AN: With Hedwig gone, the Dursleys unsuitable company, and it being days before the Weasleys were due to arrive, there will be very little in the way of conversation as most of this takes place in Harry's head. I've tried to work around that the best I could.

Looking for a disclaimer? Check chapter one. I have no intention of repeating myself.

.o0O0o.

The day was bright and sunlight streamed through the skylights above as Harry surveyed the Surrey Mall. He had never been before and it was everything he had dreamed it would be. A low hum of conversation nearly overrode the music coming from speakers overhead as happy shoppers in their bright clothing carried big bags from one shop to another.

Harry didn't know where to begin; perhaps a clothes shop so he could finally rid himself of Dudley's hand-me-downs? Or perhaps the shoe store to replace the overlarge trainers he had that were peeling at the bottom. Then again, with an opportunity like this, how could he pass up the arcade and the shooting game his cousin raved about: Lethal Enforcers? And there was supposed to be a fountain somewhere that shot water up all the way to the third floor!

He was just on his way to the escalators when he heard it – a determined tap-tap-tap. Harry looked around but couldn't see what had drawn his attention. Seeing nothing, he went on his way.

Tap-tap-tap!

Harry looked more closely. None of the shoppers showed the slightest concern. Was it common to hear a mysterious tapping noise in malls?

Tap-tap-tap!

Finally, he spotted some movement in a nearby window and made a beeline to it.

"Harry Potter!" the caged little creature in the window cried, its big eyes alight with fright.

A large man, which looked suspiciously like Uncle Vernon, reached in and fastened a leash and tiny dog collar around the elf's neck and was now trying to pull the creature out of his cage.

"Get out here, elf!" the man bellowed, giving the leash a good tug.

"No!" Dobby cried, clinging to the bars of his prison for dear life as the collar started to choke him.

Tap-tap-tap! Dobby rapped on the window as Harry tried to find the way into the shop. Where had the door gone!

Tap-tap-tap!

"Harry Potter!" Tap-tap-tap! "Harry Potter – must buy Dobby!"

Tap-tap-tap!

Harry woke with a start, finding himself in his own bed. The only thing streaming in these windows was a bit of moonlight. He checked the time finding that only a handful of hours had passed since he had sent off Hedwig.

It was little wonder why Dobby's plight had made its way into his dreams for they certainly seemed the stuff of nightmares. Knowing he had done all he could for the elf at the moment, Harry turned over and pulled his thin single sheet back over him, hoping to get a few Dobby-free dreams before dawn.

Tap-tap-tap!

Harry snatched his glasses from the bedside table and peered around the room. A shadow moved in the moonlight.

Tap-tap-tap!

Harry got up wondering who in the world could have been writing him at four o'clock in the morning. Immediately Harry discarded that idea. No one in the world writes letters in the middle of the night, he's just unused to getting them.

Opening the window Harry wasn't too surprised to see a tan tawny owl staring up at him. What did unnerve him was the biggest pair of black eyes he had ever seen doing the staring.

"Er – Hello," Harry said, untying the envelope from its leg as the eyes followed his every move.

"Would you like some water or maybe an owl tre–" he didn't bother finishing the offer since the owl left immediately once its burden was removed.

Seeing the handwriting Harry knew that there actually was someone who writes letters in the middle of the night. It was from Hermione. The owls had definitely made good time.

Harry flipped on his bedroom light and sat at his desk, eager to see what had been so urgent.

'Harry,

Thanks so much for writing. Happy belated birthday by the way. It's good to know you're doing well; I was starting to fear the worst. The owl that I'm sure flew off straight away was called Imogen. You have no idea how lucky you are to have such a personable owl as Hedwig.

About my letters, you really don't need to bother with them. Basic stuff really. How's your summer, I've been studying, were you going to visit Ron; that sort of thing. It's probably best if you just binned them.

Anyway, next year's book list should be out any day now. We're going shopping in Diagon Alley the Wednesday after. You'd probably be at Ron's by then, I would think, that way we could all meet up and focus on next year. Let me know what you think.

