Harry Potter glanced up at a group of giggling fourth-year girls. They were gathered under a piece of mistletoe which had unceremoniously locked an unfortunate pair under it until they kissed. Harry found himself glad that the circle tightened and he didn't have to see the things he was missing…friends and love.
He was, in fact, mildly surprised. Unlike previous years, Christmas and the after-effects had not gradually seeped in until the week before Christmas when the feeling suddenly knocked him flat. No, this year it had crept rather silently and slowly until announcing itself somewhat rudely. Just an interruption in a scheduale that Harry was, for some reason, unwilling to break.
Harry had honestly forgotten about Christmas until that moment, when it all crashed into him, paralyzing him for a moment. He hadn't felt much like Christmas - not without Ron and Hermione. Because it's relatively difficult to enjoy the holidays when your two best friends were missing.
About a week and a half before Christmas break, Hermione had been called from Herbology class. Hermione was never in trouble, so this was undoubtedly good. She's probably gone and won an award, Harry thought, seeing his thoughts mirrored on most of his classmates' faces.
But she hadn't come back. Her things were gone, she was gone, and it left a hole in Harry's chest wherever he went. And then, the day after Hermione's confirmed disappearance, Ron left too. Without a trace. When Harry woke up that morning, Ron's trunk was gone and his bed was made. Harry's watch said 8:37 AM. Ron never got up that early. Never.
Until the winter break, a blind panic filled Harry wherever he went. Ron and Hermione could have been lured out of the castle by Voldemort – they might both be dead, or it might be trap to lure him out of the castle…
There were "what if's" buzzing around his head like a mosquito that he desperately wanted to swat, but couldn't see. Harry remained detached and kept to himself for the remainder of classes.
The first day of break saw Harry up before the sun; his trunk levitated beside him and a hundred feet up by daybreak. He knew where he had to go – it was the one clear thought he'd had all week.
Harry had never welcomed the sight of the Burrow as much as he did that afternoon, when he finally landed softly in front of the garage where the Ford Anglia had resided. He smiled slightly, the panic receding a bit. He knew that the Weasley's would help him. He wasn't alone. Not this time.
Harry let himself in through the side door, seeing at once Ron's muddy sneakers, which had obviously been thrown carelessly to the ground. To the side were Hermione's sneakers which were considerably less muddy and tucked away neatly at the edge of the hallway. Harry grinned broadly, pure relief sinking from his shoulders to ankles. His head however, was torn between the latter and anger. Uncertainly, Harry proceeded to the kitchen where Ron, the twins and Ginny were sitting, conversing with their mother and father in hushed tones.
Harry edged in awkwardly, unsure of what to do. He stood half-hidden in shadows until Mrs. Weasley turned and noticed him.
"Harry, dear!" she cried. "Glad you got the owl!" She conjured up a chair and motioned for him to sit on it.
"Er…I didn't get an owl, Mrs. Weasley. I came because both Ron and Hermione were suddenly gone, and this was the first place I thought of to come to."
Mrs. Weasley glared at Ron. "Ronald, you should've told him! Leaving the poor dear, not knowing anything. Having to take matters into his own hands! It could've been a trap!"
Ron started. "Mum! You didn't exactly give me much time to tell him!" he exclaimed, looking down the table at her. Harry looked down the table too.
"Er," he said, "where's Hermione?"
They all avoided his gaze.
Finally Mrs. Weasley spoke. "She's … in her room," she said carefully.
Harry let out a breath. "Oh, so I can see her then?" he asked.
Ron finally addressed him. "Harry, something happened. We don't know what. McGonagall told us that Hermione'll tell us when she was ready. Mum brought me home because no one could get to her and I brought Ginny with me. None of us have been able to get in her room," Ron said sadly.
Harry looked at him blankly, then got up stiffly from the table. He started down the hallway towards the staircase, when he realized that we wasn't entirely certain of where to go. He stood there wondering where he should start.
Ron's voice floated down the hallway. "Fred and George's room."
