"I can't believe Fred and George don't know about this place!" Ginny marveled, looking around Sanctuary. Her eyes were filled with grim satisfaction.

"Yes, and they can't know anything about it," Hermione stressed. It was against the rules. And besides, given recent events, she was also feeling a satisfaction of sorts about knowing something Fred and George Weasley didn't.

"I know, I know," Ginny sighed, shooting Hermione an exasperated look. "You've only gone over Sanctuary's rules a million times."

Luna took a sip of her tea. "You're remarkably thorough," she added. Unlike Ginny's annoyance, Hermione was quite certain Luna was being complimentary.

Luna glanced around the room in wonder, as she had been doing since they'd stepped foot inside.

It was the first chance Hermione had to take them here. Harry had dinner with Sirius and Neville was helping Professor Sprout in the greenhouses, so she had the perfect opportunity to sneak off to Sanctuary without many questions.

Ginny and Luna had both been confused to find Hermione standing outside their Transfiguration class, but the absolute pure joy on Luna's face that she'd been let in on a secret was everything Hermione had hoped it would be.

Luna hadn't said much — just sort of gaped at Hermione, her eyes shining — and then smiled brilliantly at her. "Thank you for telling me," she'd said, as if she was still surprised that people liked her.

They were very different people, but one thing they did have in common was they didn't always make friends easily. Hermione had had to wait until fourth year was nearly over before anyone told her about Sanctuary, but Luna was finding out her very first week. It was like proof that Luna belonged, and Hermione had been the one to give that to her — frankly, it was a new experience for them both.

And so they had settled into armchairs, sipping tea, eating sweets, and flipping through magazines. Luna was now inspecting Witch Weekly like it was some sort of anthropological study, and Hermione half-wondered if she'd ever read a magazine besides her father's ridiculous rag before.

Ginny cupped her chin in her hand. "I know they don't know about it, but I wonder if Fred and George have any inkling," she mused.

"I doubt it," Hermione said skeptically. "They'd never let it go until they found Sanctuary if they did."

"I wonder if the boys have some sort of secret space of their own?" Luna asked.

Hermione frowned. She'd never thought of that. She couldn't really see Harry and Neville keeping anything from her, but she hadn't exactly told them about Sanctuary, had she?

Ginny, however, didn't seem to think so.

"Definitely not," Ginny said confidently. "Boys can't keep a secret to save their lives. One of my brothers would've spilled by now."

Luna eyed the magazine quizzically. "Would either of you try mascara that dangles stars from your lashes?" she asked.

Ginny and Hermione exchanged a frown.

"What ludicrous nonsense is that?" Ginny spat out.

"How would you even see?" Hermione asked. Wouldn't the stars get in the way?

Luna shrugged. "I don't know," she mused, "but apparently it's the new trend we'll see everyone wearing."

"Rubbish," Ginny muttered, earning a laugh from Hermione. Then again, the three of them weren't exactly beauty and fashion icons. For all she knew, she'd return to the dorm to find Lavender's eyes hidden behind constellations.

"I do like these raven earrings though," Luna added. "I wonder if they actually flap their wings."

Hermione filed the information away for future use. Luna had gotten Harry and Neville such nice birthday presents (and Hermione was fairly certain she was about to get one, too) that it would be nice to get Luna something she really wanted for Christmas.

"How have your classes been?" Hermione asked, changing the subject to a topic they all actually knew a thing or two about.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Do we really have to talk about school?" she asked, but Luna spoke right over her, happily chatting away about Professor's Black's excellent lessons juxtaposed with Professor Snape's sour demeanor.

"He was especially gloomy in class today," Luna reported.

Hermione felt a guilty pit in her stomach about that. If her plan had worked perfectly, Snape would be gone. Instead, the Ravenclaws now bore the worst of his mood swings.

Luna must have read Hermione's face because she waved her off. "Oh, I don't mind," she said. "Professor Snape doesn't bother me much. He mostly just ignores me — he says I must have been permanently addled by a confusion concoction when I was younger. Of course, if that were true, my potions wouldn't be so good. One time, we had to spend 15 minutes with the whole class crawling around on the floor looking for Ella Fairchild because he made her try my shrinking solution. It was quite good and he lost her."

Luna continued flipping past pages of magical makeup advice like she had just told them she ate eggs for breakfast. Hermione and Ginny stared at each other wide-eyed.

"Please tell me Snape was also crawling around on the floor," Ginny laughed.

"Sadly, no," Luna replied. "He just glowered a lot."

They chatted for a bit more about classes — Ginny agreed with Luna's assessment that Sirius was brilliant — as Sanctuary grew more and more crowded. It seems Hermione wasn't the only one who had decided to induct any fourth years this day.

"Hey Hermione!" Susan greeted brightly, pointing fourth year Alice Dawes toward a couch Megan Jones was sitting at. "Luna, Ginny."

"Hi, Susan! How have you been?"

"Oh, you know, I've only got about a thousand hours of homework," she said, making a face and collapsing into the chair next to Luna. "If one more teacher gives us that 'Your OWL year is the most important year' speech, I'm going to throw my shoe at them."

Hermione frowned. "Well, it is important," she said.

Susan looked at Hermione like she'd grown three heads. "It's like talking to Hannah, honestly," she said, shaking her head, though there wasn't any malice in her tone.

Is Hannah with you?" Hermione asked curiously, not used to seeing them apart. She craned her neck around, but didn't see her friend.

Susan grinned. "Oh, no," she laughed, "she decided to help Professor Sprout out at the greenhouses. She gave me all this rubbish about how incredibly important our OWL year was and how every extra bit of learning could make the difference between an E and an O."

Hermione nodded, secretly agreeing with Hannah.

"I take it you think you've got plenty enough learning to do well on your OWLs already?" Ginny asked.

"Honestly, be glad you're still a fourth year," Susan commiserated. "There was no way I was going to do any more work. Especially since I didn't exactly share Hannah's extra motivation for helping Sprout."

Ginny frowned. "Extra motivation?"

Susan nodded. "Yes, I believe you know him," she said. "He was your date to the Yule Ball last year."

"Really?" Ginny asked, looking a bit perplexed.

