The Room of Requirement was everything Hermione had hoped for and more. As soon as they finished their talk with the Gray Lady, they made a beeline for the seventh floor.
First, Harry asked for something akin to Neville's Auror Room, and when they opened the unassuming wood door they were greeted with an exact replica. As they looked around in amazement, Hermione caught Harry's eye and knew the gleam she saw there mirrored her own. Training next year would be so much easier now.
Then Hermione asked for a giant library, and was rewarded with the most beautiful room she'd ever seen, with soaring archways, rich mahogany bookshelves and an overabundance of the most comfortable leather armchairs she'd ever sat in.
"Oh!" she cried as she looked around, completely enchanted. She explored some of the stacks, her fingers grazing lightly over the titles, wondering if these were copies of the books Hogwarts already owned or if this room had access to new and different tomes.
She lost herself in the titles, each one more obscure than the next, itching to read all of them—though it would probably take her a hundred years or so. Still, she had a vision of herself here next year, curled up on one of the green armchairs, covered with a fuzzy knit blanket, a stack of books on the table next to her. Harry was in the chair beside her, reading his own stack, with Crookshanks snuggled on his lap.
She smiled softly at the mental image, while in reality her fingers gently inspected Lawrence the Lazy & the Invention of Floo Powder. She felt herself being watched—though not in an unpleasant way—and shifted her head to the side. Harry was gazing at her, his green eyes intent and focused solely on her. She blushed slightly, feeling her stomach flip.
Perhaps she'd get more done if he didn't accompany her here.
Next, Neville conjured up a homey-looking sitting room that looked remarkably like Gryffindor Tower, except it was decorated in Ravenclaw colors as well.
"It's just strange that there's no common room where Luna can hang out with us," he said, and Luna beamed.
Maybe there was no place for Neville and Harry, but Hermione was looking forward to showing Luna Sanctuary as soon as she could next September.
Finally, Luna requested a place in the sky, and when they reopened the door, the floor was made of clouds and the room was filled with a brilliant blue that seemed to stretch on forever. Luna walked right in, followed cautiously by Harry, who grew more confident the second he stepped on the nearest cloud and didn't plummet to the ground. Neville and Hermione were more hesitant about it, only entering when they saw Harry and Luna were perfectly all right.
Hermione's stomach dropped when she looked down and saw only translucent swirls of white, but as she got used to it, and as the sky seemed to sparkle—was that condensation or magic?—she relaxed a bit, no longer feeling like she would fall ten thousand feet, even though by all accounts, that's exactly what should be happening.
Luna began to jump, as if the clouds were trampolines, her blonde hair bouncing around her, a delighted look on her face.
Hermione furrowed her brows, inspecting the floor. "You can't bounce on clouds," she frowned.
"You can on these clouds!" Luna declared happily.
Hermione tentatively moved her feet, stamping lightly at the cloud beneath her, trying to figure out how exactly it all worked. An illusion charm on the floor? A feather-light charm on them?
Harry began jumping, and then Neville hesitantly joined in, growing more confident as he and Luna competed for who could jump the highest. Harry was smiling too, his eyes shining as he soared through the air, and Hermione couldn't help but grin back. He'd been so serious earlier, so determined—she didn't know she could be so attracted to a person, but Harry Potter declaring that they had to uncover the truth about house elves in the middle of the Hogwarts library was just about the most appealing sight she'd ever seen—but even still, she liked seeing him have a carefree moment after everything he'd been through.
He jumped from his cloud closer to hers, and as he slammed down into the swirl (How could something that looked like mist be so solid?) she was launched into the air, her hair flying about her. Her stomach lurched again, but as she and Harry bounced up and down, catching each other's eye as they passed each other in the air, she felt herself begin to loosen up. She forgot about trying to figure out how the magic worked and let herself enjoy the moment.
They jumped higher and higher—Harry and Luna semi-successfully tried some flips, though Hermione and Neville were satisfied with just jumping—and she found herself laughing at nothing at all. There was so much to worry about, so much to fear, but in this simple moment with Harry, Neville and Luna, they were just kids living in a ridiculous, magical world where humans could bounce on clouds.
After a while, her legs started to feel tired, and she fell on her back into the mist, bouncing slightly a few times before she settled into her patch of cloud, a white fog rising up above her, hiding her from view. The cloud beneath her certainly felt solid, and yet when she looked down, there was an endless sky below. Was a levitation spell involved? No, it had to be some sort of illusion.
She felt a few bounces next to her, and then Harry was lying next to her, his arm grazing hers, causing the hairs on her forearm to stand on end.
"I think Luna wins," he said, grinning at her. "This is definitely the best version of the room."
Hermione quite liked her library, but she supposed this was a close second.
"It is interesting," she admitted, feeling warmth flow through her as Harry's smile seemed to settle on her.
But still… They were here for a reason.
"We should probably try to figure out if the room knows something about Helga Hufflepuff," Hermione said reluctantly, settling into her role as the responsible one. She usually liked that about herself, but lying here with Harry, she just wanted to be a normal teenage girl for a minute.
