Harry and Ron had repeatedly assured Hermione that they would accompany her to King’s Cross. This was something Hermione was beginning to regret. Lined up in front of the door was her chock-a-block full trunk and messily stuffed backpack; quite apart from being a nuisance to levitate into the truck, Hermione knew that the boys would make fun of her for bringing all her home comforts back to Hogwarts after a year of living sparsely in a tent.
It was somewhat ironic, she had to admit, that she had managed to fit all her possessions in one beady purse for ten months, and was now luxuriously piling everything into a very big trunk. Resigning herself to an inevitable half hour of mocking, she stroked the brown leather binding of the luggage affectionately. At the age of twelve, she had embroidered the initials H.G. lovingly in gold thread; they were worn and faded now, but the sense of excitement they had once provoked had hardly waned.
The doorbell rang. With a nervous leap of her stomach, Hermione swung her backpack over her shoulder in haste, levitating the trunk with a wave of her wand.
‘Hermione, Ron and Harry are here!’ she heard her mother call from downstairs. Unable to prevent the smile that had sprung to her lips, Hermione rushed down the stairs two at a time (quite far from the graceful manner she had envisioned all summer).
Ron had grown his hair longer over the summer, and she felt a familiar extra skip of the heart when he smiled at her, his eyes twinkling. Harry was leaning patiently against the doorframe, chatting to Mrs Granger. It was comforting to see how completely normal Mrs Granger was acting around Harry: all summer, everywhere Harry had gone, people had seemed to jump a foot in the air, or rush forward to shake his hand.
‘Hi,’ Hermione said, directing her trunk to the waiting car outside. Mrs Granger clucked her tongue disapprovingly against her teeth.
‘Hermione, the neighbours -!’
‘Oh, Mum, it’s all right, they never notice anything.’
‘You see, I told you we’ve been a bad influence on her.’ He took Hermione into his arms and gave her a kiss. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ Hermione grinned. Ron slid the backpack off her shoulders and swung it over his own back. Hermione turned to her parents. ‘I’ll see you at Christmas, all right?’
‘Well, take care, dear,’ Mrs Granger said, kissing her daughter on the cheek. Mr Granger had entered the hallway and was embarrassedly avoiding Ron’s eyes. ‘Keep us posted about everything.’
‘Don’t forget about your mouth guard,’ Mr Granger added, leaning forwards to hug his daughter. Ron and Harry suppressed a grin behind them.
Closing the door to her childhood home, Hermione watched Harry and Ron lift the luggage into the trunk of the car. It was a second-hand beauty, not entirely unlike Mr Weasley’s Ford Anglia, though it possessed no magical properties - at Hermione’s insistence. One of the first things Harry had decided to do once everything settled down following Voldemort’s defeat had been to learn how to drive; ‘Something simple, Muggle, and non-Dark Arts-related,’ he had said. Ron, at first sceptical, had been most impressed by Harry’s driving skills, and spent most of his time reading about theoretical driving in Muggle Learnings and Practicalities of the 20th Century.
‘I still can’t believe you’re actually going to do this,’ Ron muttered, sliding in the backseat next to Hermione. She leaned comfortably against his arm as Harry turned the key and drove out of the front yard.
‘You may decide to be academically irresponsible, Ron,’ Hermione answered sternly, waving at her parents who were standing by the kitchen window, ‘but I intend to make six years at Hogwarts worth something.’
‘We took our OWLs, didn’t we?’ Ron exclaimed defensively, looking at Harry for support.
Hermione clucked her tongue against her teeth like her mother. Harry was determinedly focusing on the road, though there was no traffic to speak of.
‘And I would have thought you might have been a bit easier to persuade, Harry, even if you don’t want to take your NEWTs!’ Hermione continued, and Harry jumped in his seat.
‘Why, because Ginny is going back? I’ll still get to see her.’
‘What about your Auror ambitions? Both of your Auror ambitions,’ she added, because Ron had just given a very derisive cough.
‘Come on, any part of the Ministry would be begging Harry to join them after what he’s just done!’
