Hermione was happy to unpack and situate herself before the unofficial 'welcome back' feast, and she was even happier with the surprise she found waiting for her on her bed.
"Crookshanks!" Hermione exclaimed, hurrying over to him. "You naughty cat, you had me so worried about you!"
Crookshanks purred and settled his head onto her lap, looking very smug and satisfied with himself for no discernable reason. Hermione rolled her eyes, but she gave in shortly, petting him and scratching behind his ears.
Hermione turned to see Pansy at the doorway.
"Yes?" Hermione said, blinking.
Pansy made a face.
"Longbottom is lurking around in the dungeons," she said. "He's looking for you. You might want to go see what he wants before he gets into trouble."
Hermione stood quickly, provoking a distressed yowl from Crookshanks. Hermione paused, looking down at her cat.
"You stay here," she instructed him. "I don't want to come back and find you missing again."
Crookshanks seemed to be amused by this, flicking his tail lazily, and Hermione groaned.
"Alright, fine, come along," she said, picking him up. "Good kitty."
Neville was wandering around in the dungeons two hallways over, his eyes wide and nervous. Hermione approached him, and Neville nearly wilted with relief at the sight of her.
"Hermione," he said, managing a tremulous smile. "Good to see you. How was your break?"
"It was excellent," Hermione said. "What's going on, Neville?"
Neville's smile froze. "W-w-what makes you think something is g-going on?"
"You're in Snape's lair voluntarily, for one," Hermione pointed out, her lips quirking. "You're stuttering and shaking, for another."
Neville froze for a moment, before he sighed very heavily.
"You're right, as usual," he admitted. His eyes darted around. "Can we go upstairs somewhere?"
Hermione and Crookshanks followed Neville up to a wide window seat on the fourth floor with some cushioning. Hermione let Neville collect himself, stroking Crookshanks and earning happy purrs while Neville fought to find the right words.
"I am… worried," Neville said finally. "I think Harry might be in danger, but if I ever told a teacher about it, he'd see it as a huge betrayal."
Hermione blinked. "In danger?"
"Well, not imminent danger," Neville hastily corrected. "But… yes."
"Why don't you tell me the whole story?" she suggested. "And then we can figure out what's going on."
Tremulously, Neville did.
Harry had received a new broomstick for Christmas, Neville told her. Harry had been ecstatic – not only had he needed a replacement for his Nimbus 2000, but he had been given a Firebolt, the newest top-of-the-line broom. He and Ron had both been extremely excited.
"The issue is," Neville said, his voice wary, "that the broom didn't come with a note."
There had been no card or note with the broom, he explained. There had been no indication of who had sent it to him. While Harry and Ron were excited about the broom and inclined not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Neville had been more alarmed.
"Harry doesn't have the best history in Quidditch games," Neville said. "Remember his first game ever, with the jinxed broom? And now he gets this mysterious, irresistible broom, when Sirius Black is out there hunting for him…"
Hermione gnawed on her lip. "I see."
"You do?" Neville looked relieved. "Then… what should I do?"
Hermione considered. A Firebolt was incredibly expensive, she knew. It wasn't like any of Harry's friends would be likely to lavish him with such a gift, she thought. The only one she could imagine doing so was Dumbledore, and Dumbledore did not have a history of giving Harry gifts.
"Let's go look at it," Hermione declared, standing, Crookshanks shifting in her arms. "Then we'll decide what to do with it."
Neville sighed. "Alright."
They walked the three staircases up to the Gryffindor Fat Lady portrait, only for the Fat Lady to not be there, replaced by a painting of a knight.
"Oh ho!" the knight declared. "An intruder!"
"She's with me," Neville told the knight, flushing slightly. He was fussing with his robes, pulling out a scrap of parchment. "Err—'steel pauldrons'."
"Very good then, young sir!" the knight said, the painting swinging open on its hinges. Hermione gave Neville curious look, and he flushed.
"The Fat Lady won't come back. Scared of Sirius Black," Neville said. "And Sir Cadogan changes the password constantly… I've taken to writing them down so I don't forget or get locked out."