"Right," Harry said, though he didn't look at all ready to leave this place either. He shifted onto his side—Merlin, he was close now—hovering over her.
She could hear Luna and Neville laughing as they jumped, but it all seemed far away; the mist surrounding her and Harry lent a secluded mood to the atmosphere, and she was staring at that freckle above his lip again and… well, this room was supposed to be all-purpose, wasn't it? He leaned down and she pressed her lips against his, shivering as his hand skimmed her waist.
They had a million things to think about—Voldemort and Pettigrew and the house elves and Cornelius Fudge and Rita Skeeter and Professor Snape—but a part of her wanted to be selfish, just for a moment, and lose herself in Harry, in this exhilarating rush she felt every time he looked at her, reached for her, touched her.
Her hand slipped through his hair, which a part of her realized was wet—did these clouds have actual condensation?—but she didn't care because his lips were soft and warm, and honestly, how was she supposed to think about anything else when he was kissing her?
"Harry? Hermione?" Luna called, more of an echo than anything else.
Hermione tore herself away from Harry, satisfaction running through her at the regret that flashed through his eyes.
They sat up, their heads and shoulders popping out of the clouds, and Hermione realized with some embarrassment that their robes were damp and their hair was wet, her curls muted and his untamable locks sticking out in strange directions. Harry appeared much more nonchalant than she felt, wiping his glasses free of water.
Neville was clearly trying very hard not to laugh and Hermione felt her face go red. Would she ever get used to this?
"Did you want to see if the room knows anything about Helga Hufflepuff's office?" Luna asked conversationally, seemingly unperturbed that Harry and Hermione looked like they'd come through a rainstorm.
"Um, yes," Hermione said, nodding her head bossily as she tried to regain her normal composure.
They all tried—they asked for Helga Hufflepuff's office, they asked for a map to Helga Hufflepuff's office, they asked for a clue to Helga Hufflepuff's office, they tried to cut out the middleman and ask for the true history of house elves or a way to free them—but nothing seemed to work. The room had its limits, it seemed, and Hermione knew she'd be spending the better part of next year trying to figure it out.
Normally, everyone spent the day of the Leaving Feast outside, enjoying the last day of sunshine at Hogwarts, but Hermione woke up to an overcast sky, hopeful that the less-than-stellar weather would convince some of the Hufflepuff girls to go to Sanctuary.
After they'd left the Room of Requirement yesterday, they'd tracked down the Fat Friar who knew nothing of Helga Hufflepuff's office. They'd also tried a few of the paintings Luna knew best, but they were similarly unhelpful.
During the course of these conversations, it became apparent that Luna had befriended them the past three years, something that made Hermione squirm uncomfortably when she thought of how lonely Luna must have been, most especially because of her own first birthday here at Hogwarts. Only nineteen days after their arrival, she'd been friendless and alone, and the only one who had spoken to her all day had been the Fat Lady. If not for a troll, she could have been Luna.
Neville noted that he could ask his family paintings—most of them had been Gryffindors, but there were some Hufflepuffs in the lot—but Hermione figured some of the current Hufflepuffs might know something, too.
She entered Sanctuary and looked around. It was mostly empty, but sitting on a couch to the left was Hannah Abbott and Susan Bones. Hermione walked over to them purposefully, set on her mission.
"Hello," she said, interrupting the story Susan had been telling to the pink-faced blonde next to her. They both looked up.
"Oh, hi, Hermione," Susan said, gesturing for her to sit down. "What's up?"
Her curious brown eyes watched Hermione carefully, and Hermione knew Susan was dying to ask her about Harry.
Hermione sighed. "Yes, it's all true," she said.
Hannah's eyes were as wide as saucers.
Susan nodded. "I figured as much," she replied. "Aunt Amelia said—"
She cut herself off, looking around furtively, as if what Amelia Bones said was top secret. Hermione supposed that was true. If Fudge tried to double down on Pettigrew's lie that You-Know-Who wasn't back, Ministry workers like Amelia Bones, Amos Diggory and Arthur Weasley would have to be careful with what they said publicly.
Still, the only other people in the room were a couple of sixth years who were transfiguring their hair pink—Susan didn't really have much to worry about.
"Listen," Hermione said hastily, not wanting to get off track, "have either of you ever heard of Helga Hufflepuff having an office here at Hogwarts?"
Both Susan and Hannah looked surprised, exchanging puzzled glances.
"I know it sounds odd, but it's really important," Hermione insisted.
"As in… fighting You-Know-Who?" Susan whispered.
Hermione frowned. "Well, sort of," she said. It wasn't exactly a lie. If they freed the house elves, the Death Eaters wouldn't be able to use the elves' magic.
"I've never heard of anything like that," Susan said. "Sorry."
"Me neither," Hannah added, although her eyebrows were knit together like she was thinking hard.
"Oh," Hermione frowned, disappointed. She'd known this would be the likely response, but she had still hoped anyway. "That's all right. We'll just have to figure out another way…"
"What does Helga Hufflepuff have to do with You-Know-Who anyway?" Susan asked eagerly.
