Once again, Voldemort and his minions had been defeated, Harry Potter and Dumbledore were triumphant over the forces of evil seeking to wreak havoc in the magic realm, and Hermione had been unable to focus nearly as much time in her classes at Hogwarts as she would have liked. She did manage to do well in all her classes, despite the continuous distractions, but not as well as she would have liked.
With only a few days left in the school term and most major assignments for her courses complete, Hermione found herself struggling. Obviously not academically - that was the one facet of her Hogwarts existence that was never a burden. Hermione welcomed academic challenge and loved to leap the hurdles placed before her as she ascended to ever higher pinnacles of achievement.
No, Hermione's struggles were of an altogether different nature. She struggled to maintain the artificial somewhat-cheery disposition that she showed the outside world as she interacted with her fellow-students at Hogwarts. Her only reliable solace was the grandeur of the Hogwarts library and her limited interactions with the few students who seemed equally as interested in pursuing higher-knowledge therein. Her time amongst the generally thick-headed students in her classes was pure frustration, though she did love the rare occasions that her professors managed to impart new knowledge to her. Hermione also didn't mind showing her professors or fellow students just how much she already knew. She was introspective enough to realize on some level that her constant interjections grew tiresome...but how else was she to move her lessons along and suck every last bit of knowledge-marrow from the bones of her classes? Teachers who expected participation turned her classes into interminable death marches in their efforts to encourage student participation when the dullards in her classes seemed barely able to stay awake.
Her best friends, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, who she had known since her first year at Hogwarts, were a much-needed social crutch to her when she had arrived as a new student of Hogwarts almost five years earlier. They had both seemed so full of confidence and bravado - everything a Gryffindor House member was expected to be. But neither had shown much interest in academic excellence, especially Ronald, in the years they had attended Hogwarts. And when Hermione considered this, she realized it wasn't really a surprise to her. None of the Gryffindors she was acquainted with seemed to have more than a passing interest in excelling in their coursework. Their days were spent primarily talking about, playing, or strategizing about Quidditch. Or dueling one another and engaging in magical hijinks.
The Sorting Hat had seemed quite certain when it had declared Hermione a member of Gryffindor House. And she had been thrilled to be placed in the same house as the only two people she knew to any extent. But in the perfect vision of hindsight, Hermione wondered if her fear of being friendless in such an odd an unfamiliar environment had influenced the Sorting Hat's pronouncement and if maybe she been placed in the wrong house. The time spent with academically-minded Ravenclaw House students in the library (of which there were a great many) had furthered this line of thought. She dreamt of being in a House that was less-filled with distraction and students who were less concerned with Quidditch or seeking out adventure and mayhem.
As appealing as the idea of moving to a different house with different chamber-mates who were more inclined to study in silence might be to her, the thought of abandoning her only two close friends at Hogwarts was equally as unappealing. Hermione knew her friendship with Ron and Harry wouldn't be instantly severed. They would still be in the same classes, would still see each other often in the Great Hall during meals, though they wouldn't be sitting together, and might even still socialize during the limited downtime Hermione felt comfortable allowing herself. But she knew the distance would grow between them as she grew closer to the other Ravenclaws. And she just wasn't sure if that was something she could accept.
So Hermione struggled in silence, often irritably snapping at her two closest friends for no apparent reason, as she struggled with not only the question of being in the wrong House, but also with the evolving nature of her relationships with both Ron and Harry.
Ron was a problem. Hermione had long been aware of his growing interest in her over the past few of years, and had even entertained the idea of returning his interest. But he just didn't ring any of her bells. He perfectly embodied the physical nature of Gryffindor while showing little in the way of a hunger for knowledge, magical aptitude or cleverness. While Ron wasn't entirely physically displeasing to Hermione, there just wasn't any real intellectual connection - and that was meaningful to Hermione.
Harry was a slightly lesser problem. Though Harry did ring many of Hermione's bells, she knew he had never considered her to be anything more than a friend. And that made it somewhat easier for her to reciprocate his friendship and keep her feelings in check. Admittedly, there were moments she gave in and embraced Harry when the opportunity arose. And while those moments of weakness stirred something within her, she'd sensed nothing from Harry and had stifled her own yearnings for something more. ironically, on a physical level, Harry didn't really appeal to Hermione's tastes at all. But he had a good intellect when he chose to use it, was clever, and was much less ham-handed in his interactions with others than poor bumbling Ron.
And so Hermione struggled in silence, afraid to tell her closest friends what she was thinking and hoping these distractions weren't diminishing her already limited ability to study as a member of the ever-raucous Gryffindor House.
"Hey, Hermione, whatcher doing?" Ron asked too loudly as he came bounding into the library with Harry following quietly behind.
Madam Pince, the stern Hogwarts librarian, scowled at Ron as he obliviously continued stomping around her sanctuary of learning. "Shhhh!" she shushed him quickly and angrily.
"Sor-ry," Ron responded, still too-loudly, as he noisily dragged the heavy chair beside Hermione before plopping himself down beside her like a sack of potatoes, oozing nonchalance - or at least a complete lack of social awareness, Hermione wasn't sure which was really on display. Harry quietly pulled up the chair on Hermione's other side and sat with much less attitude.
"We were wondering if you would be coming to the Quidditch Finals match this afternoon," Harry asked in a low whisper, edging closer to Hermione to be heard. Harry's warm breath on her cheek sent an involuntary shiver down her spine, which surprised Hermione. Despite her commitment to quell her burgeoning feelings for Harry, her body's involuntary responses were betraying her. She involuntarily sighed, and closed her eyes.
"You feelin' all right there, Hermione?" Ron asked, still too-loudly.
Hermione's eyes snapped open and flashed at Ron angrily. "Will you please keep your voice down!" she hissed at Ron, drawing the watchful eye of Madam Pince. "Some of us are trying to study!"
"Study, study, study...all she does is study. When's a bloke supposed to get any excitement with all this studying going on?" Ron asked, slightly-more-quietly, as he rolled his eyes at Hermione.
Harry had watched this exchange with amusement, though Hermione was unsure if he was amused by Ron's oafish behavior or Hermione's frustrated responses to Ron's behavior. But either option only further raised her ire. "And what do you think is so funny?" she whispered angrily to Harry, some part of her wanting to grab his tousled hair and feel his smirking lips against hers, but instead she clenched the arms of her chair tightly, lest her body should again betray her.
