It had been two days since they found Malfoy, and Hermione still wouldn't come out of the lavatory.
Ron was sitting in the hallway, staring at the lavatory door, willing it to open, hoping Hermione would come out. He had been there since she went in, at first begging her to let him in, trying to unlock the door, always without success. She hadn't spoken a word.
Ginny brought him food on that first night. After he'd fallen asleep, Harry had woken him up and asked him to come back to the Tower to sleep. Ron had protested immediately, telling Harry he wasn't leaving. Harry just smiled and handed him two thick blankets and a pillow. Ron thanked him, and Harry patted his shoulder and left.
Ron sipped the butterbeer Harry and Ginny had brought him from Hogsmeade. He hadn't gone this time. Many students chose to stay behind, but some just had to get away. Harry and Ginny came back early and Ron was thankful they had.
For what seemed like the hundredth time since he started watching the door, Ron went over the impossible events of the past week in his mind.
It was a beautiful Sunday, and Harry and Ron were coming down from sleeping late. Their normal Sunday routine was to meet Hermione and Ginny at the lake and take a stroll around the grounds – it was their time to relax and talk about other things besides school. Lately they'd been talking about what they would do after school. Ron noticed that Ginny got particularly quiet when Harry would talk about being an Auror, and that it made him sad that he wouldn't be able to spend as much time with them once he started training. Ron wondered if Ginny was still fond of Harry. He'd have to ask her about that.
That Sunday, Ginny joined them as they headed out of the castle. She had overslept as well. They marched onto the field to find a scene that instantly made their blood run cold. It seemed Malfoy and his lackeys had taken advantage of the fact that Hermione was alone for the moment, and they seemed well on their way into a vicious row. The three of them ran quickly to stand behind Hermione, listening in to the fight as they did.
"…how you can even show your face around here, day after day?" Malfoy was asking. "You and your kind will be the end of us all. Only the purest of us can carry on the name of Wizard. If it weren't for Dumbledore and all his meddling, you and your filthy ilk would be rounded up and locked away where you belong."
Hermione must have heard them coming; she turned around quickly to see who it was, smiled a devilish grin, and turned back to face Malfoy. Ron got the impression she had just been waiting for them to arrive so that she could get on with what she was planning. Suddenly, all the fear had left Ron, and he was now full of butterflies, anxiously waiting to see what Hermione was going to do.
Hermione must have kept that smile on her face, because Malfoy's expression changed from loathing to confusion and a bit of fear. She took a step towards Malfoy, and Crabbe and Goyle went for their wands. Ron, Harry and Ginny were waiting for this, and they were much too fast; Crabbe and Goyle weren't even able to get their wands out of there pockets before they were staring down the length of three Gryffindor-held wands. Ron stared Goyle down and shook his head, wand leveled at his nose. Goyle didn't move.
"You know, Malfoy, I think I finally have you figured out," Hermione said. Every hair on Ron's body stood on end. Hermione's voice was slow, soft, and much too sultry. He looked at Harry, whose eyes had also popped open. Harry looked at Ron and shrugged who shrugged back.
Malfoy sneered back as best he could. "What are you talking about, mudblood?"
Hermione took another slow step towards Malfoy who mirrored her advance with a step back. "It's pretty obvious now that I think about it. I really don't know why I didn't see it before."
Ron's gooseflesh was spreading. He didn't know what she was going to do, but hearing her talk like that was setting off alarm bells all over his body. He was frozen in place, wand still leveled at Goyle, watching the events unfold before him.
Hermione continued to advance on Malfoy, and he continued to retreat. "What are you getting at, Granger?" Malfoy managed. His retreat was turning into a panic, but was cut short by a tree which seemed to suddenly appear behind him. Malfoy didn't have time to dodge: Hermione was at him. She deliberately pressed her body up against his, pinning him to the tree. She stared straight into his eyes, the devilish smile still on her face.
It was more than Ron could stand. He could almost forgive Viktor, but this? Malfoy? This was too much. He forgot about Crabbe and Goyle and started to turn to confront Hermione, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"No, Ron. Let her be." It was Ginny.
Ron rounded on his sister in a rage. "How could you possibly think that I would ever stand by and let something like this happen?"
Ginny smiled a very reassuring smile. "She knows what she's doing. This has been a long time coming. Trust me, big brother. Trust Hermione."
Ron swallowed hard and nodded. He re-leveled his wand at Goyle and turned back to watch Hermione. It was taking every bit of his willpower to not intervene.