Hermione bit her lip, not sure how much she should say. "She… researched some things," she finally said. "And Harry, Neville and I think that research could help."
Susan and Hannah exchanged another glance, blushing slightly. Hannah drummed her fingers against the armrest.
"Well…" she said, trailing off as soon as she started.
She blushed harder when she realized both Hermione and Susan were staring at her intently. Hermione had always gotten the impression that Hannah Abbott was sweet but a bit shy and quiet, not at all used to attention, and that had only increased this year when Hannah and the other Hufflepuffs helped her with her plan to sack Snape.
"What is it?" Hermione asked impatiently.
"Most of the Abbotts have been in Hufflepuff, y'see," Hannah explained. "And it's tradition to give each Abbott a journal before their first year, so they can document their time at Hogwarts.
"I'm on my sixth one," she added. "Anyway, we've got a whole lot of them going back centuries in the library. Someone might have known something. I could… well, I could take a look this summer."
Hermione grinned at her. "That would be brilliant!" she said, feeling a twinge of jealousy that Hannah had access to countless firsthand accounts of historical Hogwarts. What she wouldn't give for something like that!
"I wish I could help you," Hermione added wistfully.
"Well—why not?" Hannah asked shyly, gaining confidence as she spoke. "I'm sure my mum wouldn't mind if you came over. Susan visits a ton in the summer, too!"
Hermione blinked, and her fingertips could already feel the weighty parchment centuries old, the smell of musty books and leather. "I'd love to! Where do you live?"
Hermione grinned. "Oh, I'm not too far then," she exclaimed. "It's just a short train ride, and I'm sure I could convince mum and dad to let me go."
Hannah and Susan exchanged confused glances.
"Or my mum could just apparate you to ours," Hannah replied.
Hermione resisted the urge to slap her hand to her face. Even after being in the wizarding world a few years, things like apparition and portkeys weren't second nature to her. And, if she were being honest, she preferred the train to both methods.
"Oh, right," Hermione said awkwardly.
Hannah was ripping a page from one of the magazines for Hermione to write her address on, now chatting happily about their mission. By the time they left Sanctuary, Hermione was fairly certain Susan and Hannah were more excited about it than she was. Apparently, the opportunity to be part of one of Harry Potter's Secret Quests—their words, not hers—was a heady experience.
She parted ways with the Hufflepuffs, and ran excitedly back to Gryffindor Tower to tell Harry and Neville about the new development. But when she got there, she didn't find the boys. Instead, she found Ginny, sitting pale-faced in one of the armchairs, staring blankly into the empty fireplace.
Hermione walked over to her cautiously. Ginny had been avoiding Hermione—everyone, really—since the day after the third task.
"Ginny?" Hermione greeted her, sitting across from her. "What's up?"
Ginny looked up, her eyes not seeming to see Hermione. She shook her head a little and then gave Hermione a wan half-smile.
"Oh, hi!" she said, her voice a little higher than normal.
"Ginny, is everything all right?" Hermione asked, her concern evident.
A dark look flashed across Ginny's face, but she didn't say anything.
Hermione had a sinking suspicion that Ginny had taken You-Know-Who's return worse than most—he'd spent 10 months in her head, after all, and Hermione had seen firsthand the way Ginny's nightmares affected her after the Quidditch World Cup.
Ginny pasted on a bright smile. "I'm fine," she said, standing quickly. "Actually, I'm a bit late to meet Michael. I'll see you later!"
Before Hermione could get a word in edgewise, Ginny scurried off. Hermione sighed.
When she tried to say something to Ron about it, he claimed he hadn't noticed anything off with Ginny lately at all, except that she wasn't always hanging around.
"Well that happens when your boyfriend is in Ravenclaw," Harry commented, causing Ron's jaw to drop.
"What do you mean, boyfriend?" he asked, scandalized. He pierced Harry with an accusing stare. "You knew about this? How long?"
Harry shrugged. "I dunno," he said. "How did you not know about it? Their first date was ages ago."
"Which one is it?" Ron asked, glaring at them both.
"Michael Corner," Hermione replied. "They met at the ball and started dating after their Hogsmeade date."
"But I thought she liked you," Ron muttered crossly, looking at Harry.
Hermione and Harry exchanged glances. It was certainly an opening to tell Ron about them, but he was already in such a foul mood—and while she didn't think Ginny was right that Ron had a crush on her, if he did, he likely wouldn't take it well. In that case, she could only imagine his reaction in the middle of the very crowded common room, and she didn't exactly want Ron shouting their news to absolutely everyone.
No, better to mention it to him in private.
"She got over that crush ages ago," Hermione replied airily.
Ron crossed his arms grumpily, mumbling something about if Fred and George knew about this Corner git, and all possibilities of talking about Ginny's problems went out the window.
About an hour before the Leaving Feast, Professor McGonagall made an uncharacteristic appearance in the common room, requesting Harry, Hermione and Neville go to Professor Dumbledore's office.
The headmaster appeared to be in a good mood, settling comfortably into the sitting area with them.
