"Last chance, " Ginny says, holding the head girl badge out to Hermione. Hermione gives an indelicate snort and pushes Ginny's outstretched hand away.
Ginny sighs and looks out the window of the train, watching the Scottish countryside fly by. "It's so weird to be going back to Hogwarts without them. I wish they were here."
"Both of them?" Hermione sounds skeptical.
"Yes," she says, "Even my most annoying brother." Then, after a small silence, "Sorry."
Hermione doesn't mind the reference to Ron, though, and she smiles at Ginny. "It's OK, really," she says. The breakup was surprisingly anticlimactic. She had used the excuse of their lives going separate ways, with herself going back to Hogwarts to get her NEWTS and with Ron starting auror training at the ministry. But really it was just a lack of chemistry. "And I wish they were here too," she said, "both of them."
"Really?" says Ginny, surprised.
"Of course," says Hermione, a little exasperated. "They're my best friends. More importantly, I think it was completely unacceptable that the ministry accepted them into the auror program without their NEWTS! And before you say 'but they defeated Voldemort' just hear me out. A lot of that was just brave, dumb luck. Harry and Ron are both incredibly brave, but bravery doesn't make up for a lack of knowledge. I just really hope they don't get themselves killed before they realize that. Honestly I'm disgusted by the Minister, so desperate to have the 'chosen one' on the payroll he's willing to risk their lives!"
Ginny has her hands up in mock surrender at this point. She knows that once Hermione gets going you just have to let her get it all out. While Hermione lists all the areas where Harry and Ron are lacking academically, and all the various ways that lack of knowledge could get them killed, Ginny studies her friend.
Hermione has cut her hair dramatically short, like a boy's cut, really, and it suits her. Her eyes look a little bigger, and her high cheekbones are more pronounced. She has a long, graceful neck. She looks much older than her eighteen years, especially when her expression is dark and thoughtful, which is pretty much all the time now.
Hermione has stopped ranting now and is staring at Ginny, awaiting some kind of response. "I like your hair like that," says Ginny. She is stroking her own long red hair as she says it.
Hermione rolls her eyes at this, but she is smiling. Her smiles are rare these days, and Ginny is happy to see it. She wants to prolong this moment, so she asks Hermione a question that will make her happy to answer. "What are you taking this term?"
Hermione lights up, right on cue. "Transfiguration, charms, defense against the dark arts, astronomy and divination with Firenze, arithmancy, ancient runes, and potions." The last word she says carefully, delicately, as if it tastes bad in her mouth. "I'm also going to study for care of magical creatures and muggle studies on my own, those shouldn't be hard to pass."
"Potions?" says Ginny. "Has Snape recovered then?"
"Professor Snape, really, Ginny, if you're going to be head girl-"
But Ginny cuts her off this time, "Okay, Okay, has Professor Snape recovered then?"
"I assume so," says Hermione, "He left St. Mungo's over a month ago." Hermione doesn't look at Ginny as she says this, and the light in her face has evaporated, leaving her features unnervingly blank. Ginny has watched this transformation in Hermione over the summer- Hermione has been pulling inside herself, leaving the outside perfectly and mysteriously blank. It is deeply troubling to Ginny.
The girls change into their school robes as the train approaches Hogwarts. Ginny pins on her Head Girl badge. "I can't believe they didn't come looking for you," Hermione says, "You were supposed to be in the carriage with the rest of the prefects."
Ginny smirks. "They're all terrified of you. As long as you're in here with me they won't come looking."
Hermione quirks an eyebrow at this and snorts again. Ginny is trying to work out who this expression reminds her of when the train begins to slow.
Hermione steps off the train onto the platform, looks up at the castle, and is assaulted by a series of powerful emotions all at once. She has been preparing for this moment for weeks now, and keeps her face blank. But inside she is weeping, and laughing, and terrified. She sees that the damage to the castle has been repaired, and she is full to bursting with pride. As they exit the carriages she can't help but notice how many children can see the thestrals, and it makes her ache acutely for each and every one of them. As they enter the great hall, she is trembling despite her best efforts. She reaches out and takes Ginny's hand. Together, they enter Hogwarts for their final year.