(Disclaimer: Psh. I wish this stuff belonged to me. Too bad.)
(Author's Note: Feel free to leave all possible feedback. I will probably need frequent comments to stay motivated to update in a timely fashion. This is my first fanfic, so constructive criticism is welcome too.)
The huge doors parted, causing a small breeze to brush through the large group of students waiting to pass through them. Hermione glanced around at the crowd, taking in the pained expressions of those older students from her year who, like her, had returned to finish their formal education. They were likely now remembering the events that had taken place the last time they were in this castle. Perhaps some of them, like her, were doing their best not to remember those particular events.
Hermione's chest tightened as her mind forced an image before her eyes, of smoking piles of debris, bloodstained stone, tattered remnants of house banners, and row upon row upon row of neatly arranged bodies, most of the faces familiar. She could almost hear the echo of Molly Weasley's helpless, screaming sobs from where she had collapsed next to Fred's limp body, the echoes mingling with the similar shrieks and cries from the other survivors in the Great Hall... Hermione softly shook her head to rid it of the images.
Ginny Weasley, red hair glowing in the torchlight, gave her a sad, knowing smile and gave her hand a slight squeeze. Then she turned to the opened doorway and gasped.
Hermione turned toward the great hall and stopped dead in her tracks.
Everything looked exactly as it had the very first time she had ever entered it. All signs of battle had been completely erased, as if it had never happened. She numbly followed the crowd slowly filtering into the room in awe. Ginny laughed, delighted.
"They must have been working around the clock!" Ginny exclaimed in awe. "It's as good as new!"
"Yeah, they must have," Hermione distractedly agreed, still unsettled by the sense of deja vu that the room inspired. She felt suddenly transformed into the eleven year old, bushy haired, muggle-born witch of lifetimes ago, witnessing the grandness of the Great hall for the very first time.
Candles floated above four long tables, watched over by the Headmaster's table which was lined with professors, all standing to greet the new school year. Huge stone pillars rose up the length of the walls until they disappeared into the inky blackness of the night sky above.
The students around her gasped and murmured as they took in the familiar sight.
She could feel their energy wash over her - their hopeful excitement, their joy, their relief - but inside she could only feel a numbing shock. She was trapped between a feeling of being somewhere as familiar as her own skin and somewhere entirely alien to her.
The muttering crowds slowly settled down at the tables, still trying to take in the sight of the entire room all at once.
"Merlin," Ginny gasped, "I think things might be able to get back to normal after all, eh 'Mione?"
Hermione barely restrained herself from glaring at the younger girl. Normal? Could she really be so naive as to think that anything was ever going to be the way that it was before? But Hermione she looked at her friend, her face was filled with so much hope it hinted at desperation. Hermione mentally chided herself for her reaction. Of course Ginny knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. She had suffered as much loss as anyone else. She had been there too, right at the side of her brother's lifeless body.
"Of course Ginny," Hermione forced a smile on her face. "It's all going to be better this year." Better, but not the same. Never the same.
They took their seats at the Gryffindor table. As Hermione scooted down the bench to make more room for the young redhead, she felt the side of her boot scrape roughly against the side of a table leg. She bent slightly to look at the leg. The subtly decorative carved length of wood looked nearly the same as it always had, with the exception of the small area she had felt through her shoe. A rough hand span along the side was blackened and slightly charred, as if by fire or magic, or both.
There! Proof that the horrific images in her mind were still there to bear witness! Some kind of proof that wasn't in the form of all the empty seats throughout the Hall, especially the empty space to her right, just wide enough for two fidgety, rambunctious boys. She shook her head again to keep it from going down that path. Seeking a distraction, her eyes began to roam again, inspecting the room now more closely than she had before.
She stared hard at the rough stone beneath her feet, willing it to admit to it's previous hardships. The stone sat stubbornly, willfully disregarding her attempts to reconcile it with her recent memories. Squinting for a closer look, she finally noticed that the section of stone under her feet was just a few shades lighter than the section a few feet away from her. It looked... cleaner. Newer.
Now that she knew what she was looking for, she glanced around the spacious room again. Seemingly random sections of the floor and lower walls were lighter, the doors had a fresh polished look to them, the Ravenclaw table, while built identically to the others, looked brand new, while several more of the legs of the Gryffindor table looked somewhat damaged. Hermione gently scraped the black, wooden leg with the edge of her boot again, both grateful and saddened by this small proof of past events. The crowed stirred again, and she followed the gazes of the students around her to the head table, where Professor McGonagal, now Headmistress McGonagal, was standing. The Professor stood in her pointed hat and deep maroon robes with the same dominant authority as ever. She too, appeared nearly unchanged, except that she seemed to have somehow aged several years more than could be accounted for. McGonagal gazed straight ahead, and the silence of the crowd was briefly broken by the deep crack of the enormous doors being opened once again.
