Chapter 1: One For Sorrow
Although every day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was quite magical, the first day of the new school year was by far the most enchanting. There was an almost palpable feeling of anticipation in the air. The sounds of fevered activity could be heard throughout the grey stone halls of the old castle as the house-elves and staff busily prepared for the upcoming onslaught of students. The long slumber of summer was finally over, and the whole building practically shimmered with excitement over the living and learning that would take place inside its ancient walls in the coming weeks and months.
Without a doubt, today was Hermione Granger's favourite day of the year. She had to physically stop herself from skipping up the stairs as she made her way into the Great Hall. Along the way she admired the suits of armour lining the walls – just last week they'd been dull and dusty, slouching idly against their swords and shields. But today they stood to attention, gleaming and proud, the sun from the open windows glaring off their shining breastplates and nearly blinding Hermione as she walked past.
Entering the Great Hall at last, Hermione watched in silence as the Headmistress, Minerva McGonagall, flicked her wand at the ceiling in a series of complex motions and mutterings. When she had finished, the massive enclosure perfectly reflected the sky outside – a brilliantly clear blue without a single cloud in sight. Hermione had always loved the effect of the ceiling, but had never before witnessed the enchantments being performed. She watched transfixed as an enormous Thestral suddenly flew overhead, undoubtedly on its way to the Forbidden Forest. She couldn't suppress the chill that ran down her spine at the sight.
One for sorrow, she thought bizarrely, remembering the old Muggle poem that children sang to count magpies. She wondered if there was an equivalent in the wizarding world for counting Thestrals, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it had entered her head. After all, children shouldn't be able to see Thestrals. The exception being, of course, all the children present at the Battle of Hogwarts more than fourteen years ago, herself included. There were a great many people who could suddenly see Thestrals after that day. Too many.
"Ah, there you are, Hermione," McGonagall's crisp voice broke into Hermione's reverie.
"Yes, you wanted to see me?" she asked, smiling. For reasons she couldn't explain, it always pleased Hermione to note that Minerva McGonagall had changed very little since the first time she'd seen her. The stern face and strong voice had nearly terrified her when she was eleven, but now she found them quite comforting.
"I sent for you for a very special reason," she began. Hermione noted the small smile that lifted the corners of the Headmistress' mouth and wondered what she could have in store for her. "I would like you to greet the First Years and bring them into the Hall for the Sorting tonight," she finished, and the rare smile spread to the rest of her face, matching the twinkle in her eye.
Hermione gasped audibly. "But this is only my fourth year here," she protested. "Are you serious?" It was an enormous honour to be the professor selected to perform this very important task, and Hermione was astonished that she was being asked.
The Headmistress was positively beaming at her now. "Absolutely. You have proven yourself quite admirably in the past three years. I consulted with the senior staff and Heads of House on this, and everyone was in agreement: the Potions professor should do the honours this year."
Hermione thanked McGonagall profusely and hoped she hadn't noticed the fact that even three years into it, Hermione still gave a little start to realize that she (of all people!) was the Potions professor at Hogwarts. With a new lightness to her step, she made her way to her Potions classroom in the dungeons. There was still a great deal of work to be done prior to the start of term tomorrow, and as she set herself about her tasks, she allowed her mind to wander back over the remarkable journey that had brought her to this very spot.
In the weeks and months following the Battle of Hogwarts, life had slowly returned to some semblance of normality. The Death Eaters had been rounded up and sent to a fully-restored Azkaban. Everyone had started the long process of grieving, and there followed a blur of funerals and memorials, of visiting families and offering condolences, of tears and nightmares.
Hermione had retrieved her parents from Australia and reversed the charms on their memories. They'd been quite shocked to learn what she'd done, and perhaps even a tad frightened of the witch their daughter had become. But Hermione had done such an excellent job with the charms that by the end of summer they had begun to think of their year away as an exciting holiday. They had ended up having quite an enjoyable time shopping for a new home and reconnecting with old friends, telling wildly funny stories of things they had never actually done in Australia.
Hermione had spent the remainder of the summer savouring the company of her parents, painfully aware of how lucky she was to still have them when so many others had lost entire families.
