Hermione told herself she had arrived early because she was too excited to wait. Resuming her education, finishing what would have been her seventh year and graduating were all important to her. Still important, even after everything.
She had Apparated to Hogsmeade then walked to Hogwarts a week before classes started because she would be attending alone.
Oh, there would be plenty of other students. With Voldemort finally, blessedly certainly dead, everyone could breathe again. Classes would be smaller than before the war but there would be enough people returning for the school to come alive again.
But not Harry or Ron.
She had spent the summer pretending the absence of her friends wouldn't bother her. Ginny would be there and Neville was pretty sure he'd come back. Many others too. She wouldn't be alone.
It wasn't the same, though. Being without the boys felt like she had lost a limb. Bare is the back of a brotherless man, according to the proverb. Her back felt cold as though a threatening wind blew.
She had tried to persuade them without sounding too pathetic but both had their hearts set on becoming Aurors. Charging like lions into the exciting new job. And lacking the final polish that actually finishing their schooling would give them.
Hermione was not going to risk jumping blind into a future career. She wanted to accomplish so much; she had a list feet long. Mucking that up by skiving off was not sensible. However tempting the prospect of moving on with her life, she was going to properly finish this chapter first.
Professor Sprout saw her as she wound up the path from the village and waved to her. Hermione diverged to join the Herbologist, grimacing as her shoes crackled over broken glass hidden in the grass.
"Mind your step." The portly witch cautioned. "The greenhouses are frankly ruined. A combustion hex got into the seed store, smouldering away for days." She sighed. "I had thought we'd managed fairly well. Not unscathed but nothing too dire."
"Who opened the seed store?" Hermione knew enough about blast physics, oddly enough from the disaster documentaries her father liked to watch, to imagine what had happened. The sudden change in pressure differential between the slow fire inside the storage shed and the open air would've been explosive.
"One of the elves, luckily. He blinked away only minus his eyebrows. There's not a window left on this side of the castle." Professor Sprout batted a gloved hand at the ruins. "After that, we checked everything. So much magic, the wards are in shambles."
"Will it be safe for the children?" She felt an old woman at eighteen.
"Hogwarts is healing itself. I dare say it'll make every effort to keep its students out of harm's way." Casting a glance at the young witch, Pomona ventured. "Why don't I show you to the Eighth Year dorm then you can have a look around for yourself."
"Thank you." Hermione didn't confess aloud that she planned to pry into every nook and niche. She was sure the Professor heard what she didn't say.
The wing where the older students would be staying was new. Or rather, it was old but had not been there previously. Whatever the school was doing to fix itself had revealed a great many forgotten rooms.
"There's a statue of Epona in the Divination Tower now. Sybill thinks it's a portent." Professor Sprout opened the carved door and stepped aside so Hermione could admire the high arched ceiling. Dark and strung with tiny lights, it sparkled like the night sky. "I haven't told her about the statue of Pan in the kitchen."
"More a pun than a portent, possibly." Hermione surveyed the ebony furniture, the silver throw rugs and the indigo cushions. "Gothic."
"It is a bit. Feel free to cheer the place up if you fancy. There'll be about a dozen of you to start. We're hoping for more. No one is sure about anything yet." She had written to all her Hufflepuffs personally to reassure them and their parents. "There've been a great many transfers to Beauxbatons."
"Not surprising. I heard a lot of Muggle-borns have left the magical world entirely." She couldn't blame them. But having fought so hard to prove herself as a witch, nothing could make her leave now.
It seemed Professor Sprout had nothing to say to that and made her departure with a sad smile. Hermione sat down on one of the chaises. She slid around a little trying to get comfortable and wondering whether languishing was necessary. Maybe if she swooned the pretentious sofa would feel less unwelcoming.
For no particularly sensible reason, Hermione flopped down with her legs trailing off the chaise in an artistic faint. Not a success, even with a cushion wedged under her hip. She got up and went to investigate the bedrooms.
Wizarding etiquette was such that once you were of age, what you did in private was entirely your concern. There were heavy locks on the doors of each suite but no wards and the rooms were ranged together along a single hallway.
It was probably paranoia that made her pick a room further down the hall. There was possibly some psychological study that would reassure her she wasn't being unduly nervous. She still felt silly not picking the first room.
The fourth door on the right led into an airy chamber with dove grey walls, two large arched windows and a massive oak desk. Two doors concealed behind bookcases led to the bedroom and the bathroom respectively.
Hermione made herself unpack everything she had brought in both her book-bag and the small beaded bag she took everywhere with her. She was trying very hard not to be obsessive about carrying the dainty purse with her at all times. Even when she thought she had left it behind, she would often find it in a pocket or strung on her belt.
As part of convincing her subconscious the war was over, she had emptied the bag completely one day in summer. Laying everything out in the Burrow garden, Hermione took stock of what had been her existence. Her first thought had been 'I picked up a lot of stuff', which was an acceptable thought to have.