Hermione felt her heart go out to Neville, and Crookshanks meowed in sympathy. Neville might not have the best short-term memory, but he really was very kind and smart.
The Gryffindor common room was loud and boisterous with returning students, many of them cluttering the common room with their trunks as they stopped to catch up with friends in conversation. Hermione rolled her eyes as she wove through them with Neville, ascending the staircase to the boys' dorms. When she arrived, Ron and Harry were nowhere to be found, though the other two boys were.
"Oi!" the paler boy of the two cried out. "No girls allowed!"
"Why not?" Hermione said, folding her arms. "Doing things you're ashamed of others to see?"
The boy flushed a hot red.
"No," he admitted. "Just… it's a bit messy in here, is all. Would've cleaned up a bit if I knew a girl was coming."
'A bit messy in here' was putting it mildly, in Hermione's opinion, but she wasn't about to judge.
"I don't know where they went," Neville said, looking worried. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
Neville vanished, and Hermione took a seat on the bed she knew was Harry's.
"Actually, I think I was intending to hire one of you," she said. "One of you is good at drawing, right?"
The darker-skinned boy grinned.
"I reckon that'd be me," he said. "Dean Thomas, at your service."
"And you're the one who likes to draw and likes football?" she asked. Dean grinned even wider, and the other boy groaned.
"Oh no, don't get him goin' on about that stupid sport again," he said. "Dean loves it."
"You'd love it too, if you gave it a chance," Dean shot back, only to have the other boy flip him off. Hermione stifled laughter.
"I'd like to commission you to help me with a couple things," Hermione said. "Specifically, a House seal and a coat of arms."
Dean looked intrigued. "Wait, really?" He grinned. "Commission, as in, you'll actually pay me?"
"Of course…" Hermione looked at him oddly. "Isn't that proper?"
"It is, but generally only real artists get paid," Dean said, shrugging. He grinned. "I'm only thirteen, and you're treating me like I'm a real artist."
"If you have the talent and skill to produce art, you're as real an artist as any," she told him. "Age helps give experience, but it doesn't guarantee skill at all."
Dean blinked in surprise, then smirked.
"You're right, there," he said. "Alright – what do you need?"
Ten minutes later, Hermione was discussing what she wanted with Dean, Dean sketching a few loose ideas onto a pad when Neville finally returned with Harry and Ron in tow. Hermione glanced up to greet them, only for Crookshanks to yowl and pounce from Harry's bed onto Ron, who yelled.
"Oi! What in the bleedin' hell—?!"
Ron dodged Crookshanks' leap narrowly, hurrying past him to his own bed, holding a lump in his chest pocket to him closely. He turned to glare at Hermione, who was projecting a deeply unaffected air about her.
"You bought that monster?" Ron accused Hermione. "Even after you saw what he nearly did to Scabbers?"
Hermione raised her eyebrows lazily.
"Oh no," she said, sarcasm dripping from her tone. "It's as if cats are the natural enemy of mice and rats or something."
Ron flushed a mottled red, scowling.
"S'not natural, how he goes after Scabbers," he muttered, glaring at Crookshanks, who had returned to Hermione ankles, winding in between them and purring. "It's like he knows where he is, even if he can't see him."
"He's a very smart cat," Hermione praised him. She glanced up at Ron coolly. "And he's a pet that students are allowed to have. I didn't see 'rat' on the list of 'cat, owl, or toad'."
Ron flushed a darker red, his ears burning, and Harry hastily intervened.
"Neville said you had something to talk to me about?" he asked. "What's going on?"
Hermione looked to Neville, who shifted nervously. He was too timid to bring up the topic himself, she figured, and she sighed.
"Neville mentioned you got a new broomstick," Hermione said finally, and Harry's eyes lit up.
"I did, yeah!" He hurried to his trunk. "The Firebolt – I can't believe it. Do you want to see?"
Hermione didn't need to respond – Harry was already pulling out the broomstick from his trunk. It was gleaming, sleek and magnificent, vibrating slightly in midair where Harry set it to wait.