"Oh, she'll never admit it, of course," Susan said airily, shooting them an impish smile. "She'll just give you 200 more lectures on the Herbology OWL."

"I don't see why she wouldn't just say she liked him," Luna commented. "He's a lovely person."

Ginny smiled wryly at her. "Because not all of us have absolutely no filter when it comes to sharing our thoughts," she explained, patting Luna's arm affectionately.

Hermione couldn't say she would be opposed to any developments between the two. Still, she'd been hoping to catch up with Hannah to see if they'd found out anything from Zacharias Smith.

"Is there any news on the Smith front?" she asked. Susan would likely know.

Susan frowned slightly. "Hannah approached him at lunch yesterday, but he was in too much of a mood to answer any questions," she said, her eyes flicking momentarily toward Ginny. "He apparently had a, er, bad Care of Magical Creatures class."

Ginny straightened defiantly and Hermione felt the pit in her stomach come back.

"What happened?" she asked, though she was pretty sure she knew.

"He was asking about Harry," Ginny said, shrugging her shoulder. "He knew Harry sometimes spends the summers with us and that Mum was invited to the tournament as his family last year. And he just kept pestering me about what the Ministry was saying about Harry and whether or not it was true. So I hexed him."

She stared at Hermione as if willing her to argue. Hermione was glad, of course, that Ginny stood up for Harry, but on this occasion, she wasn't sure she'd done Harry any favors.

"Ginny," Hermione cried, feeling exasperated, "you can't just hex people."

"He deserved it, asking all those questions about Harry," Ginny retorted. "You'd have done the same thing."

"No, I wouldn't have!"

"You weren't exactly nice to Lavender," Ginny pointed out.

"But I didn't hex her! There's a difference!" Hermione insisted. Ginny rolled her eyes — clearly, she didn't see the same distinction.

"What sort of questions was Smith asking anyway?" Hermione asked, crossing her arms.

Ginny furrowed her brow. "What does it matter?"

"His intent matters," Susan piped up, and Hermione shot her a grateful look. "Did it seem like he'd already decided Harry was mental and was looking for confirmation, or was he honestly curious?"

Ginny snorted. "Smith's never honestly curious about anything," she muttered. "He's a prat of the highest order. And honestly, Hermione, you should've just hexed Lavender."

"She's not wrong there," Susan agreed, popping one of their sweets into her mouth. Hermione stared at her — hadn't Susan just been agreeing with her?

"What?" Susan said in protest. "Lavender Brown and Zacharias Smith are different. She's known Harry for years — actually had a conversation or two with him. She should know better. Smith doesn't — and he's not wrong for looking for information from a source close to Harry."

Ginny shook her head angrily. "I already told you, Smith doesn't care about the truth."

"He might not, but the others there could've benefited from answers," Luna piped up. She glanced between them, her expression neutral. "I'm sure he wasn't the only one who was curious. A lot of the Ravenclaws are asking questions, too. More of them have talked to me in the past few days than the past few years."

"What have you told them?" Hermione asked.

Luna looked at her, her silvery eyes keen and observant. "The truth," she replied. "That You-Know-Who is back. I don't know how much it's helped though. Most of them think I'm loony."

She went back to flipping through the magazine, not seeming to care what they thought of her.

Hermione swiveled her gaze toward Ginny, nodding purposefully at Luna. "You see?" she said. "If we just hex people when they ask questions, they're not likely to be swayed to our side. And anyone else who's watching — people we might be able to reason with — will be too afraid to approach us."

Hermione knew her tone was coming out like a lecture, but she was unable to stop it — it was a bit of a habit for her. And, frankly, she was annoyed at how Ginny had handled the situation. If Harry could keep from hexing Seamus, surely Ginny could've kept her wand to herself.

"Well, I'm sure you'll be happy to learn Professor Grubbly-Plank gave me detention for it," Ginny snapped.

"Of course she did!" Hermione said severely, and Ginny glared angrily at her.

"In any case," Susan interrupted, eyeing the two of them, "Smith's been in a foul mood. Hannah and I are going to try again though."

Hermione didn't want to look away from Ginny — it felt like they were in some sort of battle and she didn't like losing — but she recognized that Susan was trying to defuse the situation. She turned to her, offering Susan a small smile.

"Thanks," she said, and Susan nodded, saying her goodbyes as she quickly escaped to the other Hufflepuffs.

Ginny was now leaning back against her armchair, arms folded grumpily. There was still a defiant air about her, but there was something else in her eyes. Remembering their conversation from the summer — how helpless Ginny felt about You-Know-Who and how annoyed she was that Michael didn't seem to be as serious about it as she was — Hermione had to wonder if hexing Smith didn't really have much to do with Harry at all.

Hermione eyed Ginny carefully. "How are things with Michael?" she asked.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "This has nothing to do with him," she retorted.

"All right," Hermione said. "Then consider this a change of subject. How are things now that you're back at school together?"

Ginny shrugged. "Fine, I suppose," she said unconvincingly. "It feels different from last year."

"You're different from last year," Luna pointed out. "So is he."

"Maybe too different," Ginny mumbled.

"Maybe you just need something else to focus on," Hermione suggested. Something that could harness a bit of the anger and rage she was feeling.

Luna glanced around the room, spying Alicia and Angelina at the entrance to Sanctuary.

"Why don't you try out for the quidditch team?" she asked. "There's an opening this year, isn't there?"

Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Keeper?" she asked, not able to keep the distaste for the position out of her voice.

But personally, Hermione thought it was genius. "Why not?" she asked excitedly. "You love quidditch and you've got Charlie's broom now. And Harry always feels better after he plays — it could probably do the same for you."

"Yeah, but there's a war," Ginny said. "Shouldn't I be doing something more important, like you always do? Quidditch is…"

She trailed off, but her expression was doubtful.

"Quidditch is something you love," Hermione finished. "You've been sneaking out to steal your brothers' brooms since you were six. Besides, it's not like you can spend your whole life preparing for fighting You-Know-Who. You don't see Harry giving up quidditch, do you?"

"No," Ginny said slowly.

"And with a proper Defense teacher, you'll still be preparing for a fight," Luna added.

"It's a great idea," Hermione said, shooting Luna a grateful glance before raising her hand to wave Angelina and Alicia over. If anyone could convince Ginny, they could.

