounds, heading for the Head dorms last. 

When they entered the portrait of the aged Irishman, they could not believe their eyes. Ron directly had his wand drawn and pointed at the Slytherin, who had snapped awake at the loud bellows the two boys had issued upon thier entrance.

"What the bloody hell are you doing to Hermione?!" Ron yelled just as Harry was screaming, "You stupid ferret, get your disgusting hands off her!"

It was complete chaos as the girl being fought over woke blearily, eyes widening at the scene before her. Ron's face was redder than his hair, his wand trained on Draco; Harry's was likewise directed at the cold, haughty mask on the blonde wizard's face, signature smirk included.

"What a pair of wankers you two are. It's amazing, even to me, and I've got first-hand experience." He sneered, earning a glare from Hermione for a split second. He threw his hands up as if in surrender, and turned, walking away from both the boys and the wands that now were aimed at his back.

"I'll be back there in a bit, okay, Draco?" She called over her shoulder to his retreating back, a smile raising to her features as she saw his hand raise in acknowledgement, "Whatever you say, princess," his seemingly indifferent response.  The smile that had come was quickly erased as she turned back to face the two belligerent males who were now gaping in shock. 

"What? What?!" she said agitatedly, crossing her arms across her chest with a mutinous expression on her face.  Ron spluttered a bit, floundering for understanding. 

"You're mad at US? We're just trying to protect you, Hermione! What the hell was going on anyway?!" Harry's green eyes flicked over to her, orbs questioning as he, too, awaited an answer to the last question. But she altogether ignored that part of his tirade.

"Yes, I'm mad at you! At you BOTH! What right do you have to come in here, pointing wands and screaming? Oh, and you're trying to protect me? Protect me! Then you should protect me from yourselves! My God, do you realize that neither of you have ever bothered to even owl me since just after the battle? Do you realize we haven't spoken for than five minutes since before the last battle? I don't think you know how much that hurt and still hurts, to know that I'm so disposable to you once you don't need my book smarts or intelligence anymore!" She took a ragged breath as tears tracked down her slightly red-splotched face. 

"You didn't even come looking for me when I left the Great Hall during the Sorting Ceremony, and you didn't stick around yesterday when I didn't show up for the Hogsmeade outing, or for the one the first weekend of school. But Draco did. Draco stayed behind, for me, so I wouldn't have to be alone. He's been a better friend lately than the two of you combined. You don't have to protect me from him; ironically, you've been hurting me worse than he ever has. He's been the one picking up the pieces and being good to me." 

The witch sat down heavily, tears tracking down her face still, but at an even faster rate now. She cried in her hurt and anger at the callousness of the two people who were supposed to be her closest and most treasured friends. Her tirade had brought up those feelings of being forgotten, ignored, and completely unimportant.

"Hermione, we're --" both of the Gryffindor males were cut short when she stood, one hand held up for silence as she swiped angrily at her wet eyes with her other one.

"I don't care. Just go away, okay? Just leave me alone, since you've been doing such a stand-up job at it so far."

"But --"

" I said GO!" she finally screamed at the top of her voice, which was proving ample in her stress.

At that point, Draco -- who had been listening to the whole thing from the doorway of his room -- re-emerged, one hand grasping the slender stick of wood that was his wand. 

"I believe she just told you to sod off, Potty and Weasel. Now get out of our common room before I dock points or just hex you. Still on the fence, but I'm sure you can imagine which one I'm leaning more towards." were his icy words as he moved to stand in front the crying girl, between her and those she had once called her friends.

The two male parts of the Golden Trio looked at their former friend again, before lowering their wands and turning. Harry and Ron stalked angrily out of the portrait hole, both wondering what exactly had just happened between them, their once best friend, and thier hated enemy. 

Draco watched them until the painting swung closed with eyes the color of steel; at the moment they seemed to be just as hard as the material they were colored after as well. A sight worked out of him, his fingers pushing through is already mussed hair.  The Slytherin turned to face the Gryffindor female he'd started gaining feelings for, and those eyes of steel softened at an amazing rate. 

"You okay, princess? Sorry for not waiting, but they were doing a good job of pissing me off." He took the chance to examine her form as she had her head buried in her hands, and at her defeated posture, something deep inside him stirred. He could feel a pain in his chest, and some profound conception made itself known inside his head and his heart. Somewhere, somehow, someway, in the past three or so weeks, between saving her from falling, putting her to bed, and spilling his guts to her, he'd fallen in love with the dark-haired Gryffindor witch. 

