Sometimes, when Hermione was feeling particularly helpless, she would go stand at the base of Dumbledore's white tomb and she would pray. Prayer was different for her now, as a witch in the midst of a war. She didn't exactly miss Sunday morning church with her parents and coming to Hogwarts had shaken her faith in a muggle God. But, it was war time and she felt that it couldn't hurt and so she would talk to Dumbledore and it was, almost, just like the prayers of her youth.
Seventh year had been dreadfully lonely so far. Harry and Ron had not returned as Harry had said. Hermione hadn't wanted to part from them but she simply couldn't drop out of school. It worked out for the best, though. Harry often wrote with questions for Hermione to research. Hermione at school kept the resources of Hogwarts at his fingertips. It was hard, still. Ginny was still inconsolable at the loss of Harry. Hermione was Head Girl and her N.E.W.T. classes kept her busy and listening to Ginny cry only made the loneliness inside her swell.
She'd taken to keeping to herself on her off-hours and going out side to linger on the edge of the boundaries, where she knew she would be alone.
It was Halloween and the clouds above threatened rain. Classes had only just ended and the wooden doors to the Great Hall were closed so Professor Flitwick could decorate for the feast. She knew she ought to be in there helping but she'd needed a breath of fresh air. It was cold, too cold for her skirt without tights and just a sweater vest. She'd left her bag and her cloak in her room and now she wished she'd gotten her scarf out of her trunk.
She didn't really have anything to say to the tomb so she was quiet. Even though she saw the storm gathering, she was surprised when it hit so suddenly and so hard. The main entrance to the castle was up a hill and on the other side. She was already drenched by the time she got to the top of the hill and she raced toward the looming building. She fished her wand out of the pocket hidden in the hem of her skirt and looked around. She had to think. There were several ways to get into the castle – the Marauder's Map had taught her that much but which was closest?
She approached the high stone wall and looked up. She was under a tall stained glass window that depicted the most beautiful Hogwarts founder, Rowena Ravenclaw. Hermione smiled to herself and felt around the wall for the stone that stuck out an inch further than the rest. She tapped her wand against it three times and the stones began to shift until it revealed a dark staircase that was damp and filled with the smell of mildew. She rushed in, grateful to be out of the rain.
The stairs led into the heart of the dungeons, far past the classroom used for potions and even past the Slytherin quarters. She'd studied the map carefully but she'd never actually used this passage before and when the portal closed behind her, she was plunged into darkness.
"Lumos," she whispered and the tip of her wand lit. Soon the stairs ended and she walked into a wide, stone room. There were shackles on the walls and she shuddered. She never knew the term 'dungeon' was so literal. Across the room was a door and through it a narrow hallway that, to her relief, was lit by sconces. A sign of life was appreciated and she quickened here pace. Another door greeted her; it too was closed but she could hear movement on the other side. Her heart sunk and she knew who was most probably on the other side. Steeling herself, she knocked loudly. A few seconds later, the door swung open to reveal professor Snape and what appeared to be his private lab behind him.
"How on earth did you get down here?" he asked, more surprised and curious than angry.
"Are you wet?" he asked, stepping aside so the light from the fire hit her. Her skirt was dripping and she stood in a puddle of water. She'd begun to shiver.
"Rain," she chattered.
"In the dungeon?" he asked.
"Outside," she said and he rolled his eyes but allowed her to enter the room.
"Go stand by the fire, Miss Granger," he said. Snape had been allowed back into his potions position by McGonagall after his name had been cleared by two things – the contents of Dumbledore's pensieve and a prophecy in the Department of Mysteries. Of course, Hermione didn't know the specifics but enough Order members had assured her that he was safe and she had been appeased.
"I got caught in the storm," she said, now that her teeth had stopped clacking and she'd dried her clothes as best she could with her wand. Her hair was still wet and limp but she couldn't be bothered with it.
