Returning to classes after a year hiding out and hunting Horcruxes and Hallows was certainly not the easiest thing Hermione Granger had ever attempted.
Suddenly being required to write six-foot-long essays on Arithmancy patterns, brew complicated Truth Potions and also deal with both peculiar and repetitive duties as Head Girl should have been simple for Hermione to get used to all over again. However, every time she opened a book she had the feeling in her stomach that it was The Tales of Beetle the Bard all over again – more tedious clues from Dumbledore, more useless information as to how they might eventually defeat the darkest wizard of the age.
Attending meals in the Great Hall weren't even the same. As she sat there, she could picture the house elves directly below, slicing the backs of Death Eater's ankles with massive stainless steal knives.
The war was still haunting her. The fear, the battle and the losses still washed through her every vein, making it difficult for her to fully concentrate, fully accept that Lord Voldemort was not going to glide through the common room entrance and send the killing curse at her.
Hermione's quill quivered in her shaking hands and she immediately dropped it in order to regain composure. The ink blotted on the parchment but Hermione did not take notice.
It had been three months. Having returned to school for her seventh year (a Ministry order that had been decided upon a week after Voldemort's downfall), Hermione had noticed that a lot of students had already adjusted to life after the war. Most were happy and others acted like that part of their lives had all been a long dream and had never happened at all. Hermione had observed the behaviour of many and it seemed that she was the only one who was suffering in the aftermath.
Harry, who had been through so much before and after the war, seemed much lighter at heart. He had taken to making more jokes and laughing loudly with Ron and his girlfriend Ginny. Hermione knew that the lives lost during the war were still firmly in his head and his heart but he did not let it show the way she felt she did. Hermione assumed that perhaps his experience with the resurrection stone had eased the sadness.
Ron had also moved on. He and Hermione had begun their long-awaited relationship as soon as Voldemort fell. However, due to Hermione's distance, it had been slightly rocky. Ron seemed to understand that Hermione was having trouble adjusting and he allowed her time alone to study and think. They still kissed on greeting for breakfast and they still had regular snogging sessions in the Head Boy and Girl common room.
Yes, this common room was one of the surprises Hermione had been greeted with in returning to Hogwarts.
While the professors had wandered the castle during the summer, restoring it to its magical splendor, they had found Salazar Slytherin's old study and in it they had found an ancient map and three silver stones. With them, Professor's McGonagall and Flitwick managed to locate Salazar Slytherin's old quarters.
It was in these quarters that Hermione now sat. The ancient furniture that had stood in the common room and the four adjoining rooms had been replaced with those of a more modern design and the teachers had decided to make the quarters the home of the two top students of the school: Hermione and Draco Malfoy.
Hermione still could not understand how Draco Malfoy – after all his involvement in the war - had come to receive the Head Boy badge, but he had. Perhaps it was yet another standing legacy in Dumbledore's will. He had, after all, always seemed to know that Draco had been frightened into supporting the Dark Side. And Draco was intelligent and a strong leader, even if Hermione despised admitting it.
Hermione looked up as the bathroom door opened and the man of her thoughts walked out in his weekend clothes. His silver-blonde hair was damp and neat on top of his head, perfectly combed and shampooed. He gave Hermione a nod before heading up the wide spiral staircase that stood in the corner of the room.
Hermione sighed. He had not made an attempt to talk to her, nor had he managed an insult. He just wandered around, quietly studied and made little acknowledgement of her presence. Although this did not bother Hermione she had to wonder whether he was adjusting to the aftermath of the war as uselessly as her.
Hermione sat with her back against the arm of the couch, enjoying the comfort of the fluffy emerald cushions that lined it. She was stretched out with her legs resting on top of Ron's, the owner of which sat beside her. All was quiet, as Hermione read from one of the many ancient tomes that had lined the bookshelf in Salazar's study.
"I don't get why McGonagall wants you and Malfoy to do this research," Ron muttered. He was in one of those moods where he could not accept something and was trying, by means of complaining, to have Hermione agree with him.
"We're the Head Girl and Boy, Ron," Hermione replied. "The teachers don't get the time to do this research so they've asked us to attempt to fit it in with our studies. Besides, both Malfoy and I showed an interest in the subject. Imagine if we found out something really exciting and interesting about Slytherin or one of the other founders? Our doing this research might finally answer the question of whether Salazar Slytherin was the father of Helena Ravenclaw –"
"Who really cares?" Ron asked, disgruntled. Hermione went quiet and looked back down at her book, not wanting to start an argument with the agitated redhead. He crawled closer to her. "Hermione, we don't spend much time together anymore because of these quarters and now with an extra project –"
"Ron, please understand that if I don't help with this research I will regret it, okay?" Hermione asked quietly. "I'm really interested in this."