Her second thought was 'I know what else I need' and she had been halfway through composing a mental list before she caught herself. So she had returned everything she had borrowed, threw out or donated anything she wouldn't need at Hogwarts and cleaned the rest.
Only then did she allow herself a trip to Diagon Alley. The Weasleys had gone with her, enjoying a day out full of ordinary. Change still felt raw. Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour was derelict and Ollivanders hadn't reopened yet.
"I'm not running a bazaar." Hermione said to the clutter leftover after she had filled the wardrobe and bookcases. The desk was at capacity too. She had over-prepared, which did not surprise her. Truly believing she wouldn't need to run and rough it again was... "Fucking difficult."
Muttering to herself, Hermione put back into the beaded bag all the 'useful' objects she had brought with her that were unnecessary to a schoolgirl. A sane schoolgirl, anyway.
Now she had a normal room in which to do normal, ordinary scholastic activities. And no one needed to know she had snuck off to a Muggle camping store to buy a probably-not-sensible amount of supplies.
Shaking her head at herself, Hermione left her room to take a walk around the school to familiarise herself with any changes to the layout. If anything was going to upset her, she wanted to find out before the other students arrived so she wouldn't embarrass herself in public.
It hurt. It hurt to remember. The elves had scoured the stones clean but she could still see the blood. Hermione walked the corridors, deliberately retracing her steps during the battle. At least the smell was gone; the stink of smoke and curses and fear.
The Great Hall was empty. Walking into the centre of the cavernous chamber, Hermione felt her heart rate spike. Just adrenaline. She consciously breathed slowly trying to ride out her body's fight or flight response.
She jumped when a door creaked, whirling around with her wand in her hand and already casting a Shield Charm. To protect her from rusty hinges. Hermione stamped over to the door, opened and shut it, rattled the knob and then noticed the change in air pressure.
The witch took three quick steps back. She watched a whirl of dust spin across the flagstones as an old ward discharged itself harmlessly into the ambient. Magic was almost a living thing. You could compare it to electricity or water. It wanted to balance itself, to move to a lower energy state.
And apparently frightening the daylights out of passers-by was a by-product. Hermione sighed, putting her wand away. The massive release of magic during the battle had destabilised the fabric of the school. It would take time for Hogwarts to bleed off the excess.
Hermione resumed her walk feeling that she needed some air. She went down to the lake and picked up a water-smoothed pebble to skip across the water. Her first one jumped five times, a fluke that made her laugh. She bent to find another when she noticed she was not alone.
"Good afternoon, Granger." The pale, brown haired boy sitting under the tree was polite. Hermione straightened and stared at him trying to place his face.
"Nott." She realised with surprise. The rising embarrassment of having forgotten an acquaintance's name ebbed suddenly. She didn't know him well. She didn't want to know him. Or rather, he had never wanted to know her. "You were arrested."
"I was." Theo confirmed, noting the instinctive way the witch shifted her balance. Not to run, no. She was standing ready to fight though all she had in her hand was a small round stone. "Probation, subject to attendance and supervision at Hogwarts."
"How many Slytherins are coming back?" Hermione asked, aware this was already the longest conversation she'd had with the pure-blood.
"Not many." He didn't explain why and she didn't ask. Theo expected her to leave. The tension between them made the air taste like ozone.
"What are you reading?" It was a civil question because she was going to have a civil damn year with her peers. Idle conversation and networking, not paranoia. That was the plan so Hermione made the effort to seem casual.
"The Decline of Pagan Magic, by Bagshot." Theo placidly displayed the cover of the book as though he had never had his library ransacked by Aurors or had been forced to justify every title contained therein.
"No, you're not. I've read that book." Hermione took a step forward then paused, aware she was accusing him. Carefully matter-of-fact, she clarified. "The illusion on the cover is good but Decline of Pagan Magic has red thread in the binding. Yours has blue. Bathilda Bagshot insists on red. She switched publishers when they cocked up a print run."
"You truly are a swot." He was impressed. Theo dismissed the charm. "Nex Hex: Venoms and Antivenins. It's on the Restricted List."
"Not if you're enrolled or have applied for a medical apprenticeship." Her reply was automatic. Hermione had checked, as she too owned a copy of the book. "Madam Pomfrey has the forms in her office. The same applies for the Vivlio Toxinon, doggy translation from Greek notwithstanding."
"You don't have to try so hard, Granger. I can see your fingers twitching." Theo agreed with her on the shoddy transliteration of the fascinating book on toxins, but seeing her fidget trying not to curse him was unpleasant.
"I'm not." Hermione looked down at her hand still holding the pebble. She let go of it then stared as the whitish stone hung in the air, rotating slowly. In her peripheral vision she saw Nott jump to his feet and she flung out an arm. "Stay back! It's a discharge effect."
"Get away from the damn thing!" Theo felt his gaze begin to blur as the magic around them effervesced. "Granger, step back slowly."