Minerva McGonagall had been appointed as the new Headmistress of Hogwarts, and a directive had been issued for all students to repeat their existing year at the next term. It had been decided that the education of the students during Snape's reign as Headmaster was not up to the usual standards of Hogwarts, what with Death Eaters roaming the halls, beating up students, and taking over classes with teachings in the Dark Arts. The decision had also helped all the students who were forced into hiding during the deplorable Muggle-born Registration Act of Dolores Umbridge and her cronies.
Needless to say, it had not been a popular decision with the student body at the time. Hermione had appeared to be the only student who wholeheartedly agreed with the edict and had been extremely pleased to finish her Seventh Year properly.
Ron had spent most of Seventh Year grumbling about having to return to school. His constant whining, combined with his frequent musings on why the Ministry couldn't have granted them all Honorary Degrees for their services during the Battle, had soon pushed Hermione over the edge. Though they had officially gone out together the entire year, they'd spent most of it bickering. Without the intensity of their Horcrux search and the constant fear that death awaited them around each corner, their relationship had simply regressed to semi-tolerant friendship.
While Ron and Harry had begun Junior Auror Training, Hermione had travelled to Poland to simultaneously attend the Muggle university in Krakow and the magical Jagiellonian University hidden beneath it. As a caveat to her attendance at Hogwarts, she had promised her parents many years earlier that she would attend a Muggle university.
It had been an easy commitment to make when she was eleven; the fulfilment of the promise had proved a bit more difficult. Knowing that she would be woefully behind all the other non-magical students (a sensation she'd never been comfortable with) she had spent Seventh Year cramming her head with Muggle knowledge, much to the chagrin of her friends. In truth, she'd been glad for the tremendous workload: it helped keep her mind from dwelling on recent events, and she had quickly learned that exhaustion kept the nightmares away.
Professor Flitwick had taught Hermione the Reddo charm, which allowed her to understand and speak a foreign language. And McGonagall herself had provided Hermione with enchanted transcripts for the Krakow University. The Headmistress had even gone so far as to make special arrangements with Jagiellonian to secure Hermione the use of their sole Time Turner.
"I support the decision to honour the commitment you made to your parents, Miss Granger," McGonagall had told her at the end of Seventh Year. "But you cannot allow your magic to fall by the wayside!"
The fact that Poland was not far from Bulgaria, and therefore Viktor Krum, had not escaped Ron's notice and had contributed immeasurably to his constant bad mood. And although Hermione had remained uninterested in Krum for anything other than friendship, she soon grew weary of constantly trying to convince Ron that she was NOT going to Poland to be nearer to Viktor.
The sniping between the two had continued, and when they were both finally ready to embark on their post-Hogwarts journeys, Hermione had told Ron, "Lots of people have long-distance relationships and make them work."
Ron had shrugged and said, "Yeah, we'll just see how it goes, okay?"
Hermione had thought he sounded distinctly relieved.
The first few months had passed with her and Ron exchanging a few letters, but neither seemed to be heartbroken over the distance that separated them. The lack of emotion on both their parts had confirmed to Hermione that her relationship with Ron was truly over, as lost to her as her childhood. Perhaps it was yet another casualty of the Battle of Hogwarts, or maybe it was just part of growing up.
Hermione had kept in touch with Ginny Weasley and later learned that Ron had left Junior Auror Training after five months (in Ginny's words, "… he found out that studying's quite a bit more work when you're not around to help, Hermione!") and had gone to work with George at Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. Ginny had said Ron was much happier there, and Hermione had imagined it was actually a good solution for both brothers.
Harry had also left Junior Auror Training early, though for very different reasons. In typical Harry fashion, a chance encounter had somehow led to his meeting the Athletic Director of the Wimbourne Wasps. The Wasps had had a pretty decent Quidditch team that year, but were in dire need of a Seeker. One thing had led to another, and soon Harry was playing Quidditch professionally and was instrumental in England's subsequent win at the European Cup. He had married Ginny on his twenty-first birthday, and the couple had had three children together.
Hermione had continued her magical coursework with a concentration in Charms and Transfiguration, but halfway through her university career she discovered that her studies at the Muggle university were impacting her magical thinking. She had become quite enamoured by the Muggle chemistry classes and had found herself surprisingly adept at many of her scientific studies. Even as a child, she had loved the preciseness of science, the endless quest for proof, and the free exchange of ideas and thoughts.