Your Friend, Hermione'

He read the letter again. Something about it just didn't sit right with him. Something was just… off. The first and last parts were what he'd expect from a summer letter. It was pretty much the same as he saw other people get in movies.

That second part though, reading that bit a third time started to make his skin crawl. 'You really don't need to bother with them… It's probably best if you just binned them.' That didn't sound like Hermione to him at all. She had never been one to throw any sort of information away, even "basic stuff," so why would she want him to do so now?

Thinking that there was nothing left to do but take a look at the offending letters, Harry reached under his pillow and retrieved the now slightly rumpled stack. He quickly separated the two from Hermione and opened one at random.

'Harry,

I know what must be going on in your mind right now. Believe me, I understand. You should also know that we're friends and I wouldn't want that to change for the world. Please respond. We'll be in school with each other for the next six years, I certainly wouldn't want there to be any awkwardness between us.

I know Ron's invited you to stay with him this summer. You should accept. There's no reason something between us should affect his friendship with you. I'm sure you'll have a good time and I'll see you both on the train in September.

I hope you have a happy birthday and a pleasant summer.

Hermione'

Harry didn't know where in time this letter came from in relation to the others but he was pretty sure what had happened. She and Ron must have had a fight. No doubt she'd think that Ron had told him all about it and now she thought that his silence was him being worried that he would feel like he'd have to choose one side or the other.

This was Hermione was giving him an out, Harry decided. She was choosing to keep the fight strictly between herself and Ron, saying she knew how he'd be feeling but didn't want him to feel like he had to choose. She even wanted him to go through with Ron's plan, meaning she's okay with them being friends and 'wouldn't want there to be any awkwardness,' even if, by the sound of the ending, she didn't plan to see or hear from them again all summer. Though he supposed her mentioning meeting up with them on the train said she held out hope for a reconciliation.

If there had been a fight, and his continued silence had pushed them together again out of worry, that would explain why she told him not to bother with the letters, Harry reasoned. If the fight was already over then of course she wouldn't want to risk ruining his summer by telling him it had happened in the first place.

Harry didn't think it would've ended so quickly and easily though. The troll incident last year showed that Hermione'd forgive you in a second if you showed even a hint that you knew you were wrong. You didn't even have to say the words. Ron, however, was a lot more stubborn about it. His reluctance even to look for her that Halloween, after his name-calling had sent her into that bathroom crying, told him that without a troll looming over you it'd take a long, drawn-out battle of wills to get Ron to even give that hint and he doubted the silence coming from Privet Drive counted for much.

That left two letters from Ron, one from Hermione, Harry reckoned. One from both to tell him their side of the fight – Hermione's telling him not to worry and Ron's inviting him to stay and join his side – and one from Ron to tell him to forget the fight and to come over anyway.

Hoping for a breath of fresh air, Harry read the letter from Hagrid instead.

'Harry,

Ron and Hermione are sayin that yer not answerin any of their letters. Don need me nocking down any doors now, do ya? Let'em know yer alright or if'n you need me ta pay those Dursleys a visit. 'Ermione's goin' mad with worry. Hope ya have a Happy Birthday. If'n I don hear from you by tha end o' August, expect a very big bang on yer fron' door come the First.

Hagrid

P.S. Had som'thin for ya but it looks like it et thru its cage. I'll see if I can find you another'n. Happy Birthday!'

While he was sorry Hagrid had been pulled into any drama Dobby had caused, Harry was glad he was taking it so well. The image of Hagrid showing up on Privet Drive on the back of Fluffy, his giant three-headed dog, with another baby dragon under his arm, and knocking down his door to rescue him from his beastly relatives certainly put a smile on Harry's face. It was probably for the best though that his present had made a break for freedom because after seeing what kind of pets Hagrid thought were acceptable, Harry had no intention of meeting another any time soon.

He'd definitely have to send Hedwig out with a letter thanking him for the offer, and to tell him he really didn't have to get him anything for his birthday. 'Especially something that could eat through a cage,' Harry thought.