‘Hermione, we’ve been through this a million times,’ Harry sighed, irritably swerving a truck as the traffic started getting a little denser.
‘Look, I know you’re nervous about being there without us,’ Ron said gently, because Hermione had just turned towards the window in a fruitless attempt to hide her tears, ‘but it’ll be fine. Ginny will be there, Neville’s coming back too – loads of the old DA, even Luna!’
Hermione sniffed, too proud to answer. She was glad when they finally reached King’s Cross: it felt like she had something stuck in her throat and she did not like to speak until it had subsided. As usual, the station was milling with people, but despite this they managed to manoeuvre through the crowds strategically, reaching Platform 9 ¾ with twenty minutes to spare. While Harry loaded Hermione’s trunk onto the train, Ron pulled her towards a pillar. He looked like he might have something stuck in his throat too.
‘You’re so stupid, you know,’ Hermione muttered, running her right hand through his hair and gripping it playfully. ‘We could have had another go at romance at Hogwarts. Think of all those unexplored corridors…’
‘I would have thought you had plenty of that with Vicky,’ Ron grinned, and Hermione nudged him in the ribs teasingly, trying to look stern. Ron’s face fell back into a look of anxiousness, and he framed Hermione’s cheeks with his long hands. ‘I’ll see you at Christmas. Hell, I might even come up there – give a few lectures on Defence Against the Dark Arts, you know? Play the part of the hero a bit?’
Hermione gave a watery chuckle and buried her face in his shoulder. For a split second, she considered not leaving: it would be much easier than leaving to simply stay in his arms.
‘Come on, Hermione,’ Ron continued in a falsely cheery voice, ‘don’t crack, the house elves need you for their campaign against voluntary slavery.’
Hermione sighed and nodded. Ron’s eyes were a shimmering haze of blues, but they vanished as he leaned forward, and she closed her own eyes, and their lips met.
‘I’ve got a bit of crap news, guys,’ Harry said, interrupting their kiss as he approached them. He had found Ginny, who was holding his hand. Pupils all around them were casting them curious and jealous looks. Their parents acknowledged Harry with a smile or a bow of the head.
‘Malfoy. He’s on the train. He’s back for another year,’ Ginny said miserably.
‘You’re kidding me!’ Ron snarled, outraged.
‘What on earth was McGonagall thinking?’ Hermione pondered, looking up and down the train as if to spot Malfoy through one of the windows.
‘Well, his father and mother were just cleared last week, weren’t they?’ Ginny answered. ‘I guess they couldn’t really prevent Malfoy coming back to Hogwarts. I’ve got no idea why he wants to go back, though… it’s not like he’s got any friends, is it?’
The four of them turned to look at the train together, sharing the same thoughts. They had not seen or spoken to Malfoy since that dreadful hour in the Room of Requirement and the aftermath in the Great Hall. Hermione had perused the Daily Prophet every day and had occasionally come across news about him and his parents’ trial for war crimes; but beyond that, she had never even considered that he might want to return to Hogwarts. The feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach weighed even more heavily at the thought of having to face him in all her classes without Ron and Harry by her side, making light of his insults, and she squeezed Ron’s hand for comfort.
‘It’ll be fine,’ Ron muttered, though he did not look convinced and was glancing half-heartedly at the train. ‘He’s got to behave, they’ll chuck him out if he doesn’t. It’ll be fine, Hermione.’
Guards alongside the train started whistling and Hermione jumped, suddenly stressed. She gave Harry a hug and Ron received another peck; then she grabbed Ginny’s hand and jumped onto the train. One of the guards slammed the door shut, and with hideous realization, she understood that she would not touch, hug or kiss Ron again for another four months.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ Ron said, walking up to the door. The train started moving, and he paced alongside it. ‘I’ll write to you. I’ll let you know about everything.’ The train was gliding smoothly now, and he hastened to jog alongside it. ‘Hermione, I –‘ The train had picked up speed and he was flat out running. ‘Hermione, I love you!’
