She could see Pansy Parkinson standing a few feet away from the corner of her eye. Sneering. Of course. Defiantly, Hermione Granger pulled back her shoulders, chin up, looking at the empty track in front of her.
Platform nine and three quarters was slowly filling up with students and parents, the low hum of conversation gradually escalating to a cacophony.
Hermione had reached early- very early in fact- sending her parents off as soon as she could. She didn’t want them to feel the heated glares and snide comments that they were sure to encounter had they waited with her. The climate in the wizarding world was deteriorating at an alarming pace. The geniality and wonder she had felt when she first embarked on her magical journey was fading into something sinister and unwelcoming.
She took a fortifying breath, as her eyes fluttered shut. Keep it together.
She hated this constant feeling of dread now that Voldemort was much more than a distant storm cloud.
Pansy was still lingering at the edge of her vision, joined now by an immaculately coiffed Daphne Greengrass. They were both collectively sneering. Good grief, but Hermione was tired. She twisted the end of her frayed Genesis tshirt, one that had belonged to her dad, and she had… “borrowed” and magically shrunk after he made her listen to ‘Foxtrot’ (“Just you wait Hermione, you’re going to lose your mind”).
The thought of her parents made something heavy and unpleasant crawl up her throat. Her eccentric dentist parents who were thrilled to bits with their clever little witchy daughter. Her dad with his fluffy grey hair and tattered jeans; outdoorsy and scruffy, maker of the world’s worst puns, the only dentist in the freaking country who’d make his patients listen to ‘Rock the Casbah’ while he rummaged around in their mouths.
And her mum- who she was meant to be a spitting image of… slight, slender, and extraordinarily generous. Her mum who couldn’t cook for shit; the only person whose scope of literary references was wider than her own.
Mum and dad… Her mum and dad… Their lives in peril because of her…
She couldn’t breathe.
She barely registered the Hogwarts Express rolling in amid a cloud of purple smoke, a shrill whistle, a sudden draught….
She was tired, and she couldn’t breathe and….
And an arm came and slung itself around her shoulders, as she was squeezed into a tall, hard frame. Hermione started, her head snapped up. Bright blue eyes looked fondly down at her from under strands of ruddy hair.
“Ron!” she felt the tension slip away from her body as she leant into his embrace.
“Hullo, Hermione,” he smiled impishly, seeming unwilling to let go of her, “I swear, you get smaller every time I see you. You’ve bloody gone and shrunk again, haven’t you?”
She rolled her eyes at him, not even trying to hold back the smile that unfurled across her face.
Ron turned her around and steered her towards his family, an oasis of warmth and ginger hair in a crowd of irrelevant bodies, away from her thoughts and away from stupid Pansy Parkinson.
She went about hugging them one by one- from Ron to Fred (“Well hey there…”) to George (“…beautiful...”) to Ginny (“…fucking Fleur, Hermione, I swear to Merlin I’m going to scream…”) to Molly (“Goodness! You’re too thin, dear...”) to Arthur (“Don’t see your lovely folks around. Pity. Real pity…”), until finally she all but melted into one Harry Potter.
God. She felt so selfish for letting herself drown in her woes back there. Harry had it far worse than she ever would. She pulled away to look up at him, his hair nearly as hopeless as hers, and saw that his splendid green eyes were clear and at ease for once.
He grinned at her and she felt her heart swell at the unrestrained happiness of that expression. Because to Harry, Hogwarts was home, the Weasleys and her were family, and in that moment she knew he felt that he was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Juuuust grand, girly.”
But he did that ostentatious, shifty thing with his eyebrows – Harryspeak for “I’ll tell you later” – so she gave him an exaggerated wink in return. “Okay. Got it.”
His grin expanded into a chuckle and Hermione couldn’t stop herself from hugging him again.
On the train ride Hermione heard about Horace Slughorn from Harry, OWL scores from Ron and Harry, the absolute horror/total dreamboat that was Fleur Delacour from Ginny/Ron, and then sat and listened while Harry presented a veritable thesis postulating – nay screamingly declaring – that Draco Malfoy was a Death Eater. Ron and Ginny looked away uncomfortably while that went on. Harry was breathing heavily by the end of it, and the silence that followed was profound.
“Er… I’ve got to go meet Dean…” Ginny blurted and scrambled out of the compartment.
Hermione was tired again.
“Harry,” she ventured, “Malfoy is sixteen years old, and I hardly think that-”
Ron groaned, even as Harry burst out with a “As if age matters when it means having a man inside Hogwarts-”
“He’s hardly a man, Harry-“
“Fucking semantics? Really, Hermione-“
“-could he possibly accomplish with Dumbledore right here and-“
“-plotting something… it’s so obvious, I mean Ron and Ginny saw him threaten Borgin-“
“-and furthermore… oh come ON, he was clearly bluffing! Malfoy has always been full of bravado and.. and… shite! Tell him, Ron!”
