Hermione climbed up the tree after Luna, barely listening as her blonde friend rattled on about some creature or other that she doubted existed. Her focus was on the Quidditch match above between the Weasley clan plus Harry.
"I'm glad Harry's able to relax," she said. Luna pulled out a Quibbler.
"He deserves it, I imagine."
Hermione nodded, picking at some tree leaves. She smiled as the twins went at it on their brooms, putting a halt to the match.
"Do you think we'll be able to go into town today?" Luna inquired. "I'm still in need of some books and the Weasleys don't get the Quibbler owled to them.
"Molly said we would after breakfast. Which is why…Guys! BREAKFAST!"
Soon the Weasley's kitchen was full of rowdy teens, yelling, jostling, and eating. Molly was trying to get some instructions in about their trip to Diagon Alley, but everyone was too distracted and she soon abandoned the attempt to go find her husband.
"Angie says that Gringotts is under constant watch now," Fred was saying. "Says they've got Ministry on top of that place."
"Not surprising," Charlie said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the whole alley's crawling with the officials, incompetent bastards. No offense, Dad."
"None taken," Arthur said as he entered. More conversation ensued, but Hermione paid little attention to it, mind distracted by the upcoming school year and all it entailed. She had received her schedule, laden with classes, and a long book list earlier that week, but she was still anxious for the arrival of one more letter.
She looked up quickly as George pulled open the window. An owl set down on the ledge, peering in at the room curiously. Catching sight of Hermione, it flitted over and then held out its leg. Everyone got quiet as Hermione slipped the letter off of the owl and began opening it.
"Miss Hermione Granger, we regret to inform you that, though you have proven yourself…"
She stared for a while, not getting too far into the rest of the letter. Pursing her lips as she neatly folded the letter, Hermione quietly got up from the table.
"I'm going to go get ready to go," she called over her shoulder, striding out. She slowly went up to the room, rubbing her cheek ruefully. "Well, that's that," she muttered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I mean, it's not as if…"
There was no justification for what just occurred. She pulled the letter out of her pocket, rereading it. How had this happened? How could she not be Head Girl?
She looked up to see Ginny and Luna peering in at her. Hermione huffed a little to keep the inevitable tears down.
Ginny's disbelieving look made Hermione even more determined to have this dropped. "Look, I am fine. It's not the end of the world. I mean, not being around a lot last year probably has something to do with it. I shouldn't be surprised that they picked someone else."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
Hermione nodded, standing up straight. "Yes, Ginny. I'm quite fine."
"She's about to cry," Luna pointed out and Ginny turned in time to see Hermione slip down onto the bed in tears. Ginny and Luna sat down on either side of the girl, rubbing her back comfortingly.
Diagon Alley was unusually crowded that afternoon, mostly with students scrambling to get their school supplies. After Voldemort's fall, things had more or less returned to normal, with a new surge in students returning to Hogwarts. Molly made her way towards Flourish and Blotts along with Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Luna. Everyone kept glancing back at Hermione, who was trailing the group with a stoic look on her face. She had been quiet since they arrived in the Alley, strands of her bushy hair curled around a finger as she actively avoided looking at her friends.
"Why's she being like this?" Ron grumbled. "Can you imagine how obnoxious she would be if she had become Head Girl?"
"You're an idiot, Ron," Ginny snapped. "Why don't you leave it alone before I hex you?"
"I'm just saying. She was already taking a million classes. How did she expect to do all the Head Girl work, too?"
"That's enough, Ronald," Molly said. "Alright, you all have your book lists. Ginny, I want you to come with me. I need to get you some new robes. Luna, you should come, too. Harry, Ron," she added in a softer tone. "You make sure you stay with Hermione. She's in a little bit of a mood. She shouldn't be alone."
Molly and the younger girls left. Ron turned to Harry.
"This is silly. Hermione doesn't need to be babysitted."
"Maybe she does," Harry muttered, looking around. "Damn."
Ron's eyes widened as he looked about the bookstore. "Hermione!"
Harry nudged him. "Come on, let's find her before your mum figures out we lost her."
They started searching the store, though it was in vain. Hermione had not gone in. Instead she had continued along the alley, not too interested in being around her friends. She had had a cry and been done with it, but the disappointment of not being Head Girl still hurt and listening to Ron complain about her mood was not her idea of a trip to Diagon Alley.
It was crowded enough on the street that she blended in quite well. She passed by students she recognized and wondered which of the girls had snatched the Head position. The thought aggravated her and, with an angry exhale, she whirled on her heel and right smack into someone.
"Careful, Blaise. Mudblood here looks like she may kill someone."
She looked up agitatedly to see Blaise Zabini glaring down at her with some irritation in his dark eyes. At his side stood Draco Malfoy, amused smirk on his pale face. Taking a step back, Hermione offered them both scathing looks.
"What are you doing here, Malfoy?" she snapped. "I thought-"
"I was in France?" He chuckled, gray eyes moving over her curiously. "Relieved to see me?"
"Disappointed you still have your spine, coward."
"She doesn't seem to like you much, Draco," Blaise commented in such a tone that Hermione could have sworn he was bored. Without another word, the dark boy disappeared into the crowd. Draco shook his head.
"He doesn't talk much."
"You should follow his example," she muttered and the smile fell off his face.
"How is not being Head Girl treating you, Mudblood?" he spat, leaning in so that their faces were close. "Guess you're not the smartest witch and everyone knows it. How the mighty have fallen."
He took in the hurt that flashed across her face with a grin of glee. "Good. Keep that look on your face, Granger. I want to see it every time I look at you."
She trembled in anger but she could not speak, too focused on trying to keep tears out of her eyes. Draco straightened up, a look of triumph on his cold features.
"Have a good school year." He swept past her, leaving her in such a state of rage that she could not move for several minutes. To have her heart's desire plucked from her on the tails of such a harrying year was one thing. For Draco Malfoy, the boy who had deserted Hogwarts in its hour of need, to stomp on it in such a fashion…
Her gaze passed over a dark passage and something inside her beckoned that she enter. Nobody on the street seemed to notice it, so Hermione had no trouble slipping into it undetected. She just needed a quiet place to breathe without Malfoy or Ron or anyone bringing up things she didn't need to be reminded about.
As she passed down the narrow alley, she realized immediately that she was in Knockturn Alley. The stores that lined the street were dark and mostly empty, having been abandoned after the final battle. There were very few pedestrians but they all watched Hermione. She scanned the storefront displays, most of which were barren. One particular display caught her attention. It was full of dusty old antique vases, but her interest was in between the vases. The shelves were thick with dust so it was easy to see once she got close enough. Tiny paw prints, like those of a kitten, tracked in between the vases with a symmetrical sweeping pattern between. A tail, and a long one by how wide the patterns were. The prints led off of the display and, when Hermione pressed her nose against the window, she could see prints along the floor.
Her mind instantly went to Crookshanks, who she had lost last year. Biting her lip, she went to the door.
The shop seemed to have been abandoned since before Hermione knew she was a witch. Ancient cobwebs decorated the walls and shelves. More of the antique vases littered the store, making her wonder what sort of store it was. But her attention was on the footprints. There were plenty of them along the floor, some of them older judging by the dust present. She followed the fresh trail, which led underneath a large bookcase towards the back of the shop. Kneeling down, she peered underneath the last shelf.