"You're attracted to me, aren't you Malfoy?" Hermione said seductively.
Malfoy managed an angry look and went for his wand. Hermione grabbed his wand arm to keep him from pointing it at her. She then moved her hand very, very slowly down his arm, watching her hand as she did, as if she was enjoying it. When she reached the wand, she entwined her hand into his. This forced Malfoy to release his grip on the wand. She took it quickly and tossed it carelessly and playfully over her shoulder. She then put that hand and arm behind Malfoy's neck.
As nervous as Hermione was making him, Ron got a bit of a dark pleasure watching Malfoy's reaction. He could tell Malfoy was getting aroused, but at the same time he was scared and confused.
And then it hit him. He thought he knew what Hermione was going to do. If he was right, it was absolutely the most brilliant and devious thing anyone could ever do to Malfoy. In his humble opinion, Malfoy deserved everything he was about to get, and Hermione was the perfect person to give it to him.
"What would your family say, Malfoy, if they knew? What would your house do to you, if they found out that you were in love with a Gryffindor, and a mudblood to boot?"
Hermione's taunting was hypnotic. Ron found himself wishing it were him that Hermione had pinned to the tree. It was the first time he had seen her turn on her feminine charms, aside from the Yule ball. Only this time it was much, much different. He was fascinated and horrified at the same time, but he thought he liked being horrified like this. Now he was getting aroused too.
He watched as Hermione reached down with her free hand and grabbed her wand. She pulled it out of its holster slowly, rubbing her hand deliberately against Malfoy's body as she did. Malfoy closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Ron could see sweat dripping from Malfoy's forehead. She turned the wand upwards and held the tip of it to Malfoy's throat right under his chin.
"Say it, Malfoy. Tell me that you want me."
"I.. I-I-I.." was all that Malfoy could manage.
"Out with it, heartbreaker! Give me a sign!"
"I... I erm… I w…" he couldn't manage it.
Hermione pushed up on the wand. Malfoy stood up on his tiptoes.
"I WANT YOU!" Malfoy yelled.
Hermione thrust her lips onto Malfoy's lips hard. She kissed him flatly for about three seconds and stopped. She didn't let him go, though, but stared at him straight in the eye with a delirious, evil look on her face.
"You… make… me… SICK!" She pulled her knee up quickly and violently into Malfoy's crotch. Malfoy groaned briefly and collapsed onto the ground.
Hermione stepped back and put her wand away. Her hateful, loathing look was fixed back on her face.
"You are a foul, wretched, evil, slimy, cowardly cockroach of a wizard, Malfoy. I would sooner kill myself than consider you anything more."
Hermione turned around to face Ron, Harry and Ginny. She started to walk over to them, wiping her mouth off with her sleeve as she did.
Ron watched her, entranced. He put his wand away as Crabbe and Goyle went to help Malfoy. It was the same Hermione, but she'd changed somehow. She was transformed, released. It was like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, but it was as if this butterfly were preparing to take on the world. She glowed somehow, and Ron's heart jumped. Before he had just been attracted to Hermione; now he had positively fallen in love with her.
As she reached them, Ginny stepped up and hugged Hermione.
"That was genius, Hermione, pure genius. I am SO glad I got to watch that," Ginny squealed.
"You had me going for a minute there, Hermione, but I don't think Malfoy will be bothering you anymore," Harry said.
"So how does it feel, now that you've got those feelings out of you, Hermione?" Ginny asked.
Ron watched as Hermione turned her eyes towards him. "Oh, I'm not quite done getting all of my feelings out yet, Ginny."
Ron's blood went cold again. He looked to Harry, who seemed a bit concerned. He looked at Ginny, who was smiling and blushing. He turned back to Hermione, who was now slowly advancing on him.
"These last few years I've been very good at telling you all what I think. But I haven't been good about telling you how I feel. I have been afraid to share my feelings because I was afraid you would all laugh at me."
She stepped right up to Ron. Ron couldn't move – he was mortified. As he stood there immobilized, Hermione put both her arms around Ron's neck. She was smiling, but it wasn't the devilish smile she had given Malfoy. Her smile was one that spoke of release, honesty and determination.
"I'm not afraid anymore, Ron. I'm done being afraid. I don't know what's going to come of this, but I need to do it. I want to do it, and I'm not afraid."
She closed her eyes and moved in slowly. Everything in Ron's mind changed. He understood what she was saying. His horror left him, though he was still afraid, though of what he wasn't quite sure. He understood that this was it – this was his one chance. If Hermione could put aside her fear, he could, too.