She flushed, and the dread in her stomach evaporated, turning into intense, savoury pleasure at this first declaration. Hermione pushed the whole of her upper body outside the window and yelled, even though it was the first time, ‘I love you!’, before the train turned a corner and the red-headed figure was gone.
There seemed to be surprisingly few people in the Great Hall as Hermione sat down at the Gryffindor table to watch the Sorting. She reasoned that it would have something to do with parents still being anxious about the terror regime that had been so prominent only last year, or the fact that there were practically no seventh years to be seen. She was not too proud to admit it: Hermione had been anxious ever since Ron had said he wasn’t coming back about whom she could spend her time with. Neither Lavender nor Parvati had decided to re-take their seventh year, and though they had never been her close friends, any friends were surely better than none.
She was therefore intensely pleased when a tall and lanky Dean Thomas sat down next to her, giving her a grim smile. Admittedly, she had never been close to Dean either; her affinity had always been greater with Neville, but a friendly face was a friendly face and she launched into a gratifying discussion with him about the holidays.
‘Well, I went back and found my mother. Our house was burnt down by the Death Eaters, so we spent most of July and August rebuilding it.’
‘I’m so sorry, Dean,’ Hermione said sympathetically, but Dean shrugged. He looked a lot older, it occurred to her, like Ron; more muscular around the upper body and eyes full of experience. She reflected that perhaps this was true of everyone who had participated in that last, ugly battle.
‘What about you?’
‘I went back and got my parents in Australia.’ She explained how she had charmed them to forget about her. ‘Luckily, I was able to reverse it quite easily, and the magical community in Sydney were really welcoming.’
Dean shook his head, amusement in his eyes.
‘You should have been in Ravenclaw, Hermione. Blimey, charming your parents to forget about you. I can’t imagine –‘
He was interrupted by Neville, who sidled into a seat next to Hermione, looking expectant and excited. The change was similar here too: the confidence he had acquired, and the unwanted fame he had been submitted to over the summer, radiated from him like a beam of sunlight. He had told her about his summer on the train: how he and his grandmother had volunteered to help McGonagall and Ministry rebuild Hogwarts.
‘Well Ernie’s come back, but only for a few months. He didn’t take his NEWTs last year, you see, and he wants to catch up a bit before attempting them again. Looks like there’s a few of the DA crowd back, eh?’
‘Yeah,’ mumbled Dean, glancing in Ginny’s direction. She was chatting animatedly with Luna at the Ravenclaw table and kept tossing her hair back.
Hermione’s eyes wandered to the Slytherins. There were perhaps fewer of them than any other house, and most looked miserable and resentful. The only seventh years Hermione could spot were Blaise Zabini and a girl she was pretty sure was called Asteria Greengrass, who had been two years below them before: she had evidently decided to skip her sixth. Even as Hermione looked, Draco Malfoy, the last to enter the Hall, took his place between them.
He looked disturbingly awful. His hair was in need of a good trim, and his chin and cheeks were covered in stubble. There, too, was something rather shocking about his posture – perhaps it was the fact that, where before he had always held himself so arrogantly regally, he now seemed slumped and doubled up. Though she could not be sure from this far away, she suspected that his eyes were crowned in dark shadows, for his face was looking very sombre indeed. An air of unkempt misery shrouded him, and he shook his head disinterestedly as Zabini attempted to converse with him.
‘I don’t get why either Zabini or Malfoy have come back,’ Dean muttered, having noticed Hermione staring. ‘It’s not like they weren’t here last year?’
‘Fat chance them learning anything while the Carrows were in charge,’ Neville answered.
‘I never really got the impression that the likes of Zabini or Malfoy were interested in learning,’ Hermione sighed, trying to ignore the uncomfortable feeling that had just struck her.
‘Maybe they’re trying for redemption or something,’ Neville said, eyeing both of them with great dislike. ‘Fat chance. As if anyone here would forgive them for what their families did.’
‘Let’s be fair towards Zabini, they’ve never proved his mother was a Death Eater,’ Ginny said, having just crossed from the Ravenclaw table to the Gryffindors. She sat down next to Hermione. Dean was staring determinedly down at his knife and fork, flushing a little. Ginny did not seem to notice.
