"I have a solution for you," Hermione announced, sitting herself down at the Gryffindor table across from Neville at dinner. She began filling a plate with food, and Neville's eyes went wide.
"Hermione, it was my fault," he said weakly. "Really, you don't—"
"You're going to sleep in the 3rd year Hufflepuff dorm," she informed him, ignoring his protests. "After dinner, Harry and Ron and I are going to help you pack up everything you'll need and move it down there."
Ron choked on his chicken, coughing. "We're what?"
"We're moving Neville to Hufflepuff?" Harry said. He looked betrayed. "Why?"
"Because Professor McGonagall has forbidden Neville from getting the Gryffindor password," Hermione informed them. "She's effectively banned him from getting to his home without help. Neville could potentially be stuck outside the portrait hole for hours. That is unacceptable."
"We could just stay with Neville," Harry protested. "We'll make sure he's able to get in whenever he needs."
"And when he comes back after working with Professor Sprout for extra credit?" Hermione challenged. "What then? Do you intend on going to the greenhouses as well for hours?"
Ron looked uneasy.
"Well… he could always come and find us…" he said.
"And what if he can't?" Hermione said. "What if he needs in the common room during Quidditch practice? What if you're not easily accessible or you're not around?"
Harry and Ron exchanged a pained look, and Hermione sighed.
"Look," she said. "This isn't a great situation for any of us. But we need to think about Neville and what's important for him right now."
"It doesn't matter, Hermione. It is my fault," Neville said miserably. "Sirius Black did get in because of me. My gran's probably going to send me a Howler…"
"Nobody got hurt when Black broke in," Hermione said firmly. "You made a mistake, but under the circumstances with that ridiculous portrait, it's an entirely understandable one. No one got hurt, but if McGonagall potentially makes you have to sleep on stone, you could get hurt, Neville."
"We could go to McGonagall and protest," Ron suggested. "She's had time to calm down now, yeah? Maybe she'd revoke it, give him another detention instead…"
But Hermione's ire could not be assuaged.
"No," she said vehemently. "She is your Head of House. She is supposed to protect you, not act out of anger and put you at risk herself. Professor McGonagall betrayed Neville with this punishment. She betrayed him. No one should have to beg their Head of House to keep them safe. It's their duty to, as your Head of House, and with Neville, Professor McGonagall broke that bond."
Harry's and Ron's eyes were wide. Harry whistled, and Ron looked impressed.
"Blimey, Hermione," he said. "Can you whip out language like that about anything? Give Percy a lecture on how he's violated his duty as a brother to me when he nags me about homework?"
Hermione shot Ron a venomous look, and he flinched.
"So after dinner, we will be helping Neville move his things to Hufflepuff," Hermione repeated calmly. "I've spoken to the House Elves, who have communicated with the magic of Hogwarts, and it's all arranged. There's a sixth bed in the boys' dorm, now. Susan and I will talk to everyone and explain what's going on, but she doesn't think there will be any fuss."
Neville's eyes widened.
"R-really?" he asked. "They'll just—they'll just take me in like that? That easy?"
His tone was stricken, anguished. Hermione felt her heart go out to him, her manner softening.
"Hufflepuff accepts everyone, Neville," she told him. "You'll be safe there."
With all the fuss around Sirius Black going on, it was remarkably easy to discreetly pack up Neville's trunk, collect his things, and ease them out of the Gryffindor Tower that evening. Between the four of them, it only took one trip, and they left his four-poster bed with the curtains closed to help hide evidence of him being gone. Fred and George were taking bets on when Sirius Black would break into the school again in front of the fire, causing a wonderful distraction in the common room, and as the four of them climbed out through the portrait hole, Percy the Head Boy was storming up to them with fury in his eye.
It was well-timed, Hermione mused, which was lucky for Neville for once.
Susan met them all outside of the Kitchens. Harry and Ron set down the trunks they'd been carrying, and Neville looked scared.
"I'm just staying at Hufflepuff, right?" he said. "I'm still a Gryffindor, right guys?"
"Of course!" Harry exclaimed. He looked shocked. "Why would you think any differently?"
"Well, if I'm not staying—"
"You're still a Gryffindor when you sleep at home over the summer, yeah?" said Ron. "Doesn't matter where you sleep. That's not what makes you a Gryffindor, Nev. Your heart is what makes you a Gryffindor."
"You're still going to classes with us and hanging out with us just the same," Harry told Neville firmly. "This is just to keep you safe. Hermione has a point – with Sirius Black lurking about, it's not safe that you might be stranded in the corridors."
"And it's just 'til McGonagall cools down or Black gets caught," Ron said cheerily. "You can come back, then."
Neville looked grateful but scared, and Hermione rolled her eyes.
"Go on," she said, pushing Neville into Harry and Ron. "Hug it out. You're allowed to show emotion, you know."
She and Susan exchanged a mutual look of fond exasperation as the boys exchanged firm hugs, thudding each other lightly on the back, before they finally broke apart. Neville looked reassured and heartened, and Harry and Ron were smiling.
"You better get a move on," Susan commented. "You don't want to be outside your own common room when curfew falls."
Harry and Ron exchanged a panicked glance before they started running for the stairs. Once they were gone, Susan turned to Neville, and her manner softened immediately.
"So!" she said cheerfully, clapping her hands. "The first thing you need to know is how to get into the Common Room."