"Sorry, Hermione, I didn't mean to...I mean, you get so...sorry." Harry whispered, suddenly looking less amused than ashamed for annoying his friend. "Ron, let's go so Hermione can study," he said as he stood and grabbed Ron's arm.
"Right, if she wants to waste her day in a stuffy old library, who are we to stop her?" Ron whispered as he stood noisily, earning another baleful glare from Madam Pince. "Let's go."
Hermione watched them go, feeling even less inclined to absorb the information she had been researching on advancments in Arithmancy during the thirteenth century. If even a topic as fascinating as this couldn't keep her focused, what was the point of holing up in the library?
Hermione began packing her belongings, returning the stack of library books she had been perusing to the cart beside Madam Pince. "Thank you," Hermione whispered to Madam Pince, receiving the stern glower she seemed to reserve for anyone who dared intrude upon her library, as Hermione turned to the doors of the Library. Before following her friends to the Quidditch pitch, Hermione returned her study materials to her empty dormitory, passing through an equally empty Gryffindor Common Room - all her fellow-Gryffindors obviously already at the Quidditch match. Hermione felt guilty to be shirking her research in the name of sport, but justified it with the rationalization that she was currently incapable of the kind of focus her studies deserved. And she vowed to spend even more time on her research later, when she was more settled.
Hermione walked among the throng of students still making their way to the Quidditch pitch, her diminutive stature resulting in a great many bumps, shoves, and stepped-on toes as the larger students around her jostled each other playfully.
Hermione finally reached the bleachers on the Gryffindor side, scanning the crowd for Ron and Harry's faces. When Harry spotted her, his face lit up with a wide grin as he waved encouragingly to Hermione, elbowing Ron to get his attention. Ron saw Hermione and his faced initially registered only confusion as his sluggish intellect struggled to explain how Hermione, who had refused to leave the library, could be there. Then his confusion abated and he, too, waved encouragingly to Hermione, wearing a big grin.
Hermione fought her way through the crowded bleachers, finally reaching Ron and Harry. There was a slight space between them, which Harry endeavored to make larger by pushing up against the larger boy beside him, Lee Jordan. Hermione squeezed into the tight space, relishing the closeness to Harry and endeavoring to avoid Ron's flying elbows as he gesticulated wildly and shouted at the Slytherin team battling Ravenclaw.
As Hermione tried to avoid being struck by Ron's flailing limbs, she slid her arm around harry and pressed herself into his left side, their cheeks almost touching. It took Harry a few seconds to become aware of Hermione's extreme proximity, and, as he turned to speak to her, he found his lips brushing against Hermione's as she turned to face him so she could explain.
After the initial shock, Harry tried to pull away, but Hermione's arms were already wrapped around him and held him fast. As Ron stood and cheered Ravenclaw on (he would cheer for anyone against Slytherin), Hermione's accidental contact blossomed into an actual kiss, her lips parting slightly as Harry relaxed and welcomed Hermione's contact. Hermione's tongue darted out lightly, tentatively brushing against Harry's slightly-parted lips. She quivered involuntarily as she felt Harry applying light suction on her bottom lip and again as she felt his tongue gingerly make contact with her own. Hermione was becoming far too aroused to continue in such a public venue and broke contact with an apologetic smile and one last peck on Harry's cheek, whispering, "later" in response to his confused expression as she pulled slightly away.
Though their kiss had ended, Hermione's arms remained wrapped around Harry - as much to avoid being struck by Ron's violent gesticulation as...well, to be wrapped around Harry. They watched the remainder of the match with few words exchanged and Harry was much more stoic than usual, his mind obviously elsewhere. When the match ended, Ron was surprised and a little put-off to see Hermione's arms wrapped around Harry. He gestured toward them and asked, "What's...getting a little cozy, are we?" as he attempted to feign indifference.
Hermione glared at Ron and responded contemptuously, "I had to get as far away from your spastic limbs as I could or I would have been bloodied and bruised by the end of the match!" Her glare dared Ron to say another word about it.
Ron instead turned to Harry. "The match is over, mate. Maybe you should give Hermione a little space."
Harry found Ron's comment ironic since he wasn't holding Hermione, she was clinging to him. "We better get back to the Common Room," Harry stated, deftly changing the subject. "The match went long and it will be dark soon."
Hermione reluctantly disengaged from Harry and stood, filing out of the stands between Ron and Harry, arms around the shoulders of both her friends. As they made their way back, Ron's dark mood dissipated entirely, and he, Harry, and Hermione joked about the brooding Slytherin students they passed and shared memories of the prior years' adventures. The returned to the Gryffindor common room in good spirits, and separated as Harry and Ron returned to the boys' dormitories and Hermione to the girls'.
Despite her lighthearted banter on the walk back, Hermione's thoughts were racing as she revisited the passionate kiss in her mind, over and over again. She'd told harry "later," but really hadn't thought about what would happen later or even what she wanted to happen. Did she want to start a relationship with Harry? What would that do to their friendship with Ron if she and Harry began snogging openly? And what about Harry's long-standing crush on Cho? He'd just snogged her before Christmas in the Room of Requirement. Or Ginny's obvious crush on Harry? Did she even want to enter that tangled web of romance and drama?
Hermione undressed and slid between her sheets, savoring the feeling of the soft cool fabric against her skin. She worried that sleep would elude her, but within minutes she was unconscious and happily dreaming - dreams that would confuse her the following morning once they'd left their imprints on her unconscious mind.
"Morning, Hermione," Ron shouted across the common room as Hermione walked down the stairs from the girls' dormitory. She had awakened from a deep sleep with a confusing array of dream-images still floating around in her mind. Some involved Harry, but there were others that involved Ron, and even one that involved one of the less-studious Ravenclaw students, Luna Lovegood. The details of her dreams were vague, but Hermione had awakened feeling curiously amorous.
"Morning Ron, morning Harry," Hermione responded cheerfully with a wave. She caught Harry's eye, but Harry quickly looked away, almost guiltily. Hermione was puzzled by Harry's behavior, but didn't dwell on it as the three walked down to the Great Hall for breakfast.
"Howdya sleep, 'mione?" Ron asked with a mouth stuffed full of sausage and eggs. Hermione cringed as detritus was sent fling from Ron's face.
"I slept well, thank you." Hermione responded, quickly catching Harry's eye again before continuing, "And how about you, Harry? Did you have pleasant dreams?"