‘May I have your attention, please,’ McGonagall’s voice sounded from the staff table, and the noise died down almost instantly. McGonagall was standing up by her seat, next to the throne like chair that the Headmaster usually occupied. Hermione felt the uncomfortable feeling subside a little as she watched her favourite teacher glance around the room. There was something very comforting about the fact that McGonagall was still here, even though Harry and Ron were not.
‘I would firstly like to welcome all of you back. I know there have been great concerns amongst many of you and your families since June, the least of which belonged to the state of Hogwarts, although I am pleased to say that with the cooperation of the Ministry and many volunteers, the castle has suffered little damage in comparison to what might have happened.’ McGonagall cleared her voice, while Hermione tried to imagine what greater damage than giants, centaurs and Lord Voldemort could exist. ‘This is an exceptionally unusual start of year. We are commencing a new establishment, attempting to achieve what has been the norm during all of Professor Dumbledore’s years as Headmaster. As such, we have not yet found a suitable replacement. I, myself, am not able to accept the position as Headmistress, and have decided to stay on as Deputy Headmistress and Transfiguration teacher only. I am pleased to say that most of our staff –‘ McGonagall waved her hand at Professors Sprout, Flitwick, Slughorn and Vector behind her, ‘have accepted to return. Professor Slughorn has also been willing to stay on as Head of Slytherin House.’
McGonagall cast an unreadable look at the subdued and outnumbered Slytherins. The rest of the student body’s looks were less forgiving; a few fourth year Hufflepuffs were even displaying rude hand gestures.
‘A number of teaching posts, however, remain vacant. Professor Hagrid had decided not to return to Hogwarts until next year: Care of Magical Creatures is therefore suspended until further notice. We are also still searching for a suitable Muggle Studies teacher.’ The silence in the Great Hall became more pronounced: Lucius Malfoy had revealed only a few weeks ago the truth about Chastity Burbage’s torture and death. Next to Hermione, Dean Thomas was shaking his head. ‘As for Defence against the Dark Arts, an appointment is pending, but nothing is yet certain. We will let you know in due course. I do believe that is all for the time being. Your timetables will be distributed in the morning. But for now – enjoy.’
Food appeared suddenly and welcomingly on every surface around them. Dean and Neville dug in immediately, but Hermione had lost her appetite. The sight of treacle tart and its link to Harry and Ron provoked the return of dead weight in her stomach, and she pushed her plate away, feeling thoroughly depressed once more.
Hermione woke up the next morning, and for a moment, she could not remember why she felt so miserable. Then she remembered where she was.
Although delighted to find the dormitory empty apart from herself and Ginny (which she had been expecting since the conspicuous absence of Lavender and Parvati), she had had trouble falling asleep the previous night. Ginny was seemingly in a same state; Hermione kept hearing Ginny’s sheets rustling and twice, she got up to pour a glass of water. She supposed that Ginny was missing Harry as much as she was missing Ron.
It was a relief to go down to breakfast, and even more so to find Dean and Neville waiting by the portrait hole. Neville looked surprisingly happy and awake, though Hermione suspected that Dean might have had a sleepless night too. They walked down the corridors to the Great Hall, happy that they could still remember the way after a year’s absence. Neville kept pointing out walls that had been damaged or gargoyles that were missing, but Hermione wished he wouldn’t. His experience last year was so dramatically different to hers – no worse, no better – that she almost felt like they had just met.
But then she understood that everyone was different. Dean was more subdued; Neville was more confident; only Ginny seemed to have retained most of her normal self. And she, Hermione? Had she changed?
‘I must say I’m delighted to see you back, Miss Granger,’ McGonagall said to Hermione’s surprise ten minutes later, when the Heads of Houses were distributing timetables. ‘Potter and Weasley’s absence is hardly shocking, sadly, but I do think you deserve to have something to show for six years’ work.’
‘Thank you, Professor.’
McGonagall sighed, her nostrils flaring as she looked around the Hall. She tapped Hermione’s timetable so it gradually filled with subjects.
‘I was actually wondering if we could have a word later this week, Miss Granger.’
