"Wait, so they were caught?" Ernie asked again as we piled out of the hall. "I don't understand - they didn't seem too bothered about it."
Susan gave a shrug, but I put off giving my answer until a moment later, when I caught a flash of vivid red hair. "Well, we're about to find out!"
"Ginny!" I called after her.
It was her turn to greet me with a bear hug, making me stumble slightly with the power of it. Laughing as we broke apart, I felt my mood lift considerably as I noticed Neville and Seamus grinning at me from either side of her and Luna at Neville's elbow, instead watching Ernie and Susan appear after me.
"I'm so glad you're okay!" Ginny announced swiftly, before I could say a thing. "When you disappeared, we just assumed that you had gone back to your common room, but then we weren't certain, and then Nev- uh, never mind..."
"I'm so sorry," I gushed, looking between her, Neville, and Luna, although the latter was still watching everybody pile out of the hall. "I- I didn't know what to do, I just- oh, I'm sorry, I'm not making excuses, I-"
"Hey, stop that," Neville said gently, his hand brushing my arm in a slightly nervous attempt at comfort. "You did great-"
"You did, Hannah." Ernie added rather irrelevantly, placing his hand on my back.
"Let's not talk of this here, though, eh?" Seamus suggested.
"Are you busy right now?" Ginny asked me. "We've kind of taken to hanging out in this spare classroom we found a few weeks ago while it's been cold out. It's nothing special, but Luna's not supposed to be in our common room and we'd feel like we were abusing the you-know-where if we just hung out in there."
"Not busy at all," I smiled. "I'd love to."
"And you two?" Neville asked, looking expectantly at Ernie and Susan.
"Oh, I can't, I said I'd go meet Lavender and Parvati," Susan declined politely.
Ernie, however, hesitated. I could tell that he was feeling a little like he was my plus one, like he's only secondarily been invited. I knew that wasn't a feeling that Ernie enjoyed at all. In reality, though, he was just as good friends with Seamus as I was with Ginny, so I took his hand and grinned at the others.
"Of course he'll come," I announced brightly. If I was becoming closer friends with these guys, then I was not going to leave my best friend behind.
The room really wasn't anything special. It was, as Ginny had said, just a spare classroom, littered with desks and chairs - mostly broken or crooked - and an old black board at the front. Neville paused outside to cast some sort of muffling charm that I'd never heard of - he said he'd learnt it from Ginny, who had gotten it from Harry.
As newcomers, Ernie and I hovered for a moment, watching Luna sit cross-legged atop a desk, idly twisting her hair around her finger until the tip turned purple as she listened to Seamus go on about his mother's war with their neighbour.
"Funny, ain't it?" he laughed, tapping his wand on the wobbly leg of the chair he'd settled in as he swung his feet up onto the side of the desk that Neville had perched on. "That all this can be going on and at the same time people can still get upset about some stray gnomes attacking a garden."
"Maybe gnomes are the next big threat," joked Ginny. "Our back garden gets overrun with them in the summer. Are you two okay there?"
She was looking at me and Ernie now. Ernie, who had always been more confident than me (I used to be convinced that he should be a Gryffindor until I saw him faced with an ants' nest in third year) grinned and took a seat by Luna. I hesitated, but Seamus promptly moved his feet and beckoned me over to sit by Neville, who greeted me with a small smile as I sat down beside him.
"A gnome bit me at your house," Luna said, I assume in response to Ginny. "But it's okay, because Daddy says that gnome saliva can be very beneficial."
"Aye, your pa says a lot of things," Seamus muttered.
"I think it's the little things that help," Neville quickly interjected before Seamus could further comment. "You know, they distract. Not in a bad, let's-ignore-this kind of way, but so that we can be aware and still lead lives. At least, some can. Just little pieces of normality, you know?"
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he spoke, unable to hide my small smile, and knowing full well that Ginny would likewise be watching me with a knowing expression.
"Yeah, like little crushes," Ginny confirmed what I was thinking, but cleverly added, with a mischievous smile on her face, "Like the one Seamus has got on Lavender!"
The next few minutes were filled with denial and teasing and cajoling and finally an admittance and then some more teasing, until the conversation ultimately came around to the night before. Apparently Neville had already filled Seamus in and luckily nobody seemed at all shocked or bothered that I had told Ernie and Susan what I knew.