If Hagrid could put a smile on his face after the summer he's had, Harry knew the lovable giant could certainly help smooth out whatever disagreement Ron and Hermione may have had – and had probably already done so. Again, he didn't mention a fight, but since it was a birthday letter it's doubtful Hagrid would've wanted to dampen his spirit by mentioning it.

Halfway through his letters it was a simple thing that tipped the scales: Ron's letters were thin while Hermione's was thicker than both of Ron's combined. Deciding to save the longest for last, Harry opened Ron's first letter.

'Hiya Harry,

Can you believe we've got almost three whole months without Malfoy and Snape? I never thought I'd be so glad to be back here in all my life!

Still, it'd be better if you were here though. It can get pretty dull just doing chores and having your little sister ask a thousand and one questions a day about what you're really like. I just tell her to go to her room and read her stupid books. Hopefully she'll get as bad as Percy; he's shut up in his room alone for hours now, not that I'm complaining.

I swear though, half my family's getting as bad as Hermione. Did you know she's already studying for next year? I mean, we can't do magic and haven't even got our books yet! What do you think of her? Bloody mental, I say.

Well, Errol looks fit enough to fly again so I guess I should wrap this up. Dad's fine with you coming to stay with us but doesn't know when he can swing a trip to the muggles to get you. I'll keep hounding him though. Hopefully we'll get you here in time for your birthday.

Ron'

It was nice to think about Ron's family wanting him there for his birthday, especially since he hadn't even met half of them yet. He was having some doubts about his fight theory now though. Sure, Ron's against studying when he doesn't have to but Harry doubted things would've escalated enough to be called a fight over it, let alone result in any "awkwardness," as Hermione put it.

He hoped Ron's next letter would help clear things up.

'Hiya Harry,

Don't know if you got my first letter or not. Errol looked more tuckered out than usual when he got back and it wouldn't be the first time the old coot dropped a letter. When I told her you hadn't wrote back Hermione said she sent you one too. Maybe that's why Errol looks dead. Does Hermione even have an owl?

Can you believe she's already onto us about our homework? We've got two whole months left! I said it before, mate, she's bloody mental. Nosy is what she is. What do you think, and what'd she say to you anyway?

I let slip that you hadn't ever had a proper birthday so now Mum's all on board for having you around before then if we can swing it. Dad's been bogged down at work a lot so who knows when they'd find the time. Fred and George said we should just steal the car and fly there ourselves, and if we miss your birthday we might just have to do that.

Anyway, hope to see you soon and don't do any more work than you have to!

Ron'

This letter did more to damage his fight theory than anything else. Sure, Ron seemed a bit more agitated about being prodded into studying, but that might've just been for something to say or get a response. Calling Hermione 'bloody mental' and 'nosy' certainly wasn't the way to keep a friendship going though. Harry was beginning to wonder if there ever had been a fight at all. But if there hadn't, what had Hermione's second better-to-bin-them letter been about?

Harry didn't think Ron had any ground to stand on to call anyone nosy though since he tried to find out what Hermione had said to him in the first place. He doubted Ron had ever heard the phrase "pot calling the kettle black" but reckoned if he threw in 'cauldron' for 'kettle' he'd get the gist.

His theory now horribly strained, Harry opened the last letter, hoping he hadn't built this whole thing up over nothing.

'Dear Harry,' Hermione started. 'I hope your summer's going well. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to talk my parents into stopping by Diagon Alley on our way out of London so I'm afraid it's going to be a very long ten weeks for me until school starts back.'

Harry actually smiled at that. Leave it to Hermione to think ten whole weeks without a new book to be the definition of a grueling summer.

'Luckily there's always homework,' she continued. 'I've taken the liberty to write professors McGonagall and Flitwick asking if there was anything I could do in the meantime to prepare for next year. Hopefully they'll write back with something, though hoping they respond with copies of the relevant texts would probably be too much to ask.'

Harry had to cover his mouth for fear that any escaping laughter would draw the Dursleys down on him like a pack of hungry hippos. He wouldn't put it past Hermione to try and set up some sort of owl delivery summer check-out program for the library as soon as she got back, just to make sure this never happened again. 'A book a day's just an owl away!' Harry thought humorously.

