She didn't know how long she sat there, her head buried against Ron's chest. It was strange, but she felt no awkwardness, no embarrassment as she sobbed into his robes. It felt right. It felt safe. This was where she belonged.
She didn't know how long she sat there, dimly aware of Ron's hand stroking her hair. Oddly, she wasn't over-analysing the action, wondering what it meant, wondering how Ron really felt, wondering if he had yet realised it himself. She just gave into the feeling, letting the comfort it gave wash over her, willing to stay in this moment forever and never have to deal with what was coming next.
She didn't know how long she sat there before she heard Ron's voice saying her name softly.
She reluctantly let go of Ron and sat upright, pulling herself together. Wiping her eyes, she noticed with shock that nearly everyone else had left their chairs, heading in small groups back to the castle.
Catching her eye, Ron smiled weakly at her She matched his smile with her own.
'Um, are you all right?' he asked. The question was inadequate, really, but Hermione took it in the spirit in which it was meant.
'I'm fine,' she said. 'You've been crying,' she added, suddenly noticing.
Ron flushed. 'So have you,' he said defensively.
'Sorry, I didn't mean...' She trailed off. 'Sorry for making your robes all wet.' To her horror, tears began to well up in her eyes again and she reached up, almost in anger, to brush them away.
'Oh, wait...' Ron fumbled in his pocket. 'Here,' he said, handing her a handkerchief.
She took it gingerly and looked at it, in an excuse to avoid his eyes as much as any other reason. 'Thanks. Is it clean?'
His face fell. 'Oh. Well, clean-ish...'
Hermione began to laugh. For the first time in days, she laughed and laughed until the laughter turned to hiccups. 'So - hic - sorry,' she gasped, when she noticed Ron was looking at her as though she were cracked.
'No, that's okay,' he said cautiously, as though scared he might set her off again.
There was a brief pause; then, driven by an impulse she couldn't have stopped if she'd wanted to, she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him. 'Thank you for the handkerchief,' she said in his ear before letting go.
'Um...you're welcome?' he said, looking torn between terror and utter bewilderment.
She smiled at him again, and he smiled awkwardly back.
'Hadn't we better, um...' He waved an arm vaguely, and Hermione realised that they were now the only people still left in their seats apart from Hagrid and Grawp.
'Right,' she said, getting to her feet and looking around. 'Where are Harry and Ginny?'
'Well, there's Ginny,' said Ron, pointing over Hermione's shoulder towards the lake. She turned around and spotted the familiar Weasley hair by the water's edge.
They walked down the slope together, perhaps walking a little closer together than they would normally have done. Hermione didn't know what was going on between them, and didn't really want to think about it today; but somehow she didn't want to lose the comfort that the tall presence gave her. Better not to dwell on it.
They reached Ginny, and Hermione greeted her more cheerfully than she expected to.
'Where's Harry?' Ron asked.
'Oh, um...' It seemed to take a moment for the question to sink in, then Ginny woke up and said, 'I think he went that way.' She pointed in the direction of the Forest.
'Thanks, Ginny,' said Ron, turning and beginning to move off.
Hermione stayed where she was, however, looking closely at Ginny's face. 'Are you all right?' she asked, struck by a sudden suspicion.
Ginny grinned briefly, a smile with no humour in it. 'I'll tell you later, this isn't the time. Besides,' she added with a small sigh, 'I think Harry needs to talk to you.'
Hermione hesitated for a moment, before deciding to take this at face value and nodding. She and Ron headed off, away from Ginny and the lake.
They passed the Ministry delegation by the rows of chairs, and Hermione paused as she suddenly realised that Ron was no longer beside her. He had stopped still and was staring at Percy, who was looking nervously towards Grawp.
Perhaps he felt Ron's gaze on the back of his neck, for he suddenly turned and looked at them both. For a moment the two brothers gazed - or rather glared - at each other, before Percy turned away.
Ron started forward, but Hermione grabbed his arm before he could get very far.
'Don't,' she hissed. 'Not today.'
He said nothing, but shook his arm free and strode off, Hermione hurrying in his wake. They could see Harry in the distance talking to the Minister of Magic, but the conversation ended before they got there. The Minister limped past them without a word as they walked quickly towards Harry, who hadn't waited for them. They finally caught up with him under a beech tree that they had sat under more than once, and the memories of happier times flashed, unbidden, into Hermione's head as Harry faced them.
'What did Scrimgeour want?' she asked quietly, clearing her mind of the memories.
Harry shrugged. 'Same as he wanted at Christmas,' he said without emotion. 'Wanted me to give him inside information on Dumbledore and be the Ministry's new poster boy.'
Ron, who had been silent ever since they had passed the group from the Ministry, suddenly burst out, 'Look, let me go back and hit Percy!'
'No,' she said, grabbing his arm again, almost surprised at how normal this exchange was.
'It'll make me feel better!'
She couldn't help but smile at his indignant tone, and Harry laughed out loud - the first time they had heard him do so since Dumbledore's death. The brief feeling of mirth evaporated, however, as she looked up at the castle, its windows gleaming in the bright sunshine.