Hermione was quite right about Angelina and Alicia. Ginny hadn't been offered a spot on the team or anything, but Alicia had been quite happy about the prospect of having another girl on the team, and Angelina had sized Ginny up, talking about her Weasley quidditch pedigree.

In the end, Ginny decided that trying out for the quidditch team wasn't the worst thing in the world. It wasn't fighting You-Know-Who, but it might shut her brothers up about her getting Charlie's broom, and that seemed to be enough for her.

And that's how Hermione found herself walking down to the quidditch pitch on Friday evening — after a visit to the kitchens to see Dobby, who had letters from her parents and who seemed to be doing all right with everything that happened with Winky last year — with Harry and Neville.

Harry had to be there — Angelina was making the whole team go — and Hermione thought it would be a good idea to go and support Ginny, especially after their spat about Smith.

Angelina was already at the pitch, looking very intense and frighteningly like Oliver Wood. There was a row of students trying out for the team who were eyeing her warily.

Fred, George, and Lee were sitting behind her with their heads together in a way that made Hermione suspect they were up to something. Katie and Alicia looked bored.

Fred looked up as they approached, his demeanor instantly changing. "Well, if it isn't the prefects," he greeted them, saying the word "prefect" like it was an insult.

"Turned any unsuspecting second years into ferrets lately?" Harry asked, shrugging off the remark.

"Course not," George said. "We've got an agreement, haven't we?"

Hermione eyed them suspiciously. She wasn't entirely certain they'd hold up their end, but now wasn't the time to question them about it. If they started testing products on first years again, it would be fairly obvious.

"Have you decided if you're coming to Slughorn's dinner on Sunday?" she asked instead.

Neither of them had been particularly enthused about the idea.

George shrugged. "Probably," he said. "Sirius seems to think it's a good idea."

"Apparently, Slughorn's got some friends who could help secure some of the licenses necessary to do business in Diagon Alley," Fred added.

Neville looked surprised. "You're looking at Diagon Alley?"

"Of course," George said. "It's where everyone shops."

"And Sirius said that if some pompous blowhard is offering to make your life a little easier, and all you've got to do is sit through a few delicious dinners, you go, enjoy your food, and mock everyone else mercilessly," Fred noted.

"It's really not all that bad of a plan," George shrugged.

Personally, Hermione was looking forward to it. Sure, Slughorn was a bit pompous, but she'd been energized to finally have a Potions professor who actually valued intelligence and know-how, who didn't tear her down and call her a know-it-all just because he didn't like the friends she made or the house she'd been sorted into.

Harry had been pretty quiet about the whole thing — hadn't really said what he thought one way or the other — but she very much wanted this for him, too. Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, and Professor Sprout — they'd all known Lily Potter for years, but none of them had offered Harry any information about her. And Slughorn did in their very first meeting.

She knew how much Lily's blanket had meant to Harry, and how much he wanted to have a connection with her the way his patronus gave him one with his dad. Sirius and Remus told him stories, of course, but another perspective couldn't hurt.

"Hermione, sit with us!" Katie called, motioning her over.

Harry and Neville were joining the other boys — and Lee Jordan was now telling a story about his pet tarantula that Hermione was fairly certain she didn't want to know — so she walked over to Katie and Alicia. They shifted so she could sit between them.

Angelina motioned to Fred, and he reluctantly left his friends and walked onto the pitch with his broom.

"What's up?" Hermione asked.

Katie shot a look at the boys — Lee had gotten to the gross part of his story and the boys weren't paying them any attention — and Angelina — she was starting the tryouts — before shooting Hermione a look.

"What's up is it's been months and you haven't given us any information," Alicia chastised. "We understood last year — with everything that happened with the Third Task — but we've been back at school a week."

"And you haven't told us a thing," Katie added. "Inquiring minds want to know: Just how good of a kisser is Pocket Potter?"

Hermione glanced at Harry nervously — none of them had heard — and turned red.

"Oh, look," she said. "Geoffrey Hooper's quite good."

Angelina shot a quaffle at him while Fred aimed a bludger (he didn't seem nearly as sorry to be missing Lee's story now), but Hooper saved the quaffle and narrowly avoided Fred's hit.

"He's a whiner," Katie muttered. "Don't change the subject."

"You look happy," Alicia observed, her round blue eyes contemplating Hermione.

"I am," she agreed, and then realized she actually wanted to share with them. Well, at least a little bit.

"And Harry is, for the record."

Katie seized on that bit of information, and Hermione found herself whispering to them all about her summer —nothing that would hurt Harry's safety, of course, but she told them about the garden, about the games they'd played and their training, and even about the ways he'd been different since they'd gotten together — how he'd tried to get her to open up more about her parents, how he seemed more attuned to what was going on with her.

Alicia, in particular, looked pretty proud about that.

Hermione even found her telling them about Ron and Ginny's reactions to their news.

"Don't worry about Ron," Katie shrugged. "Boys can't help being prats."

"And it doesn't matter if Ginny wasn't all that happy for you," Alicia agreed. "We are."

Katie frowned. "But if she ever lies about what Angelina said again, you should let Angelina know."

Angelina was currently hurling quaffles at Vicky Frobisher, a powerful intensity radiating from her.

"Just maybe not when she's in quidditch mode," Alicia added. "She's liable to hex Ginny into next week if she finds out when she's in this sort of mood."

"Of course," Hermione grumbled. "Hexing is everyone's go-to move."

Alicia and Katie exchanged quizzical glances, but didn't say anything. Hermione panicked for a second, wondering if she'd somehow hurt Ginny's chances of getting on the team.

"Er—I hope you don't think… Ginny's not someone who lies all the time," Hermione explained. "I don't think she'd be a bad teammate. She was just—"

"Really angry at her brothers?" Alicia asked wryly. "Funny, I can't imagine how it feels to be annoyed at Fred and George."

"It's true," Katie agreed, her voice full of mirth. "They've never done a thing to make me angry ever."

Hermione smiled and joined in their laughter. Yes, everyone at Hogwarts could probably empathize with Ginny's frustration that day.

"Angelina didn't want you two to help with the tryouts?" Hermione asked.