'Perhaps you could use this opportunity to actually do the History of Magic reading you were supposed to this year? That was a joke, by the way. It'd be nice to think you would but I don't honestly expect you to do it. I'm not sure Ron gets that there are times when I'm somewhat less than completely serious.'

'Speaking of vexing concerns,' Harry could almost see her eyes rolling and lips thinning in frustration here, 'there's been an issue weighing on me that I hesitate to bring up.'

Harry sat up in his chair. He had been right after all it seemed; there wasn't just "basic stuff" here.

'I tried addressing it while you were still in the Hospital Wing but that led to a rather awkward conversation with Ron. I know I shouldn't have, given the conversation we just had, but under the circumstances I really didn't have anywhere else to turn, so I asked him to ask you about it. I don't know whether he has or not but it's time to pluck up the Gryffindor courage I'm supposed to have and simply do it myself. I apologize in advance if I start to ramble or go on tangents, it's not often I write without a concrete outline.'

Harry smiled and shook his head.

'I suppose it all started during those three days you were in the hospital wing – I'm so sorry, by the way, I never should have left you to face You-Know-Who alone. As soon as I saw Professor Dumbledore I knew that Snape would have made those potion bottles refill themselves somehow. How else was the trap supposed to work an indeterminate number of times, let alone let Professor Dumbledore pass through after you had already gone?'

She had a really good point there, Harry had to give her that. How could they have missed it? Then again, they were more concerned with Ron being knocked unconscious and the possibility of Harry's own imminent death to really give the matter much thought at the time.

'I suppose it'd be more precise to say it had started last Halloween, and I had only realized what was happening later on. You see, all my life I've been driven to prove to myself and others–,' she added in a nasty scrawl, nearly tearing the parchment with the force she used. '–that I'm good enough.

You didn't just save my life that night, Harry, you changed it. Before then, I never really had a friend. I never really saw the point in them besides having someone to review with. Even then no study buddy I had ever seemed to be able to do it for very long before wanting to run off and play and I always had far too much to do to let myself join them.

That's what you did that night. I don't know if it was the shock of almost dying or the fact you jumped ten feet in the air just to get the troll away from me, but whatever it was you became the one person in the entire castle I was comfortable with. I didn't have to push myself to learn everything all at once. I still studied, but that was to show snots like Malfoy they weren't better than everyone because of an accident of birth.

For the first time though I had people around me I liked, people who liked me, and I was able to just give time to myself too. I read what I was interested in, not just to supplement what we learned in class, and even went out with the rest of the House to watch you play Quidditch. I'll never get how the game's supposed to be competitive when catching one ball is enough to score as many points as fifteen goals combined, but while I'm watching I found that I don't care!

This last year has been an amazing one for me, and it all started that night. I'm just now starting to see a completely different route my life could take, one where I could do things for myself – not just because they're expected of me. All of those possibilities came crashing down though when I left you to face You-Know-Who alone.

It was only then I realized just how central a figure you had become for me. I know it sounds corny but I honestly couldn't imagine what my life would be like without you. It certainly wouldn't be anything good. I also realized just how little I actually knew about you. I guess what I'm saying – in a roundabout way – is that you've really impressed me, Harry, and I would like to get to know you better. Whether that evolves into something more later on – would certainly be a possibility worth looking into.

Always Yours, Hermione'

'Well,' Harry thought as his face began turning a brilliant shade of Gryffindor red. 'That certainly wasn't about a fight.'

Harry sat at his desk, mind was reeling from what he had just learned as a new day's sun started to peek over the horizon. Hermione liked him. Hermione liked him. Hermione liked him. Hermione liked him. Hermione liked him.

It didn't seem to add up. No one had ever liked him before. Well, a couple of girls had shown concern when he had first gotten beat up by Dudley at school but when his cousin had turned on them they quickly learned it was best not to be involved. Certainly no one had ever liked him liked him.

Hermione liked him. Harry was really at a loss. How do you respond to something like that? He certainly couldn't ask the Dursleys for advice, they'd simply shout "We don't need any more freaks!" and lock him back in the cupboard under the stairs for the rest of his life.