Harry blushed and stammered a reply, "I, well...yes, very well...dreams..." he trailed off.
"What's wrong with you, mate? Sounds like somebody hit you with a Confundus jinx," Ron said as he slapped Harry roughly on the back, "Hermione's going to think you've gone simple."
Hermione managed to catch Harry's eye several times throughout breakfast, and each time he looked away uncomfortably. When they finished eating and were leaving the great Hall to go to class, Hermione whispered in Harry's ear as Ron was attempting to give Seamus a wedgie using a spell that was clearly not very suitable for the task. "Meet me after Herbology in the clearing in the grove on the shore of the Black Lake."
Harry nodded subtly with understanding as Hermione headed to the Ancient Runes classroom and Ron and Harry headed to the Dungeon for Potions.
Harry's head was spinning. He had always considered Hermione to be nothing more than a friend. Not because she wasn't beautiful depsite her often large and frizzy hair that rivaled his own for lack of control, and amazing, and intriguing, but because he knew Ron had always had a thing for Hermione and Harry had never suspected that Hermione might have any romantic interest in him. Granted, Hermione had never expressed any discernible interest in Ron, but Ron had clearly expressed interest in Hermione and, as such, had staked his claim. Thus Harry didn't even consider her available for consideration.
But all that had changed. And Harry didn't know what to do about it. He couldn't betray his best friend. But then again, he thought, didn't his other best friend have the right to snog whomever she chose? After all, she had pursued a brief fling with Viktor Krum and Ron and Harry's friendship had persevered after a brief period of difficulty. But maybe Hermione was feeling just as confused as he felt and she just wanted to apologize and set their lives back on their proper course when they met down by the lake after Herbology. If so, harry wasn't sure how he felt about that, either.
Hermione didn't wait for harry to catch up as the Herbology class ended. While Harry stood with Ron near Professor Sprout at the front of the greenhouse classroom, Hermione had taken a station uncharacteristically close to the greenhouse exit. As soon as the class ended, she was out the door and sprinting for the lake shore.
Hermione arrived alone and quickly scouted the area to make sure no one else was nearby. She then stood behind one of the larger trees at the edge of the grove and waited to see if Harry managed to come alone or if he would be accompanied by Ron. Minutes passed before she heard footsteps approaching.
Hermione was shocked to see Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson burst into the clearing as she peeked around the tree to see who had arrived.
"Where is that filthy little mudblood?" Malfoy spat as her peered around the clearing. "I know I saw her run down here. She's obviously up to something and I'm going to catch her, cost Gryffindor some House Points, and take Potter and his allies down a peg!"
Pansy cackled until she was out of breath. Malfoy watched his unbalanced companion with an obvious look of revulsion, but smiled broadly when she turned to face him. "Where is she? I've got some choice hexes I want to try out on her!" Pansy said with a sneer.
"Maybe she has Potter's cloak of invisibility," Malfoy conjectured. "Look for footprints!"
Hermione scanned the ground leading to her hiding place, but saw no evidence of her passage. Fortunately, the trees hadn't dropped their leaves yet and the grass was still lush and full. But then Hermione had another thought - what was going to happen when Harry came upon Malfoy and Pansy? She had to be rid of them before they unleashed a torrent of hexes on an unsuspecting Harry.
Slowly removing her wand from its pocket within her cloak, she identified a heavy fallen branch across the clearing and used one of the first spells she'd perfected at Hogwarts. "Wingardium Leviosa," she whispered as she performed the much-practiced motion with her wand, causing the heavy branch to levitate a couple of feet above the ground. She sent the branch crashing noisily back through the undergrowth and then allowed it to fall to Earth before she ducked back behind the large tree obscuring her from the Slytherins' view.
"Over here!" Malfoy called, rushing into the undergrowth opposite Hermione. Pansy hesitated for a moment, having caught the briefest of glimpses of Hermione as she had performed the levitation charm, before following Malfoy.
Hermione waited until there was no sign of Draco or Pansy and only then carefully made her way back out of the copse of trees. Sadly, Hermione knew this would not be a safe place to talk to Harry today - there was too much possibility of being surprised by Malfoy and his cohort again.
Hermione left the trees and began walking back up the hill toward Hogwarts, only now that the distraction of Malfoy had been dealt with, wondering why Harry had not arrived yet. In fact, there was no sign of him anywhere on the grounds. She began to worry that he had misunderstood the location she had provided him and was even now being jinxed by Malfoy and Parkinson. Or worse, maybe he had decided that their shared moment was a horrible mistake and he couldn't bear to be near her and take a chance of repeating the same mistake.
The possibility that Harry felt nothing for her and she had made a complete fool of herself weighed heavily on Hermione. Her stride slowed as she neared the school, now dreading seeing Harry again. Hermione dragged herself to her dormitory, barely noticing anything or anyone around her as she passed through the corridors and the Gryffindor Common Room, and threw herself down on her bed, thankful to be alone in her unoccupied room. And only then did she allow the tears to start. After a good ten minutes of crying, Hermione decided to stop feeling sorry for herself and go find out what happened to Harry.
Harry and Ron goggled as Hermione sprinted out of the Herbology greenhouse. Neither could remember having seen Hermione in such a rush to be anywhere. Harry suspected he knew why she was in such a hurry and did, in fact, know where she was going, but he wasn't about to tell Ron and have that talk yet. He was sure it would be coming soon enough.
"Blimey, Harry, have you ever seen 'mione move like that?" Ron asked as he collected his Herbology materials.
"No, Ron, never. There must be a new shipment of really old books coming to the library," Harry said with a smile. "Or maybe she has a chance to do some extra credit in Arithmancy. You know how she loves that class."
"Yeah, you're right. She's probably got some bookish place to be," Ron responded. "Still, I wish she'd waited for us. I was hoping to have a bit of a chat with 'er, that's all. I was thinking it's probably past time she and I had this chat, in fact."
Harry swallowed hard and felt terrible. He knew how devastated Ron would be if he found out what had transpired with Hermione at the Quidditch match. And now to hear that Ron was preparing to profess his intentions to Hermione, well, that just made things worse.
"Let's go grab a bite, mate" Ron said, slapping Harry on the shoulder. "There's nothing like a full belly to set your mind at ease."