Katie shook her head. "She seems to want to do it all herself," she said. "Plus, she wanted us on the sidelines so we could hear what everyone said once they got off the pitch — see if anyone is secretly a bad sport."

"You two are doing a remarkably thorough job at that," Hermione observed dryly. They'd both been paying far more attention to her than the attitudes of the would-be keepers.

Alicia shrugged. "We've gone to school with them for years," she said. "We know what they're like and who's too annoying to deal with on a regular basis."

Katie scowled and scanned the pitch. "I'm just glad McLaggen isn't here," she muttered. "He was going on and on about how he was trying out and how good he was."

"Oh, Fred and George took care of that," Alicia said mysteriously, and then with a quick look at Hermione added, "I'm not telling this to Hermione the prefect, but Hermione the Gryffindor. Fred and George may have made a bet with McLaggen about some doxy eggs so he wouldn't be available this evening."

Hermione and Katie exchanged confused glances. "What exactly did he do with the doxy eggs?" Hermione asked, not really wanting to know.

"He ate them."

Hermione closed her eyes. Of all the stupid, foolish, ridiculous things to do…

"Boys," she muttered, shaking her head. "I take it the idiot went to the hospital wing?"

Alicia nodded. "Madam Pomfrey's taking care of it."

Well, there was that at least. She wasn't about to dock points from Fred and George on a bit of hearsay — especially not when McLaggen had been dumb enough to take the bet.

"I think Vicky's best so far," Katie commented, watching the tryouts again.

Alicia nodded. "She's made the most saves, that's for sure."

Ginny was next. She did pretty well — she wasn't as good as Vicky, but was better than Hooper. She was a bit too aggressive, however. She came out of the goal too far, which let Angelina skirt around her, but she had good instincts, dodged Fred's bludgers remarkably well, and had an even better arm.

In the end, Angelina thought that was enough. She told Harry and the rest of the team that she thought Vicky had too many other commitments, and while Ginny wasn't perfect, she did come from good quidditch stock.

Fred and George were surprised — they'd never seen her play before — but happy, supplying the Gryffindor common room with a seemingly endless supply of butterbeer to celebrate.

Ginny was actually smiling for once — Alicia and Angelina were fitting her for quidditch robes — while Harry brought Neville and Hermione butterbeers.

"What time do you two have to leave?" Neville asked.

"In about a half hour," Hermione replied.

She and Harry had their first prefect patrol tonight. They didn't have to do it too often as the portraits patrolled during the weeknights (though Hermione wasn't sure how thorough the portraits actually were, given all of their late-night activities that had seemingly gone unnoticed by the staff). On weekends, however, most of the portraits got a bit too drunk to be of much use, and so the prefects alternated patrols.

"Are you going to search for Helga's office?" Neville asked.

"Among other things," Harry agreed, shooting Hermione a heated glance.

She determinedly ignored his innuendo in Neville's presence. "I think we'll start in the dungeons," she said loudly. "Since that's where she put the Hufflepuff common room, maybe her office is down there, too."

"And, even if we don't find the office tonight, we'll probably catch a Slytherin or two sneaking out," Harry added, taking a sip of his drink. Hermione couldn't say that thought displeased her — especially if it were someone like Malfoy.

"What's going on?"

Everyone looked up to find Ron at the bottom of the staircase, looking quite confused.

Fred pointed at their sister with his bottle. "Ginny made the quidditch team," he said.

Ron's confusion deepened. "Ginny doesn't even play quidditch," he said.

Ginny scowled. "Apparently, Ginny does," she snapped, and then added nastily, "and I don't drop the quaffle half the time the way you do when you play with our brothers."

Ron's ears turned red. "I don't drop — what are you on about?" he sputtered. "If I'd have wanted to try out, you wouldn't have gotten the spot."

Ginny rolled her eyes at him, and Ron swept by her, grabbing a butterbeer as he went. He tossed it back angrily, coming to stand with Harry, Hermione, and Neville.

Hermione couldn't help being curious. "You didn't want to try out, did you?" she asked.

Ron glowered. "If I wanted to be on the team, I would have tried out, wouldn't I?" he answered grumpily, shooting his sister an angry look. "She only made it because she's got a decent broom. If Charlie had given it to me, instead…"

His ears turned red and he shut up quickly. Harry and Hermione exchanged a glance — neither of them ever knew what to say whenever Ron brought up his family's money situation — but it was clear to both of them that if Ron did have a decent broom, he would've been at the tryouts earlier.

"Padma told Parvati you won your chess match against her today," Neville piped up.

Ron blinked, like he was noticing Neville was part of the conversation for the first time, and then his expression cleared. "Yeah," he said, seeming to cheer up a bit. "Yeah, I did. Padma's pretty good, too, but I beat her in record time."

"Congratulations," Harry said.

"That's brilliant," Hermione added.

"Anyway, I gotta go. I'm meeting Mandy," Ron said, leaning in toward Harry and Neville as he said it. He grinned at all of them, his anger seemingly gone, and practically sauntered to the portrait hole.

At the start of their patrol, Harry and Hermione reported to the Heads office, which was a bit more of a lounge than an office. There were two desks for Cedric and Rebecca Ellerby, as well as a few couches surrounding a cozy looking fireplace.

Rebecca spent the better part of 20 minutes explaining to them everything she had explained on the train ride to Hogwarts.

"And remember, you've got to take patrol seriously," Rebecca warned, seeming to appraise them both. "Being out of your dormitory after curfew isn't a joke."

Hermione was affronted by the notion she didn't take prefect duties seriously. "Well, of course," she said stiffly. She wasn't stupid.

Rebecca didn't look convinced. "Well, I am speaking to the two prefects who lost 150 points in one night for wandering around the castle after curfew."

Apparently, their Head Girl had a long memory — even if it was inaccurate since 50 of those points had been Neville's. Hermione's tempered flared that she was being judged for something that had happened when she was a first year. Not to mention, Rebecca Ellerby seemed to have a short memory when it came to her own house.

"Tell me, how often does Davey Willis make his own firewhiskey in your common room?" Hermione asked acidly. Cedric stifled a laugh, but Rebecca narrowed her eyes.

"I think we've got it! Thanks for the advice, both of you," Harry said breezily, tugging at Hermione. As soon as the door had closed behind them, he started laughing.

