In August, Hermione returned to Hogwarts.
It was early evening, midway through the month, when she disapparated from her parents' pretty, modern townhouse to just outside of the school's gateway. She had been sorry to leave the comfortable spare room of the Granger's new residence. It wasn't the room she had grown up in, but then, really, neither was the one in her childhood home. She found that she didn't miss the old room, with its muted pink paper and delicate curtains. It hadn't been her home for years -- not really. Two weeks in the newly purchased London residence, in a normal Muggle bed, without the need for mosquito netting or a ready wand, had been enough for it to ingratiate itself with her.
Still, as her date of her next departure neared, she couldn't help but be excited. Every change was an adventure she welcomed; every new setting was a new opportunity to learn. Hermione gobbled new people and new places with the voracity she had, in her youth, had for books.
"Honestly, Hermione," her mum had said. With her hands on her hips, she had watched Hermione send her packed belongings off with a wizarding courier. "Is it impossible for you to just stay in one place for longer than a fortnight?"
Hermione had shrugged and patted her mum on the shoulder, recognizing the criticism for what it truly was –- an admission that she would be missed. Cate Granger was not a demonstrative woman; Hermione had learnt to read between the lines.
And, so, Hermione left London, not with a childhood reclaimed as much as with a new and fully-formed appreciation for her parents. It was an adult fondness for a man who, each evening, silently passed her the Global section of The Times, without needing to be asked, and for a woman who, though embarrassed by kisses, still worried quietly over the welfare of her only child. Hermione did not burden them with emotional neediness, nor did they unravel her to the half-made character she had been in childhood.
No, that was an experience left to her initial return to Scotland.
It was the smell that she noticed first. The moment the sucking swirl of apparition was cleared from her head, there it was -- the air, that highland air, so different than thick London; than oppressive Kolkata; than Yerushalayim's zing of strange magic, or the gagging-sweet cloy on Ile de la Tortue. It made her head spin, that smell, more than the whirl of apparition normally did; she swayed, trying to reconcile the sensory input of her youth, with her more experienced adult self. For naught, it turned out, as, when she opened her eyes, there was also the green -- oh, the green! She had entirely forgotten how brilliant Scotland was, how very rich the colors were. They were almost suffocating in their intensity. They carried her away –- back, back, back in time, as though she had too enthusiastically spun a Time-Turner. Walking through the boar-flanked gate, she did not feel twenty-two. She felt sixteen again. She felt fourteen. She felt twelve. She felt as though she were seeing it all for the first time and, at the same time, like she had never really left at all.
Inside the gates and up the path, the castle loomed, and, yet, Hermione could not bring herself to go through the heavy doors and shut herself inside just yet. Instead, she turned and crossed the lawn. Hermione followed the outer wall of the school before cutting away, across the grounds. The grass was thick, coarse and tall around the cliffs; it slipped into her thickly-soled leather sandals and slapped sharply against her bare legs. She walked until she reached the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the lake. Against her legs, the wind whipped the white cotton dress that was a perfect choice for muggy London, but too thin for the cooling highland climate. The sky, rather than overcast, was turned a brilliant swirl of orange and yellow by the setting sun. Hermione wrapped her arms around herself against the breeze and turned her face up to the light.
So intent, was she, on the fading warmth, that she startled when a voice said, "I've been expecting you inside, Miss Granger."
Minerva McGonagall was smaller than Hermione remembered -- or, perhaps, she thought, she herself might be bigger. The roll of the accent was softer; it seemed less like the cracking of a whip. But the Professor's face was much the same and there was kindness in it.
"I was distracted," Hermione spoke as an apology and gestured toward the setting sun, the lush green of the hills and the indigo ink of the lake.
"Yes, I've often thought it a shame that the school isn't year-round," Professor McGonagall said. Nodding at Hermione's attempt to smother a smile, she continued, "So that the students could enjoy Hogwarts in the summer, of course. Though, no doubt there would be educational benefits, as well."
"No doubt," Hermione agreed.
The two women stood together until the light of late afternoon gave way to early evening, when McGonagall crisply nodded to Hermione and ordered her to come along inside and see her rooms.
First, she was ushered to a first floor classroom. It was small; there was just enough room to comfortably instruct the ten-or-so students each class would contain. Empty cases lined the walls, waiting for books and props. There was a long, crescent-shaped table with chairs enough for a class. In front of that was a large chalkboard, to the side of which stood an enormous Wizard's Globe.