"I..er, I..." Harry stammered, trying to invent a reason that he could escape Ron's company for just a little while. But there was no escaping the force of nature that was Ronald Weasley. He swept Harry along, and before Harry knew what was happening, they were both seated in the Great Hall,faced with overflowing serving trays of every food imaginable. Unfortunately for Harry, his time with the Dursleys had forever rendered his appetite small after years of being fed little more than his cousin Dudley's scraps. But Ron had no such problem and proceeded to gorge on the ample food. When Lee Jordan engaged Ron in a Quidditch conversation across the table, Harry knew the opportunity to slip away unnoticed had arrived.
The Black Lake
Finally free from Ron's company, Harry dashed toward the Black Lake, where he hoped Hermione would still be waiting. He was sure she would understand, once he'd explained the situation. It was dusk and he would soon be risking House points if he was caught outdoors, so in his hurry he wasn't using as much caution as he might have otherwise, thus Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson caught him completely off guard. He broke through the trees, expecting to see Hermione, only to come face to face with Draco Malfoy. Draco had practiced his dueling curses extensively and quickly stunned Harry with a quickly cast "Petrificus Totalus," stunning Harry before he could even attempt a counter curse.
"Well, look what we have here," Draco hissed, "Potter all alone, out looking for his little mudblood girlfriend. Looks like their starlit rendezvous will have to wait."
Pansy Parkinson only cackled madly, causing both Draco and Harry to cringe slightly.
"Sadly, the dirty little mudblood gave us the slip, or we would have treated you both to our Slytherin hospitality," Draco added with a gesture to Pansy. "Go ahead, Parkinson, you wanted the first go with him."
Again, Pansy cackled dementedly as she approached the immobilized Harry with her wand clenched in her left hand. Harry watched as she licked her lips before lifting her wand to curse him, possibly fatally. He closed his eyes, ready for the fatal blow.
"Evanesco," Pansy screeched.
Harry opened his eyes to find himself completely intact, and apparently none the worse for wear. But he also noticed that he was feeling a chilly breeze that he hadn't noticed before Pansy cast her spell. And that was when he realized what the target of her casting had been - his robes. And everything underneath. He found himself held firmly in place without a stitch of clothing. At least Malfoy had left the clearing so Harry's indignity was reserved for only one of his enemies.
Harry steeled himself as Pansy moved closer, ready for her next act of humiliation. He expected to be levitated onto the grounds to be seen by all of Hogwarts or something equally humiliating, but was shocked when no other spell was forthcoming. Instead, Pansy pressed her admittedly-not-unattractive-when-not-cackling-evilly face up against Harry's and he found himself snogging the third girl this year after having not snogged a single girl the previous four years at Hogwarts - a trend Harry found pleasing indeed. Harry had always thought Pansy to be unpleasant and pug-like, but now that he was seeing her this close, he realized that she wasn't entirely unattractive. She had very pretty eyes, for one thing, and a very kissable mouth.
Without any conscious thought, Harry's body had begun to react on its own, as much as it could under the spell, and he desperately hoped it would go unnoticed by Pansy. Fortunately Pansy was thoroughly occupied, one hand on either side of Harry's head, fingers entwined in his shaggy, unruly hair, as she kissed him greedily and hungrily - everything else was secondary for her at the moment.
Before setting out onto the grounds at night, Hermione verified that Harry wasn't in the Gryffindor Common Room and she had Seamus verify that he wasn't in his dormitory. Ron was in the Common Room without Harry, talking loudly to Dean Thomas about a Quidditch match, and seemed unconcerned about Harry's absence. Night was well on its way by the time Hermione set out to check up on Harry. She had to dodge a few prefects on her way to the Entrance Hall - a skill she owed in large part to Harry and Ron - and just hoped the doors hadn't been sealed for the night.
Luck was with Hermione - the doors were still open and no prefects, professors, ill-tempered caretakers, or other students were in the area. Hermione stealthily crept through the doors and, keeping to the shadow as best she could, hurried down to the copse of trees beside the Black lake. As she neared the trees, she spied Draco Malfoy standing just outside the treeline, scanning the hillside as if keeping watch. Pansy was nowhere to be seen.
Hermione immediately knew something had gone terribly wrong for Harry. She didn't know if other Slytherins were involved or if it was still just Draco and Pansy up to some mischief, but she resolved to rescue Harry from their nefarious clutches if they had ambushed him when he came looking for her. She crept silently behind a small hillock that hid her from Malfoy's sight-line until she was less than twenty feet from him. She held her wand up and whispered "Stupefy," sending Malfoy crashing to the ground, unconscious.
Hermione crept past Draco's prone body with her wand at the ready, unsure if he was just the first of several Slytherin lookouts. As she crept closer to the lake shore, Hermione could hear Pansy's mad cackling, though it was slightly more subdued than usual. Hermione edged up to the edge of the clearing and peered around one of the larger trees, finally finding Harry. And Hermione was shocked to discover that Harry was completely undressed. And he was kissing Pansy. Or, no...actually, he wasn't moving at all. Pansy was kissing him and he was completely immobile. Hermione paused to admire the view for a moment before raising her wand and calling out "Stupefy" once again, sending Pansy crashing to the ground at Harry's feet.
"Finite Incantatem," Hermione cast on Harry after quickly enjoying the view from his other side, releasing him from his immobilized state.
Harry had seen Hermione step into his line of vision after Pansy had crumpled to the ground and was mortified to be standing unclothed before her, but had been as unable to over himself as he'd been to fend off Pansy's kisses. As he felt mobility return to his control, he quickly tried to shield what he could with his hands and spun away from Hermione.
"Oh, Harry, give it a rest. I've seen it all now anyway. Here, take my jacket," Hermione said, handing her pink hooded jacket to Harry.
Harry covered as much of himself as he could with the small jacket, holding it firmly in place with his right hand. Hermione then grabbed Harry's left hand and said, "We need to get back to the castle as soon as we can. We might already be locked out for the night." She dragged Harry out of the trees, up the hill and across the grassy lawn up to the front steps. As they drew nearer, Hermione was relived to see the doors still open and no sign of anyone in the area. Harry and Hermione quickly climbed the ancient stone steps, crossing the threshold into the school and made a dash for the staircase that would take them to the Gryffindor dormitories. They had reached the bottom step when they heard something they heard a exaggerated ahem.