"Top of the line!" Ron was crowing. "Probably costs more than all the Slytherins' brooms put together!"
"Who sent it to you, Harry?" Hermione asked, and Harry shook his head.
"No idea," he said, his voice still a little stunned. "Didn't have a note with it."
"Who cares?" Ron said. "Slytherin doesn't stand a chance, now!"
Harry was looking at Hermione though, as Hermione tilted her head, holding his gaze.
"Strange, isn't it," Hermione mused aloud, not breaking his gaze. "That a stranger should send Harry an irresistible broom from nowhere, right after a Quidditch game where Harry nearly died falling off his broom."
Harry's eyes widened, but Ron scowled.
"Don't you take this from him," Ron said, pointing an accusing finger. "His Nimbus got destroyed, and Harry's needed another broom—"
"I'm not about to take his broom from him," Hermione said, highly offended. "Especially if it's been jinxed and sent to him from Sirius Black. I don't want to end up dead from a broom."
"Jinxed?" Ron scoffed. "C'mon. What are the chances—"
"The Black family is an ancient noble house," Neville chimed in nervously. "They have a lot of gold."
Ron frowned. "Yeah, but Black is a wanted man, isn't he? He can't exactly just stroll into Gringotts—"
"The goblins have a separate government than the Ministry of Magic," Hermione said mildly. "If he's not wanted by the Goblin Horde, I don't see why they'd feel inclined to let the Ministry know anything."
Ron was glaring at her, but Hermione folded her arms. Harry was looking down at the hovering broomstick with a troubled frown.
"That's—that's a fairly good point," Harry said finally. "If Black is out to get me… well, preying on my love of Quidditch is a good way to go about it, isn't it?" He laughed, anxious, running his hand through his hair. "All the same, though… I really want this broom, Hermione." He glanced back up at her. "I really want this broom."
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "Enough to risk dismemberment or death?"
Harry looked torn.
"Well, how plausible is that?" he said finally. "It could just be a regular broomstick."
"Well," she said patiently. "Let's figure it out."
Twenty minutes later, Harry and Hermione had constructed an Arithmancy table to figure out who could have sent Harry the broom. Everyone Harry knew in the Wizarding World was listed on it, and Hermione was using the back of Harry's textbook to carefully copy out an Arithmantic Query they hadn't studied yet.
"I think this is the one we want," she said, copying the strange operators very carefully. "I can't be sure, though."
"What's it even going to do?" Ron was interested despite himself, though he kept glaring at Crookshanks as he inched closer.
"It's going to figure out who has enough gold to get me the Firebolt, hopefully," Harry said. "That'll help eliminate our list of suspects, and it'll help me figure out how likely it is that Black bought me the broom."
Hermione finished the equation, pulling back with the quill with satisfaction. She looked to Harry. "Ready?"
Taking his wand, Harry took a deep breath and tapped the parchment with his wand. A moment later, the ink started glowing, coming alive.
"Merlin's beard," Ron said, his jaw hanging open. "Arithmancy does that?"
The equation was glowing, and tiny jets of light shot out into the air, vanishing. Harry and Hermione exchanged an excited grin.
"I haven't tried an Arithmantic Query before," she confessed. "They're still terribly advanced for what we've been learning—"
"Looks like we did it properly though," Harry said, grinning. "Let's see what results we get back."
The small jets of light began returning in short order, splashing onto the parchment in silver shimmers, where runes morphed into numbers in their chart. Ron craned his neck to look at the results as well.
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Why's it rank me so low?"
Harry looked at Ron, uneasy, but Hermione didn't care about hurting Ron's feelings.
"Your family doesn't exactly have the spare gold to get Harry a broom like this, does it?" Hermione said, raising her eyebrows. "We're mostly looking just at who could do such a thing right now – not who would want to do it."
Ron flushed a mottled red, but as more and more of the numbers came back, he seemed less bothered.
"Not Lupin?" Ron said, seeing the numbers shift. "Drat. I thought he was a likely candidate."