‘A word? Of course, professor.’
Professor McGonagall nodded appreciatively, then sighed, handing Hermione her timetable.
‘Seventh year will be a small class this year, I’m afraid, what with sixth years leaving here and there and sevenths from last year not considering a proper education a priority.’
‘Yes, I had noticed, Professor,’ Hermione answered, looking down at her eggs and bacon with a rising bile in her throat. Professor McGonagall handed her the timetable with a sympathetic look in her eyes and proceeded on to Neville, whom she greeted rather more warmly than ever before.
To prevent the tears from spilling, Hermione looked down at her timetable and saw that her first lesson was Potions. This did not help the prevention of tears at all, and instead she distracted herself by looking up at the sky at the very moment owls came bursting through the windows. She searched hopefully for Pigwidgeon, but there was no tiny creature to be seen amidst the barn owls. Quickly drying her eyes, she argued with herself that this was for the better; she would not have been able to stand post from Ron today of all days.
She stood up and swung her bag over her shoulder, waiting for the others to finish. They looked at her confusingly.
‘Aren’t you coming? Potions first,’ she said, double-checking her timetable.
‘Uh – I dropped Potions in sixth year, remember?’ Neville muttered, his ears turning red.
‘Oh,’ Hermione said, looking round at Ginny and Dean.
‘I was sick of all those Slughorn parties, Hermione, I quit it last year,’ Ginny said grudgingly, stirring syrup into her porridge. ‘I’ll see you in Charms though.’
Not waiting to hear what Dean had to say, and furious for being the lone Gryffindor in Potions, Hermione marched out the Great Hall. Thankfully, the anger drove out any source of misery, and by the time she reached the Potions dungeon, she was feeling rather more ferocious than sad.
Ernie was already waiting outside, and he greeted Hermione pompously. He had not changed the slightest, Hermione was pleased to see, although she was a little disconcerted that they were the only two attendants of the class – the idea of having to sit through two hours of Ernie’s competitive nature was a little off-putting.
‘Don’t worry, a few Ravenclaws should be along, and Justin is joining us too,’ he said reassuringly, correctly interpreting Hermione’s quizzical look.
‘Justin Finch-Fletchly? I thought –‘
‘Well, he’s a Muggleborn, isn’t he? He went into hiding last year. When he came back, he said he thought Potions was useful, he had to brew loads of Polyjuice to meet Amelia in secret without getting recognised.’
‘Amelia?’ Hermione exclaimed, aghast.
‘Amelia Bones, yeah, they’ve been going out for a while now.’
Hermione was surprised by how much this news cheered her up. She loved the fact that there had been another life outside her own last year, that old Hogwarts gossip still subsisted. She was even smiling when four Ravenclaws took their seats on the other side of the room – all a year younger than she – looking a little haughtily at her and Ernie, who had just been joined by Justin. He gave Hermione a friendly handshake, grinning toothily.
‘Well!’ Slughorn said, clapping his hands together in a jovial way so that his double chin wobbled dangerously. ‘At least we have managed to retain some kind of decent number of pupils this year, despite recent events.’ He looked around, counting. ‘But aren’t we missing -?’
His lingering question was answered in the form of Draco Malfoy, who had walked in the classroom. He took the only available table at the very back of the classroom, avoiding everyone’s eyes and slouching as far back in his chair as possible.
‘Ah,’ said Slughorn, almost a little nervously. ‘Well – then – shall we – um – take out your books and commence the reading on page eleven, please –‘
Hermione pulled out her textbook, seizing the opportunity to cast Malfoy a curious look. He was sitting at the table directly behind her. It was the first time she had seen him up close, properly, since before the Final Battle. He was not exactly pale, but rather a sickly yellow, like someone who had not seen sunlight for years. He looked very thin and woebegone, and his face looked almost grimy, surely because he seemingly had not shaved in a week. Even as she were looking, Malfoy raised his head and returned her gaze; there were such unexpected hatred in his eyes that she wrenched her head around and was surprised at how hard it hit her.