Hermione and Harry turned, expecting the worst. They were somewhat relieved to see one of the Hufflepuff prefects, Hannah Abbott, standing near the entrance into the Great Hall and not a professor or Filch. Harry recalled Hannah being one of the most vocal of the anti-Potter movement leaders in Hufflepuff during the Triwizard competition of the previous year that had cost Cedric Diggory his life. Harry really hadn't had much interaction with her since Cedric's death and he really didn't know what to expect, but he generally found expecting the worst to be reliable, so he tried to slide behind Hermione as much as he could while he waited for the shoe to drop.
Hannah eyed Harry's state of undress and winked at Hermione, saying "You were never here. Now get him back to his room before Filch catches you."
Harry and Hermione were both equally surprised by Hannah's response and mumbled a quick "thanks" before they hurried up the stairs. They made it in past the portrait of the fat lady with minimal fuss, and entered the Gryffindor Common Room with a sigh of relief. Relief that was quickly dispelled as they noticed the crowd that had gathered in the Common Room.
"Hello Harry, dare we ask what you and Hermione have been up to?" Seamus asked with a smile.
"One word - Slytherin." Harry responded with a dour look on his face. "Draco and Pansy, specifically." There was a round of muttering and angry gesticulation around the room.
"Enough!" Hermione scolded. "I need to get the details of exactly what transpired with Harry before we take any action. Please speak of this to no one outside this room until I know more." With that, Hermione grabbed Harry firmly by his free arm and led him up to the girls' dormitories, pulling him into her own room, which was, thankfully, empty. She wedged a chair under the door handle and turned to face Harry.
"Firstly, I want to apologize for putting you in this situation, Harry." Hermione started with downcast eyes.
Harry was puzzled. He had been late for their meeting and, if anything, he was at fault for carelessly walking into the Slytherin ambush because he had been in such a hurry, not Hermione. So how could she think this was her fault? Did she mean it had been her fault for arranging to meet him there in the first place?
Hermione could see the confusion in Harry's expression and quickly continued, "I knew - or at least suspected - Draco and Pansy would return after I'd left, you see," Hermione then detailed the events of the afternoon that had led to her departing from the lake shore and returning to her room, excluding her fears of being rejected or the tears that followed. "I only returned to the lake because no one had seen you and I had a nagging feeling that Draco and Pansy were up to no good."
Harry then explained how he had been dragged along with Ron to the Great Hall and had escaped at the first opportunity, likely just after Hermione had returned to her dormitory. He told her about being stunned by Draco and then having his clothing vanished by Pansy. He told Hermione how he had been sure that Pansy had meant to humiliate him before the entire school, but had been shocked when she instead starting kissing him. Harry also intentionally left out the embarrassing details about his experience.
After a few seconds of silence, Hermione looked Harry in the eyes and began speaking with a less confident tone, "Anyway, harry, about the reason I wanted to talk to you earlier..." Hermione swallowed hard before continuing, "Well, I just wanted you to know that I really like you. But I totally understand if you don't see me that way. Or if you are more interested in Cho. Or even if you just don't want to hurt Ron. I understand." Hermione stopped speaking, eyes now downcast and beginning to well with tears.
"I..." Harry began speaking, only to realize he didn't have any idea what he wanted to say. He stood there, wrapped in Hermione's jacket, with his mouth hanging open dumbly. After a few more moments, he tried again. "Hermione," he started, reaching out to her grasp her arm gently with his left hand, "you're one of my best friends and you're also like a sister to me, but..."
Hermione, sure she knew where Harry was going with this line of thought, interrupted Harry, "I understand, Harry. Really, I do. There's no reason to apologize for something that isn't meant to be." Eyes still downcast, harry watched as a tear slowly made its way down Hermione's cheek.
"No, Hermione, you misunderstand," Harry responded, "I was going to say that. Even though you're like a sister to me, I'd just never thought it possible that there could be anything more between us. You'd never shown more than friend-interest in me and...well, Ron had already made his interest known, so I stepped back."
Hermione looked up slowly, eyes wet with tears, and gave Harry a beaming smile. She reached across to Harry with both arms, pulling him into a tight embrace, which Harry returned with both of his arms as he forgot about the one article of clothing barely protecting his modesty. Hermione nuzzled Harry's neck with her tear-streaked face and Harry just enjoyed every sensation from this unprecedented close contact with Hermione - the smell of her hair, the feel of her arms wrapped around his body, the touch of her hands on his bare back, the contours of her body pressed up against his own body. But with that last thought, he realized that the same problem he'd experienced with Pansy Parkinson was threatening to make itself known again. And Hermione's jacket was now resting on top of his bare feet.
"Um...Hermione," Harry whispered in Hermione's ear, "I don't know if we should be doing this right now..."
It was then that Hermione came to the full realization that her jacket was no longer held in place and Harry was embracing her, alone, in her bedroom, without a stitch of clothing. Hermione stepped back and smiled mischievously. "You're right, Harry. Everyone knows we're up her together and...well, though you are dressed for the occasion, we should probably be a little more circumspect." Reluctantly, Hermione turned away from Harry and found one of her larger robes to loan him. She turned back, admiring the view again, before handing him the robe. "To protect your dignity," she said with a smile.
Harry donned the robe, but it failed to correct his most embarrassing problem, causing Hermione's mischievous smile to grow. "Maybe we should give the Common Room some time to settle down before you leave," Hermione said, sitting on her bed and inviting Harry to sit across from her on a chair. "So anway...there's something I'd like your opinion on. And I'd like you to keep this to yourself, if you don't mind." Hermione stated solemnly.
Harry was surprised by the sudden change in mood, but nodded reassuringly. "Of course, Hermione. I'll take your secrets to the grave."
Hermione frowned and paused to decide best how to continue. "Well, here it is. I've been considering asking Professor Dumbledore if he could orchestrate a change in Houses for me. I'm considering becoming a Ravenclaw for my final two terms at Hogwarts." Hermione stopped there, watching Harry's expressions carefully for any reaction.
"Well.." Harry began, suddenly at a loss for words, "I suppose that would be the best place for your amazing intellect" Harry concluded after a pause of a few seconds.
Hermione found Harry's unemotional response disappointing. She had expected him to do his best to persuade her to stay, to argue that he and Ron would be lost without her. Or at least to show some emotion at the prospect of losing her companionship.
Hermione could feel tears of disappointment welling up in her eyes and she quickly looked away from Harry's face. Harry, not completely oblivious, noticed the tears and Hermione's avoidance of eye contact and realized he'd said something wrong. He wasn't exactly sure what he had said wrong, but he knew he had blundered. He moved beside Hermione on her bed, wrapping his arms around her and began rubbing her back comfortingly. Hermione started sobbing openly into the loosely-tied robe Harry was wearing and he could feel the dampness of her tears on his chest as the robe fell open further.
