"This is the way the world ends," Hermione Granger quoted to herself. "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."

She wondered what future versions of Hogwarts: A History would say about this.

She wondered if there would BE any future versions of Hogwarts: A History.

No, someone was bound to write about it. Even if it was just to say "On this site was once a school, torn down after the Wizard Wars..."

For the moment, the walls still stood. The gray stones echoed with empty mourning. Only the professors remained at Hogwarts now - the professors and one or two stragglers who had no homes to go back to. Stragglers including, for the moment, Hermione Granger.

It wasn't that she had nowhere to go, exactly. She had her family. She had the Burrow. But...

If she went home, it would be impossible for her to keep secret everything that had happened, and was yet to happen. Her parents would panic. They couldn't stop her from doing what she needed to do, of course, but there would be, at best, painful tension, and at worst, horrible screaming fights. Not what she needed right now.

As long as she stayed away from the house, her parents could just assume she was having a great adventure in her wonderful, magical world. She was an adult now, more or less, and they didn't have to worry about her all the time. Someday, perhaps, she would be able to tell them just what had been going on during her school years. But someday was not now.

The Burrow presented a different set of problems. She'd stayed there many times in the past. Even last summer, when everything had been normal, and she and Ron, Harry, and Ginny had all been just pals. Suddenly everything was more awkward. Going home with Ron as his girlfriend, particularly with all the wedding craziness going on... The twins would tease them mercilessly, Molly would be half the time planning their wedding and half the time going crazy making sure nothing 'improper' happened, and Ron would probably be trying to make sure something improper DID happen.

Hermione smiled. Love. It was such a relief, in these dark times, to be able to say those words to herself. I love Ron. Ron loves me. And it wasn't all about snogging. He made a pretty good shoulder to cry on, too, and she'd needed that lately.

As for being improper... well, she didn't want to die a virgin, but neither did she want to be caught by the entire Weasley clan fooling around in a dark closet. With the house as overcrowded as it was for the wedding, they WOULD get caught. It was inevitable.

Honestly, there wasn't enough ROOM at the Burrow for everyone right now! Not with Fleur's family around and all the preparations... the dresses alone seemed to magically double in size every time anyone looked at them! Hermione wasn't the only girl to put her foot down and insist on staying elsewhere. Ginny, too, had opted to give her room to Gabrielle and the Delacour cousins and remain at Hogwarts until the wedding day. Molly would never have let her get away with it if the overcrowding weren't just THAT bad.

Poor Ginny, Hermione thought. It wasn't really that she wanted to get away from Fleur, even though that's what her mother would think. Ginny might never LOVE Fleur, but like the rest of the family she was coming to accept her. But being crammed in next to Harry, with her family watching them, would be just as awkward as being with Ron would be for Hermione, even if for totally different reasons.

And so both girls had chosen to remove themselves from the situation, just for now. They would work out all the tangled personal relationships later, when they had a bit more space. Now was not the time for fighting. The wedding had to be a celebration of life and love and joy - a balm for all that had come before. And it would be. They would all see to that.

Until then, Hermione would pace the halls of Hogwarts, as restless as a ghost. She didn't see that much of Ginny at the moment. The redhead seemed inclined to "make herself useful", her cheerful helpfulness providing reassurance to the faculty as they worked to get the castle back in order. The school would be ready for fall term, even if the students would not be.

Hermione found that at the moment, she preferred her own company. There had been a few hours of crying alone in her bed, able to sob loudly for a while without disturbing anyone else. And there had been some time spent just sitting on the grass and staring at the sky, thinking about how wide the world really was, outside this tiny little knot of wizards she lived in. There had been some peace in those thoughts. Watching a bird cirling overhead, or a flower turning to catch the sun, you could believe that everything would be all right again.

A Gryffindor could never be content for long to lie among the flowers and dream of a happier future that would happen all by itself.

Hermione walked the halls, her mind filled not with blossoms and wedding veils, but with the mysteries of the past year. If there was a buried secret to be found, she had to be the one to find it. Harry had always been more about charging into a fight than planning things out, and Ron responded brilliantly in a crisis but could be crippled by nerves (or laziness, when it came to studying) beforehand. She was the diligent one. She was the one who figured things out. And now, alone, with all the resources of Hogwarts at her fingertips and no one to interfere - now was the time to get her brain into gear.

Who was R.A.B.?

Where was the locket?

What and where were the other Horcruxes?

What had Snape's plan really been?

Why did he call himself the Half-Blood Prince, when "half-blood" was an insult among the Death Eaters?

What had become of Draco Malfoy?

How could they defeat Voldemort?

What kind of life could they have, when it was done?


What is going to happen to me now?

Draco Malfoy sat alone in a dark room, where he had been roughly escorted and abandoned, without his wand. There were no windows, no lights, no ways to mark the passage of time. He guessed that he had been here for between one and two hours, no more - unless his exhausted body had betrayed him and drifted into sleep between some of those dark moments.

If only I were a real Death Eater. If I had a mask and a robe to hide behind, they wouldn't be able to see...

At least the tears had stopped coming.

If they'd asked him to hurt someone, like Potter The Golden Boy or that obnoxious Mudblood, even the little Weasley girl, he could have done it and enjoyed it. A scare, some broken bones, cutting off a fingertip slowly while they screamed... And they'd spit curses and swear vengeance and try to turn the tables, but that was all part of the game! It was always more fun to push someone who could push back. The greater the challenge, the sweeter the victory.

If they'd asked him to kill Potter... He thought he could have done it. Potter would have fought back. It would have been a triumph to be proud of.

But as he sat here alone in the dark, all he could see was Dumbledore's face. Dumbledore's eyes. Dumbledore refusing to fight. What glory was there in killing an old man who couldn't even resist?

And now he was in the worst position of all. Dumbledore was dead and couldn't protect him - and he'd failed in his task. There was no one left for him on any side.

Thin fists clenched at his sides. "Just kill me now and be done with it!" he yelled, all at once enraged. "Why are you wasting time?"

From the darkness, a familiar voice, silky and sibilant all at once. "Oh, this time hasn't been wasted at all."

Draco whipped his head around frantically, but he could still see nothing. "Prof..." But he wasn't Professor Snape anymore, was he? "Sir?"

Long fingers wrapped tightly around his right bicep. "From now on, Draco, you will call me... Father."

Author's Notes:

Obviously, this is just the beginning! Too many post-HBP stories I've seen start off with a whole pile of immediate revelations - "Of course, RAB stands for X and the locket has to be right over there and Snape was just pretending all along! Now let's all join up and save the day!" But things don't happen that quickly or easily here.

This is just setting the stage - Hermione and Ginny at Hogwarts, Ron and Harry at the Burrow, Malfoy and Snape... somewhere.

And while I am flagging this as Hermione/Snape, I absolutely do not guarantee that it will be a romantic pairing. Just that it will be a story that will largely involve them. They may fall in love, they may kill each other.

Next chapter, we go to Snape's POV, and find out what's going on in that nest of snakes...