What he really needed was someone he could talk to about it – someone, preferably, who already knew because he certainly wasn't looking forward to explaining it. Suddenly he remembered: Ron knew. Hermione had said he knew; said she had talked to him about it. Harry pulled out Ron's letters and quickly scanned them again.

It was right there, in both letters, when he was talking about Hermione: 'what do you think of her?' That Ron had asked him what he thought of Hermione rather than telling him Hermione had said she liked him struck Harry as a bit odd. 'Then again,' Harry thought, 'Hermione did ask Ron to ask him about it. Maybe what she asked was for him to find out what I thought of her?'

Ron certainly could've done it better. Harry hadn't thought he had been asking it to try and get an actual answer at all. Why else would he have put in how 'bloody mental' and 'nosy' he thought she was? It certainly looked like Ron was against the idea of getting to know Hermione any better. Heck, Ron was probably regretting knowing her as much as they already did with all his complaining about her encouraging them to do their homework.

'And of course she'd want us to do our work,' Harry reckoned. 'Hermione said she had always pushed herself; obviously she'd want anyone close to her to do well.' Harry felt the heat rise on his face again. Of course she'd want him to do well since she 'wanted to get to know him better.'

Harry didn't know what he thought about that. Sure, he thought his History of Magic textbook had been fascinating, but that was before getting stuck in a room and bored to death by a long-dead ghost. Potions was a good deal like cooking, which he was good at and didn't mind, but it was difficult to get through the class with Snape sniping at him for simply existing.

Herbology reminded him of being forced to do all the Dursleys' gardening far too much for it to really be enjoyable. Transfiguration was interesting, but taxing. An hour of that and he was glad of any excuse to think of something else for a good long while. Charms was always good for a diversion though the less said about Astronomy the better. It was always too cold, too cloudy, and too hard to stay awake. What did knowing the names of stars have anything to do with magic anyway? And couldn't they learn all that from studying maps during the daytime?

Flying had been thrilling but you really couldn't call that a proper class. It was only held a few times – until they were sure you could mount a broom without killing yourself – and with him being tapped for the Gryffindor Quidditch team straight away he had only gone the one time. Harry wondered if Hermione had been forced to go to all four sessions or if she had simply refused to go again. She didn't seem the type to trust her life to something as wobbly as an old school broom.

Defense had been fun, even funny with Quirrell's timidness and stutter. Both of those had been lies, of course, and he couldn't really say they had learned anything important, much less how to defend themselves. Then again, having Lord Voldemort growing out of the back of the professor's head probably went a long way to explaining that. It seemed strange to him that the worst thing about Hogwarts, aside from the potential to be killed, were bad teachers that discouraged you from learning anything useful.

Harry knew he was waffling. The issue wasn't what he thought about classes, it was what he thought about her. Hermione was… well, Hermione. She was a friend. She was nice to be around. She was – then it clicked. She was someone he was comfortable with. Ron was a friend too, but with him he always felt like there was a whole host of things he was missing out on, so much he didn't know.

With Hermione, it was like they were the same. Two kids, straight from the muggle world, who didn't have a clue magic existed and now they're thrown into a completely different world and having to face things on their own. They were learning everything at the same time, it was new to them, while with Ron – with Ron it was old hat; he and his brothers had grown up knowing about trolls and goblins and giants and dragons, so how could any of that be interesting?

Harry felt his mind take a sharp left turn.

Was that why Ron didn't care about studying?' Harry wondered. 'Had he lived in the wizarding world so long he already gets the gist of it and didn't see the need to learn anything more about it?' Looking at his own life Harry could see how the same applied to him. He had grown up in the muggle world and knew about electricity, airplanes, football, and television but couldn't begin to explain how they worked or why they worked. Moreover, he would be hard pressed to care about figuring any of that out.