"Yes, I can see that, but how did you end up here?" he asked. The room was filled with lab tables and simmering cauldrons and shelves lined with ingredients.
"Secret passage," she said. "Under the Ravenclaw window."
"I was unaware of that. How do you know of it?"
She looked away, unwilling to share her secret.
"I see," he said. "No matter."
"How do I get out of this section of the castle?" she asked, eager to get out from under his foot.
"You either go back the way you came or you go through my private chambers," he said.
"Oh," she said. "Sir, I'm sorry. I had no idea."
"Why were you outside?"
The thing about Snape was, Hermione had noticed, that without Ron and Harry, the man was perfectly cordial to her. It was almost more unsettling than unwarranted cruelty. He was doing it now, these almost pleasantries, and she found herself unable to lie to him.
"I was at Dumbledore's tomb, sir," she said and he looked away. She couldn't blame him for not wanting to talk about it. Dumbledore's portrait in the head office still hadn't woken up and McGonagall had told her that all portraits wake up in their own time. She'd told Hermione that the longest wait had been sixteen years. It couldn't be rushed.
"Perhaps you should go get ready for the feast. I'll show you the way out," he said. She nodded, grateful he didn't send her through the rain as he probably would have only a year ago.
"Thank you," she said and followed him out a door and into a sitting room. There was a sofa, another hearth, and a desk. It wasn't spacious but it was bigger than her room as Head Girl. She saw stacks of books and a few other doors that must've lead to the bedroom and bath. He walked briskly and she didn't have time to see much of anything before they were in a hallway. The entrance they'd just stepped out of had disappeared and looked like nothing more than a stretch of hallway.
"Now, straight up that way and up the stairs will take you to the Slytherin's entrance. I trust you can find your way from there," he said.
"Yes," she said. "Thanks again."
"Do try to use proper doorways from now on," he said. Blushing, she hurried away.
A hot shower improved her disposition greatly. Halloween tended to be a casual affair – nothing like the candy fueled holiday of her childhood. There were sweets, of course, but no costumes and no begging. Curfew was extended an hour and usually there was dancing and music in the common room. The excitement was not as high this year as in past years – at least in Gryffindor house. Having their star quidditch players absent made everything seem harsh.
Not really feeling like putting on stiff robes, Hermione put on jeans and a black jumper. She pinned her Head Girl badge to her jumper and Ginny knocked and came in while she was brushing out her hair.
"Hi," she said, sounding rather mopey. "It's raining."
"Yes, I'm aware," Hermione said. She'd decided not to tell anyone about her strange encounter with professor Snape. "What's up?"
"Bored," she said. "We're all just waiting for the bells to sound."
"Ah," Hermione said. "Want to do my hair?"
"Sure," Ginny said and stood behind Hermione who sat in front of her vanity. Ginny braided her hair in two thick braids and finished just as the bells began to ring for the feast.
"Thanks, let's go," she said, knowing she'd have to round up lagging students. By the time she sat down, the food had appeared and people had already tucked in. She sat on the end nearest the High table and helped herself, finding she was hungry. As the sugar entered the bloodstream of the younger students, McGonagall released the students to their common rooms and Hermione hung back to help banish the pumpkins from the ceilings. Most of the staff stayed at the table, sipping coffee or tea and watching Hermione and Flitwick wave their wands.
"Hermione was out by the tomb again," Snape said over the rim of his tea cup to McGonagall.
"That's the third time this week," McGonagall said, sadly.
"I know," he said. "It makes me feel like a right arse."
"You did what needed to be done," she said. "Let the girl grieve."
"I'm tired of grieving," he said.
Making Muggle electronics work within the walls of Hogwarts seemed difficult at first but was easily sidestepped. Seamus had a CD player in his dormitory and Hermione had helped him make it work when they were second years. Magic could be conducted much like electricity, after all. Remus had told her that they used to smuggle gramophones in and a motion spell along with a sound enhancement worked perfectly.