"It's not funny!" she protested.

"It's absolutely funny," he disagreed. "Our house thinks you're some rule-abiding goody-two shoes, and the Ravenclaws think you're some sort of delinquent."

He was enjoying this far too much. She glared at him, and he tugged her closer until they were flush against each other.

"Oh, come on, Hermione, we both know they're all wrong," he said. "You follow every rule there is — unless it's a stupid rule and you've got good reason not to."

She'd barely had time to marvel at how well he understood her when suddenly his mouth was on hers, his hands were in her hair, and they were absolutely not doing what they were supposed to be doing on patrol.

There was a cough behind them. Rebecca Ellerby was now standing in the corridor, a vindicated look on her face, like they'd just proven they weren't really up to the task of prefect. She stalked off in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower.

"Ignore her," Harry muttered, pulling the marauders map out of his pocket. "She doesn't know we have something that makes our patrols a whole lot more productive."

He scanned the map.

"Looks like she's headed back to Ravenclaw Tower, but Cedric is not headed to his common room. He's headed toward the Charms corridor, where it looks like Cho is — I don't really fancy trying to dock points off the Head Boy, do you? Fred and George are down in the dungeons — oh, it looks like they're by the kitchens, probably just getting more food for Ginny's party. They'll be back in the common room soon enough. And Ron and Mandy are in the Chess Club room. We don't have to break them up, do we? Ginny's news seemed to really upset him and he could do with a bit of cheering up," Harry commented.

Hermione snorted — is that what they were calling snogging now?

"Let's go look for Helga's office," she suggested. "If they're still out in an hour, we'll pop by the third floor. If we didn't have the map, it would take us at least that long to patrol everywhere and get to where Ron is."

That was fair, wasn't it?

They headed down to the dungeon, examining portraits, tapestries, statues, and random stones, looking for anything that seemed unusual or off. Harry was insistent that they peek behind every tapestry and several times Hermione ended up in a darkened secret corridor, trapped between the wall and her boyfriend, exploring far more than the castle.

"We're just finding all the good hiding spots," Harry murmured, his lips brushing across her neck, "so our patrols are more effective."

She couldn't argue with the logic of that — frankly, couldn't even think logically when he was touching her — and a part of her was mad about that. She'd always been in control, always acted exactly as she wanted, and here she was, on her first prefect patrol, taking time away from her duties and time away from searching for Helga's office to snog her boyfriend. First Year Hermione — even Fourth Year Hermione — probably wouldn't even recognize her.

According to Alicia, this was normal. According to her, it was all part of growing up and Hermione should just enjoy it — as long as she didn't lose herself too much.

"Do you feel different?" she blurted.

Harry didn't stop his exploration of her collarbone.

"What?" he whispered, his question vibrating against her skin.

"Being with me. Do you feel like a different person?"

It was dark in here, and the darkness had made her braver, like she could say anything and it would just disappear into the nothingness. Harry seemed to understand that this conversation was serious because he stopped kissing her neck and considered her words.

"I feel like me," he said finally. "But better."

She liked that answer, and she liked the idea of it. Did she feel like a better version of herself? She'd lost some of her control, and she didn't like that, but she also felt… warmer somehow? A bit brighter? She didn't know exactly, but maybe better was an accurate word for it.

She kissed him hard, gripping his robes, and he matched her intensity. Yes, better was a good word.

"Come on," she murmured, breaking away from him. "Let's go check the east corridor for the office."

She might have a boyfriend and she might like snogging him, but they still had a job to do — two, really — and if they were really better versions of themselves, they weren't going to shirk their responsibilities.

Harry slipped his hand into hers, leading her back into the corridor. Walking through the castle, their fingers laced together, searching for secret doorways and first years up to no good — yes, all of this felt right.

They didn't have any more luck in the east corridor, diligently checking every inch of the castle they could. Of course, if they needed to know a particular password, they could be passing right by the correct portrait or statue.

"We could always use the liquid luck?" Harry suggested. "We could probably find the office in no time with that — or even bypass the office and use it to discover the origin of the house elves."

Hermione had considered that. But she still had hope they'd be able to find the office with some other means — they hadn't even talked to Smith or been through all of the journals yet.

Meanwhile, they were facing You-Know-Who — and he was gunning for Hermione's boyfriend. Hermione wasn't certain what the future held, but she was sure that a time would come in the war when they'd want to have a bit of luck on their side.

"I don't think we need to resort to those measures just yet," she said hastily. She didn't want him to know she was hoarding it for him. He already knew how worried she was about him — he didn't need to know that there were times she was so terrified she was absolutely paralyzed by it.

Harry checked his watch. "We should probably go patrol the rest of the castle," he said. "It's late enough — everyone's had their fun."

Hermione checked the map. The chess club room was now empty. She hoped Ron was in a better mood now.

Harry, Hermione, Neville, Fred, and George were the last to arrive at Slughorn's dinner. (It was Fred and George's fault, of course. Both had decided to wear obnoxious bowties, and spent an inordinate amount of time transfiguring them to absurd colors. In the end, Fred went with lime green and orange polka dots, while George chose a red, blue and yellow chevron pattern).

When they got to Slughorn's office, they found their professor mingling with a few other students: Cormac McLaggen, who had apparently gotten over his doxy eggs incident; Blaise Zabini, Theodore Nott, and Draco Malfoy — the less said, the better; Rebecca Ellerby and two other Ravenclaw seventh years Hermione didn't know well; a Slytherin sixth year girl who smiled nastily at her; and Cedric Diggory, who looked quite relieved to see them.

"Welcome, welcome!" Slughorn said, hoisting up his goblet. It seemed like he'd already had a few. "I hope you're all hungry."

He pointed them toward the round table, which was set quite extravagantly, motioning for everyone to take their seats.

"Harry, m'boy, over here!" Slughorn said, waving Harry into the seat next to him. Fred snorted, and Harry dutifully sat where he was told. Hermione took the seat next to Harry, and Neville sat on the other side of her. Fred, George, and Cedric rounded out their group. Malfoy, Hermione noticed, angled for the other side of Slughorn, shooting Harry a dark look.