Hermione had risen to the top of her science classes at the Muggle university when something strange happened: the work she performed in her Potions classes had begun to dramatically improve. No one had been more surprised by this than Hermione. She'd always been competent in Potions, but no one would have accused her of being particularly gifted. But all that had changed as she gained more and more knowledge about science on a molecular and sub-molecular level; suddenly she could see the ingredients and processes of her potion-making in an entirely new light, and very good things had begun to happen.
The Potions master at Jagiellonian University was a large bear of man named Mikolaj Brukowski, famous for having invented the Eastern European equivalent of butterbeer (called Bru-Bier and a good deal stronger than anything served at the Three Broomsticks). Hermione's sudden improvement in his subject had seemed to impress the old wizard, and she'd soon become his personal protégé. By the end of her fourth year at university, Hermione and Brukowski had jointly published two papers in the prestigious Bibliotheque de Remede Europe & Worldwide (BREW): one on their remarkable discovery of an additional four uses for dragon's blood, and another on potion-brewing methodology that had rocked the wizarding world and garnered them a large feature in the Sunday edition of the Daily Prophet.
By the end of her sixth and final year at university, the duo had again gained notoriety for the now-famous "Brukowski-Granger Principal": a complex theory combining various elements of magic and science, which would revolutionize the world of potion-making and medicine. Unfortunately, there existed a great many 'old-school' wizards who had publically protested against anything that might change the established methods, especially when it blatantly involved the incorporation of Muggle scientific theorem.
The Brukowski-Granger Principal had created a bit of an uproar for awhile, but the furore had eventually died down when most wizards and witches had been either unwilling or unable to devote themselves to learning the science required in order to put the Principal into practice. Still, Hermione had been quite proud of her work and everything she'd accomplished while at university. She even believed that the controversy had been a good thing; in her mind, just getting the wizarding world to enter into a debate on such things had been a step in the right direction.
Hermione's success at Jagiellonian University had earned her several lucrative offers for employment after graduation and finding herself in such demand had been a heady experience. It was Mikolaj Brukowski who had ultimately helped her choose the direction to take her career. When she'd initially approached him for advice, he had encouraged her to give serious consideration to the position offered by the Ministry of Magic. ("Can't beat those government benefits, girl," he had told her gruffly.) But one week later he had pulled her aside and rescinded his earlier direction.
"I hope you are not taking my advice to work for the Ministry of Magic seriously, Hermione," he had told her quietly. "You must realize I was playing a joke on you."
Hermione had been shocked: in the six years she'd known Mikolaj Brukowski she had never witnessed anything even slightly humorous about his countenance. He had never once even teased her, and the thought that he'd choose her career path to start his foray into the land of practical jokes had been less than amusing to Hermione.
"You… you… what?" she had asked incredulously.
His dark face had flushed with embarrassment (another first), and he had simply replied, "Yes, it was just a joke. You must of course pursue the offer from Arglist Industries."
Hermione had searched her memory and recalled that Arglist was a private research facility in Eastern Europe with significant financial backing.
Brukowski had confirmed this by telling her, "They are well-established in Germany and Austria, and they have a large facility in England, which would suit you, no?"
Hermione had nodded absently and told him, "Okay, I'll check them out." But as she had turned to leave, Brukowski grabbed her arm. Hermione had turned shocked eyes upon him: other than shaking her hand, he had never before touched her.
"No, Hermione! Do not just 'check them out'," he had whispered harshly, and his eyes had darted around nervously. "I strongly advise you to accept their offer."
Hermione had thought he was starting to sound a bit desperate, and his fingers biting into her arm had not escaped her notice either. She had nodded at him solemnly and assured him that she would take his advice seriously.
Then he had released her arm, distractedly patting her on the head while saying, "Good girl."
Hermione had dismissed the encounter and chalked off her professor's odd behaviour to his poor attempt at humour.
If only I'd known, Hermione thought now and felt herself grow tense.