Hermione had brought to school her parent's old VHS player when she'd moved into the Head Girl chambers along with a small, portable television. It hadn't taken much to make it work and she preferred to have it on late at night when she couldn't sleep. She liked old black and white films, and the occasional sketch comedy show. The Halloween feast had made her full and antsy and she definitely couldn't sleep even though it was still fifteen minute minutes before curfew. She had fed her VCR with enough magic to last an hour and the energy it took made her feel sluggish so she laid in bed with all her clothes still on, watching the picture move and failing to chuckle along with the laugh track.
The knock on her door made her jump a little. Ginny tended to let herself in unannounced since she knew the password. She got up and opened the portrait. Professor McGonagall stood there smiling benignly, an expression that stood out terribly on her usually stern face.
"Hello," Hermione said.
"Miss Granger, I was wondering if I could have a moment?" McGonagall asked.
"Of course," Hermione said, and stepped aside to let her in. "Is something the matter?"
"What on earth is that?" McGonagall asked, walking up to the glowing television set.
"A Bit of Fry and Laurie," Hermione said. "I checked the handbook and it didn't say anything about Muggle appliances being forbidden."
"They don't work here, there was no need for a rule," McGonagall said.
"Everything works eventually," Hermione said, stopping the tape. "It just takes some thinking." McGonagall raised an eyebrow but she looked proud.
"Severus says you were caught in the storm," she said, sitting on the loveseat at the foot of the bed. Hermione stood, her socked feet just peaking out from beneath her long jeans. She looked young with her hair in braids and barefoot but when McGonagall looked at her face, she looked every bit her 18 years.
"I'm afraid I intruded on him quite a bit," Hermione admitted.
"I know it must be hard for you without…" McGonagall stopped and smiled that strange, small smile again. "We all make sacrifices for the war."
"Some more than others," Hermione said, thinking of the white tomb, thinking of Harry's last letter, thinking of Snape alone in his dungeon.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked. "I need my brightest witch and Head Girl in the best shape possible."
"I'm not in the habit of letting people down, Professor," she said. "You needn't worry." McGonagall looked as if she was holding something back, but the older witch stood and smoothed her tartan robes carefully.
"You're in the safest place you can be," She said. "Have a good night."
Hermione thought about McGonagall's parting words for a long time after she was left alone. The Order had worried about Hermione's safety before, but it was always when she was with or near Harry Potter. It seems strange to Hermione that they should be fretting over Hermione when Harry was so far away and she was in the castle, living life like nothing was the matter. She changed slowly for bed, pulling on her sweat pants and tank top slowly; the television had long since faded to darkness. She unraveled her hair and extinguished the lights and watched the heavy moon from her open window. She felt gnawingly alone.
November was always bitterly cold at Hogwarts and Hermione wore thick tights and gloves in the hallway between her classes. There was always a bout of cold and flu and Hermione had managed to avoid it until her final year. She woke up on a Wednesday and felt as if Delores Umbridge was sitting on her chest. Sitting up allowed a river of mucus and snot to flow from her nostrils and standing made her dizzy. A look in the mirror showed that she looked about as good as she felt.
"Drat," she said, pulling on her thick robe to ward off the chills. It was an hour until breakfast and so she thought it might be safe to roam the halls in her pajamas and robe since hardly anyone got up earlier than she did. It was freezing out of her portrait and she sniffled her way sadly up to the infirmary. Madame Pomfrey sat at her desk writing out what looked to be order forms for Professor Snape and she looked up when the heavy doors were pushed open.
"Miss Granger!" Madame Pomfrey said, standing. "What brings you here?"
"I feel…" Hermione searched for the correct word. "Icky."
Madame Pomfrey suppressed a smile and walked over to her.