"I've asked you all here to discuss your living situations this summer," he informed them.
Hermione's stomach clenched, and Harry sat up straighter. Sirius was free. Harry was going with him—wherever that was—and Hermione and Neville were going home. What was there to talk about?
"Has Sirius found a place?" Harry asked, his face guarded.
Dumbledore smiled, folding his hands across his lap. "Before we get to that, there is something I haven't told you—something that perhaps I should have," Dumbledore said, with an inscrutable glance toward Hermione. "My only defense is that I didn't want to worry you.
"There is a reason I sent you to live with your aunt and uncle, Harry," he continued, and Hermione already didn't like where this conversation was going. "I knew when I left you on their doorstep that you would suffer, and you did. I knew I was condemning you to ten dark and difficult years—but I did have my reasons."
He looked remorseful and yet that didn't make any sense with the words he was saying. He knew. He knew and he sent Harry anyway.
Dumbledore continued to talk—how any wizarding family would have been honored to take Harry in, how Dumbledore's priority had been to keep Harry alive, how Lily's blood was the strongest protection Harry had against You-Know-Who.
"Your aunt took you in, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you," Dumbledore said. "While you can still call home the place where your mother's blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort."
So that's why Dumbledore kept sending Harry back there. And yet, it didn't explain why he ignored the neglect and abuse. Surely, he could have done something? Surely, he could have kept a closer eye on Harry all these years? The entire wizarding world was in awe of Dumbledore's power, he was the only wizard You-Know-Who feared—surely, he could have done something about Vernon and Petunia Dursley.
For his part, Harry looked miserable, as if all of his dreams had been shattered.
"You want me to go back there, don't you?" he asked in a low, despondent voice. His green eyes were downcast, and she could see him picturing the next couple of months stuck in that miserable prison.
And then he sat straighter, and she could see the internal struggle—Harry didn't particularly like causing a fuss, but he'd spent the past year dreaming of living with Sirius.
Neville shot her a look of alarm, and Hermione was already mentally calculating how they would get Augusta Longbottom to barge into the Dursley home and apparate Harry away, but even that was too much time spent in that home.
No. She wouldn't allow it.
"Sirius couldn't possibly be all right with this," she exclaimed desperately. He'd fought so hard for Harry—there's no way he would just leave him to the Dursleys.
"And what about the house elves?" Harry practically shouted. "Dobby was able to get inside when he was still working for the Malfoys. And Voldemort's not above using house elves, so how safe can it be?"
Dumbledore leaned back in his chair.
"I admit, I never thought Voldemort would think to use house elves," he said. "He always underestimated magic that was not his own."
"But now… now we know he doesn't underestimate them. So I shouldn't have to go back there," Harry said hopefully.
Dumbledore smiled kindly.
"Sirius had much the same attitude when I discussed this with him," he said, and Hermione felt a wave of relief. "And so we came up with a compromise."
Harry perked up a bit.
"You must have some sort of protection now that Voldemort is back to full power," Dumbledore said, and his tone brokered no room for discussion. "But a Fidelius in which I am the Secret Keeper is strong—at the very least, we know it can keep out unwanted house elves. The Longbottom home is still under the Fidelius, and Augusta Longbottom has agreed to take both you and Sirius in."
Neville and Harry looked at each other, their excitement evident.
"This summer will be brilliant!" Neville exclaimed, and Harry nodded vigorously.
Hermione rather thought it was the best solution for everyone—after the decade Sirius had, it would probably do him some good to be around more than just Harry. And Wiggentree Manor could use a little more life in it.
Dumbledore turned to her. "Augusta said she'd be happy to have you as well," he added.
Harry and Neville looked to her expectantly. She bit her lip in hesitation. An entire summer with them sounded perfect—reading by the lake, playing cards at night, baking biscuits with Diggy, and she could finally take Harry back into the Secret Garden and snog him properly the way she'd wanted to when she realized she fancied him—but she hadn't seen her parents in nearly a year.
"I don't know," she said, adopting a placating look because she knew Harry and Neville would be disappointed. "It's not like I don't want to go. It's just—I haven't seen my parents in ages. And dad already has a bunch of Museum Days planned and I can't miss mum's birthday and—"
"You've got to be joking," Harry interrupted, and she looked at him, taken aback. He wasn't disappointed. He was furious.
"What do you mean?" she asked, perplexed at why he was so angry.
"Aren't you the one who's always telling me to be careful?" Harry asked accusingly.
"Well, sure, but I don't see what that's got to do with this," she replied.
"This is a bit reckless, don't you think? We're having a conversation about how Voldemort's back and how we need to be someplace safe with protection and—"
"You need to be someplace safe," Hermione argued. "You're the one he's after."
Harry didn't look like he was particularly convinced by that argument.
She glanced around: Dumbledore seemed particularly interested in the birds flying around outside the window and Neville was inspecting his laces. Harry looked like he was ready to explode.
She stood hastily, grabbing his hand. "We'll be right back," she said, pulling him out the door and shutting it firmly. They stood at the top of the stairs, staring at each other.