If only she hadn't dismissed Brukowski's strange behaviour so readily… perhaps then she wouldn't have accepted the position at Arglist. Perhaps she wouldn't have been so blinded by the amazing facility, by the intoxicating enticement of running that cutting-edge lab all by herself. Perhaps then she wouldn't have…
Hermione jumped as the glass vial in her hand exploded into dozens of jagged pieces. She stared at the blood on her hands and shivered at the unexpected but appropriate correlation. Blood on her hands…
For the second time in the space of just a few seconds Hermione jumped as her name was shouted from the door, breaking into her disturbing contemplations. She looked up and saw Neville Longbottom staring at her with a worried expression.
"Are you alright?" he asked, coming into the room and nodding at her bleeding hand. "Do you need some Dittany?"
"I've got some, Neville - thanks," Hermione told him. She pointed her wand at the storeroom while silently casting an Accio charm, and a small green bottle floated towards her, carefully labelled 'Tincture of Dittany – MILD' in her own precise handwriting. Hermione used her wand to quickly vanish the remnants of the broken vial and siphon off the excess blood from her hand and bench. She was relieved to see the cut wasn't bad, and just one drop of the Dittany tincture instantly sealed the wound with the tiniest puff of green smoke wafting up from her palm.
Hermione looked back at Neville and noted that he was still watching her worriedly. "Just being careless, Neville," she told him. "I guess I'm just overly-excited about start of term tonight," she finished with what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
The worried look instantly left Neville's face, and his round cheeks broke into a smile. "That's why I came to see you," he told her. "I just heard that you're in charge of First Years tonight. Congratulations, Hermione! Well done!"
"Thanks, Neville!" Hermione beamed a genuine smile at him now, the pride she'd felt from McGonagall's earlier announcement returning to her. "I can't believe it – I'm so honoured."
"Ah, you deserve it. You've done brilliantly here," he told her. "I mean, I've been here for ten years and I'm still not as comfortable as you are," he added with a laugh.
Hermione smiled and assured Neville that she was just as scared of meeting all the new students as he was.
He looked a tad doubtful so she added, "As soon as you get into your greenhouses, you're in your element. You're a wonderful Herbology professor, Neville. I would have been thrilled to be one of your students!"
Neville blushed furiously at her praise. Hermione hadn't said it just to be nice: Neville truly was gifted in Herbology, and she'd observed his ever-present doubt and clumsiness just melt away when he entered the massive greenhouses of Hogwarts.
Hermione hadn't been at all surprised to find Neville at Hogwarts. After leaving school, Neville had spent a few years touring the Magical Gardens of Europe before returning to Hogwarts to start an apprenticeship with Pomona Sprout. And when Pomona had finally decided to retire, Neville had become a full-fledged Professor of Herbology. That appointment had actually coincided with Hermione's appointment as the new Potions professor, so that they were both officially introduced as new professors just three years ago.
Three years? Hermione marvelled to herself. Had it really been three years since she'd left the horrors of Arglist? At times it seemed like a lifetime ago that she'd fled her beautiful lab in the middle of the night, running blindly with no destination – just an overwhelming need to flee. Whether she was escaping from Arglist or herself, though, would be a question that would haunt her from that point on.
With a shake of her head, Hermione realized how glad she was to be here, poised to begin her fourth year as Potions professor. She'd even begun to allow herself to feel happy again, daring to hope that she'd escaped from her period at Arglist with no lasting detriment.
"I hope I'll be back in time for the Sorting," Neville informed her. "I'm going to try a quick trip to St. Mungo's before the Feast."
Hermione frowned slightly and asked, "I thought you always went on Sundays?"
"I do," Neville confirmed. "But I didn't get a chance to go yesterday with all the preparations for start of term." He looked decidedly uncomfortable for a moment and then added, "Not that they'd notice if I wasn't there."
Hermione looked at Neville in sympathy, but mentally reminded herself to tread carefully here. The subject of Neville's parents wasn't one he often cared to discuss, and she didn't want to push him. He had taken it very hard when he hadn't been the one to avenge his parents by finishing off Bellatrix Lestrange, but that task had quite amazingly fallen to Molly Weasley instead.
"How are your parents doing, Neville?" she asked him quietly. "And how is…"
"Snape?" Neville asked.
"Yes." Hermione swallowed. "How is Professor Snape?"