"I think Snape suspected something was up, right from when Alecto went into his office," Neville explained. "Something more than the break-out. That's why he was so quick to get back to his office - even though you did make an admiral attempt in delaying him, Hannah."
I looked down at my hands in my lap guiltily, but he swiftly landed a gentle hand on my arm and caught my gaze with his.
"No, you really did do well," he insisted. "We nearly got out because of you."
"And you got rid of the Carrows," added Ginny.
"That did help," Luna piped up pleasantly, before I could argue. "I think, actually, that Professor Snape would have been much harsher on us if he hadn't been alone."
"How did he punish you?" asked Ernie.
"That's the odd thing," Neville answered, frowning, although I couldn't help but notice that he appeared to have forgotten to remove his hand from my arm. "He just, kind of... told us off and said that we'd serve detention by going into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid."
"Which isn't much of a punishment, really," Ginny pointed out, shrugging. "Since we're friends with Hagrid and apparently Luna has sleepwalked as far as the forest before."
Ernie raised his eyebrows at the blonde beside him, "From the Ravenclaw dormitories all the way to the Forbidden Forest? That's a mighty long way to sleepwalk, Luna."
"I'm a very heavy sleeper," Luna smiled, naturally looking half way into a dream anyway. "It's why I always wear shoes to bed."
"That's is odd, though," I murmured to Neville as the others endeavored in a conversation about sleeping habits - apparently Ron Weasley snored like a dragon with a cold. "Why do you think he gave you such a light punishment?"
"I don't know," Neville sighed, shaking his head. "Maybe something to do with guilt, or... Dumbledore's portrait was awake in the office when he was punishing us, so maybe... I don't know; all the things we came up with were really just us clutching at straws."
"I guess this new, harsher punishment thing started after you three, then," I smiled faintly. Of course, I couldn't express to him exactly how grateful I was that he, specifically, wasn't being punished too badly, but I tried at giving a hint by wrapping my arm around his and propping my chin on his shoulder.
I noticed a frown flicker across his brow, but he quirked a small smile and squeezed my arm, his ears glowing a little red.
"Do you think that they're going to... I mean, do you think they actually could get any more severe?" I asked quietly. From somewhere around us, I vaguely registered Seamus make some comment about sleep farting, much to uproarious amusement on Ernie's behalf; but it was oddly hazy to me, like Neville and I were in our own little bubble. And even though we weren't discussing a particularly cheerful subject, it was kind of nice to feel so close to him, unashamedly, in front of other people. Only as friends, of course, but it was still a step forward from secret cupboard meetings.
"I think that Snape's not the type to bluff," Neville replied gravely, but in the same undertone as me. "But, you know what? I think that it's not really going to make a difference in the long run. I know that harsher punishments aren't going to stop me from knowing what's right."
"But... what if that's just you?" I asked, watching him closely.
"Is it just me?"
I paused. He had said that with such stoic pointedness that I was very aware that he knew my answer even before I did.
"No," I said. "No, of course not."
Neville grinned, always seeming slightly sheepish after moments of strong leadership, and I felt a rush of mingled affection and admiration for him.
Before I even knew what I was doing, I had hugged his arm to my chest and laced my fingers with his. His eyebrows shot up a little, and he glanced down at our joined hands with an expression that I could only pinpoint as somewhere between shocked, confused, and nervous. I immediately felt my cheeks flush, but before I could let go or explain or even think, I felt a poke in my side, and we were dragged from out bubble as I turned to Seamus.
"Ernie was just saying that you used to play muggle sports when you were younger?"
I blinked. I tried not to focus on how they had gotten from sleeping quirks to childhood games, but rather just be grateful that they seemed completely oblivious to my hideously embarrassing pawing over Neville. Even with our arms still looped and out fingers linked.
"Uh, yeah," I replied. "The kids in our neighbourhood would meet up at the park and play football. Muggle and magical kids. I wasn't very good, though."
"Dean tried to teach me how to play football once," Seamus smirked. "But he kept complaining when I tackled him - said you're not supposed to knock each other down."
"No," I laughed. "I think you're thinking of rugby."
"Is that the one with the egg-shaped ball?" asked Neville, and when I looked at him, he was completely casual, like we weren't sat there holding hands at all.
"Yeah, kind of," I nodded. "I'm not an expert on muggle sports or anything - I only really know what I picked up from the kids in my village."
And then I realised that I, too, was apparently acting completely casual. Because it didn't feel awkward, really; in fact, it felt completely natural. I mean, sure, it was normal for me to hold Ernie's hand... but he was like a brother to me, so it never even crossed my mind that it might be weird.