Ron closed his eyes and let her proceed. The moment of contact was electrifying. His body was filled with emotion, but he didn't let it go. He waited, and let Hermione take her course. She pressed in slowly but firmly, taking her time to get comfortable.
And then she couldn't hold back. Her tongue begged for his, and he welcomed her in, finally throwing his arms around her and giving himself to her. They stood together, fighting to keep from falling over as they snogged each other senselessly.
Ron spent the rest of the day with Hermione. Harry and Ginny had hung around long enough to make sure Malfoy had left. Harry had figured they needed some time alone together to talk, so he and Ginny went back to the castle. Ron couldn't be sure, but he thought he caught a glimpse of Harry putting his arm around Ginny's waist. He'd have to ask him about that later.
Ron and Hermione used the time to get everything out on the table: Crookshanks, S.P.E.W., Quidditch, homework, everything. The conversation went on well into the night, and they both couldn't stop talking. They ended up sitting in front of the fire in the common room, chatting away. It wasn't until Harry came down and reminded them that they had school tomorrow that they agreed to continue talking the next day. Ron gave Hermione a good night kiss (or maybe it was the other way around) and finally made it back up to his room.
That whole week was a blur and felt a bit surreal. Ron and Hermione didn't fight anymore – they still bickered, but now it was much more good natured on both sides. The edge was gone, but the disagreements were still there. It was as if neither of them needed to be right any more.
As the week went on, murmuring surfaced about Malfoy. Nobody had seen him. Harry figured he was just too embarrassed to show his face. Ron didn't care. Hermione said nothing. Ginny had a bad feeling about the whole thing but didn't give it much thought beyond that.
It was Friday morning when they found him.
Ron was awakened by a loud bell, and McGonagall's voice booming throughout the Gryffindor Tower.
"All Gryffindor students report to the common room immediately for an urgent announcement. This is a mandatory meeting."
Ron groaned. He got up and put on his dressing gown and joined his housemates in the common room. Usually such announcements meant a surprise drill or a change of schedule or some other unpleasantness. He was in for quite a shock.
The portrait door opened, and McGonagall entered slowly. Ron had never seen his head of house this sad since the Chamber incident. The room got quite instantly. Nobody dared to breathe a word.
"Draco Malfoy was found this morning on the school grounds. He apparently committed suicide by tying himself up in the Whomping Willow and allowing it to beat him. He is dead."
The silence lingered – nobody said a word. As hated as Malfoy was, Ron had the feeling nobody expected anything like this. Hermione was the first to move; she curled herself into Ron. Ron put his arms around her and hung his head.
McGonagall straightened up. "Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, Miss Weasley? Come with me please."
Ron remembered following McGonagall through the hallways to Dumbledore's office. Hermione never let go of him. The four of them walked in silence.
Once inside, they were seated at a table. Crabbe and Goyle were already there. It was the first time Ron had ever seen them with tears. As they sat down, Crabbe and Goyle stared at Hermione. It only took one quick nasty glare from Hermione to put a stop to that.
Dumbledore was already seated at the head of the table. McGonagall sat down beside him. Snape was behind the table, sitting in a chair, looking out the window. Harry watched Snape intently.
Dumbledore spoke. "I understand there was an altercation between you and Mr. Malfoy on Sunday, Miss Granger."
Hermione didn't let go of Ron. She nodded. Ron got the impression she was very scared, though he didn't know why.
"Please, if you are willing, tell us what happened, in your own words," Dumbledore said simply.
Hermione squeezed Ron tighter. Ron stroked her hair. "It's okay, Hermione. I'm here. We're here. We're with you."
Hermione nodded and slowly sat up. She didn't look Dumbledore in the face.
"Malfoy said some… nasty things to me. He attacked my family. He attacked my friends. He told me how much he loathed my kind and what he thought should be done with me. I had endured his insults for years and he finally pushed me too far. I kneed him in the crotch and told him exactly what I thought of him. That's how it ended."
Hermione turned and put her head on Ron's shoulder. Nobody said anything for several seconds. Then Dumbledore nodded and pulled an envelope out of his robe.
"Are you absolutely sure this is wise, Albus?" McGonagall asked.
"No, Minerva, I'm not. However, I feel she has a right to know."
Hermione turned around to face Dumbledore. "Know what?" she asked.
Dumbledore placed the envelope on the table, and it slid over to Hermione. She picked up the letter and took out the parchment inside. Ron watched as she read it. He watched as her face contorted in pain and sadness. He watched as she slammed the parchment down on the table and ran out of the office.