Harry nodded once, though nobody could see him, and he started for the stairs. He walked up them slowly, wondering why it had taken them so long to call him…he went up, thinking. They should know that I'll be able to get her out. That'll take no time at all. She trusts me. Maybe more than Ron. I'll get her out…but do I want to know why she's in there in the first place? Maybe not.
He had reached the landing, and Hermione's door was fast approaching. He arrived at the door, and knocked softly.
"Go away," came a muffled voice.
She probably thinks I'm Ron. "Hermione, it's me, Harry. It's okay, you can come out now," he said soothingly.
"Go. Away. Right. Now. Before. I. Hex. You."
Harry's cockiness disappeared in an instant, only to be replaced with the stirrings of panic.
"Wouldn't you have to come out to hex me? Come out, Hermione, please. Or, let me in, whichever you prefer. I don't care."
Silence. Harry could only hear a few muffled spatters. Hermione was crying. The panic went up a notch. Harry was worried – he didn't know what to do. His knees began to give out, and he sat before he fell down. On the ground, he did the first thing that came to mind: he began to talk to her.
He told her about the Quidditch match that they'd lost, because McLaggen had to go in for Ron, as he was gone. He told her about a disastrous attempt at a Transfiguration spell that had left him short one ear and in the Hospital Wing. He told her all the homework she's missed.
Hermione didn't reply to any of this. Harry hadn't really expected her to. He talked to her as one might talk to himself. It was strange, but also oddly relieving. The panic receded a bit. He could hear Hermione's breathing going back to a regular pace as he talked. He was running out of things to talk about…
Harry returned to Hermione's door every day for at least an hour. It was always the same. She'd tell him she'd hex him if he kept talking, he ignored her, she left him with the same stony silence and he'd talk. He'd talk about what the Weasleys were doing, what he had done that day, what it was like outside. Finally, she stopped objecting to him presence and he just launched right into speech.
During the first five days, Harry had often wondered how Hermione went to the bathroom. Hermione was naturally a very hygienic person…he highly doubted that she had something of a chamber pot in her room. No, he decided, that wasn't it.
His suspicions were confirmed the next day, as once when they were all downstairs, he had heard the patter of quick light footfalls down the hallway. The Burrow was a structure that, by means of the laws of gravity, should not have been anywhere but crumpled in a heap on the ground. Sound traveled easily in it. For once, Harry was glad of that.
Later that afternoon, the Weasleys left to go for a walk…the weather was milder and it was quite enjoyable. Harry, however, declined, saying that he had a headache, and should probably rest.
Once everyone was out the door, Harry went up the stairs to tell Hermione that they had gone away. He told that he'd be downstairs if she needed him. Then, he crept away from the door. Using Wingardium Leviosa, he sent several objects down the stairs, imitating his footsteps. He carefully unfolded his Invisibility Cloak, and threw it over himself. And he waited.
It didn't take very long. He knew that she took this as a perfect opportunity to go to the bathroom. That's what he had hoped for.
Hermione opened the door tentatively. Though Harry couldn't see most of her face because of the shadows, he could tell that she wasn't well. She was rail thin and her hair lay limp on her head. All in all, it took most of Harry's self-control not to catch his breath when he saw his friend in such distress. He knew immediately that he had to find out what was wrong. She needed him. He needed her.
When Harry heard the 'click' of the bathroom door, he tiptoed into her room. He was careful to remember the floorboards that creaked when you stood on them so that Hermione wouldn't suspect anything. Shivering slightly, he entered the room.
The first thing that Harry noticed was that the room was bare. The room, as he recalled, had once been full to bursting with the twins' merchandise for their store. Cardboard boxes had filled every inch of space that the room had to offer, and objects were everywhere.
But now the room was empty. There was a steel bed-frame and a worn mattress. A duvet cover was bunched up at the end of the bed. Hermione's trunk was tucked neatly in a corner. Had Harry not known better, he would have guessed that there was nothing wrong. Except for one thing.
As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the unlit room, they widened very suddenly. He saw, very faintly, that the room was far from empty.
Suddenly, Harry hugged the cloak tighter around himself. Not because of cold or of fear of being caught. No, it was what was on the walls.