While Hermione was certain the house elves had prepared the meal, it was definitely elevated from what they usually got in the Great Hall. Slughorn also kept passing around the mead liberally, though by Hermione's count, he'd drunk twice as much as anyone else.

It was much the same as it had been in their Potions class: Slughorn named names and asked everyone (except Hermione) about their famous family members. She was the only muggleborn in attendance.

"Father was so pleased you came out of retirement," Malfoy said in an important sort of voice. "Though he was disappointed we Slytherins wouldn't get the benefit of your instruction."

Slughorn beamed at the compliment. "Your father was always a particular favorite of mine," he said. "But, of course, you're in good hands with Professor Snape."

"Of course," Malfoy agreed. "After all, he was taught by you."

Hermione didn't even have to look at Harry to know he was rolling his eyes at Malfoy's display of flattery. Both Fred and George took a sip of their mead. They'd done that every time Malfoy had sucked up to Slughorn in some way and she was fairly certain they'd made a game out of the dinner.

Slughorn laughed. "You are your father's son, aren't you?" he chuckled, and Malfoy preened.

"Imagine thinking that's a compliment," Harry muttered to Hermione and Neville. Hermione managed to cover her laugh, but Neville chortled.

Draco shot him a nasty glare. "How's your father, Longbottom?" he asked cruelly. Neville's expression was thunderous, but it was Harry who shot back first.

"Well, he's not hanging out with Voldemort, so he's doing better than your dad," Harry said loudly. Half the table flinched at the word Voldemort — not the Slytherin half, Hermione noticed — and Slughorn nearly choked on his mead.

"Now, now, Lucius has never had any — the Ministry was very thorough with their investigations back then," he said. "I can assure you they got all of You-Know-Who's sympathizers."

Harry glared at Malfoy. "Then how'd his dad come to be in possession of Tom Riddle's old school diary?"

Slughorn choked once again and paled at the mention of Tom Riddle. Hermione couldn't help but wonder what Slughorn knew about him. If she did the math correctly, Slughorn must have taught You-Know-Who when he was at school. And Slughorn did have an affinity for collecting talented witches and wizards. Dumbledore had told Harry that not many people connected You-Know-Who with Tom Riddle because many years had passed between Riddle's time at Hogwarts and the war (and because You-Know-Who looked vastly different than he had at school), but Slughorn had definitely hesitated at the mention.

"As I remember it, that book was found in their sister's possession," Malfoy said coldly, jerking his thumb toward Fred and George. "Maybe you should be wondering about their associations, Potter."

Fred and George narrowed their eyes at Malfoy dangerously; they hadn't forgotten what Lucius Malfoy had tried to do to Ginny. Slughorn very much seemed like he wanted to change the subject to anything else and began questioning one of the Ravenclaws — Cornelia Dell — about her great aunt, Celestina Warbeck.

Not long after that, he zeroed in on the twins.

"Tell me, boys, how are your plans for your joke shop going?" Slughorn asked eagerly. "Have the rest of you seen their inventions? Quite ingenious. One of my fourth years turned into a canary in the middle of class, and when I questioned them about it, learned all about their work."

"Er, that was before the truce, Hermione," George muttered.

"And then Professor Black told me a bit more about your plans — clever boys, aren't you?" Slughorn marveled. "I'll have to introduce you to Elmer Whimple…"

He droned on some more about some Ministry official who could help the twins with their plans, and poured himself some more mead.

By the end of the night, the spat with Malfoy was mostly forgotten, though Hermione thoroughly wished he hadn't been on the invite list. Several times during the night, he'd looked rather pointedly at her, whispered something to Nott and Zabini, and they'd all sniggered in her direction.

Slughorn, on the other hand, treated her jovially, questioning her on her future plans — she was considering several options — and asking for more information on some of their exploits at Hogwarts. They'd talked quite a bit about the Triwizard Tournament, and Slughorn seemed especially pleased when he learned about how Harry and Cedric had helped each other, as well as the training they all did together.

"Brilliance always finds brilliance, I always say," Slughorn said gleefully. Malfoy scowled.

When dessert had been served and everyone gathered around the fireplace for after-dinner drinks — Slughorn had finally turned his attention to Rebecca Ellerby — Fred leaned in toward them.

"Still glad you lot came?" he asked, jerking his head toward Malfoy.

"I don't know," Neville said, taking a sip from his goblet. "Slughorn seemed thrown when Harry mentioned You-Know-Who's old school things. This whole thing could be worth it if we can damage the Malfoy family's reputation a bit."

"You really think one professor is enough to sway opinion?" George asked doubtfully.

Harry shrugged. "Sirius seems to think Slughorn's connections are good, doesn't he?"

"And it's a lot better than not coming and letting Malfoy fill Slughorn's head with whatever he wants," Hermione added.

Neville nodded. "Gran says fighting a war is just as important over dinners and teas as it is in the actual battle. That's what she's been doing all summer."

Harry observed Slughorn, a resolute expression on his face. "So it looks like we're in the Slug Club," he said.

Hermione was used to quiet birthdays. When she was younger, her parents always made her feel special — they'd make her a special breakfast, go someplace she really wanted to go (birthdays were almost always museum days for them), and have dinner at her favorite restaurant.

Her first year at Hogwarts had been different. She hadn't had friends and the day had passed with absolutely no fanfare — she hadn't even heard from her parents because they hadn't yet figured out owl mail, and so their present arrived a few days late. It had been a miserable day — her only conversation was with the Fat Lady — and one she'd never wish on anyone.

The past few years had been much better, of course. She, Harry, and Ron had always had some sort of celebration — usually something small and intimate, but that's the way she liked it. This year, however, was much different.

Hermione woke up early on her birthday to find Dobby sitting at the edge of her bed on a pile of presents.

"Happy birthday!" he squeaked. "Dobby has brought presents from your parents. Dobby has also brought a present from himself." He looked at her shyly as he said it.

"Thank you," she said, and then, because he was clearly expecting her to open them now, she did: Her parents had sent her a few new jumpers and a book of cryptic crossword puzzles. Her dad had written a note with it: We've gotten the same book, so we can all do a weekly puzzle together. Hermione smiled at the thoughtfulness.