Neville shrugged and replied, "The same as always." Then he added in a rush, "The Healers at St. Mungo's treat him really well," seemingly wanting to reassure Hermione.
Hermione drew an unsteady breath and then told Neville, "It's very good of you to visit them every week."
Neville blushed again and Hermione smiled at him warmly. He really was a very good sort of man. It was amazing he was still single.
"I hope you make it back in time for the Sorting, too," said Hermione. "But don't worry if you can't – maybe Minerva will let us play with the Pensieve later and you can watch it from my memory!"
The thought seemed to cheer Neville, which in turn pleased Hermione. They chatted for awhile, and then Neville headed off for Hogsmeade where he would soon Apparate to London and St. Mungo's. And eventually, to Severus Snape.
Hermione felt her stomach clench as it always did when she thought of Snape. It was perhaps appropriate that she'd just seen Neville because it had been Neville, fourteen years ago, who had spoken about Snape with the words that had first turned her insides to ice.
It had been several hours after the Final Battle, after the defeat of Voldemort, and after Harry's amazing decision to return the Elder Wand to its rightful place. People had been coming and going all night, but Hermione had found an opportunity to hang back from the others. She'd felt strangely compelled to remove the memories that Snape had given to Harry, which had been left in the Pensieve. She had just finished siphoning off the final filaments of thought when Harry, Ron, Neville, Minerva, and Filius Flitwick had entered.
"What are you doing in here alone, Miss Granger?" McGonagall had snapped at her rather imperiously, but before Hermione could answer, there arrived several officials from the Ministry as well as dozens of portrait occupants, and everyone had started speaking at once.
Information had been at a premium in those first hours, and it had taken some time to sort out all the facts and rumours, during which time a veritable flock of owls had been swooping in and out, carrying urgent missives.
Hermione had glanced at Neville, who was sitting in a corner scratching his head in concentration and staring up at the walls of the office. "Where's Snape's portrait?" he had asked her. And although he had spoken the question quite softly, everyone in the room had somehow heard, and everything had gone quiet.
Hermione's eyes had searched the walls frantically. A cold fear had spread to the ends of her limbs. Her eyes had met the piercing blue gaze of Albus Dumbledore's portrait, and a moment of understanding passed between them. There had not been any portrait for Severus Snape.
"Headmaster?" she'd whispered to Dumbledore pleadingly, desperate for the old wizard to offer any other explanation.
"It should have been here by now," he'd informed them all gravely. It could only mean one thing.
Severus Snape was still alive.
There had been a great rush to the Shrieking Shack where they had left Snape so very many hours earlier. Hermione had only a brief glimpse before Flitwick had Apparated Snape to St. Mungo's, but the image of his lifeless form lying prostrate on the floor would be burned in her mind for eternity. There had been vivid red fang-marks on his neck, covered in drying blood that seemed to also cover the floor and his hands where he had earlier tried to stop the bleeding. The dark crimson had provided the only colour to be found on his ghostly white body.
At that moment Hermione had been sure that they'd all been wrong: there was no way that the body on the floor was not in fact dead. There simply had to be some other explanation for his missing portrait.
But after three weeks and several rounds of treatment with pure Essence of Dittany, they had learned that he was not dead: a faint pulse had finally been detected and his wounds had begun to heal.
Snape had survived the snakebite, but no one had been able to hazard a guess on his prognosis. Since Nagini had been harbouring a piece of Voldemort's soul when she'd attacked Snape, it was evident that very Dark Magic had been at work within him.
As the months slowly turned into years, he had remained unconscious, existing in what had reminded Hermione of a Muggle coma. The Healers at St. Mungo's had never seen anything like it. They had coined the term 'semi-Petrification' solely to describe Snape's condition: a bizarre combination of unconscious immobility and dreamless sleep. Amazingly, his body had not aged a single day in the fourteen years since the assault in the Shrieking Shack.
After so many years without any signs of progress, it had become accepted in the wizarding world that Snape would remain in this state of stasis forever.
The revelations about Snape's true loyalties and the amazing role he played in the downfall of Voldemort had soon become public knowledge. Within a year of the Final Battle, he had been exonerated for Dumbledore's death and pardoned for all previous crimes. Snape's name had become legendary, and he was celebrated throughout the wizarding world as a hero.