"Is this what you had in mind, Miss Granger?" Professor McGonagall asked, noting the small smile on Hermione's face.
Hermione moved around the room, already envisioning items on the shelves and writing on the board. She came to a stop by the globe and, standing before it, held her palm out and clearly stated a location. Upon her command, a three-dimensional projection of Greece in relief rotated atop the globe.
The smile grew larger.
"Oh, yes," she said. "This is just what I wanted."
Her personal rooms, office and chambers, were similarly agreeable. The office was on the second floor, near the one inhabited by the rotating cast of Defense instructors. It, like the classroom, was small; though, there was room enough for more cases, a commodious desk and several comfortable-looking chairs. It would do nicely, and Hermione expressed as much.
As pleased as she had been with the classroom and the office, the chambers turned out to be a gift. Originally, she had been offered quarters in Gryffindor Tower, near Professor McGonagall's own. Hermione had demurred, though, requesting that she reside in a more neutral location. As a result, she was taken to an unfamiliar area of the fourth floor.
"You'll find that they are quite precisely at the center of the Houses." McGonagall sniffed at the perceived spurning of her own House. "No individual taking precedence over another."
Hermione, checking to see that her possessions had all arrived, mused, "I don't remember these rooms being here before."
"Nor do I," McGonagall admitted. "You may thank the school, itself, for that. When you sent word that you would require – oh, what was the term you used? Non-denominational, was it? Yes, that you would require non-denominational rooms; here they were."
"It's always a surprise, isn't it?" Hermione asked, a bit breathlessly. "Being here. There's never anything the same for more than a moment."
McGonagall's lips curved slightly down. "I find that there is very little about this place that I understand. Less and less, the more and more years go by."
Her voice had a mournful tone that Hermione couldn't remember having heard in it before. Not for the first time, Hermione wondered at the dedication to service it must have taken for Professor McGonagall to remain at the school after having been denied the position as Headmistress. How she must have loathed the changes the new regime had wrought.
The older witch seemed to visibly shake off her sudden melancholy. "I'll leave you to settle in, then. I'd not forget to set your wards, or you'll find yourself visited by all manner of things."
Though the steps toward the door were brisk, there was a brittleness to McGonagall when she turned back once more and said, "Welcome back. I'm very glad you're here, Professor Granger."
She left Hermione to again wonder at what just a few years had wrought. That more than just time weighed upon Professor McGonagall was a thought pushed aside. The other factors were not ones Hermione cared to contemplate. However, as she settled into her old address, she could not deny that Hogwarts was hardly the same as it had been. Even the staff was so very changed.
The new Headmaster was a surprisingly young wizard -- a rather intensely upright man with, it was said, some distant connection to the Muggle Royal Family. He was a decent enough sort, though, and managed the school entirely competently.
In the place of Argus Filch was a matronly witch, introduced only as Mrs. Abernathy. Unlike Filch, she was not a squib and ruled the hallways as stern housemother, rather than vengeful caretaker. The students were generally quite fond of her, even though detention with her entailed cleaning the most disused and dusty corners of the castle without the aid of magic.
Most surprising was the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. Having completed her first year, Pegeen Cathasaigh was, against form, back for another. A former Auror with a bull-like demeanor, she had an accent so thick that Hermione positively wept for the comprehension of the students.
"Oh, gah! Not you, too," the tall, rangy blonde exclaimed upon Hermione's first greeting of her. "Please, please call me Pegeen. I don't think I can stand it being 'Professor this' and 'Madam that' with one more person. It would be nice if we could be friends, or at least on first names with each other. You're the closest person to my age in this whole bloody castle. Other than Professor Wanker, of course."
And Hermione, of course, did not have to ask who exactly Pegeen referred to. It seemed only Snape was exactly the way Hermione remembered. That is, he was cold, aloof and often hostile. The end of the war hadn't eased his dark mood or changed his sour temperament. Not that Hermione still expected that the absence of fighting and fear would have a miraculous impact on the Potions Master. She had long since been removed from the hope that the defeat of Voldemort meant anything other than a general lessening of intense mortal peril.
Victory had not been a cure for anyone, least of all those who were the most desperately in need of it.