"Shhh...you're okay, Hermione. If you don't want to leave Gryffindor, you'll always be welcome here," Harry hazarded, guessing that Hermione had wanted to be persuaded to stay and he had failed her test. "What ever you decide, Ron and I will always be there for you and support you. We love you, Hermione. You're probably my best friend and I would never want anything to change that." Harry paused for a moment, kissing Hermione's forehead as he rubbed her back.
Hermione tilted her head back to look up into Harry's eyes with her own large tear-filled eyes and Harry realized, possibly for the first time, what beautiful eyes Hermione had. Without really thinking, Harry tilted his own head toward Hermione and their lips met. Softly and gently they kissed, all else forgotten for the moment. For several minutes Harry and Hermione were each were lost in the new sensations they were experiencing.
"C'mon, Hermione," a female voice from outside the dormitory door called out as the door handle rattled, "the natives are getting restless. When are you going to come down to tell everyone the full story?"
Hermione and Harry reluctantly disengaged and Hermione removed the chair so she could open the door, just a crack. "I'll be down in a moment. I'm still getting the details from Harry." Hermione closed the door and looked back at Harry over her shoulder, "to be continued," Hermione said with a smile. "For now, it appears as if you're in a slightly better state to be seen crossing through the Common Room to your own dormitory, so go get dressed and then we'll share tonight's events, or at least most of them, with the rest of Gryffindor."
Harry returned Hermione's smile, feeling much less confused and anxious about his friendship with Hermione than he had a few hours ago. All thoughts of Cho, who he had finally made headway with, had been banished from his mind. Hermione had made her intentions clear and Harry now realized she was all he had really every wanted. Still smiling happily, he stood and made his leave from Hermione's dormitory.
Ron was nowhere to be seen in the Common Room as he passed through briefly on his way to the boys' dormitories, but harry didn't spend much time worrying about it. He hurried across the room to the Boys' stairs and was soon in his own dormitory, where he found Ron sitting on his bed, waiting for Harry.
"Had an exciting night, did we?" Ron asked, suspiciously.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact," Harry responded, suppressing the sudden wave of guilt he felt, "Malfoy and Parkinson ambushed me. If Hermione hadn't shown up when she did, who knows what they might have done." Harry's last words were slightly muffled as he was pulling a shirt over his head at the time, as he hurriedly dressed.
"How'd they get the drop on you so easily?" Ron asked, the suspicion still clear in his tone. "And how'd you come to be wearing nothing but Hermione's jacket?"
"I'd rather not recount all the night's events twice," Harry responded as he tied the laces on his shoes. "You'll hear everything when I get down to the Common Room. Don't worry, all will be revealed." Shoes tied, Harry stood and gestured for Ron to follow him as he headed back to the Common Room.
When Harry reached the bottom of the staircase and entered the Common Room, he saw Hermione sitting in the center of a crowd of Gryffindor students, assuring them all questions would be answered shortly. As they noticed Harry entering the room, they instead turned their questions to him as Harry passed through the room; the noise level of the room rising significantly. Harry assured all those who pelted him with questions that answers would be forthcoming as he made his way through the throng to sit in the companion chair to Hermione's. They waited for the noise level to come down so they would be heard before they began speaking. Harry noticed that Ron had pushed through the crowd in his wake and was now seated at the front of the crowd, eyes intently watching Harry and Hermione's faces.
"I know it's late and we all need our sleep, so we'll try to make this as quick as possible," Hermione began, assuming her prefect tone. "First, Harry and I will share tonight's events with you. Afterward, we will answer your questions. But please try not to interrupt or we'll never get through it all, and I've got an Arithmancy final exam in the morning, so I'd like to get at least a bit of sleep tonight."
"It all started out with me rushing out of Herbology this afternoon to do some Herbology research on the shore of the Black Lake." Hermione stated, daring Ron to contradict her. "As I was setting up, I heard voices behind me and concealed myself just before Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson walked out from the trees near where I was working. I hid myself and listened to them, discovering that they intended to cause mischief, though they weren't specific about their methods at that time." Hermione paused as several Gryffindor students angrily muttered about Slytherin, waiting for the room to quiet before continuing. "Knowing I would not be able to complete any work with them skulking about and hoping to avoid a confrontation, I used a simple levitation charm to distract them and returned unseen to the dormitories." As most of the younger students didn't find the levitation charm, or most spells for that matter, to be simple, they were a little awed by the ease with which Hermione performed magic. Even many of the older students had less command over magic than Hermione, so they tried to quell their annoyance at being shown up by an underclassman as they listened.
Harry took up the narrative at this point. "Ron and I had gone to dinner after Herbology and were surprised when Hermione still hadn't appeared some time later. So while Ron was engaged in a spirited discussion about Quidditch with Lee Jordan, I decided to slip outside to see if I could find Hermione where we'd last seen her."
Ron looked puzzled about that last comment. He didn't dispute the events in the Great Hall, but he didn't remember seeing Hermione heading toward the Black Lake or any mention of Hermione being at the lake when he and Harry had spoken about Hermione on their way to the Great Hall. But maybe Harry had puzzled her location out from something she had said earlier that he hadn't been paying attention to. Hermione talked an awful lot and Ron often found his thoughts wandering as he thought about Quidditch or how much he would like to be kissing Hermione's soft, supple lips if they would just stop moving long enough for him to get a chance.
"I had a feeling that something terrible had happened, so I rushed headlong toward the lake," Harry continued. "In my concern for Hermione's welfare, I totally neglected to be on the lookout for danger, and that's how they got me. Draco was ready with a curse, as I burst through the trees upon him and Pansy alone on the lake shore, and immobilized me as if he'd been expecting me there." Again, the angry murmuring of the room was picking up, so Harry paused to allow quiet to return before continuing, "Once I was immobilized, Draco and Pansy taunted me as I stood helpless before them until Pansy used a vanishing charm to vanish my clothing. I can only imagine what embarrassment they had planned for me - or worse - but any plans they had were waylaid as Hermione returned to the lake shore to interrupt their plans."