"Children showing up in their robes is always a sign of illness," Pomfrey said. "Have a seat on a bed and I'll look you over." Hermione sunk down gratefully and closed her eyes against the poking and prodding of the mediwitch. Pomfrey's hands felt cool against Hermione's skin and she didn't mind that.
"Miss Granger," Pomfrey called. "Wake up."
Hermione opened her eyes and looked around. She was tucked into the bed and Pomfrey hovered over her with a tray.
"You fell asleep during my exam and I thought it best that you just rest," Pomfrey said. "Your lunch is here."
"Lunch!" Hermione said, sitting up. "Ow."
"Yes, you have a nasty fever and I can't do anything about it properly until you have something in your stomach," Pomfrey said. The lunch tray fit over her knees and she wasn't very hungry. There was a bowl of soup, mostly broth, and a dinner roll.
"What about my classes?" Hermione asked.
"Someone will bring you your assignments, dear, don't worry," Pomfrey said. "Miss Weasley already popped in to see you but you were sleeping."
Hermione ate her broth slowly and was exhausted from the effort. The infirmary was empty save for her and Pomfrey so the mediwitch took her lunch nearby so Hermione wouldn't feel alone.
"I hardly ever get sick," Hermione said, when Pomfrey cleared the tray for her. "Why now?"
"You did get caught in that storm," Pomfrey pointed out. Hermione wondered if every knew about that.
"That was a week ago," she said.
"It still could have compromised your immune system," Pomfrey said. She handed Hermione three vials of potions that didn't look promising. "Take these like a good girl and you'll feel better."
The contents of the vials were terribly bitter and after the first one, she eyed the second and third one warily.
"Go on," Pomfrey said, losing her patience. Hermione plugged her nose for the second and the third one, gratefully, put her right back into a dreamless sleep. It was dark when she woke again feeling vastly improved. On the bedside table was a stack of homework and a get well card from Ginny. Inside it said, "P.S. Get your own potions homework."
Ginny was not one to champion Snape. Hermione asked Madame Pomfrey if she could go.
"Come and get another dose tomorrow," Pomfrey said. "Use the floo if you don't want to go back in your night things." Popping directly into her fireplace was most convenient. She'd missed dinner but had no appetite anyway. A shower washed the infirmary from her skin and she, dressed, wrapped her scarf around her neck. The scarves this year were dark grey with a stripe of gold and red along the fringe. Most students disliked them and had reverted back to the previous year's design but Hermione liked this unobtrusive style.
Snape's office door was firmly closed but she knocked anyway and was just about to leave when she heard him call for her to enter.
"I've come for my assignment, sir," she said.
"You missed a day of brewing," he accused.
"I was ill, sir," she defended.
"I know, I made sure of that myself."
"You visited me?" she asked.
"Hardly. I merely researched your absence."
"Hmm," she said. "I'm sorry I missed it, regardless."
"You'll be behind a day but there isn't a reading assignment. Come in tomorrow after dinner and you may catch up before Friday," he said.
Hermione, shocked at any amount of extra effort on his part, agreed and left before he changed his mind. She felt worse in the morning again and got her second dose, without the sleeping draught and made it through the day feeling moderately well. By the time dinner was finished, she was tired and just wanted to lay down. Still, she made her way down the stairs and entered the classroom. He was there and waited patiently for her to set up her cauldron and he came and sat at her bench. He'd never done that before – always pacing the aisles or sitting behind his dark, wooden desk. She wondered if he was trying to unsettle her on purpose. The instructions were on the board and so she started.
"I know you're tired, Miss Granger, but you can't hurry this one," he said quietly, watching her mince. She breathed and slowed her knife.
"Sorry," she said. He watched her slide her ingredient from the knife into the cauldron and sit down on the stool to adjust the heat and wait. "May I ask you something?"
"I don't promise to answer."
"As a member of the Order, not as my potions professor," she amended.
"All right," he said.
"Why… Why was professor McGonagall so worried for my safety?"
"Did she tell you that?" he asked.