"What are we doing out here?" Harry asked.
"Well, I don't want to argue about this in front of our headmaster," Hermione replied, turning a bit red. It was bad enough he'd caught her snuggling against Harry in bed. She wasn't about to have a spat in front of him.
"They can still hear us out here," Harry pointed out, and when she glanced down the stairs, he added, "They can hear us there, too."
"Well," she huffed, "they'll do the polite thing and pretend they don't hear us then."
She folded her arms across her chest. "Why are you so angry?" she asked.
Harry looked dumbstruck. "Because Voldemort's back and you want to just go home where he can go after you whenever he wants instead of to Neville's where you'll be safe," he replied.
"I highly doubt I'm high on his list of priorities," Hermione shot back stubbornly.
Honestly, he'd just returned to full power. He'd be busy organizing his followers and dealing with the Ministry and—well, she wasn't sure what exactly, but she was sure it was more pressing than her.
And yet, a voice in the back of her head told her it was better to be cautious… a part of her knew she was just rationalizing it because she wanted to see her parents.
And Harry was really upset.
"Look, Harry," she said soothingly. "Let's see what Dumbledore thinks, okay? He knows You-Know-Who better than anyone."
Harry raised his eyebrows at her, and she understood his meaning: She'd spent the past few months questioning Dumbledore's judgment about the Dursleys and Snape, but now she wanted his opinion?
"Voldemort only spent a year attached to the back of Quirrell's head, watching me, getting to see who I hung around with. And he spent the better part of this year with just Pettigrew for company, and I'm sure my name didn't come up at all," Harry said sarcastically.
"I know that—"
"So Voldemort's got to know how important you are!" he added fiercely, moving closer to her.
Hermione wasn't sure what to say to that. She bit her lip.
"They're my parents," she whispered, feeling a little lost. She didn't quite know how to make Harry understand—he'd never had anyone outside of Hogwarts that he could come home to. This summer would be his first chance at that.
"It's already awkward enough with them," she confessed.
She felt Harry's demeanor change, his fact softening just a bit. She'd never really told him much about her relationship with her parents—oh, he knew they were dentists, and he knew about the activities they did together and the trips they'd taken, but she'd never really talked about anything deep. He seemed to understand that something new was happening.
"They don't understand a lot of what goes on in my life," she elaborated. "Oh, I know they love me, and they're amused when I send them books on dragon dentistry, but how can they possibly understand what goes on around here? I can't tell them about the time I was attacked by a troll or the time our teacher put me under the Imperius and almost killed Neville, or how we went back in time to stop a man from getting his soul sucked out. I've told them you were part of a tournament—but I made it sound like fun and games, like it was mostly harmless because how could I explain You-Know-Who? And even the normal things here—transfiguration and charms and potions—all of that is completely foreign to them. They can't relate at all! And if I stop going home, we'll practically be strangers."
She could feel tears starting to form in the back of her eyes, and looked up at him helplessly. Harry might not understand having people to come home to, but he certainly understood having parents you felt you didn't know. He pulled her into a hug, and she went willingly, breathing in his familiar scent.
"I just want you to be safe," he whispered, and she nodded against his shoulder.
A timid knock came from the other side of the door.
"I don't know if this will make a difference in your decision, but Professor Dumbledore said members of the Order of the Phoenix could look out for you, Hermione, if you go home," Neville called out.
Hermione felt even more torn. She didn't want to waste any of the Order's time on watching her. Surely, they must have more important things to do.
She stepped back. Harry looked slightly mollified by that news.
Hermione fiddled with her hands nervously, unsure what to do. Was she just being stubborn? Was she putting her parents in danger by going home? Would they be in danger anyway?
How could she possibly explain this to her parents if she didn't return home? It's not like she told them anything about You-Know-Who before this, so it would be a sizeable shock.
"Maybe—maybe I'll just go home for a bit?" she suggested, thinking it was a fairly good compromise. "I could come to the Manor by your birthdays."
This way, she'd get to see her parents, she wouldn't be taking up too much of the Order's time, and Harry wouldn't spend the whole summer he was supposed to be getting to know Sirius worrying about her.
And in the end, Harry procured a promise from Professor Dumbledore to set up the deluminator so that Hermione could call him if there were trouble, in addition to the Order's protection, and they all agreed that it was a solid plan.
They left quickly after that. Neville opted to go ahead and save them seats at the Leaving Feast, wisely thinking they might need a minute alone. She and Harry walked along, and Hermione realized with not a small amount of irritation that she had completely neglected to ask Dumbledore about Helga Hufflepuff's office.
"What?" Harry asked warily, having seen the aggravated look on her face, likely worrying that it was directed at him.
Hermione blew out a sigh. "I meant to ask Dumbledore about Hufflepuff, but I got sidetracked by…everything," she explained.
"By me advocating for your safety, you mean?" he asked.