At first, a horde of visitors had flocked to the hospital each month to pay homage to him. Then the visits had begun to dwindle. Time has a way of buffering memories, and before long, it had only been Neville that remained faithful in his visits. To be fair, Neville was already at the hospital each week visiting his parents, so stopping by Snape's bed wasn't an altogether huge inconvenience for him. Still, he never seemed to tire of sitting beside what was, in effect, a statue with a pulse; a task which most people found disturbing. But Neville would calmly remain at Snape's bed every Sunday and read to him from the Daily Prophet.
Hermione had visited a few times, but could never bring herself to speak to Snape. She felt guilty for having left him in the Shrieking Shack for so long and ashamed that it had been Neville to point out that his portrait was missing. On top of that, she knew Snape would be infuriated to discover that she had removed his memories from the Pensieve and still had possession of them today. Hermione had kept them safe for many years, always wrestling with the temptation to take a peek at them. If Snape learned the full truth about Hermione and his memories, she couldn't predict what he'd do.
No, the visits were best left to Neville, she assured herself now. She finished mashing an amazing obsidian stone she had acquired into fine powder, dumping it from her pestle into a dark brown glass tube so that light wouldn't impact its perfect midnight coloration. It struck Hermione that the beautiful black stone reminded her very much of her former Potions professor's intense black eyes. With surprise, she noted the sudden wave of sadness that washed over her at the thought that no one would ever gaze upon those eyes again.
"What are you still doing lurking about in the dungeons, woman?" came a familiar drawl from the classroom door.
Hermione looked up and found Draco Malfoy watching her with an amused expression on his face.
"Have you descended from your tower to fetch me?" she asked him with a smile.
Hermione had initially been shocked to learn that the only other person from their time at Hogwarts to return in a teaching capacity was, of all people, Draco Malfoy. And the fact that he was, of all things, the Divination professor had completely struck her dumb.
"Maybe," he answered teasingly. "If you're nice to me." He swaggered up to her desk confidently.
The years had been kind to Draco, and he had grown into a rather more handsome version of his father. The aristocratic features were the same, but Draco smiled so much that where his father looked like a snob, Draco just looked like he was up to something. Something fun. Which, come to think of it, he usually was.
"Quick!" Hermione said, opening her eyes wide and acting suddenly serious. "Predict something!"
She couldn't help the unladylike snort-laugh that escaped from her mouth as Draco rolled his eyes dramatically and offered a look of long-suffering indignation.
"Why don't you just go cook me up a quick 'Prediction Potion', and I'll get right on it," he teased her back.
Hermione stuck her tongue out at him, to which he again rolled his eyes and chided, "Nice. Very adult."
After three years of working together at Hogwarts, Hermione was surprised and pleased to consider Draco her friend. He had obviously grown up quite a bit since his disastrous stint with the Death Eaters. Hermione suspected that having her, Harry, and Ron save him from the Fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement during the Final Battle had been a major turning point in the life of young Draco.
From what little he had let slip over the past few years, he had evidently suffered a great deal during his sixth and seventh years at the hands of the twisted Voldemort. After the war, his parents both spent time in Azkaban: his mother two months but his father two full years. Due to his youth, Draco escaped prosecution, and when he returned for his final year at Hogwarts, he was much quieter and subdued.
Hermione had noticed that he'd become an excellent observer of people, which no doubt helped him become such a skilled teacher of Divination. He never claimed to be a Seer, but he approached his subject on the premise that the answers one seeks already lie within, and one need only learn the proper tools with which to divine them. Hermione was actually quite impressed by this, although she'd never let Draco know, as she still viewed Divination as a very imprecise branch of magic.
Stowing her mortar and pestle with a flick of her wand, Hermione said to Draco, "Okay, I'm ready. Let's get this thing over with."
"Yeah. Nice try, Granger," he admonished.
"What?" she asked innocently.
"Don't try to pretend you're not practically jumping out of your skin with excitement over bringing the First Years to the Sorting!"
"Oh, that!" she laughed. "Yes, well… it is rather exciting, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is!" Draco agreed. "A grand occasion."