Harry and Hermione both looked at Ron expectantly. Poor Ron looked agonized, his ears red and his brow puckered.
That was when a starry-eyed girl pushed into their compartment to tell Harry that he was being summoned by Professor Slughorn.
Ron crumpled with relief. Hermione looked at him for a moment, her eyebrows arched, and then said, simply: “Why.”
Ron let out a humorless titter, stretched out his arms and shrugged dramatically. “Sometimes Harry gives me a break from being the ever-irrational one.”
Hermione laughed, and lightly shoved at his shoulder. He smiled down at her like he had at the station, the same soft fondness in his eyes as they travelled across her face. She felt her cheeks warm under his scrutiny, her heartbeat sped up, and her laughter petered out as she met his gaze. She wished he would say something… do something… something big and terribly meaningful, because her stomach was rolling with anticipation. She took in a shaky gulp of air, and that seemed to snap Ron out of well, whatever; he blinked rapidly, laughed nervously, and mumbled something about being hungry and bloody hell where’s the food trolley at.
“Sucks to your ass-mar,” she retorted irritably.
She was so very tired.
Harry and Ginny returned with near identical looks of bemusement of their faces. Hermione regarded Professor Slughorn’s desperate social climbing with amusement at first, but it all evaporated when she saw the thinly veiled envy on Ron’s face. Oh hell. This was going to become an issue.
The Great Hall was as glorious as ever: the sky a dusky blue, full of riotous clouds and nary a star, the students sat under a canopy of candles, and the air was thick with the smell of warm food. Harry was still fuming about Professor Snape’s appointment as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Ron was looking intensely focused as he fed himself at an extraordinary speed, and Hermione thought about Futurist paintings depicting motion, about bizarre Japanese cartoons, about William Makepeace Thackeray.
She pushed her half-eaten plate away, and looked about her listlessly. Ginny was sitting next to Dean who had one arm looped around her, as he valiantly attempted to cut his steak with one hand. Seamus was attempting to flirt with Parvati. Parvati was attempting to dissolve into thin air to escape Seamus. Lavender was giggling at her friend’s predicament.
“Bored, eh?” came a whisper from her left.
She huffed a laugh and turned to look at Neville. “Just… tired.”
He smiled ruefully at her. His once round face had matured and narrowed, but it retained that quintessentially Neville look of hesitance and innocence.
“Did you read the latest piece in The New Journal of Herbology about the possibility of using Asphodel to slow down the growth cancerous tumors?”
She gratefully, delightedly, jumped into that conversation.
Long live Longbottom.
Hermione trudged towards the huge doors of the Great Hall, anxious to reach her bed and sleep. Her eyes felt hot, her head felt heavy. She was positively done.
So of course she had to come face to face with Draco Malfoy right before the threshold. His mouth twisted with distaste the moment he saw her. Theodore Nott stood a little behind him, looking generally uninterested in any and every thing.
Hermione was entirely in favour of avoiding confrontation, so she thought it prudent to stop walking and let the egomaniac pass first.
“Out of the way, mudblood.”
Her exhaustion and exasperation mingled languidly. She looked at him for a moment, and then bowed her head. Her arms performed a series of graceful ports de bras, one arching by her side, the other gesturing to the door. Her leg drew an elegant circle on the floor before dipping behind her, and then she sank slowly, utterly into a devastatingly theatrical curtsey.
Silence. The throng of students around them had all fallen mum. Head still bent, she looked up at Malfoy through her eyelashes. He looked dumbstruck. Flabbergasted. His eyes were wide, lips frozen in a half-sneer. Hermione very nearly lost her balance in the face of his comical astonishment. It didn’t help one bit that behind him, Nott’s eyes were suddenly alive with glee, as he bit down on his lip.
Behind her somebody snorted loudly. Then there was a giggle. Soon, the laughter was thunderous and all around. Hermione continued to watch Malfoy even as a small, crooked smile broke across her face. That seemed to snap him out of his stupor, and he stormed out of the hall, but not before muttering, “Stupid uppity bitch.”
Nott beamed at her. Huh.
For the second time that day, she felt an arm snake around her shoulders. Harry pulled her along, laughing.
“You strange creature,” he gasped into her hair.
“That. Was. Brilliant!” Ginny danced around to her other side, and then there was Ron guffawing (“Did you see his face?!”), and Dean and Seamus and Luna and Neville and Justin and Ernie… they encircled her, faces shining with mirth and friendship, and Hermione’s weariness momentarily made way for contentment.