"Hermione!" Ron yelled, starting after her. He made it to the bottom of the staircase, but she was gone.
"Ron, you'd better get back up here," Harry called after him.
Ron hurried back up. "What is it?"
Harry held out the parchment to Ron. Ron took it and read it. Even now, the handwritten words on the parchment are burned into his brain.
Why must I hate her?
Why must I love her?
I'm not allowed to love her, and she will never love me.
What is the point?
Ron, Harry and Ginny had spent the next hour tracking her down. Finally, Moaning Myrtle came out of the lavatory to tell them she was there, and that she didn't want to speak to anyone. She assured everyone that she was still alive, and wasn't trying to hurt herself. Ron feared the one word Myrtle had left out of that statement was "yet".
And there Ron had stayed. For two days and more, he stayed by the door, never leaving except to quickly run next door to relieve himself. He finished up his butterbeer and thought back to their first kiss. The thought about what she told him as she approached him.
It was then that it hit him.
Quickly, he went over to the door and banged on it loudly.
"Hermione! Open the door. If you don't open this door, I'm going to go downstairs, get Harry and Ginny, and the three of us will blast this door down together. Do you hear me?"
He waited for a response. He was about to start banging again when heard Hermione yell, "Go away."
"Whatever happened to not being afraid to share your feelings, Hermione? Was that just talk? Did this week not happen between us? If you think I'm going to let this incident come between what we've built together these last few days, you are sadly mistaken. I love you Hermione, I'm here for you. Whatever you're feeling, you can share it with me, and I will stand by you! You have to trust me! You have to believe me!"
He stood there, waiting. There was no answer.
There was a click, and the lavatory door opened just a crack. Ron waited to see if Hermione was going to open it further, then realized she wasn't there. He opened it slowly and peered inside. He couldn't see where she was.
Ron walked in and around the bank of sinks. Hermione was curled up under one of them, facing away from Ron.
"Hermione, are you okay?"
"I killed him. I killed Malfoy," Hermione said softly, almost to herself.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you read his suicide note?" Hermione asked.
Ron didn't think he'd ever be able to forget it. "Yeah."
"He loved me, Ron. He really loved me."
"So what? He was slime, Hermione." It was all he could think of to say at the moment. Hermione didn't respond.
"You didn't actually like him, did you?"
"No, of course not Ron. Don't be silly."
"Then why are you acting this way? You didn't kill him, he committed suicide."
Hermione came out of her ball and turned to face Ron. "Don't you see, Ron? I knew he liked me, and I used it to my advantage. I wound him up and then slammed him down at the point when it would have the greatest effect. I took his feelings, knowing full well how vulnerable and helpless he was and smashed them into tiny bits. In the grand scheme of things I am now no better than he is. In fact, I'm worse. Malfoy may have been a filthy cockroach, but he never drove anyone far enough that they committed suicide. They should haul me into the Great Hall, and in front of everybody, sort me into Slytherin." With that, she let out her sorrow into her hands, and curled back up into her ball.
Ron let everything sink in. His heart fell when he realized that what Hermione said made sense. But it couldn't be right. This was Hermione, after all. It wasn't her fault that Malfoy had issues. She might have helped push him over the edge, but she could not shoulder the responsibility for his death. And Ron was not about to let her try.
"You know something Hermione? You're worse than Harry."
Suddenly, Hermione was her old self. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Ron looked Hermione right in the eye. "You remember when Sirius died? Harry moped around for weeks and weeks blaming himself for Sirius's death. And in a twisted kind of way, yeah, he might have been a little bit, if you can blame him for going to the Ministry. But you kept telling him it wasn't his fault, that he was being silly, that Sirius made his own choices, and that we are all responsible for our own."
Ron sat down on the floor next to Hermione and took her hands. "Malfoy made his own choices. He chose to let his father's hatred of muggleborns burn inside him. He chose to let his hatred blur his feelings. He chose to die instead of letting the whole thing go. He chose it. Not you."
Hermione looked down at her hands. Ron gently put his hand on Hermione's cheek, curled his fingers under her jaw, and lifted her head back up. "All you did was confirm what Malfoy already knew to be true. And you did it with impressive style and flare, if I might say."
Hermione let a smile and a quick chuckle loose. She wiped the tears from her face and took Ron's hand. "Oh, Ron, can you forgive me?"
Ron pulled Hermione to him. She embraced him tightly and didn't let go.
"There's nothing to forgive, Hermione. There's nothing to forgive."