"Honestly, Harry," she said, smiling slightly at his pout, "this overprotective thing is just a bit…"
She trailed off, searching for the right words. If she were completely honest with herself, she secretly liked it. She'd never be able to deal with someone who was a total caveman—she wanted her opinions and decisions to be respected, after all—but she liked the fact that Harry wanted to take care of her and keep her safe.
"Annoying," she finally said, before smiling at him and adding, "in an adorable sort of way."
Harry cocked his eyebrow at her and leaned closer. "Welcome to my life," he said. "You're a bit overprotective yourself, you know."
Hermione took his hand in hers possessively and smiled slyly. "Then I'd better make sure you get down to the feast safely," she said in her most authoritative tone. "You never know what's lurking about Hogwarts."
"My hero," he whispered in her ear, eliciting a shiver from her.
She tugged on his hand, but was already planning a pit stop behind the tapestry on the fifth floor. They could be a little late to the Feast—Neville was saving seats, after all.
The entrance hall was a chaotic mess the next morning. The Leaving Feast had been a fairly muted affair—Dumbledore had addressed the Triwizard Tournament one last time, and the mention of You-Know-Who dampened the mood for everyone… with the exception, of course, for the worst of the Slytherin lot. Harry had been exceedingly quiet through it all, avoiding everyone's gazes and speaking only to her, Neville, Viktor, Fleur and the Weasleys.
But this morning, Hogwarts was a bundle of energy as everyone readied to get in the carriages that would take them to the train. Hermione, Harry, Neville, Ron and Ginny stood slightly apart from the crowd in a cluster, avoiding the jostling of limbs as best they could. Both Viktor and Fleur made their way over—Fleur even gave Hermione a hug goodbye, much to her surprise—and Viktor promised to write both her and Harry.
The group turned, and saw Michael Corner, Terry Boot and Luna fighting through the crowd to make their way over to them. Michael gave Ginny a kiss hello; even though it was quite possibly the most chaste kiss Hermione had ever seen in her life, Ron still turned a furious shade of purple.
"Padma's gone ahead and is saving a compartment for us," Michael said, and with a quick goodbye to the Gryffindors, Ginny, Michael and Terry left the hall.
"I'd rather sit with you if that's all right," Luna stated. "Michael and his friends are only nice to me because it makes Ginny happy."
"We'd rather you sit with us anyway," Hermione offered kindly, looping her arm through Luna's. She started guiding them out the door and toward the carriages, but stopped short when Harry suddenly stopped, staring in confusion at the front of the nearest carriage.
Hermione wasn't quite sure why, exchanging a confused glance with Ron, but Neville and Luna both nodded in understanding.
"They're just thestrals," Luna said softly. "They've always been there—you just haven't been able to see them before."
"Why not?" Harry asked.
Hermione racked her brain for what she knew about thestrals. "They can only be seen by people who have seen death," she said, cringing inwardly on the last word.
They'd been in the room when Crouch Jr. died, but none of them had actually seen it. But Harry had watched both Winky and Barty Crouch Sr. die, so of course he could see thestrals now. It didn't escape her notice that both Neville and Luna appeared to see them as well.
"Right," Harry said awkwardly, clearly not wanting to talk about it, before opening the door to let Hermione and Luna inside.
The ride to the train was quiet, but the station was even more of a chaotic mess than the entrance hall. Hermione got elbowed by no less than three people, and Ron ran smack into Mandy Brocklehurst.
"Oh!" the Ravenclaw cried, before looking up at Ron. Her demeanor changed instantly, and she smiled brightly at him. "Oh! Hi, Ron!"
"Hi Mandy," he replied distractedly, avoiding a second year.
She smiled up at him, flicking some hair over her shoulder in a way Hermione had seen Parvati and Lavender practicing in the mirror in their dorm.
"Listen, a few of us from Chess Club were going to have a bit of a tournament on the train. I thought you might want to join—try to beat me after that horrific loss of yours at our last match," she said, grinning playfully at him.
Ron looked affronted. "You barely beat me," he argued, "and in case you've forgotten, I've beaten you at least six times this term."
Not that he had been counting, of course.
The others watched with interest as Mandy bantered back and forth with Ron about which one of them actually had more wins—as well as a confusing aside about Wimblebit's Knight Sacrifice and other chess moves, which none of them seemed to get but which Ron and Mandy laughed heartily about—before she leaned in, tapping him on the arm, and dared him to try his luck on the train.
Mandy smiled brightly. "Padma's saving a compartment for us, and—"
"Padma?" Ron said darkly, clearly remembering Michael Corner's comment. "No thanks. I don't really need to spend all day watching Corner snog my sister."
Mandy's eyes widened. "Oh," she said, clearly taken aback. "Well, all right then. Have a nice trip."
She waved awkwardly, and then left them.
Hermione gaped at Ron. "You cannot possibly be that daft," she said. "A girl comes over and flirts with you, and you complain about your sister kissing her boyfriend?"
"What?" Ron sputtered. "That wasn't—she wasn't—that was just a bit of competition—flirting, honestly…."
He looked around at Harry, Neville and Luna. "That wasn't flirting, was it?" he asked, a note of uncertainty in his voice that he suspected Hermione might be right.