There was also a package from Augusta Longbottom. She'd gotten Hermione a new arithmancy abacus (which was a lot like a regular abacus, except that some of the beads were replaced by moons, stars, and planets). Hermione had one already, of course, but it was a starter abacus, designed for third through fifth year. This one was far more intricate — goblin-made silver, it seemed — and twice the size of the one she had. There were 24 more celestial objects on this one, which would allow Hermione to do more complex calculations — NEWT level, at least.

Dobby had gotten her a pair of magenta socks.

"I love them," she enthused.

Dobby smiled at her.

"When's your birthday, Dobby?" she asked.

"Dobby has no birthday," he replied.

Hermione frowned. "Everyone has a birthday."

"The Malfoys never told Dobby… Dobby doesn't know," he explained.

"Well, then you should pick a day, and we'll make that your birthday," Hermione decided.

Dobby apparently thought this was a very good suggestion because he squeaked loudly enough to wake up both Parvati and Lavender, neither of whom seemed particularly pleased by the interruption.

Hermione, Harry, and Neville then had breakfast in Sirius' quarters, featuring all of her favorites. Sirius got her a book binder as a present — a binder the size of a single book that could hold at least a hundred.

"This way, you won't have to pack and repack your trunk 20 times to get everything to fit," he said. "Something tells me you're going to be adding to your collection."

And, indeed, Neville had gotten her a book: Argus & Freesia.

"It's one of Astrid Fernsby's most famous plays," he explained. "She's sort of the wizarding world's William Shakespeare. I figured if you liked it, maybe your mum would, too. Once everything with You-Know-Who is over, we could even all go to see it live at the Nereid Amphitheater. Gran and I usually go a few times during the summer. Only this summer — well, you know…"

They couldn't exactly take Harry with them.

"Where?" Harry asked.

"The Nereid's a hidden amphitheater down near Dover that's carved into the cliffs," Sirius explained. "There's a whole magical community down there — a bunch of artsy types."

"The Weird Sisters live there," Neville added.

"You'd love a wizarding play," Sirius said, sizing Hermione and Harry up. "Both of you."

"My parents and I go see plays in the muggle world all the time," Hermione told them.

Sirius shook his head. "Wizarding plays are a bit different than muggle ones," he said. "They're more like your muggle films, only they're live."

"Because of charms, transfiguration, conjuration — magic in general — the sets are really life-like," Neville explained.

Hermione could imagine the possibilities — there was so much that could be done with magic if you were just a little bit creative.

Sirius turned to Harry. "Your mum loved them," he said. "James took her to the Nereid on one of their first dates. Before they went under the fidelius, they still stuck close to home — most of us were half in hiding then — and your mum wrote me in one of her letters that the first thing she wanted to do when it was all over was go to see a play."

Harry didn't look like he knew how to respond to that. He was glad for the information about his mum, but he was thinking what they all were: She never got to go.

"She used to get daily visits from her neighbor, Bathilda — batty old woman, but nice enough — who described her trips to the theater for your mum, since Lily couldn't go out," Sirius mused. "Course, Lily always said she was never sure if Bathilda saw those plays three days or 30 years ago, but she always talked about them with vivid accuracy."

Harry smiled at that. "It could be cool to go," he agreed, trying to seem nonchalant. It was obvious to everyone he was underplaying it.

"Yes, it would," Hermione agreed softly.

She turned to Neville. "Thank you for the gift," she said. "It was really thoughtful."

She looked down at the leather-bound book and the gold writing, wondering if their lives would ever be truly normal again.

Later on, she and Harry went down to the lake — the spot they had first kissed — with a picnic basket she assumed Dobby had helped him with.

"Sorry I didn't think of something better," Harry said apologetically.

Hermione stared at him. "Are you kidding? This is perfect!"

She'd much rather spend a quiet afternoon by the lake with him than some flashy surprise. The weather was warm, the sun was shining, and she liked being in Harry's arms better than anything in the world.

"Would you like your present?" Harry asked.

Hermione nodded and he pulled two packages out of the basket. One of them was shaped like a book, but the other wasn't nearly as wide and was much thicker. He handed them to her nervously.

Hermione carefully tore off the paper of the book-like object. It was a copy of New Theory of Numerology, which she'd wanted for ages.

"Oh, Harry, it's brilliant!" she exclaimed.

He grinned at her, but shot an anxious glance at the other package. She opened it even more carefully. Inside, was a brilliant white candle. Hermione sniffed it curiously.

"Oh!" she whispered. As soon as she breathed it in, she'd instantly been cocooned in the warmth of their Secret Garden, transported to a hazy summer night. She closed her eyes, trying to capture the memory more fully.

"I thought — well, you said how much you liked candles, how they reminded you of Hogwarts. And then I saw these memory candles and — I don't know — do you like it?"

Harry looked hopeful and anxious and half-terrified that he'd done something wrong, and she had no idea how this was the same person who told her that nothing about them was inconsequential or that being with her made him better. He always said the exact right things — why on earth would he think he didn't buy her the exact right gifts?

"If you don't—"

Hermione leaned forward and kissed Harry hard, trying to pour everything she was feeling into the kiss. He was sweet and wonderful and understood her so well — he was everything she could ask for in a boyfriend.

Harry cupped her face, his thumbs caressing her in soft circles.

"So… I take it you like it?" he asked.

"Oh, Harry, it's perfect!" she whispered. "How on earth did you get a candle that smells exactly right?"

And he told her about Sugar & Spice, and the memory candles, and how they worked. And as he described the extraction charm, Hermione realized exactly how much of himself Harry had poured into her present, exactly how vulnerable he was being with her. This wasn't just a candle that smelled like the Secret Garden; this was a candle designed to make her feel everything he had felt. The enormity of that weighed on her, but it was a good weight, one that made her feel secure and warm. She had about a thousand questions — mostly about his feelings and what they meant — none of which she thought Harry would have the answers to.

So instead, she asked a million questions about the charms and how they worked, and Harry tried to answer them as best he could, but it was NEWT level work.

"Sirius could explain it better," he said. "Or Mary. Just wait until you meet Mary — you'll think she's brilliant."