"If he had the gold, he'd probably spend it on new robes," Hermione said dryly, and Harry snickered.
When the results all came back, there was a distinct divide – a few people very high up as having the means to send Harry the broom, and many more who did not at the bottom. Harry frowned at the results.
"This says you're the most likely, Hermione," Harry said, looking at her strangely. "Why's that?"
"I'd imagine because I have both the means and the motive, as your friend," Hermione said lightly. "I didn't, though, so you can cross me off."
Ron and Neville looked thrown by this.
"You could afford a Firebolt?" Ron demanded, but Hermione ignored him.
"Malfoy could afford it, but I daresay he would never buy you a gift," Hermione said, scratching out the next one. "Sirius Black is next."
Harry bit his lip. "That's… not good."
"Neville and Dumbledore are next, and neither of them have particularly good odds," Hermione said, pointing at the numbers with her quill.
"I didn't do it," Neville said quickly. He shuddered. "Gran would kill me if I ever spent so much money—"
"I think if it had been Dumbledore, he'd have sent a note," Harry said slowly. "He did when he gave me the invisibility cloak in my first year, telling me it was my Dad's."
"Well," Hermione said. "I imagine this wasn't your Dad's, considering it just came out this year."
Harry flushed a red, and he looked down at the paper solemnly, before giving a great sigh.
"So it was Black, then?" he said dully. "The Firebolt gift is a great scheme to have me thrown off a jinxed broom in the middle of a match and go splat?"
Hermione gave him a sympathetic smile. "Looks that way."
"Shame," Harry sad, musing. "I kind of want to risk it. I think I could survive being tossed, probably."
"Don't be stupid," Ron snapped, while Neville gasped and exclaimed, "Harry!", but Hermione knew Harry was thinking about his gliding skill with his air elemental.
"Only if there's not another jinx on it to knock you unconscious," she added, and Harry's face fell.
"Right. Damn," he swore. "I really wanted this broom."
"But you have it." Hermione blinked in surprise.
"Yeah, but I can't exactly ride it, can I?" Harry said dryly. "What's the bloody point of having a broomstick—"
"So we take this broomstick, and we go to Quality Quidditch Supplies in Diagon Alley," Hermione said. "You explain your concern that someone wants to kill you with a jinxed broom, and we exchange the Firebolt for a new, untouched one."
Harry paused. "…you think?"
"I think a Quidditch shop would much rather exchange one brand-new unused broom for an identical brand-new unused broom than get a lot of bad press for their broom killing Harry Potter," Hermione pointed out. Her lips quirked in a smile. "Right?"
Harry started to grin.
"You know," he said, "I reckon you're right."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Ron wanted to know. "We can't exactly leave the school, can we? And if we ask a teacher for permission, they'll want to know why, and they'll seize the broomstick if they think it's cursed."
"And I'm not likely to be given permission as it is," Harry remembered, groaning. "Not with Sirius Black out and about."
Hermione considered, frowning.
"I have a few ideas," she said slowly. "Let me investigate some things, and we'll see what pans out. For now, keep it hidden – we don't want the faculty knowing you got that. They're likely to be suspicious too."
Harry shrugged. "Easy enough." A grin slowly spread across his face. "Better to be able to handle it ourselves than rely on them, right?"
"Oh, Harry," Hermione sighed, rolling her eyes with a smirk. "Did you really think I'd entrust your safety to anyone else?"
Harry just smiled as Neville made conversation about the holiday break, trying to break the tension, and though Hermione participated, holding and stroking Crookshanks all the while to keep him from trying to murder Ron's rat, she could see that Harry was happy, content. Even though she'd essentially told him not to use his awesome new broom, he seemed touched and reassured. She bit her lip, wondering.
How much of that was Harry being reassured by them having a plan of how to handle the matter…
…and how much of it was Harry being happy that someone cared enough about his safety to worry?
Her heart went out to him, and she gave him a soft smile when her eyes met his, which Harry returned, his green eyes sparkling bright.