She led them around the corner to a shadowy recess in a corridor near the kitchens. There was a large pile of barrels there.
"It's two from the bottom, in the middle of the second row," Susan instructed, showing Neville where to count to. "You have to tap it in the rhythm of 'Helga Hufflepuff', and then it'll open up."
Neville nodded, paying strict attention.
"How often does that change?" he asked. "Monthly? Do you change the barrel you tap, or just the rhythm?"
Susan was confused.
"It doesn't change," she told him, puzzled. "You just knock on the barrel the right way, and it lets you in."
"If you don't ever change the password, how do you keep it safe?" Neville asked, confused.
"We make sure to be careful about who we tell how to get in," Susan said simply, raising an arched eyebrow over her glasses. "That, and if you knock on the wrong barrel or with the wrong rhythm, the barrels will burst open and drench you in vinegar." She grinned, eyes glinting behind her turquoise lenses. "After that, most would-be intruders aren't likely to try again."
She demonstrated knocking on the proper barrel, and it opened up, revealing a tunnel.
"Come on," she encouraged Neville, as she led the way. "It's just through here."
Neville looked uncertain but he put on a brave face, crawling through the tunnel behind Susan, and Hermione followed, taking up the rear, dragging his trunks behind her.
The Hufflepuff dormitory was always a cozy and welcoming place. Even in the evening, all the lanterns and light made it feel almost sunny and warm, and Hermione could see Neville marveling at the plants that were hanging and resting all around the room.
The Hufflepuffs seemed to be mostly studying, with a few of them playing games of Gobstones or Exploding Snap. One group of students looked like they were playing poker with muggle cards, to Hermione's curiosity, and another group looked like they were sculpting things out of clay.
Neville turned to see Ernie MacMillan approaching him very solemnly.
"Ernie," Neville said, nodding, and Ernie nodded back.
"We're glad to have you," Ernie told Neville seriously, as other Hufflepuff classmates approached. "Susan told us about what Professor McGonagall did to you."
"It's really not that big of a deal," Neville dismissed. "I did mess up—"
"We take loyalty seriously here, Neville," Justin Finch-Fletchley told him emphatically. "Your Head of House acted against you. That disloyalty is not something to take lightly."
Neville looked uncertain, but the certainty of the Hufflepuff boys seemed to strengthen him.
"Your bed appeared next to mine," Wayne Hopkins told him. "Zacharias and Graham aren't around, but we can get you set up now before it's time to go to bed."
Neville nodded slowly.
"Alright," he said. "Can you—"
But the boys were already helping lift up his trunks. Neville whirled around to look at Hermione in surprise, and she gave him a soft smile, before she leaned in and gave him a hug.
"Go, Neville," she said softly, her eyes warm. "You'll be safe here."
Still looking surprised and shocked, Neville followed after Ernie, Justin and Wayne behind him, Susan and Hermione watching him go.
"Thanks for letting us know about him," Susan said. "I get that it might not be a big deal to a Gryffindor – they're all might and bluster and bravery – but he really could be at risk, not being able to get into his common room."
"I thought he'd have a better home here than in Ravenclaw," Hermione commented with a quirked smile. "They don't have the best track record of helping people in need either."
"It's good to see you here again," she remarked. Inquisitive eyes peered through colored lenses to meet Hermione's. "Now that Neville's here, do you think you might start coming back to hang around here more often?"
"Susan…" Hermione bit her lip, her eyes drawn to a familiar figure across the room.
Cedric Diggory was sitting at a table not too far away with some of his friends, all of them with books open and parchment nearby. She could recognize Ben and Bernard, both of whom were shooting her dark looks, and she presumed the girl sitting with them must be Madeline, whose back was to her. Even as Ben and Bernard glared at her, though, Cedric half-turned in his chair to glance up at her, and their eyes met.
Hermione felt her heart clench in her chest, and Cedric gave her a soft, pained sort of fleeting smile before he turned away.
When Hermione looked back at Susan, she was watching with keen eyes.
"It's… things are still a little raw," Hermione admitted quietly. "My dormmates say it'd be cruel to try and still be friends with him this soon after the honor duel. His friends aren't ever going to be thrilled with me, and I don't want to invade his safe space."
Susan nodded with a sigh.
"He still cares about you, you know?" she mused. "After you came to me with this idea, and I was talking about it with the boys, he overheard and came up to listen." She glanced over at him. "He spoke to me after. Gave the idea his blessing, said you always did have a kind and loving heart."
Hermione felt a pang in her chest.
"I know it wasn't me that ended it," she said quietly, "but that doesn't mean I don't think it shouldn't have been at an end."
"With him not open to covens and magic the way you are… well, better to find out and know that now rather than later, right?" she said, giving her a quirked smile. "It would be awful to find out and have to break up after an arrangement had been made."
"It was just… he was so insistent he could convince me otherwise," Hermione said with a sigh. "I don't understand why – I've already joined a coven. It can't be undone. If anything, I should have been trying to convince him."
"From what I remember, he didn't exactly let you get a word in," Susan said, smirking.
"Yeah," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "Well…"
The two girls chuckled quietly.
"Go ahead back to your dungeon," Susan told her, giving her a smile. "We'll look after Neville. I'm sure you have other things to do."
"Thanks again," Hermione told her, heartfelt. "You all taking him in and protecting him… it means more than you know."