And then he told her all about Mary — he'd been dying to for ages, but he didn't want her asking questions about why he had met the shopkeeper. But the woman had gone to school with his parents, had known his mother, and from the way Harry's eyes lit up when he told Hermione about meeting her, she knew Sugar & Spice would be one of their first stops on their next Hogsmeade weekend.

"What does Sirius think of her?" Hermione asked, once she'd settled back into Harry's arms, and they were looking out across the lake.

Harry shrugged. "He seems to like her," he said. "Said they didn't know each other well in school — but she seemed to think he was a bit of a hero."

"How do you mean?"

Harry seemed to hesitate.

"She had this injury that she got at school — a limp," he finally said. "I think it was dark magic that another student used on her."

"Did they get expelled?" Hermione asked, horrified.

She felt Harry shrug. "Neither she nor Sirius said either way, but it didn't sound like it," he said. "I got the sense that sort of thing happened a lot back then."

She felt his arms curve around her more possessively, and she was keenly aware of his thought process. Sirius had told them that the past would inform their future; clearly, Harry was worried about the day the Draco Malfoys of the world felt comfortable enough with You-Know-Who's return to start using dark magic at Hogwarts.

"I can take care of myself, you know," she told him. "I'm certainly better at magic than Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle."

Harry smiled into her hair. "I know. That doesn't mean you should have to deal with them," he said.

Hermione twisted her head around so she could see his face, and the look in his eye was so fierce, so intense, all thoughts and worries left her. She lifted her head, planting a kiss on the corner of his mouth. The next thing she knew, she was laying on the ground, Harry on top of her, their legs tangled and their lips communicating better than their words ever had.

It was easily her best birthday ever. And it still wasn't over.

Later, when they were walking back to the castle, hand in hand, Harry led her not toward Gryffindor Tower, but the Heads Office.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"Cedric wanted us to stop by to get the schedule for the rest of the month," Harry explained. "Apparently, Rebecca amended it."

Hermione eyed him suspiciously. "He wanted us to stop by on a Saturday?" she asked. "On my birthday?"

"Yep," Harry said, averting his gaze.

Hermione narrowed her eyes. "You know how much I hate surprises," she said.

"I do," he agreed. "But Katie, Alicia, and Hannah don't. And even after I told them, they were committed to the idea, so… now you know, you won't be surprised, which is good because you don't like them, but you can still have your party."

Hermione detested surprises parties, but she had to admit: the idea that she had several friends who wanted to throw her a party overwhelmed her and she was half certain she was going to cry. She'd never had an easy time making friends — she'd needed a troll to attack her just to get her first two — and she didn't easily connect with other girls.

Or, at least, she didn't used to. She used to envy Lavender and Parvati for what they shared, but here she was, the girl who couldn't even get anyone to talk to her on her birthday four years ago, and now she had a group of girls who cared enough to surprise her with a party.

Hermione squeezed Harry's hand. "Let's go," she said excitedly.

The party was everything she could have hoped for and more. Dean and Luna had decorated the office with periwinkle and silver decorations, and Fred and George had procured a veritable feast from the kitchens and an entire pyramid of butterbeer.

Cedric had moved some of the furniture out of the way, and he and Neville set up Harry's transfiguration table, which turned out to be the hit of the party. She and Harry played doubles against just about everyone — and much to her pleasure, won every match except the one against Fred and George.

Ginny and Michael, Ron and Mandy, Hannah and the other Hufflepuffs, Cho, and even Parvati and Lavender showed up. Lavender looked a little nervous, like she wasn't sure Hermione would want her there. But as long as Lavender wasn't going to say anything idiotic about Harry, Hermione didn't mind.

She mostly got books as presents — and as much as she liked books, they made Harry's candle seem even better in comparison, if that were possible — though the one book that came as a bit of a surprise was the one Ron got her about Ancient Runes. They'd never discussed the subject, but it was actually a quite insightful choice. From the way he glanced adoringly at Mandy at Hermione's pleased response, she assumed the book had been Mandy's idea.

In addition to the books, Luna gave her a painting of all of them dancing at the Yule Ball last year — she assumed her dress inspired Luna's choice in color scheme for the party — and Hannah gave her a color-changing scarf. It was made of the softest, most comfortable fabric Hermione had ever felt.

"It'll always match whatever you're wearing," Hannah said, "so you never need another scarf again. Mum got me one for Christmas last year, and it's dead useful."

Something pretty, comfortable, and practical? There was a reason she and Hannah got on so well.

Katie, Angelina, and Alicia had also bucked the book trend; they gave her a set of lip glosses.

"They're lip balms, but they've got heating charms that'll also warm you up in the winter," Alicia explained. That sounded pragmatic.

Katie leaned in. "Take it from me — you and Harry are going to have a lot of fun with these," she whispered devilishly in Hermione's ear.

That sounded a bit more like them, Hermione thought, as she turned magenta at Katie's words.

And at the end of the night, they all walked back to Gryffindor Tower together. Harry kissed her goodnight, a soft, gentle kiss that warmed her to her toes, and then she, Parvati, and Lavender carried all of her gifts up to her dorm.

They dropped her presents on top of her trunk. Looking at them all, Hermione was overwhelmed by how many people had come to her party — how much people liked her.

"Hermione, are you crying?" Parvati asked, concern etched into her face.

Hermione swiped at her eyes. "It was just a really good day," she said, smiling brightly at them, though she knew her eyes were still teary.

She turned away from them and picked up Harry's candle, the fragrant aroma of the garden wafting up, and she couldn't wait another second to smell it when it was lit.

She pulled out her wand and lit the candle. The flame flickered and licked at the air, and the scent of the garden invaded her senses.

"Oh, Hermione, that smells so pretty!" Parvati gushed.

Lavender smiled dreamily. "It makes me want to dance in a fairytale garden," she agreed, swaying slightly as if she were really dancing.

Hermione felt heavy and she sat down on her bed. It wasn't just the garden she smelled. If she closed her eyes, it felt like Harry was here, his arms wrapped around her, his lips on hers. She felt exhilarated and a little bit wanton, but also cared for, and — well, if she had to describe it, she'd say she felt loved. He'd poured his memories into this candle — his thoughts, his feelings — and the intensity of it all was utterly intoxicating.

She'd never gotten a better present and she'd certainly never had a better birthday.