Hermione stopped suddenly and smacked her head. "I forgot to ask!" she said apologetically. "How are Luna and the little imps?"
Draco smiled warmly and replied, "They're great. Luna thinks that Niobe found a nest of armour-headed pinticklers," he said, referring to one of his twin five-year-old daughters.
"What's an armour-headed pin…" Hermione began curiously, but Draco cut her off with a quick shake of his head, his eyes closed.
"Don't ask," he begged. "I haven't yet had the heart to tell her they're actually just Flobberworms."
Draco had married Luna Lovegood some twelve years earlier, and the two had an amazingly happy marriage. It was typical for Luna to see something in Draco that everyone else had missed. Their twin daughters, Niobe and Nemma, were charming girls with long platinum hair that reminded Hermione of paintings she'd seen of angels.
"And Nemma set the curtains on fire again last week – the ones in the drawing room this time," Draco continued, somewhat squashing the angel image Hermione had going in her mind.
"Oh, dear," Hermione sympathized. They had been walking as they chatted and had almost reached the Great Hall. Hermione smiled at the other professors, milling about in small groups and excitedly catching up before the castle opened its doors for the new term.
"What about you?" Draco asked quietly, studying her intently. "Any summer romances that set the house on fire, so to speak?"
"I spent the summer with my parents, so I should certainly hope not!" she told him. In fact, Hermione had been celibate for the entire three years she'd been teaching at Hogwarts, and while it wasn't quite a record for her, it was certainly beginning to niggle at her a bit. In truth, a relationship had been the last thing on her mind since escaping from Arglist, and she welcomed the downtime. But perhaps it was time to start dating now…
"You should start dating now," Draco told her, earning himself a suspicious glare from Hermione. Maybe there was something to this Divination stuff of his after all, she thought.
Opting for banter, Hermione pretended to pout at Draco and told him, "Well, there was only one Slytherin for me, and he's already taken."
"Yes. Sadly, there's only one of me," Draco agreed with a smirk. "But we can't have you pining away the rest of your life; you should get out more. You know, you're not unattractive."
Hermione held her hand to her forehead and pretended to swoon.
"Stop that," Draco said. "Okay, look. I know I teased you about your bushy hair and your big teeth while we were growing up…"
Hermione laughed at his downright pitiful attempts to compliment her, or cheer her up, or whatever the hell he was trying to do. "Draco, I don't think I can take any more of your flattery," she chuckled. "This is all just going right to my head!"
"What I'm trying to say is that you're actually quite pretty, okay? Your teeth are perfect, and whatever you did to your hair is amazing, and you've actually grown into a really beautiful woman. Happy?" he asked with a trace of irritation.
Hermione studied him for a moment to make sure he wasn't teasing her. "Okay," she said slowly.
"I'm sure a lot of guys would fancy you. Want me to set you up with some single friends of mine?" he asked.
"Are they Slytherins?"
Hermione pretended to be weighing the idea until Draco finally grew impatient and made a "tsk" sound at her. "And everyone thought I was the snob!"
"Oh, but you were!" Hermione protested good-naturedly. "And a complete prat, too!"
"What did you do to your hair, by the way?" Draco neatly changed the subject.
"I paid a witch in Paris to charm it permanently smooth for me," Hermione informed him. "Cost me a small fortune, and she absolutely refused to let me know how it's done. It still irks me that I can't figure out how she did it!"
"Surely there's not a Charm out there that you don't know, my dear?" squeaked a small voice behind Hermione. It was Filius Flitwick, her old Charms professor.
"Well, I don't know the one for getting your hair to…" she began, but Flitwick cut her off with a wave.
"Ah, yes, I'm afraid I was never very interested in Cosmetology Charms," he said, to Hermione's disappointment. Then he continued, with a pleased expression on his face. "My dear, Minerva asked me to tell you it's time to greet the First Years!" he squeaked excitedly.
And indeed, Hermione could hear a rising cacophony as hundreds of voices combined in the corridor outside and drew nearer to the Great Hall. The older students soon entered and started gravitating toward their appropriate House tables. Hermione was touched when a few even smiled and waved at her in greeting. She hadn't known whether or not she'd enjoy teaching, but she had found the last three years to be unexpectedly rewarding.