She determinedly fixed her eyes on the instructions to make a Snore-Prevention Potion, but her mind was wandering. Hermione wished she had not looked at Malfoy.
The brewing was more tedious than she remembered, although perhaps this was because Ron and Harry were not there to entertain her. Ernie was concentrating so hard on his potion that his face was quite red halfway through the lesson, and Justin, conversely, seemed to care little for his raspberry potion, which was supposed to be lilac. At the end of the hour, Hermione bottled her results and brought it up front to Slughorn’s desk as the first; the rest of the pupils were still stirring.
‘Well done Miss Granger,’ Slughorn said cheerfully, taking the flask from her and scribbling her name on it. ‘And - ah.’
Malfoy had slouched up behind her. He held out his hand and passed on his potion. His wrist was very thin. Hermione suppressed a shudder at the prominent bones and the pallor of his skin. He ignored her.
‘All right, if you’ll just wait till the end of the lesson then,’ Slughorn went on, his tone a little uncertain.
Malfoy narrowed his eyes but said nothing. He turned away from the desk. Hermione took a step back and avoided his gaze. She did not want to see the hatred in his cool eyes again.
‘So he didn’t say anything through the whole lesson?’
‘Well, you wouldn’t really expect him to, would you.’
Hermione shrugged. She and Ginny were sitting on their separate beds, pyjama-clad, musing over their first day back. Hermione put her arms around her legs and hugged her knees to her. She thought about how odd today had been without Ron. Her stomach clenched a little.
‘It’s a bizarre change, I guess. He was always gloating and bullying,’ Ginny said, whipping out a Chocolate Frog from her bedside table and looking at the Famous Wizard Card. ‘Dumbledore again.’
‘Not in sixth year, he wasn’t,’ Hermione answered absent-mindedly.
‘Dumbledore?’ Ginny said, surprised. Then, catching on, ‘Oh, Malfoy. Maybe not. Who cares, anyway. Dean said the funniest thing to me at lunch.’
Ginny launched into the joke Dean had told her, but Hermione was not so eager to move on from the subject of Malfoy. She played with a loose thread in her bedspread so Ginny would not catch on to the fact that she was not listening. It was beyond her why Malfoy had come back. Truly, it was. So many people had expressed after the War what a catalyst it had been, a marker for change, a beginning of a new life. That was why so few people had elected to return to Hogwarts. Of all of them, Malfoy would surely be the most eager to part ways and seek retribution elsewhere? Why start in so familiar, so memorable a place as Hogwarts?
It was not even as if exams had ever been of any use to him. He had always looked down on lessons and rules and prefects, always hated boundaries. He had sought greater challenges in more evil ways. Hermione was mystified.
‘- I couldn’t stop laughing, I was in stitches.’
‘Hilarious,’ Hermione said, forcing a smile. ‘By the way, Ginny, you might not want to encourage Dean too much.’
‘What do you mean?’ Ginny’s smile had faltered a little, the look in her eyes challenging.
‘It’s just… don’t make light of his feelings, okay?’
‘Dean,’ Hermione deliberated, planning her words strategically, ‘Dean has that look in his eyes sometimes, you know? Like he hasn’t fully… hasn’t fully gotten over the fact that you and he…’
‘Oh, come on, Hermione,’ Ginny scoffed, rolling her eyes and placing her Famous Wizard card on her bedside table, where Dumbledore winked. ‘It’s been ages.’
‘But he hasn’t been with another girl since –‘
‘It’s none of your business anyway, Hermione,’ Ginny interrupted, irritated. ‘Just leave it.’
‘Fine,’ Hermione snapped, watching Ginny get up and walk to the adjoining bathroom. Hermione closed the curtains around her, annoyed. Ginny really was rather ignorant when it came down to things, almost deliberately oblivious to her effect on others. It was easy for her, Hermione thought, trying to get comfortable and punching her pillow into its preferred shape. She was gorgeous, she could have any man she wanted… And anyway, she had one of the most famous men in the wizarding world… Hermione was not Ginny… Hermione had to treasure Ron…
And she did, she mused sleepily, yawning, she did…