Hermione picked up the narrative here, "As Harry had attentively noticed my absence - I had never gone to dinner in the Great hall, being too worked up over the close call with Draco and Pansy" Hermione didn't think anyone needed to know the real reason she had skipped dinner, "and I became aware of Harry's absence when he didn't return to the Common Room with Ronald after dinner. I'm only surprised Ronald wasn't more aware of Harry being absent, but that's a discussion for another day." Hermione paused, giving Ron one of her looks that made him cringe in discomfort. "So I wondered if Harry had gone to check up on me by the lake and I was concerned since I knew Draco and Pansy had been there looking to cause mischief. As I headed toward the Black Lake, I noticed Draco Malfoy standing suspiciously outside the edge of the trees lining the shore, as if he was acting as a lookout. So I quietly crept up on Draco, used a stunning charm on him, and then cautiously crept through the trees. I found Pansy Parkinson..." Hermione paused for a moment as she vividly recalled what pansy had been doing to harry and felt a moment of extreme jealousy and anger. "Well, I could see that Harry had been immobilized and Pansy was taunting him terribly. So I used another stunning charm on Pansy, countered the immobilization charm on Harry, and we returned to the dormitories as quickly as we could. I offered Harry my jacket to wear as Pansy and Draco had vanished his clothing completely. Questions?"
Hermione and Harry both waited as every hand in the room shot upward.
Ron was the first to speak, without waiting to be chosen. "So if what you've told us is to be believed," he started skeptically, where are Malfoy and Parkinson now? Did you leave them lying in the night, stunned?
Hermione, initially angered by Ron's tone, felt another emotion wash over her as she considered Ron's question. She hadn't even thought of the safety of the Slytherin prefects before she and Harry had returned from the grounds. And as much as they may have deserved whatever horrible fate was in store for them, Hermione was not like them and did not enjoy causing pain to her fellow students.
"I'm sorry," Hermione said as she leapt up from her chair and turned toward the room's exit, "I have to speak with Professor McGonangall. You're right, Ron, we did leave them stunned outside and who knows what might, even now, be happening to them."
Hermione darted out of the room, leaving Harry alone to respond to the many questions remaining.
Hermione rushed through the dim corridors and dark stairways to reach Professor McGonagall's office. When she arrived, she knocked heavily and waited impatiently as seconds passed before the door opened a sliver, revealing Professor McGonagall peering through the crack into the dark corridor. "Yes?" she asked, as she saw Hermione standing before her door, panting from the effort of reaching McGonagall's office.
"Pro...professor," Hermione panted, trying to get enough breath to finish a sentence, "Draco Malfoy and...Pansy Parkinson are outside on the Hogwarts grounds. They've been stunned and could be...in danger." Completely out of breath, Hermione paused, waiting for a response from Professor McGonagall.
"Just a moment," Professor McGonagall said, closing the door. A few seconds later,the door reopened and Professor McGonagall stepped out, hurrying down the corridor. "Come with me," she instructed Hermione as she quickly headed for the Hogwarts's front entrance. "I will require a detailed explanation for this night's events, but that can wait," Professor McGonagall said to Hermione over her shoulder as she hurried along.
Professor McGonagall and Hermione quickly reached the entrance, which Professor McGonagall opened with a gesture and no discernible effort, and rushed outside. "Take me to where you last saw them, "Professor McGonagall instructed Hermione as she paused outside the door and illuminated her wand to banish the darkness from their immediate surroundings.
Hermione dashed down the hill toward the lake shore, hoping to see Draco where she'd left him. But there was no sign of him as she approached. As she reached the spot he should have been lying in, she turned to Professor McGonagall, "He should have been here."
Professor McGonagall impatiently responded, "And the Parkinson girl?"
Hermione to burst through the trees to where she'd left Pansy. Before she could react, she heard Pansy's voice beginning a spell she had hoped never to hear again. "Avada Ke-" but before Pansy could finish the forbidden curse, Professor McGonagall stepped out of the trees and issued a spell of her own. "Silencio" she cast with a quick flourish of her wand, rendering Pansy mute. Draco Malfoy stood fearfully behind Pansy, eyes darting as if trying to find a way to escape his fate.
"I didn't..she said..." Draco stammered before Professor McGonagall shushed him impatiently.
"Be quiet, silly boy, or I'll silence you as well." Professor McGonagall said as she looked both Draco and Pansy over for injuries. Seeing none, she continued, "To the school with all of you or I'll be deducting House points from Slytherin and Gryffindor! As for you, Ms. Parkinson, you and I will be meeting with Professor Snape in the morning to discuss what I interrupted. You should be glad I arrived when I did or your fate would be much worse, believe me."
Relieved that no ill had befallen Draco and Pansy and with her adrenaline still spiked from the close call with Pansy's curse, Hermione turned and dashed ahead of the Slytherin students and Professor McGonagall toward the school's entrance. She leapt up the ancient stone stairs, past Mister Filch and Mrs Norris, and up the interior stairs toward the Gryffindor Common Room before Filch could even question her being there.
Hermione quickly issued the password to the Fat Lady to gain access to the Common Room as the physical effort of the past few minutes caught up with her and the adrenaline spike that had propelled her there diminished. She nearly collapsed, exhausted, as she stepped inside and tuned to the sea of faces confronting her. Ron caught her and led her to one of the room's sofas, lying her down.
"What happened this time?" Ron asked Hermione. "Goblins storming the castle?"
Hermione smiled weakly as she sat herself upright on the sofa. Once she had caught her breath, she responded "I brought Professor McGonagall where we'd left Draco and Pansy and they almost ambushed me again. If Professor McGonagall hadn't been there, I might not have made it back or, at the least, I may have been seriously injured . Fortunately, she was there and no one was injured." Hermione could see the confusion on Ron's face and all the other Gryffindor students' faces, but didn't want to elaborate more this night. "I really have to get to bed. I hope Harry has been able to answer all your questions," Hermione said, struggling to stand up and head toward the girls' dormitories. As Hermione struggled to stay upright, Ginny Weasley slid under Hermione's left shoulder and propped her up, helping her up the stairs and into her room. Ginny asked Hermione if she needed any more help and Hermione assured he she would be fine as she started undressing and slid into her bed, relishing the feel of the cool sheets against her skin. It took less than a minute for Hermione to drop into an exhausted dream-filled slumber.