Hermione made her way to the side corridor and stopped at the top of the sweeping staircase where she would wait with the First Years before taking them into the Great Hall. She could hear the nervous shuffling of feet approach as they made their way up, past the first landing and then finally coming to a stop before her, their eyes wide, trying to drink in everything at once.
We were never that young, Hermione thought with a pang. She could remember seeing Professor McGonagall for the first time at this very spot like it was just yesterday. Hermione attempted to arrange her features to appear austere and scholarly, but it was difficult and she couldn't help but smile. The little faces before her kept swivelling around, one minute staring in amazement at the people waving down at them from the portraits, and the next watching in awe as a House ghost flitted by on its way to the Feast.
Finally, their eager eyes rested on her, and she could feel them gazing at her in wonder. Hermione had taken great care with dressing and wore long robes of the deepest black with a maroon satin lining. She had topped it off with one of her more ridiculous hats – it was quite pointy and decorated with shimmering golden stars that had been enchanted to shoot around the base of the hat every so often.
Hermione was quite aware that every eye was now upon her, seemingly transfixed. She cleared her throat and said in a voice filled with reverence, "Welcome to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!"
Several of the children began to smile, and Hermione continued. "If you have not already done so, I highly recommend you obtain a copy of the book called Hogwarts: A History and study it carefully. You won't be disappointed!"
Hermione watched in amusement as a rather gangly girl near the front removed the very book she'd just mentioned and showed it excitedly to the boy standing next to her. He didn't seem impressed.
Hermione continued her speech. "In a moment, we will enter the Great Hall, and you will be sorted into your Houses. While you are at Hogwarts, your Houses will be like your family: you will dine with them, room with them, and take classes with them." Some of the students had looked a little desperately at each other as Hermione explained this. No doubt they had begun to form tentative friendships (and enemies) aboard the Hogwarts Express and were wondering how this was going to affect them.
"Furthermore…" Hermione continued, drawing their attention back to her, "… your House will be awarded points throughout the year for your achievements, and points will be deducted from your House for any rule-breaking. At the end of the year, the House with the most points wins the highly-coveted House Cup."
Hermione noted a look of hunger in a few of the faces at the mention of winning the House Cup and didn't have to guess which house they would end up in. Which reminded her…
"The names of the four Houses are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin…" she was interrupted by the sudden racket of someone racing down the corridor behind her. Several of the First Years were peering around her to see what the commotion was, and Hermione issued a huff of disapproval.
She turned on her spot, her eyes widening in shock at the sight of Neville Longbottom frantically racing towards her, his arms flying out from his sides in wild abandon.
"Her…Her…Hermione!" he shouted and panted as he ran.
Hermione caught a glimpse of Peeves the Poltergeist in the corner of her eye and quickly shouted, "Neville, don't run – you're going to…"
But it was too late. In a spectacular act of perfect timing, Peeves flung a small piece of chalk onto the flagstone just as Neville's shoe met the ground. All at once he was airborne, flailing his arms and clutching at anything he could to regain his purchase. Unfortunately, the only thing close to him was an enormous suit of armour. The resulting crash was deafening and reverberated against the stone walls and floor for what seemed like ages, finally fading along with the delighted cackling of Peeves.
Naturally, the Great Hall emptied and Headmistress McGonagall came rushing forward with a look that clearly showed she was NOT pleased.
"It's okay, Neville," Hermione told him gently as she helped him to his feet. "We haven't started the Sorting yet."
Neville shook his head, still trying to catch his breath. Judging by the state of his robes and his extreme difficulty in breathing, Hermione guessed he had run all the way from Hogsmeade. Hermione pulled a small bottle from her robes and forced Neville to take a sip of the Calming Draught she kept with her for emergencies.
The effect was immediate. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough Calming Draught in the castle for the impact his next words would have on those present.
Neville looked calmly at McGonagall and then at Hermione. "He's awake," he told her, and Hermione felt the ground shift beneath her feet. Neville looked back at McGonagall and reiterated his statement. "Severus Snape is awake."
A/N: Many, many thanks to lady karelia and little beloved for beta reading and to lettybird for Brit-picking. They are simply amazing, and this wouldn't have been possible without their knowledge, patience, and assistance!