'I can't bear the idea that we might never come back.' For the past six years, the castle had been as much her home as Mum and Dad's had ever been, and the thought that it never would be again was almost surreal. 'How can Hogwarts close?'
'Maybe it won't,' said Ron, and she looked at him in surprise. 'We're not in any more danger here than we are at home, are we? Every where's the same now. I'd even say Hogwarts is safer, there are more wizards inside to defend the place. What d'you reckon, Harry?'
A small part of Hermione, the voice at the back of her head, was amazed by this speech from Ron, suddenly realising just how much growing up he had done just in the last few days...but the rest of Hermione was watching Harry and his expression.
'I'm not coming back even if it does reopen,' said Harry, and Hermione did not share Ron's obvious shock at this news. She had suspected something of the kind. Harry had seemed so much older and so distant ever since the night of the attack. Hard as it was to imagine Hogwarts without Harry, it was even harder to imagine this Harry coming back, to continue as if nothing had happened.
So while Ron stood there with his mouth open, she said sadly, 'I knew you were going to say that. But then what will you do?'
'I'm going back to the Dursley's once more, because Dumbledore wanted me to,' said Harry. 'But it'll be a short visit, and then I'll be gone for good.'
'But where will you go if you don't come back to school?' she asked again, seeing as he hadn't actually answered her question.
'I thought I might go back to Godric's Hollow,' he muttered. 'For me, it started there, all of it. I've just got a feeling I need to go there.' Looking slightly more hopeful, he added, 'And I can visit my parents' graves, I'd like that.'
'And then what?' said Ron, sounding as though he were in shock.
Harry looked past them, towards the lake. 'Then I've got to track down the rest of the Horcruxes, haven't I?' he said. Ron and Hermione exchanged glances. 'That's what he wanted me to do, that's why he told me all about them. If Dumbledore was right - and I'm sure he was - there are still four of them out there. I've got to find them and destroy them and then I've got to go after the seventh bit of Voldemort's soul, the bit that's still in his body, and I'm the one who's going to kill him. And if I meet Severus Snape along the way,' he went on, his expression turning ugly, 'so much the better for me, so much the worse for him.'
Silence reigned for a moment as Hermione stared at Harry's profile, her thoughts churning in her head. Realising what she would have to do, she looked at Ron - and something in his eyes told her he had made the same decision.
'We'll be there, Harry,' said Ron firmly, still looking at Hermione.
Harry turned back to face them. 'What?'
'At your aunt and uncle's house,' said Ron, meeting Harry's eyes with a look of defiance. 'And then we'll go with you, wherever you're going.'
'No...' Harry began.
'You said to us once before,' Hermione said softly, another unbidden memory coming back to her, 'that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We've had time, haven't we?'
'We're with you whatever happens,' said Ron. 'But, mate, you're going to have to come round my mum and dad's house before we do anything else, even Godric's Hollow.'
Harry frowned. 'Why?'
'Bill and Fleur's wedding, remember?'
There was a pause as Harry just stared at them both, his expression blank - until, eventually, his face relaxed and he almost smiled. 'Yeah,' he said, 'we shouldn't miss that.'
'I don't want to get your hopes up though, mate,' Ron added, suddenly sitting down under the tree as though signalling that the serious part of the conversation was now over. 'It might not be the greatest day ever. I mean, my mum has a tendency to get a little -' he hesitated '- well, completely bonkers on important occasions. My cousin Mary's wedding, we all had to present for a fingernail and hair inspection four hours before we got there.'
Hermione grinned, sitting down herself, as did Harry. 'At least things should be better now your mum and Fleur have made friends, right?'
'No, it'll be worse,' he predicted gloomily. 'She'll drive everyone round the bend with her fussing, wanting everything to be perfect. Especially after...' He stopped.
'She's right,' said Harry distantly. 'They should try to have one perfect day.'
They would have most likely stayed under the beech tree for some time, talking lightly about Bill and Fleur's wedding and other inconsequential things, but Hermione happened to look at her watch and realised that they would miss the train home if they didn't hurry. She chivvied them back to the castle, where they headed straight to Gryffindor tower to change out of their dress robes and collect their belongings.
The mood on train home was more sombre and subdued than Hermione had ever seen it - hardly surprising, but an odd feeling nonetheless. She was used to the train being incredibly noisy on the last day of term, with people racing up and down the corridors, laughing, joking and shouting, hugging and promising to write. The contrast was slightly eerie, with everyone staying in their compartments and talking quietly.
The three of them were lucky enough to find an empty compartment, and were joined by Neville and Luna just before the train set off. Neville had completely recovered from his trip to the hospital wing and looked strangely cheerful, though perhaps that was just in comparison with everyone else's low spirits. Luna looked the same as ever, beaming absently at them all before disappearing behind a copy of the Quibbler.
Remembering the six people who had sat in a similar compartment this time last year, Ginny was decidedly conspicuous by her absence, and Hermione was dying to ask Harry what was going on. She held her tongue with extreme difficulty, however, knowing he would tell them in his own good time.