Harry shrugged his shoulders, but Neville said sympathetically, "It seemed like it could be flirting to me."
"She talks about you a bit in the common room," Luna chimed in. "She stuck up for you when Padma said you were a right awful date to the Yule Ball. She was quite upset, you know, but Mandy said you weren't the git Padma was making you out to be."
Ron's ears turned red. "Well that's… I mean…" He puffed up a bit, smiling. "You know what? I'll catch you lot later!"
And then he ran off as fast as he could with the whole student body milling about.
For her part, Hermione felt like a weight had been lifted off her. One of the reasons she had been nervous to tell Ron about her and Harry was because Ginny had been so sure that Ron liked her—but he couldn't possibly like her if he was running off after another girl like that in front of her.
The ride home was fairly uneventful. The only bit of unpleasantness was when Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle interrupted their card game to crow about You-Know-Who's return and how mudbloods and blood traitors would be the first to go.
Of course, Malfoy had barely gotten his sentence out when all four of them stood and hexed the Slytherins—and they weren't alone. When Malfoy and his goons fell, Cedric was standing on the other side of the doorway, wand out and pointed at them.
"This one's always been a bit of a tosser, hasn't he?" Cedric said, frowning, as he levitated the three out into the corridor.
'That's putting it mildly," Neville retorted.
"Hexing other students—that's not exactly prefect behavior, is it?" Harry asked, smiling slightly at Cedric.
The Hufflepuff shrugged. "Following the rules doesn't apply when it comes to gits who use words like that," he said, with an awkward glance at Hermione.
She stiffened. With You-Know-Who back, she supposed she ought to get used to more looks like that.
Cedric joined them for a game of Exploding Snap, making plans to meet up with Luna in the village by their homes soon. It seemed that after reuniting with Luna at the Third Task, Cedric's mum had decided to take a bit more of an interest in her late best friend's daughter, and wanted to take them all to lunch.
After two rounds, Harry asked Cedric if he knew anything about Helga Hufflepuff's office.
"No," Cedric said, frowning slightly. "Although, maybe I'll find out about it next year."
He leaned in. "Professor Sprout told me confidentially that I'm a shoe in for Head Boy," he whispered. "And the Heads get told all kinds of secrets about Hogwarts."
"And you'd tell us?" Harry asked eagerly.
"Well, seeing as I got Head Boy in part because of you, yeah," Cedric replied, laughing a bit. "Professor Sprout said it was between me and Davey Willis, but the way we all worked together for the tournament put me over the top."
Good. Hermione still hadn't forgiven Davey Willis for being a prefect who made firewhisky in the dorms. Cedric certainly deserved it over him.
And then it dawned on her. If Cedric got Head Boy because of the tournament, Dumbledore and McGonagall had to make Harry prefect—right? She'd been certain it would be him—he was obviously the best choice—but this just sealed it.
"What are you grinning at?" Harry asked, eyeing her curiously.
"Cedric's accomplishment," she replied, not wanting to get his hopes up in case she was wrong. But honestly, after everything he'd accomplished this past year, how could it not be Harry?
The only other awkward moment of their train ride was when she and Harry were left alone, and he'd very quietly told her that he wanted to tell Ron about them.
"He already thinks we don't trust him," he said. "And if we keep this from him, he's sort of got a point."
"I agree," Hermione said, nodding. "But I think it's best if we tell him and Ginny at the same time. I don't want her to be upset—"
"Why would she be upset?" Harry asked, his brows knit in confusion. "She's dating Corner."
"Yes, but I haven't confided in her about any of this at all," Hermione explained. "She might get really upset with me for keeping a secret for this long."
"It's only been… just how long have you fancied me?" he asked suspiciously.
"That's not the point," Hermione huffed, glaring at him, studiously avoiding the question.
Harry smiled affectionately at her annoyance. "What is the point then?" he asked.
"The point is that Ginny and Ron might be a little mad," she said. "So we should tell them when we can talk it out properly with them—me and Ginny, and you and Ron. Maybe Sirius can bring us to the Burrow this summer."
"We could just go find them now," Harry suggested, but Hermione was already shaking her head.
"I only get a very limited amount of time with you before I won't see you for weeks," she said. "And I don't want to spend it arguing with Ron and Ginny."
"I'm open to suggestions," Harry offered, leaning in close enough that she could feel his breath on her skin.
"Luna will be back from the lavatory in a minute," she chastised reluctantly, "and I don't want to make her uncomfortable!"
Harry eyed her. "So did your plans involve using me as a pillow while you read Transfiguration Today?" he asked.
"That was one option," she admitted.
Harry flicked his gaze toward the door and when Luna didn't materialize, he whispered, "We'll go with that plan—in a minute," and captured her lips with his.
By the time they reached King's Cross—she did get a chance to read the article about transfiguring seals into pigs, thank you very much—Harry was fairly jittery, craning his neck every which way for Augusta and Sirius. She'd never seen him so excited for summer before.
They stood with Neville, Luna and the Weasleys, anxiously awaiting their families.
