The cigarette sat between Hermione's fingers, the smoke carried away by the air currents as muggles past by, most of them giving her dirty looks.
"You shouldn't do that. It's bad for your health," one man in a beige trench coat said like she'd never heard that before.
"Uh huh," she replied, taking another drag and looking down at her feet as she leaned against the stone exterior wall of King's Cross station. "Just consider yourself lucky I showered," she mumbled to no one in particular.
She wasn't sure she was ready to do this, but she had to, ready to return. The last couple of months, she'd sat in her living room, watching TV and eating ice cream—and smoked. She'd picked up the habit accidentally at a pub one night, and that had been that. Perversely, she liked it.
It had been after she'd returned her parents to Australia, where they had loved their life inordinately. It was the kind thing to do for everyone involved. While the forgetting spell on them had been removed, the removal hadn't been entirely successful. They forgot her—every time she left the room. It all just got a bit ridiculous after a while, but war reparations, Malfoy money mostly, had paid off the mortgage on the house so it was hers now. So she could sit in it forever and eat ice cream.
Except now it was time to go back and do their final year. Mandated it had turned out.
Another drag and she dropped the cigarette and ground down on it with her foot until its innards spilled out. A deep sigh escaped her and she walked into the main concourse with its bright show signs, sandwich places and magazine shops displaying every muggle celebrity there was.
Muggles hurried, rushing past her as she slowly made her way to platform nine. It was last calls for a train to Glasgow and for a moment Hermione wondered if she should just hop on it, but they would find her if she did.
Like a ghost, she walked through the wall and emerged on the other side of London, the one she'd been avoiding as much as possible. Scared first years stood with their parents, scared older students stood alone. A few were chatting in groups, but it was subdued in comparison to other years—normal years.
Familiar faces stood around her, but no one approached, except Neville. She forbid herself from thinking of the faces that weren't there.
"Hey, Hermione," Neville said. His eyes were caught by her neon yellow anorak.
"Like my jacket."
"Won't get lost with that on, will you? We'll always know where you are."
"Yep," she said and noticed a hush descend across the platform. "Harry?" she asked.
Turning, Hermione watched him approach. Ron behind him. People stopped and stared. It was common. They had been doing it throughout the war and it hadn't really stopped since.
"Hey," Hermione said as they arrived by her and Neville.
"Alright, Mione?" Ron asked.
"Yeah," she replied.
"How'd your war account go?" Harry asked. The war accounts were still going on, requiring people to come to the Wizengamot and recount their whole experiences from the war. They'd all been required to do it under the influence of Veritas serum. Hers had taken two days, and her account had been broadcast to anyone who wanted to listen. Harry's had taken longer. The whole country had been listening in, discussing and debating the things he'd revealed. There was a particularly fierce discussion about the destruction of the Elder wand, many feeling it hadn't been his right to make that decision.
"Ginny's here," Ron said and Hermione looked over to spot the red-haired girl approach with her arms tightly crossed to her chest. "Mum and Dad must have brought her. She hasn't stopped crying all summer. Like, never stops. They had to get people in to see to her."
Harry didn't look over, Hermione noted. Their relationship had faltered and failed quite a while ago, and it never recovered.
As they watched, Ginny was absorbed into her group of friends and out of sight.
The large engine of the locomotive shuddered and groaned, building up heat to carry them away to Hogwarts. For Hermione, it felt like a step back into the past, but one couldn't step back. They couldn't just go back and simply pick up where they'd left off—like nothing had ever happened.
"Although, I suppose me and Ginny are in the same year this year," Ron said as if he found the idea disturbing. "Think we'll have to share classes?"
"Probably," Harry said, clearly bored as he yawned.
"Nothing quite makes you feel like a failure like your younger sister catching up with you."
"Hey, we won the bloody war," Neville said with a surprising degree of anger.
"Okay, Neville, calm down. No one is saying we didn't," Ron replied.
A profound hush descended on the platform and they all looked over to see Malfoy appearing. Blond as always, wearing black, as always. His mouth drawn so tight it looked like a line across his face.
"Well, that git made it," Ron said grouchily. "Would have thought they'd locked him away."
"He was sent for re-education, apparently," Neville said.
This was news to Hermione, but then she hadn't paid any attention to what had been happening in the wizarding world. Instead, she had spent her time watching half-naked people on an island turning on each other, figuring it was more or less the same thing.
No one approached Malfoy. He stood alone on the platform. Persona non grata, it seemed. Even his own crew wouldn't go near him. Whether it was the death eater mark on his arm, or the fact that some probably felt he had betrayed them in some way, she didn't know. No one except the outright loonies was sorry Voldemort was dead. Everyone who had supported him lamented the duress they had been under. But only Draco had that tattoo, and they all knew it. It meant he was the one they all needed to distance them from, the representation of how they were different from him.
"Serves him right," Harry said darkly. "Why the fuck did they ask him to come back?"
Hermione found she didn't actually care about Malfoy and him being there. Whatever problems Malfoy had had with her in the past, and visa versa, she just didn't care.
His neatly trimmed hair shone slightly as he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the train. She wondered if he was being forced to be there just like them. Obviously, he wouldn't choose this, would he? Then again, what option did he have? Be hidden away in his manor for the rest of his life? Perhaps it was better for him to just face the music sooner rather than later. He might have avoided Azkaban, but he wasn't getting off people's opinions.
"His father's out already," Harry said.
"What?" Hermione replied, actually shocked. "Out of Azkaban?"
"He made it a condition of handing over the reparations. They couldn't get into the Malfoy vaults otherwise."
"Those slimy bastards," Ron said. "There's a family that just should have died. Weasel themselves out of everything. Lucius Malfoy will brown nose everyone, trying to convince them he was an innocent victim in all this, just like last time."
"He has too many vested interests to draw on," Harry said a little cryptically. "Too many people lose money with his in prison. That's the real reason he's out."
The true undercurrents in wizard society were laid bare in times like these, and along with everywhere else, money talked. Lofty ideals were for politicians to spout, but the nitty gritty of it, Malfoy's wealth forgave him every sin.
Hermione desperately wanted another cigarette, but she would have to walk all the way out of the station again, and she simply wasn't that committed. Once the train was going, she could shut the door and open the window, sneak one while the train monitor was distracted.
"All aboard," the conductor called and everyone turned to the train, groups of people forming around the steps up at the ends of the carriages.
Neville walked over to get in the queue, but she, Harry and Ron stayed where they were. She really didn't want to do this, but if she was to have a future in the wizarding world, she had to. It was time to bite the bullet, or she would just turn into a mole in her own house, doing nothing but watching crap TV shows and eating unhealthy food. This was necessary, even she knew it, but it didn't mean she wanted to.
"Once more into the breach again, my friends," Harry said.
"That's Shakespeare, Harry. I'm impressed. What have you been doing?"
"I heard it somewhere."
"What?" Ron said with confusion.
"Nothing, Ron," Hermione mumbled. "Muggle stuff."
"Shall we?" Harry suggested, indicating toward the train.
Hermione only grunted in response as she walked toward the shrinking lines to get onto the train.