"I can't move." The witch tried shifting her feet but they felt stuck as though the air had suddenly thickened. She looked around, trying to find the nexus of the release then saw something alarming. "The water's rising!"
Sucked up by the change in magical background energy, the surface of Black Lake was bulging upwards. As Hermione watched, the distortion increased in height like a storm surge. She tried to move her arm to draw her wand but she was mired.
Theo could move. Certainly, he could have run. Instead, he pulled out his wand and lunged towards Hermione, grabbing her arm as he cast a water-breathing spell on them both. All the while hoping no one was spying on them as he was specifically banned from using magic on other students.
The dome of water collapsed with a thunderclap, swamping the pair on the shore. The force of it bowled them over, swirled them around then spat them out on the grass beyond the beach. Magic crackled, scintilla dazzling as though they were in an aurora before winking out leaving them in darkness.
"Bugger." Theo remarked, blinking as lights danced behind his eyes.
"I agree." Hermione coughed and tried to push herself upright. She wasn't sure which way was up. There seemed to be too much sideways so she lay down again on the wet lawn. "Do you smell something?"
"Lightning." He agreed, rolling onto his back with a squelch of his sodden sweater. Screwing his eyes shut, Theo tried to keep his rebellious lunch in its proper place. "Or ozone, rather. I smelled it before."
"We'd best go tell someone." She got onto her knees, hair dripping into her face. Hermione felt like she'd been dredged up from the bottom of the lake rather than washed by it. Some sort of tepid Pre-Raphaelite heroine.
"I'll let you do that. I'll stand behind you and nod at the right moments." Theo had returned to finish his education because the alternatives were much less pleasant. He did not want to draw attention to himself.
"Honestly, why am I always the one..." Hermione stopped. No longer dazzled, she had realised something. The sparkling motes above them were not the firefly residue of the magical outburst. "The stars are out."
Opening his eyes, the pure-blood wizard stared at the constellations above them. They were the correct stars for this latitude, which allayed a visceral panic that they had Apparated. Being on a leash to the Dark Lord had left Theo with a lingering dread of magical transportation.
"It's full dark." He turned his head towards the west. The mountains made it difficult to judge astronomical twilight but all of what he could see was velvet black. There was no moon but constellation Delphinus was at about forty degrees to the horizon. "Approximately ten o'clock post meridiem."
"The stasis effect could account for a temporal dilation." She rubbed her temples. "Or we could have been lying unconscious for hours and simply not been found."
"Forgive the innuendo, but how wet are you? I'm saturated." He sat up, too shaky yet to salvage his dignity.
"Soaking." Hermione said primly, hiding a wry smile. It was a useful question all sniggering aside. "We can't have lain in the open and not dried off a little." She cast a drying charm on herself. Now she just looked dishevelled. "Still have your wand?"
"Yes, thankfully." Theo found the length of walnut half up his sleeve. It was a new wand, at Ministry insistence. He had only recently adjusted to it. He cast a drying charm as well then sniffed at a sleeve. "Delightful eau du lac."
"Regnilda's Refresher gets rid of the dank smell." Flicking her wand, the charm effected both of them and a fair-sized circle of grass eliminating the fishy scent. "Doesn't stop you being tracked, unfortunately."
"There's a series of Romanian hunting charms that work well. Specifically made to foil werewolves." As they seemed to be chatting, Theo ventured the information as he negotiated his way to vertical. He could feign normality with the best of them.
"Would've been handy." Hermione patted herself down then got to her feet. Stumbling a little, she bumped into him and flinched when he caught her elbow. "Don't." She hissed. "Let go."
"My apologies." Theo said stiffly, releasing his grip.
"I don't like being restrained." The explanation was unnecessary. They both knew why. "It's nothing personal."
"Of course not." The starlight was sufficient to illuminate his smirk.
"Don't take that tone with me." Hermione snapped back. "I've had to put up with your sneers for years. If I had a problem with you, believe me, I would tell you."
"At length, with notes." Theo retorted, regretting it as soon as he had spoken. Baiting the brains of the Potter Triumvirate was unwise if he wanted to go unregarded.
"Children, if I could intrude for a moment." The voice called out, interrupting Hermione's burgeoning diatribe. Witch and wizard turned in the direction of the approaching stranger, instinctively standing back-to-back. Neither had fought alongside the other but both had fought too often.
The speaker muttered a spell, causing the light on the end of his wand to expand into a soft golden radiance. He stood before them in jodhpurs and a tweed coat with a pinned up left sleeve. He might have passed for a Muggle except for the curled toes on his boots.
"Silvanus Kettleburn, Professor and dragon-wrangler." The middle-aged wizard smiled without showing his teeth, keeping his stance open as though he expected the youngsters to spook and flee. "And who are you?"
Theo and Hermione glanced at each other. The much chewed Professor Kettleburn had retired in their third year. This version of the same was younger. About twenty years younger.