He definitely needed to pay more attention to his schoolwork, Harry decided. If he was going to leave the Dursleys and the muggle world behind one day then he had to learn everything he could about the wizarding one. Treating it like it didn't matter would only leave him with the worst of both. He'd have a head full of stuff from one world that wasn't going to help him and the attitude that he didn't need to know anything about how things worked now. He might as well open his vault at Gringotts and shout "please take advantage of me!"

'Waffling again,' Harry thought. 'This is about Hermione.'

Hermione was, Harry reckoned, the one bit of normalcy at Hogwarts. He almost recoiled at the thought. 'Normal isn't bad,' Harry reminded himself. 'It's the Dursleys who are abnormal with their obsession with being normal.' Ron, Fred, and George were certainly normal guys, as far as Harry could tell; normal for the wizarding world that is, but Hermione – she was his kind of normal.

He hadn't realized it until now, but he had found it comforting to know there was someone else there who had been through everything he'd been through, who knew all the stuff he knew, and didn't know all the stuff he didn't know. She was like a portable little island of calm when he's facing something new and dangerous.

'Well,' Harry thought, 'she was more like the stony spit of rock with the storm beating down on us Uncle Vernon had dragged us to last year when it came to exams–,' but he figured there were limits to what even magic could do for that. She seemed to be willing to try though. She wanted to get to know him – and presumably for him to get to know her, and even seemed to be up for a bit of fun, if her bit about Quidditch and taking time for herself was to be believed.

He smiled. She wanted to get to know him – just him; just Harry – not the Boy-Who-Lived. He was sure Hermione knew more than he did about pretty much everything, and he was sure there had to be loads of differences between them, but with everyone else only seeing him as a scar, how could he not give it a try?

Suddenly Harry got a sinking sense of dread and pulled out her second letter. 'I know what must be going on in your mind,' she wrote. 'I understand… We're friends and I wouldn't want that to change – Please respond. I certainly wouldn't want there to be any awkwardness between us.'

He was going to say no and didn't want to. Or, at least she took his silence as him not wanting to say no and therefore wasn't saying anything at all. 'And really,' Harry thought, 'how else was she supposed to take getting nothing but silence after sending a letter like that?' It had to take a lot to tell someone what they meant to your life, but to then be left hanging out there for weeks…

Harry also noticed that he had gone from 'Dear Harry' to just 'Harry' and she had gone from 'Always Yours' to simply 'Hermione.' He couldn't imagine what it took for her to write the first letter, but to write him again saying that it was okay that he didn't like her back...

'Certainly makes my summer seem pleasant by comparison,' Harry thought, picking up the letter she had sent tonight. 'And it definitely explains why she tried to stop me from reading it,' he reckoned. She had already gone through the agony of him not-saying no, only to learn he had never gotten the chance to not-say no in the first place. 'No wonder she said it was all "basic stuff," she didn't want to have to go through it all again – and for real this time. She didn't want to risk not being "Your Friend, Hermione."

'Like that would ever happen,' he answered himself. If Harry didn't already know how he was going to respond – even if he didn't have a clue what he was going to say – this would have cinched it.

Harry was half way to his trunk for parchment when the door to his bedroom took a mighty lurch forward and came to an abrupt stop. He bolted back to his desk and scrambled to get everything stashed safely out of sight.

"What the devil is wrong with this door?" his Aunt Petunia demanded quietly.

Harry peeked curiously through the tiny crack in his defenses. "Er – Sorry, Aunt Petunia," he lied, not sorry in the slightest. "Must not have been watching where I threw my clothes last night."

"Yes, well – pick them up," she said acidly. "And get downstairs and start on breakfast. And be quiet," she hissed, "Dudley and Vernon are having a bit of a lie-in."

He closed the door to get ready for the day as Aunt Petunia padded away. 'Dudley and Vernon are always having a lie-in,' Harry thought to himself. 'It's half the reason they got so fat.'

As he reached the kitchen Harry knew what he was making today. For once he didn't care what the Dursleys wanted. Today, he was making waffles.

.o0O0o.

AN: Since one person's already pointed it out, I know there's no such thing as the Surrey Mall. That was supposed to be a subtle clue that things weren't what they seemed to be.

Thanks for reading.