Luna's dad arrived first, with Ginny promising to come round and see her soon. They waved goodbye to Angelina and Alicia, and Cedric and Cho, and Hannah brought her mum round so she could meet Hermione before Hermione came over. Hannah's mum, she could tell, recognized Hermione's name—she wasn't sure if that was because of Hermione's involvement in the investigation into Snape or Rita Skeeter's articles, but Mrs. Abbott was warm regardless, and Hermione liked her very much.
"Relax, Harry," Neville said once they were gone and Harry's restlessness reared up again. "They'll be here. They're probably just waiting for the crowd to thin out a bit so people aren't gawking at Sirius."
"How'd things go with Mandy?" Hermione asked Ron, thinking Harry could use a distraction.
But this turned out to be a very bad idea indeed because Fred and George found the idea of a girl fancying their younger brother incredibly funny, and they proceeded to interrogate Ron on what precisely was wrong with Mandy Brocklehurst that she'd take a liking to him, eventually coming to the conclusion that she must secretly be a blind half-goblin—that or she'd taken a fall from Ravenclaw Tower and severely damaged her head.
By the time Mr. and Mrs. Weasley showed up, Ron looked quite ready to be back at the Burrow where he could at least go to his room to escape his brothers.
And then she was left with Harry and Neville.
"You two are going to have the best summer of your lives," she said brightly.
"Well that won't be too hard to accomplish, considering all of my other summers were spent at the Dursleys," Harry pointed out.
Hermione saw her parents heading her way and smiled nervously. They had met Harry, of course, but he'd just been a friend then. And he'd been twelve.
Neville gave her a hug goodbye, but Harry had kneeled down so he was next to her cat carrier, and she could see he was now giving Crookshanks instructions.
"You're not to let her out of your sight at all," Harry said sternly, "and if you think anything's amiss, sit on her until she calls Dumbledore."
And Crookshanks seemed to understand because he swished his tail commandingly back at Harry. Harry nodded, and Hermione felt her insides turn to mush. She had been wrong: Harry and Crookshanks plotting was the most appealing thing she'd ever seen.
Harry stood and smiled at her. "Have fun with your parents," he said sincerely, and Hermione felt her heart lift a bit—he truly did understand.
She turned toward them—they weren't far now—and then turned back to Harry nervously. She'd kissed him plenty of times in the past week, but the thought of kissing him in front of her parents—when they didn't know anything about the recent developments—made her squirm a bit. Harry stood a little taller, and he was now looking past her anxiously; he seemed to have come to the same conclusion about not making a disastrous impression in front of her parents.
He patted his hair down nervously.
And then her parents were there, hugging her and saying hello to Harry, and introducing themselves to Neville. They asked the boys about school and how their year had gone, and Neville, bless him, chattered on about how much Harry and Hermione had helped him improve his grades this year because Harry looked too petrified to say anything of substance at the moment.
"Oh, look!" Hermione cried. "There's your gran and Sirius!"
The area was still well-packed with Hogwarts students and their families, but Augusta and Sirius were making their way toward them—truth be told, the crowd was parting for Sirius, whispering about him as he passed.
"We'd better go," Hermione said regretfully to the boys.
Her parents didn't know anything about Sirius' incarceration or You-Know-Who and she didn't want them finding out in the middle of King's Cross.
"I'll see you soon?" Harry asked.
Hermione felt a wave of sadness at the idea that she wouldn't see him every day, and on impulse, hugged him tightly to her, brushing her lips across his cheek, delighting in the way he sucked in a breath when she did so. She made to release him, but Harry tightened his hold, hugging her back, and she closed her eyes, memorizing the feel.
"I'll see you soon," she confirmed. "And I expect a letter from Hedwig even sooner."
Harry let her go, but his fingers lingered near her hand, close enough that they were almost touching.
"Well, Hedwig's a prolific writer, so that shouldn't be a problem," Harry teased, and Hermione grinned at his joke.
She waved at Harry and Neville as they made their way toward their guardians, and then turned to her parents.
"How do you feel about pizza for dinner?" her dad suggested with a glance toward Crookshanks, clearly thinking that eating at home would be better.
Thankfully, he seemed unaware of the change in her relationship with Harry. Her mum, however, raised her eyebrow at Hermione, her expression promising a more thorough conversation.
"That sounds great, dad," Hermione agreed, her face turning red as she avoided her mother's speculative gaze.
"What do you think, Bethie?" her dad asked, turning to her mum.
"Perfect," she agreed, looping her arm through Hermione's and grinning down at her warmly. "I can't wait to get you home and hear all about Hogwarts!"
Of course, Hermione got the distinct impression that "Hogwarts" was code for "Harry."
No matter. It might be a highly embarrassing conversation, but that was one of her favorite topics, too.
A/N: I don't normally do these, but just wanted to give a quick shout out to the HMS Harmony Discord. It's a great community with a lot of stellar discussions, drabbles, fic recs, etc., so if that's your thing and you love Harry/Hermione, I'd definitely recommend joining: discord dot gg/2GcXw8R