Subjectively, the idea of casually sitting there, holding Neville's hand, seemed ludicrous to me. But there it was, and there I was, faced with a new truth, because the fact was that I was almost as comfortable now with Neville as I was with my very best friend. Almost. I would have to work on the whole 'exhibiting a little self-control' thing around him.
I couldn't pinpoint for you the exact point at which we detangled ourselves from one another that morning; the separating was as casual at the attachment, lost amongst the movement and distractions of Ginny throwing things at Seamus from across the room, Luna showing us what to do when suspecting a Nargle attack, me proving to the others just how ticklish Ernie was, and whatever other entertainment we managed to concoct for ourselves that morning.
"When you sit upside-down like that, you look like you've got a beard." Neville noted, tilting his head slightly as Ginny joined me and Luna as we lay side by side atop a desk, our backs against the wood and our hair hanging over the edge.
"Beards and upside-down faces," I grinned. "A wonderful image, I'm sure."
Luna had insisted that, when hanging upside-down, one always felt far more inspired and could think with more clarity than when upright. Even just for a bit of fun, Ginny and I had immediately wanted to try it out. I couldn't decide whether she was right, or if it was just the relaxed atmosphere amongst friends.
"I could so easily get my revenge right now," Ernie teased, giving me a little tickle under the chin, only to be swiftly swatted away by my hand.
"So how do you feel?" asked Seamus.
"I feel like the blood is rushing to my head," said Ginny, and I felt her shift beside me.
"I think that might be because it is," Neville pointed out. "Your face is all pink already. Yours too, Hannah."
"Maybe you have to be in a quieter environment for it to work?" I suggested, mostly for Luna's sake. "Or not in a school full of Deatheaters, maybe. A bit distracting."
The others laughed, but Luna shook her upside-down head, "If you don't feel it yet, then you need to do it for longer," she explained. "Or maybe you just don't think you need inspiration - if you don't think something's going to happen, then there's less chance of it happening."
She sat up, and Ginny and I followed suite, the two of us swaying slightly with the sudden head rush.
"Well, I'll definitely be giving that another try before I start my Transfigurations essay tomorrow," Ginny decided, grinning at Luna as we turned to face the boys.
"Is it just me," I mumbled. "Or is it colder the right way up?"
"I'm a bit chilly too," Ernie admitted, glancing out the window at the sky. "I'm sure it's supposed to get warmer around midday."
It had indeed been chilly all morning, but we'd been so distracted by ourselves until now that I only then realised that the others were dressed a little more thickly than us. I suppose their tower dormitories were a little colder than our - often quite stuffy, but cozy - basement. Ernie must have noticed the same thing.
"I'll go grab us some warmer clothes," he offered, and I noticed his eyes flick briefly to Luna's Grindylow jumper.
"I'll come with you," I said brightly, slipping off the desk.
Ernie hesitated, and beside him, Seamus laughed. I frowned, bemused.
"I was saying before that, even though this room his good for weekend daytimes, it's a terrible evening hiding place because it's in the middle of nowhere," explained Seamus. "And that turned into this whole - well, it's a long story. But your man here is convinced that it would only take 5 minutes to get down to your common room.
I nodded, smirking slightly at the fact that we'd apparently brought together two of the most stubborn boys in our year without even thinking about it. I wasn't sure when their conversation had taken place; possibly when I had been asking Luna where she got her clothes (I was impressed by the fact that she apparently made some of it herself, although the Grindylow jumper was apparently previously owned by her late mother) or maybe when Neville and I had been comparing wacky family members (a conversation that had abruptly ended when Ginny and Luna turned to join in). Either way, I was glad that Ernie didn't seem to be feeling left out at all.
"Go on your own then," I said fondly. "I wouldn't want to slow you down."
Ernie grinned sheepishly, but was gone within the second. I raised my eyebrows, and the two of us turned to join the conversation that had already sprouted between the other three. Neville had been saying something about a plant, and as soon as Seamus sat down beside him, his attention turned to him.
"It's only native to Northern Ireland," he said, his enthusiasm beyond endearing.
"I've never heard of it, mate, sorry," Seamus shrugged, not seeming sorry at all.
"I can only ever imagine an Irish plant as a shamrock," Ginny admitted.
"What, like the whole country is just covered in them?" I laughed.