Each of the heads of the four Hogwarts houses appeared in their respective Common Rooms early the next morning. They notified the House prefects of the gathering later that morning in the Great Hall. No other details were provided other than word that Professor Dumbledore would be addressing all the students about an issue of great importance. It had been less than a week since Dumbledore had addressed the Hogwarts student body about Voldemort's most recent failed return and his followers' defeat with the assistance of Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, Ginny Weasley, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, and the Ministry of Magic's team of Aurors. He had asked them to remain vigilant and extolled the virtues of hard work in their magic studies so they would be prepared for the next, inevitable, occurrence of dark magician mayhem.
As Hermione waited for Ron and Harry, she couldn't help but wonder if this announcement had anything to do with the events of the previous day. She was admittedly perturbed by the interruption to her final exam schedule, but still very curious. When Ron and Harry finally made their appearance in the Gryffindor Common Room, the three friends headed toward the Great Hall together. The students all around them were abuzz in conversation about the irregularity of having another announcement so soon after the last.
Hermione, Ron, and Harry kept their eyes peeled for any students wearing Slytherin's house colors as the passed through the doors into the great Hall. Though they did spy curiously few Slytherin students, there was no sign of Draco Malfoy or Pansy Parkinson.
"Curious," Hermione stated, "the Slytherin House table is almost empty. Yet Gryffindor's, Ravenclaw's, and Hufflepuff's are nearly filled. I wonder what that means?"
"Probably means those evil gits are finally getting what they deserve," Ron responded. "About time, too."
Harry was about to comment on the Slytherins when Professor Dumbledore stepped up to the lectern. Dumbledore waited for a moment as students continued to file in and then began speaking, his voice magically amplified.
"Good Morning, students," Dumbledore said as his eyes passed over all four House tables, "you are probably wondering about the purpose of this impromptu assembly. And you may also be wondering about the absence of so many of our Slytherin friends." Dumbledore paused for a few moments as the students throughout the Hall began whispering to one another about Dumbledore's acknowledgement of Slythin's absence.
"One of our Slytherin students has gone missing," Dumbledore paused for a moment to allow the whispered conversations that sprang up as students tried to determine who was missing from the Slytherin tables to die down. But so many Slytherin students were still absent that it was an impossible task, so the students quickly quieted in anticipation of more information. "We are in the process of interviewing her classmates to ascertain information on her current whereabouts," Dumbledore again paused as the extra clue added to the whispers and speculation. When silence again returned, Dumbledore continued, "The missing student was involved in an incident last evening with a student from another House and may have been advised that the penalty for her infraction was more severe than it actually is." With this news, the Gryffindor table erupted in whispered conversations. They knew very well who the missing student was.
Harry leaned toward Hermione to whisper quietly into her ear, "Pansy's absence could mean that she's afraid of being expelled - or some worse penalty - for using an unforgiveable curse and she has gone into hiding, but it could also mean that she has decided to lie in wait until she can catch one or both of use alone and finish what she attempted last night."
Hermione gasped when she realized the real threat of Pansy being absent. Hermione hadn't considered the possibility that Pansy would be so bent on revenge that she might be in real danger. Pansy was a prefect, after all - but that hadn't stopped her from almost cursing Hermione to death. With less than a week until the end of the school term, she definitely didn't want any more distractions to keep her from her final exam preparations.
Dumbledore cleared his throat noisily to announce to the assembled students that he was ready to continue, and then continued, "We don't believe that anyone else in Slytherin House was involved with the missing student's disappearance, but we're hoping one of her Housemates might have some information to assist us with our search." Dumbledore paused for a moment to cast his gaze across the assembled students before continuing, "needless to say, if any of you have information that might assist us with locating her, please speak to the head of your House."
All the Gryffindors turned to face Harry and Hermione, as if there was more to the story than had been shared the previous night, or maybe as if they suspected Harry and Hermione had somehow taken it upon themselves to remove Pansy from Hogwarts.
Harry and Hermione turned to one another and then faced their House. "Honest, guys, we don-" Harry started to say.
Harry was interrupted by the doors to the Great Hall swinging open and Argus Filch prancing down the center aisle toward Dumbledore. Filch and Dumbledore had a quick whispered conversation before Filch spun around and scampered out of the Great Hall, the doors closing behind him. After waiting a few moments, Dumbledore again spoke, his voice magically amplified. "It seems Miss Parkinson has been located, so your assistance will, in fact, not be needed. Please return to your House dormitories in an orderly manner."
As the students at the House tables stood and began to approach the great doors, they swung open again. Professor Snape and Professor McGonagall passed through the doorway, escorting Pansy Parkinson between them. She looked dusty and disheveled, her eyes downcast and her shoulders slouched dejectedly. Any student who uttered the smallest sound received a stern glare from Snape and a baleful look of reproach from McGonagall. They marched in silence to the great Hall's podium, both professors leaning in to speak with professor Dumbledore, who hadn't returned to his seat after dismissing the students, when they arrived.
"I think," Dumbledore began, prompting the students, who had not yet moved from their positions at the House table, to return to their seats, "it may be best to clear the air, as it were, or I suspect none of you will be able to focus in your classes." Dumbledore paused as Professors Snape and McGonagall returned to their appointed places at the head table.
"Youth is a trying time for the best of us," Dumbledore began solemnly. "Trying to find one's place in the world can be a challenge - especially when one feels spurned by the object of one's affection." Dumbledore paused and glanced in the direction of the Gryffindor table for a brief moment.
Hermione gave Harry a questioning sideways glance and Harry just looked surprised.
Dumbledore continued, "But you would all do well to remember that your time at Hogwarts is just the beginning. Less than a quarter of your life will have passed by the time you leave Hogwarts' hallowed halls. Jealousy, rage, and retribution are all stepping stones to a life spent seeking joy, but never taking the time to develop relationships that might lead you there. There are some mistakes that cannot be atoned for, some that can lead straight to Azkaban. Thankfully, no mistakes of this magnitude have taken place and it is my firm belief that the parties involved in last evening's events will be able to put their injuries behind them and move forward."
Dumbledore again paused and gestured to the wide double doors of the Great Hall. "Please return to your classes or House dormitories." Dumbledore remained standing at the dais as the students began filing out, then he nodded to Professor McGonagall, who gestured to Harry and Hermione.
Harry and Hermione approached the great table with Ron trailing behind them.
"Thank you, Mister Weasley, but your presence is not required," Professor McGonagall said as Ron drew near. Ron gave Hermione and Harry a last look and then followed the rest of the students as they exited from the Great Hall.[thus ends this first installment of typographical-error ridden prose]