"She said something about the castle being the safest place for me."
"That's always been the case," he said, sitting up straight.
"But Harry isn't even here," she said.
"Potter," Snape spat, sounding more like his old self. "You are connected with the Order and you are a member of this war. We all need protection."
"It felt like something more," she said, "That's all." He smoothed the cuff of one sleeve.
"Add your egg sac," he said. "No explosions tonight."
"Not tonight," she agreed.
"You shouldn't paint yourself always in the shadow of Potter," he said. "I daresay he'd be dead if not for your thirst for knowledge."
"Academically, perhaps, but Harry only really needs Harry."
"I've noticed," he said, dryly. "Counter-clockwise, Miss Granger."
"Sorry," she said.
"Don't apologize; focus." he chastised. They lapsed into silence.
"I feel trapped in this castle," she said, on their next break.
"Is that why you've been outside?"
"You know where I've been?"
"You're the Head Girl. You're noticed when you're gone," he said. "Plus I can see you out the window of the staff room."
"I miss my friends. It's not an active missing, though. I would still be Head Girl, still go to class, still get the flu were they here."
"Your flame is too high," he said and she lowered it. "Go on."
"Do you think more students will die in this war?"
"Yes," he said. "I think I will die and I fear you will as well. But I am not an optimist."
"I feel like," she dropped in her next ingredient. "If Voldemort wins, I'd prefer to die."
"A wise choice. Put on your stasis and finish tomorrow." She did and levitated her cauldron to the side of the room.
"Thanks for the extra time," she said.
"When you find yourself feeling trapped, Miss Granger, come find me. I have something that may help," he said. She left on that ambiguous note.
Hermione almost liked doing her rounds. Her curfew, as Head Girl, was an hour later so she could roam the halls and extract points from students still out. She and the Head Boy, Blaise Zabini, stayed out later at nights and a professor tended to be out, too. Any student daring enough to be out was smart enough not to be caught, however, so Hermione used the time to think.
Sometimes she and Blaise would meet in the kitchen for a late snack. Harry and Ron weren't the only student that had failed to appear for their seventh year. Draco and six other Slytherin seventh years didn't come back. This list included Crabbe, Goyle, and Pansy Parkinson.
Blaise had turned out to be nearly pleasant to her. He was a rich, pureblood who strove for greatness but he didn't cut throats to get there. He tended to use the proper channels like getting good grades, becoming Head Boy, and internships with the ministry. Hermione enjoyed performing their duties together. They both felt a little alone within their own houses but as Head prefects, they could be above petty house rivalries.
This night, though, she wasn't hungry and didn't feel like chatting with Blaise. It was only half past the hour and she stopped at the hourglasses that tallied the house points. Hufflepuff had 126, Ravenclaw had 240, Slytherin had 315 and Gryffindor had 320. Hermione wondered how Hufflepuff always managed to earn one point at a time. She'd never encountered the professor who did that. The stones weren't moving and Blaise had probably skivved off to bed. Hermione sat on the bottom step of the staircase.
"Waiting for delinquents to come to you?" Snape said, stepping out from a shadow of a suit of armor.
"You never know," she said, standing up and smoothing her skirt. She felt caught in the act.
"Mr. Zabini has already retired for the night so you might as well do the same," he said. "It's a quiet night."
"Perhaps," she said. "It's rather cold."
"All this magic cannot keep old stones warm," he agreed. "Goodnight."
"Night, Professor," she said and he watched her disappear up the stairs before he finished his rounds.
In her room, the fire was hot and she couldn't sleep. Snow fell outside and she piled her window seat with pillows and blankets and made a nest where she could watch the snow gather on the bows of the trees that lined the forbidden forest.
It was almost Christmas now.
She woke in the same cramped position around four am. The sky outside was still dark but even after she moved back to bed, she couldn't sleep. She stoked the fire and infused her television with magic and put on a movie. She was asleep before the magic ran out.