Wouldn't Be the Same
Spoilers: Big spoilers for Deathly Hallows.
Disclaimer: They're all J.K. Rowling's, of course.
Summary: The Dark Lord is defeated... but there are still NEWTs to pass.
"I can't believe I agreed to this," Ron said, drawing patterns in the dust on the desktop with the end of his quill. "I must have been mad. Oh, yes, let's all go back to school! That's the last time I make plans with you two when we've had half a bottle of Odgen's."
"I wasn't drunk," said Hermione primly, cleaning her own portion of the desktop with a neat Tergeo. As extraneous eighth years, and with so much of the castle still being rebuilt, they'd been relegated to a cramped room in the dungeons that didn't look like it had been used since Tom Riddle's day. "And anyway, Ron, no one forced you to come. I thought George offered you a job at the shop."
Ron shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, well. I probably will go and work for him in the summer. It's just that Mum'd go spare if another Weasley left school without any NEWTs."
None of them mentioned the true reason Ron was uncomfortable at the idea of so much time spent in George's company; the same reason that everyone else was. No matter how deliberately bright and cheerful George remained, the gaping hole beside him was as obvious as the one on the side of his head. It was like shouting into a canyon and waiting for an echo that never came.
With time, it would get easier. It had taken Harry a long time to learn that lesson, but he finally had.
"I don't mind coming back," he said. "It makes a nice break." If spending a year on the run fighting Voldemort had been bad, the media barrage that followed had been ten times worse. Perhaps the very best thing about returning to Hogwarts was the fact that McGonagall had banned all reporters from entering the grounds, on pain of being transfigured into a mouse and sent back home by owl post. She had declared that the students had been through too much trauma to put up with being harassed, and that yes, so far as she was concerned, that did include one Harry Potter.
Harry had developed a whole new appreciation for McGonagall since the battle for Hogwarts.
There was still work to be done before the castle was returned to its former glory, but it was hardly recognisable as the battle-scarred ruin it had been after the curses stopped flying. Professors Flitwick, Sprout and McGonagall had been working tirelessly over the summer to restore the school and its grounds, with the help of a great many of its former and current students. Harry had done his bit, finding a strange kind of happiness in weeding and fixing and scrubbing, as if it was just another summer with the Dursleys. Hard work, but simple, with tangible results.
Funny, the things you could be nostalgic for after they were gone.
"I don't mind coming back," Ron echoed, "but this is pointless. I can understand needing to brush up on your Herbology. But Defence Against the Dark Arts? I think killing Voldemort should be worth a few marks!"
That caused a few heads to turn - but only a few. Not all of the former seventh years had returned to retake the NEWT year; not all of them had been able to. Those of the survivors who had made it back had learned the hard way that there were worse things to fear than the sound of a name.
Harry's eyes drifted over to Malfoy. He was sitting alone at the front, a visible gap between him and his two fellow Slytherins, Blaise Zabini and Millicent Bulstrode. No one had been quite sure what to do with the Malfoys after the war. Lucius had escaped punishment on the grounds that he'd already served at least a partial sentence in Azkaban, and there were other Death Eaters who were a more active menace to chase down. Harry had a hard time believing that Lucius Malfoy could be a reformed character, but he supposed all they could do was wait and see.
He owed that much to the people he'd been wrong about before.
"It was my choice to do this, Ron," he said with a philosophical shrug. "I have to take these NEWTs if I want to be an Auror."
Of course, the Ministry would have signed him up in a heartbeat without any such qualification - and had made quite a few attempts to do so - but he wanted to earn his place fairly. He wasn't going to have Rita Skeeter or anyone else telling the world that he'd been handed the job just for being Harry Potter.
"Well, I think it's very responsible," Hermione said. "We might know that Harry has the skills to be an Auror, but the qualifications prove it to the rest of the world. You can't go around giving people jobs based on their reputation. I mean, look at Lockhart."
"Don't, that's what he wants us to do," said Ron, but he charitably didn't mention Hermione's rather ill-advised pre-teen crush on the man. Maybe he had learned something from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches after all.
"I wonder who they've found to teach us?" Hermione pondered. The school was severely stretched for full-time teachers in the wake of Voldemort's defeat. The 'eighth years', who were themselves contributing to the scheduling problem, had been pressed into service tutoring the younger Muggle-borns who'd missed a year of education. "I just hope it's someone properly qualified. I know we learned a lot last year, but it's so important to study things in their proper context."
"You would say that." Ron shook his head in apparent despair, but he was smiling.
"They should be able to get a permanent teacher now the curse on the position's gone," Harry said. He tried not to think about the succession of teachers who'd filled the job before. The loss of Remus was still too fresh a wound, and even thinking of Moody gave him a pang. Far too many people had come and gone from his life in the last seven years.
But now, at least, he was able to hope that the future would be better.
"It'll be a nice change to get one who isn't trying to kill us," said Ron.
"I don't know." Harry smiled. "I almost miss it. We've been here almost a whole week, and I haven't had to use the Invisibility Cloak once." Even the Marauder's Map had become a tool for helping find errant first years rather than anything more devious. As eighth years, they were technically all here by their own choice, and therefore not bound by the usual school rules. It rather took the edge off creeping around at midnight when any teachers you met were likely to give you a friendly nod and offer you a glass of brandy.
"Just as well, mate. You'd need a Shrinking Potion to get all three of us under it now." Ron gave him a friendly nudge. "Oh, cheer up. Maybe they'll find the one person left in the whole of the country who's actually a competent teacher and still hates your guts. There's got to be someone."
"Ron," Hermione chided, but affectionately.
Harry laughed and relaxed with his friends, shooting occasional glances at the door as he waited for it to open.
It didn't. Instead, at precisely eleven o'clock, a silvery blur stormed through the closed door and came to a halt at the front of the class in a swirl of ghostly robes. Narrowed eyes glared at them from under a furious brow.
"So," the spectral form said curtly. "Some of you have been foolish enough to return - no doubt in the vain hope that the knowledge you have failed to push into your heads over the past seven years will somehow decide this is the year to take up permanent residence. Make no mistake, this is an arduous course, and I would frankly be surprised if one in four of you has the wit or the stamina to scrape a respectable pass. Do not think that certain people's status as 'war heroes'-" his curled lip made it clear what he thought of that descriptor, "-in any way exempts them from meeting the usual requirements. This is my classroom, and you will learn what I have to teach you, or you will fail."
The ghost of Severus Snape sneered down at them, the picture of contempt. The intent eyes were no less intimidating for being molten mercury instead of darkest black; the hooked nose and lank hair no less familiar for being coated in a soft silver glow instead of their former greasiness.
The entire classroom had fallen silent under a cloak of shock and dismay. Ron's mouth had dropped open, and Padma Patil had bitten right through the tip of her quill. Even Malfoy had turned so pale that the dividing line between his face and white-blond hair had all but disappeared. Every one of them had frozen solid, as if the slightest twitch of movement might be all it took to make the nightmare real.
Harry looked around at them all, united in a mutual horror that had nothing to do with death and loss and battle scars, and felt something deep inside his chest unlock that he hadn't even realised had seized shut.
He laid his head down on the desk, and laughed out loud like he hadn't laughed since before the war was over.