It was over a month since Hermione had last seen Harry. While she hated leaving him alone such and extended period, the time with her family had been long overdue; she had immersed herself completely in the visit. With her first term as a teacher looming, and the tasks of acquainting and reacquainting herself with Hogwarts and its staff, it was the night of the thirty-first before she could steal away.
Harry lived in an unplottable cottage on an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Wales. It had been the mixed-world sanctuary of a Muggle-born wizard who, upon Tom Riddle's initial, meteoric rise to influence, had fled to safety in solitude. Harry rented it fully furnished; so fully, in fact, that there was very little mark of who Harry was on the tiny home.
Then again, that could also be said of the man, himself.
Hermione arrived to find the cottage unoccupied and dark. There were no wards; any ones that Hermione set in place were immediately dismantled by Harry. She'd soon stopped insisting he needed them. The house was small; it didn't take her long to search the rooms. The kitchen was barren, the bedroom Spartan. Only the main room looked lived in. There was an ancient and ugly sofa, threadbare throw-rugs and a fireplace with embers smouldering. In one corner was a spelled record player. The walls were jammed with cases housing hundreds of books and vinyl records, none belonging to the cottage's tenant, but which he had been voraciously consuming since taking up residence.
On the table before the sofa, the remnants of Harry's evening activities were in evidence -- a glass tumbler; an empty bottle of Muggle whiskey, turned over on its side; and a damp, whiskey smelling copy of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Hermione dried the book, banished the bottle and glass, and went out into the night to look for Harry.
She found him lying prone on the beach. The night was cold; autumn freeze came early to the island. A threadbare, brown cardigan was Harry's only acknowledgement of the chill. Hermione crouched beside his form, huffing a sigh of irritation. She might have worried more if not for snores so loud that she could make them out over the wind and the waves.
And, of course, for the countless times prior she had found him like this.
Hermione dropped next to him on the sand, and cradled her head in her own hands. Palms pressed into eye sockets, she sat a long time, thinking of nothing but the roar of the wind and cold sting of it on her exposed ears.
Eventually, she gave in to responsibility and, with little labour, levitated him indoors. After dropping him on to his bed, she retrieved a glass of water, a vial of sobering potion and one for headaches. Depositing them on the table next to Harry's bed, she set herself to the task of waking him.
"Hey! Itchoo!" Harry slurred, when he finally, blearily opened his eyes.
"Yes, Harry, it's me." Hermione uncorked the sobering potion and held it to his lips. "Drink this."
"It's Hermominees." Harry obediently lifted his head and drank.
Hermione rolled her eyes at the slurred butchering of her name. "Yes, it's Hermione." She held the glass of water to his lips. "Sip this."
"There. Now, go back to sleep, Harry. I'm leaving a vial for your headache. You'll want it in the morning."
Ignoring her, Harry said, "Was wondering when you'd show up."
Hermione snorted, indelicately. "So you thought you'd tie one on and catch yourself a bit of hypothermia while you waited? Excellent thinking, Harry. Really, just top-notch."
"Don' be sarcazzic, Miomone. Is not nice. Makes you sound like Snape. All...Snapey, you know."
"Will that make you pay attention? Alright, then." Hermione deepened her voice and slowed her own cadence into a reasonable facsimile of their old Potions Master. "Are you dead from the neck up, Potter? I distinctly remember telling you to shut your eyes and go to sleep."
For her efforts, Harry gave a distinctly un-manly giggle.
"Stay here tonight, Snape-ione," he slurred, taking her hand.
She sighed. "I can't tonight, Harry. I have to go back to Hogwarts."
"Still can't believe you're teaching," he said as the sobering potion began to solidify his enunciation.
Hermione smoothed his hair from his forehead, passing a soothing hand over his scar.
"You don't think I'll be any good at it?" she asked softly.
Harry shook his head vehemently enough to make himself wince. "That's not it. Just that you're young to be teaching there. Can't believe Dumbledore'd let you."
"Oh, Harry." Hermione didn't have the heart to remind him that the Headmaster was too dead to object.
It didn't matter, though. Harry could remind himself of that fact, well enough. His alcohol-loosened body stiffened and, in the low light of his bedroom, his eyes glittered. He released Hermione's hand and rolled over, turning his face from her.
In a clear and sober voice, he said, "I know."