The blonde man saw her shoulders shake minutely and was instantly on his knees before her. "Hermione, don't cry. Please don't cry. I-... I can't stand it." Their roles were reversed; this time, she was hurting and he was comforting her as best he knew. His arms engulfed her until she ceased her quiet bawling; finally, Hermione drew back and gave him a watery smile. Draco's hands cupped her face, his thumbs gently wiping away the last tears from her cheeks tenderly. 

"The two of them are useless prats. Come on; let's go for a walk, shall we?" He unfolded his tall frame from where he'd kneeled in front of her, offering her one pale, long hand as he towered over her. When she placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet, it amazed him that he'd never really noticed how tiny she was; even standing up beside him, he was still a good six inches taller than her 5' 5" height. His palm encompassed her much smaller one, giving her a sense of security, one she hadn't really had since after the battle during the past summer. It was something she was desperately searching for in the world that had been so upheaved lately. 

The unlikely duo were for the most part silent, though every once in a while the tall blonde would look down and murmur something to make the darker haired girl laugh or grin. Many students were absolutely dumbfounded when they spotted the Slytherin prince and the Gryffindor bookworm walking across the grounds hand-in-hand. And they weren't handcuffed, either! The general consensus was that they must have been hexed or cursed or some combination of the two.

The two students spent most of the remainder of the day just strolling and talking with each other. When darkness fell outside, they made their way inside, and both went off in separate directions to get ready and attend dinner. Hermione simply pulled her hair back and pinned her Head Girl badge to her shirt. Tucking her wand into the waistband of her blue jeans, she hurried down to the Great Hall. She took a seat at the very far end of the Gryffindor table, digging into her meal with gusto -- after all, she missed breakfast and she and Draco had skipped lunch. 

She was reaching for another roll when she glanced across the cavernous room towards the Slytherin table. Her brown orbs searched for Draco's platinum hair amongst the sea of brown and other colors, but he was nowhere to be found. That was when she noticed Harry and Ron's absence, as well. A sense of unease washed over her as she went to Ginny and Lavender, whom were sitting together. 

"Do either of you know where Harry and Ron would happen to be?" she asked, feeling even more anxious as the two witches shook their heads in response.  Hermione hastened out of the room, now very worried. Draco had told her he would see her in the Great Hall, which meant he'd intended to be there. And Harry and Ron miss a meal? It NEVER happened, unless something was going on; this time, she worried it was something far worse than the usual saving-of-the-world routine. The Gryffindor witch searched all over the castle, becoming more worried about Draco with every passing hour that he didn't turn up. She felt, she knew, something wasn't right. 

Finally, the female was about to give up when she passed a hallway entrance that was completely dark, hearing something from it's obscured depths. It sounded like the crying of a wounded animal of some sort. The bookwormish girl stopped in her tracks, a feeling of dread washing up over her chest and clenching her tightly and making it hard to breathe. She pulled her wand from her jeans slowly, raising it with a trembling hand as she took the first step into the darkened corridor. 

"Lumos," she whispered, the narrow shaft of light erupting from her wand tip. Hermione aimed the beam ahead of her and took a few more hesitant steps into the darkness. Nothing as far as the ray of magical illumination stretched could be seen. She was beginning to doubt she'd heard anything at all and was entertaining thoughts of turning around when, there! She heard it again. It still remained just out of range, it seemed, as she shone the beam throughout the hallway. "Draco?" she called out again, advancing towards the origin of the sound. 

There, at the edge of the pool of light, was a black-clothed shoulder. Breath stuck in her throat, Hermione hurried towards it, choking back a horrified gasp as Draco's face came into view. Initial relief hit her, but was overtaken by shocked horror at his appearance. The usually immaculate male was covered in scratches and bruises, both eyes swollen shut. His school robes were torn and ripped, and his normally sleek platinum hair was matted and dirty, coated with dirt and blood. The girl rushed to him, arms cradling his battered body gently. 

"Oh, Merlin, what happened? Hold on, Draco." She murmured, grasping his hand, and was overjoyed when she felt him squeeze her fingers faintly. "Forgive me for this, but there's no other way for me to get you help without hurting you more." 

With the quick efficiency of her skill, she cast the Body-Binding spell on him, then Levitated his stiff form. Her mind was single-tracked: get the abused boy to the Infirmary. Her body was on auto-pilot, carrying out the single-trackedness of her mental state. It wasn't long before she had him in the Hospital Wing, under the watchful and skillful eyes of Madam Pomfrey.

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