"Aye," joked Seamus. "We don't have hedges separating gardens in the ol' Emerald Isle - just shamrock."
"And kids don't climb trees in Ireland," I joined in. "They just play with big shamrocks."
"And on Valentines day," Neville contributed. "Men don't give women flowers - just bunches of shamrock."
"Brides even walk down the aisle with bunches of it," I added.
"With their flower girls throwing out shamrock behind them?" Ginny anticipated.
"Now she's catching!" laughed Seamus.
"Are all stereotypes about Ireland true, then, Seamus?" Neville asked jokily.
"Oh aye, yeah, every single one of them," Seamus said matter-of-factly. "We all dress up in green and pay for our Guinness in the pub with gold from pots and the ends of rainbows. And if they're up for it, we like to invite the leprechauns along to the pub and we all get together for a good Irish jig."
And suddenly he was up on his feet, heavily slapping his feet to the floor for a beat to the merry little tune he was singing as he went. Luna and Ginny joined him, laughing and clapping, Seamus linking their arms in turn to spin them around. Then Seamus was up on a chair, clapping away, still singing his heart out, and Luna had snatched up my hand and pulled me to my feet. I struggled weakly for a second, concerned about embarrassing myself with my two left feet, but quickly gave in and let Luna twirl me around, only bumping into Ginny - who had pulled Neville to his feet - very gently.
The next thing I knew, I had been passed onto Ginny, hooked around the elbows, and then I was on Neville's arm, and suddenly he'd switched to one hand in mine, the other on my waist, and he was swinging us back and forth to the beat of Seamus' song and Ginny's clapping. He spun me out and pulled me back in, and when I stumbled over a chair leg he caught me, both of us laughing as he dipped me.
But as he pulled me back in again, my smile fell a little more faint. Behind me, Ginny and Luna had adopted a dancing style that almost made them look like they were swatting away flies, and Seamus had gotten completely caught up in his own performance. Neville gave me a questioning expression, and we slowed to a gentle sway.
It didn't feel right. I didn't. Or maybe I felt too right. It didn't feel fair. Now that Ernie had left the room, having this much fun just... it didn't feel fair. Without him, or any of the other wonderful people I'd been friends with much longer than I had with these guys, it almost felt like I was cheating on them by having this much fun. Sure, Ernie had been with us all morning and Susan was probably having plenty of fun with her friends, but what about Justin? Who was I to feel happy and carefree like this when one of my closest friends was... well, I didn't even know how or where he was, even if he still alive. And all of the other innocent people - Seamus' own very best friend, Dean. Ginny's brother, Ron. We had no idea what was happening to them all, and here we were, locked away in our little room, acting like we didn't have a care in the world?
I softly slipped my hand from Neville's and brushed his other from my waist, unable to meet his concerned gaze. Seamus was still going. Neville caught hold of me before I could back away, lacing our fingers together again. I don't whether he somehow understood or not, but he searched my eyes with his and simply said, "Hey, we're only dancing."
He offered a smile, but before I could process anything, there was a click at the door and Ernie burst in, cheeks a little flushed.
"Three and a half minutes!" Seamus announced, impressed, as he jumped down off the chair. "You're ridiculous, man!"
Ernie, who adored being right more than anyone I'd ever known, grinned broadly, his chest heaving slightly. But for the first time in the six years I'd known him, he didn't brag about winning. His eyes were on me and Neville. We'd sort of frozen when the door had opened, stood very close to each other, hands still linked, both slightly pink-faced from laughing and dancing, and me looking very guilty and put-out.
Ernie was holding two hoodies, both his, one of them a scarlet Holyhead Harpies jumper that I liked to adopt on the odd occasion. He always acted like it annoyed him when I borrowed it without asking; he would make fun of me, tease about how big it was on me. But we both knew that he didn't really mind - he was used to it, I suppose.
The fact that he was stood there with this hoodie, essentially a symbol of our friendship, looking at me like that - it felt like I really had just been caught in the act of cheating on him. Neville, for some reason, seemed equally sheepish, and let me pull my hands free from his. Carefully avoiding everyone's eyes, I hurried over to him, taking the hoodie with a weak grateful smile and saying something like "Well, you're going to have to go back down now anyway because it's lunchtime, come on."
With an attempt at cheerfulness, I shot him a bright grin, and I was gone from the room, gone from the danger and guilt of fun, and very aware that I was not going to be moving from the Hufflepuff house table that day.