Ron seemed to have no such reservations. 'Where's Ginny?' he said in surprise, beginning to set up a chessboard between him and Harry. 'I didn't see her waiting for the carriages, either, I thought she'd join us.' He gave Harry a suspicious look.
Harry turned red. 'Um, I think she wanted to sit with her friends,' he said casually. 'To say goodbye, you know, in case the school really is going to close next year.' Ron seemed to accept this at face value, but Hermione could not stop herself sighing in disappointment, her suspicions confirmed. Harry had always been a horrible liar. Silently, she resolved to get hold of Ginny and hear the details at the soonest possible opportunity.
'I know, it's so awful, isn't it?' said Neville sadly, apparently putting a different interpretation on Hermione's sigh. 'To think we might never come back to Hogwarts?'
'What will you do?' asked Ron, putting out the last of the chessmen. 'If it does close, I mean.'
Neville shrugged. 'Don't know. Look for a job, I suppose, once I'm of age. I imagine Gran will have some ideas, though,' he added with a rueful grin. 'What about you?'
'Oh,' said Ron, caught off guard. He exchanged looks with Hermione. 'Don't know yet, either. See what Mum says.'
'Hermione?' Neville asked.
Hermione sighed again. 'Really, I just can't imagine Hogwarts not re-opening,' she said, evading the question. 'They can't close it, can they? Where will all the Muggle-borns go? All the people who don't even know they're wizards?' Silence descended over the compartment for a moment before Hermione suddenly said, 'Besides, I've got to tell my parents first. Goodness knows how I'm going to explain this one.'
'You mean the school closing?'
'No,' she admitted, beginning to realise just how much she was dreading the conversation with her parents. 'I mean everything. I haven't told them about...well, any of it. Not since the tournament in fourth year.'
Harry, who had been staring at the chessboard in concentration, looked up, surprised. 'None of it? You haven't told them anything?'
'Well, the thing is,' she said, 'I never told them about Voldemort -' she ignored the winces at the name '- or Grindelwald, or anything I read about in the history books. I suppose I just didn't want them to know about the bad parts of being a witch in case they pulled me out of Hogwarts. Besides, you try explaining all this to people who don't know anything about magic or the wizarding world. It just seemed easier...not to.'
'I think Hermione's right,' said an unexpected voice from the corner, and they all jumped. Hermione had in fact forgotten that Luna was even there.
She blinked. 'Um...thanks, Luna.'
'The truth is important,' said Luna serenely, regarding Hermione from over the top of her magazine, 'but you shouldn't worry your family unnecessarily.'
'Right. Thanks,' Hermione said again as Luna disappeared back behind the Quibbler.
'So what are you going to tell them?' Harry asked.
Hermione shrugged. 'The truth. I think I'll have to, now that...' She trailed off, but both Harry and Ron nodded in understanding. 'What are you going to tell the Dursleys?'
'As little as possible,' Harry said flatly. 'The bare facts, probably, it's the last time I'll see them.'
'Are you going straight there,' said Ron, looking up from the board, 'or do you want to come to the Burrow for a bit first? Mum'll be glad to see you.'
'I think Uncle Vernon's picking me up from the station, so I'll go straight there. I probably won't stay very long though, so I'd like to come and stay with you for the wedding, if your Mum doesn't mind.'
'Not a problem,' said Ron confidently. 'She'll love to have you. You too, Hermione,' he added, and Hermione smiled.
Both Harry and Ron seemed to be skirting around the obvious question of what was going to happen next, where they would stay after the wedding, what they would do for money, how exactly they were going to track down the Horcruxes, but she wasn't surprised. Part of it was the presence of Neville and Luna, of course, but Hermione also felt that the three of them had reached some sort of unspoken agreement not to talk about such things yet. There'd be plenty of time to worry about such things soon enough.
The next few hours passed almost entirely in silence, barring the appearance of the lunch trolley, which provided a pleasant distraction. Harry and Ron played game after game of chess, Harry losing each one and Ron complaining that he wasn't even trying. They both offered to let Hermione play, but she declined, preferring to watch them. Sitting here watching them, she could almost pretend that things were as they used to be and that the future wasn't completely uncertain. An illusion, but one she intended to savour.
They were still some way away from Kings Cross by Hermione's judgement when the compartment door suddenly slid open, framing a familiar red-headed figure in the doorway. Ginny looked slightly uncertain, but greeted them cheerfully enough as she sat herself down between Luna and Hermione, picking up Luna's discarded Quibbler.
'It was getting a bit crowded in the other compartment,' she said by way of explanation. 'I thought it might be a bit quieter in here.'
'Want to play chess, Ginny?' Harry asked casually, and they exchanged an unreadable look before she declined politely.
'My brain's not working, I'd rather watch.'
Hermione didn't know how the pair of them sat there, watching a chess game that seemed to go on forever. But as she watched the familiar faces in front of her, Ron's brow crinkled in concentration, Harry staring at the board as though he were looking at something else entirely, she reflected that it could never be long enough.
She didn't know what the future would hold for the three of them, but she promised herself, here and now, that it would hold time for her to sit and watch the two most important people in her life play chess.
She didn't know how long she sat there, but in the end it didn't matter.
This was where she belonged.