"Okay," Ron sighed and he too fell quiet as Hermione reached forward and grabbed a silver stone from the side table to examine it against a sketch in the book she was reading.
"Salazar's stones," Hermione murmured and she turned the page.
Two weeks following the start of school saw Hermione's mood having changed very little. There had been nights where every time she attempted to look over her studies or the research regarding Salazar Slytherin, she would find herself in a daze, watching the war flash before her eyes.
Hermione was sure that Draco had noticed by now. Several times she had gone faint while looking at him, the image of his frightened face obscuring her vision.
"I … maybe … yeah…"
The words filled her head and she was forced to look away, suddenly shaky as she remembered what had followed soon after those words had left Draco's mouth. She felt the blood pounding in her head as her mind relived the pain she had experienced that night, Bellatrix's humored but angry face, Lucius Malfoy's light chuckle, Draco's ghostly pale face framing his wide and terrified eyes…
It always took time before Hermione could look at him again and when she did he was watching her carefully with an unreadable expression on his face. He never questioned her. In fact, he was yet to direct a single word to her regarding anything other than the research they were conducting.
Quite frankly, she was happy for it.
However, the silence of Draco Malfoy did not go on forever. On the evening of her birthday Hermione invited Harry, Ron and Ginny over to share the cake Mrs Weasley had sent. As the words of "Happy birthday to you…" rang throughout the common room, Malfoy chose that moment to head through the entrance into the scene of a giant homemade cake, 19 candles burning multi-coloured flames and four humorous birthday hats.
He walked straight through to the bathroom door and locked himself in. When he submerged, Harry, Ginny and half the cake was gone leaving one moaning Ronald Weasley and a Hermione whose head looked like it would be crushed between the couch and Ron's lips.
"Her room's upstairs Weasley," Draco sneered. "Go breed mudblood spawn up there."
Ron broke away from her and raised his wand in seconds. He stood with it pointing straight at Draco's face. "Say that word again and I'll make it so you'll never reproduce, Malfoy!"
Hermione stood up calmly and put her hand on Ron's arm. "Ron, just go," her voice was soft but Draco still heard it.
Ron looked at her, then back at Malfoy, opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. With a small but sloppy kiss to Hermione's lips he left, leaving Hermione looking at Draco with an irritated expression.
"Why didn't you just keep your mouth shut, Malfoy?" Hermione snapped. "We weren't doing anything to hurt you. You were probably just going to go straight up to your room anyway!"
"I was doing him a favour," Draco sneered. "You'd obviously confunded him in order to make him want you. Even Weasley wouldn't be attracted to likes of you, Mudblood."
Hermione looked at the ground, willing the hurt away and concentrating on the anger she had felt moments before. She would not let him get her down. Not now.
"You have no right to insult me or Ron, Malfoy," she said weakly, looking him straight in the eye once more. "You are perhaps worse then us in comparison. After everything last year, after everything you did, everything you saw –"
But Draco was gone. Hermione nodded to herself as she watched the back of his blonde head disappear up the stairs.
Returning to her cake, Hermione soon fell asleep where she dreamt of fierce, murderous flames in a massive hall, two broomsticks and Ron's voice screaming "IF WE DIE FOR THEM, I'LL KILL YOU!"
The next day dawned with Malfoy sitting across from her on the second couch, a piece of her cake in hand.
"Morning, Granger," he said as he greedily took another bite.
Hermione sat up. "I didn't say you could have any of that," she stated bluntly.
"No but it was waiting there so patiently, screaming my name," Draco's voice was lighter than Hermione had ever heard it.
Hermione contemplated the young man across from her. "So you're being civil now?" she questioned.
"Civil? Granger, if you walked in on me kissing a Weasley you'd have been as disgusted as I was last night," Draco drawled.
"Funny, I thought you were disgusted by the image of someone kissing a mudblood not a Weasley," Hermione stated blandly. "Or has your opinion of witches like me suddenly changed over night?"
"I don't like Weasleys," Draco snarled. "He would never have saved Goyle and me in the Room of Hidden Things last year had Potter not decided to."
"Nor would you have saved any of us," Hermione snapped. "Might I remind you that you went in there to capture us so you could then hand us to Voldemort? You had killing curses sent at us, Malfoy! You wanted us dead!"
Hermione didn't even realize she had stood up. She glared down at him. "You went in there with the intention of having us killed! Ron Weasley is much a greater man than you will ever be, Malfoy. He stopped to pick up Goyle even if he didn't like the idea much. I highly doubt you would have done the same had we been the ones on the ground."
Hermione headed to the bathroom door, swung it open and let it slam behind her, her school robes already on the floor. Draco watched the door for a moment, contemplating following her to continue the argument. He decided against it, knowing she would be undressed by now and knowing that he wasn't entirely ready for a heated argument with a fiery, naked Hermione Granger. She would be positively murderous.
He instead cut himself another piece of cake.