In the doorway stood a sea of fresh faces. Varying in expression from happily excited, to nearly ill with nervousness, the first years took in the sight of the Great Hall for the very first time.
"They never saw what it was like last year, after, you know... everything that happened," Hermione pointed out to Ginny, ignoring the painful twinge inside of her at the realization. "They don't even..." she trailed off. Don't what? Don't see the same sick collage of the violence and despair of the past mixed in with the exciting and beautiful potential of the future?
But the first years stood in awed silence all the same. Argus Filch, Hogwarts' scowling caretaker, made his way from the fringes of the room carrying a simple, three-legged stool to the center of the room. Hermione looked for the change and saw it. His scowl was still there, but his eyes were haunted. Apparently, even the foulest of the Hogwarts staff had been scarred by the evil that had filled the school last year.
Quickly following, the crowd's collective eye was drawn to the four-legged Firenze, who marched under the floating candles to the wooden stool, carrying respectfully in his hands the famous, tattered Sorting Hat.
Ginny chuckled. "I wonder how many of them have ever seen a real Centaur before." Hermione allowed herself a brief moment of amusement at a few of their shocked stares and dropped jaws. She chuckled at a tiny witch who was openly pointing, arm raised.
"What the bloody 'ell is he doing here?" Ginny said, a bit loudly. Hermione sat back in confusion. Why wouldn't the Divination Professor be there? She looked at Ginny briefly and glanced back to the tiny, pointing first year.
Suddenly, she noticed that the small girl was not pointing directly at the Centaur, but past him toward the head table. Hermione followed her gaze, and her body jerked violently in shock as her sight caught on a pair of angry, coal-black eyes.
Her breath stopped. He stared her down haughtily, as though appraising her for something. Then, failing to find it, he sneered and slowly turned his gaze away, his every movement made in a tone of disapproval.
Hermione simply stared, wide-eyed and openmouthed.
It honestly should not have been such a surprise to see him there, she mused. Everyone had been reading for months about his miraculous recovery, about the young medic who had found himself quite forcefully directed to the boathouse by none other than Fawkes the phoenix. It was quite apparent to everyone that the tears of the magical bird were the only reason the Professor, lying in a pool of his own blood, had still been alive when the St. Mungo's employee found him.
Before the man had even woken from his brief coma, Harry had told all the major newspapers about his vital role as double agent for the past seventeen years. Told them of the hated hero they had been living in fear of all this time. No one would have believed it if the source had been any other than The Boy Who Lived, or if he had asserted any less fervently the truth of the matter.
"The Man Who Lived" a few of the more daring tabloids dubbed him. Despite the "Daring Double Agent's" refusal to so much as show his face in public, let alone participate in any interviews, the stories of his heroic role in the war and the accompanying blinding fire of his fame could be outshone only by the fame and stories of Harry Potter himself.
The nature of his feelings for a certain dead woman, however, Harry respectfully kept between himself, Ron and Hermione.
Professor Snape, she automatically corrected herself.
"What is he doing here?"Ginny repeated herself. "I thought teaching was just a cover. I mean, I would bet a thousand galleons that he didn't come back for the sheer love of molding young minds. He's never exactly been fond of children."
Hermione stayed silent, scanning his dark frame for any hint of change, as she had previously scanned the Great Hall and its other occupants. Unlike Hogwarts however, his countenance refused to yield. He sat darkly, glaring at the Sorting Hat intensely enough to burn a hole in it. He showed no sign of the heroism and depth that he had revealed to Harry in what they had all thought were his final moments. A possible excuse for his severe lack of transformation eluded her.
She sat dumbly, still staring rudely, when a loud cry of "Slytherin!" interrupted her thoughts. She noticed that she had missed the Sorting Hat's opening song, and it looked as though she had missed the first half of the sorting as well.
"Nelly Normik!" Firenze called out, and a portly young girl with a mess of dirty blonde hair nervously stepped up to the Hat. Ginny leaned toward her conspiratorially.
"I heard that Fawkes refused to leave Snape's room at St. Mungo's until he woke up," she said eagerly. "And that his presence there was another sign of Hogwarts' acceptance of Snape as the Headmaster."
That part surprised Hermione.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked.
Ginny looked at her reprovingly. "Don't you remember when that Umbridge woman declared herself Headmistress?" she prompted. "She couldn't gain access to the Headmaster's office. Like the castle itself wouldn't acknowledge her as Headmistress."
"But when Snape was acting as Headmaster he had full access," Hermione filled in. "The castle must have known what he was really trying to do."
"Exactly," Ginny continued, "And technically, Snape was still Headmaster until the Ministry came in and declared McGonagall as acting Headmistress."
Hermione mulled over the new information through the remainder of the sorting. She only managed to push it from her mind once everyone was seated and the opening feast appeared on the table in front of them. She managed, if only temporarily, to forget herself in the variety of delectable culinary wonders at the table.
Hermione stuffed herself on pumpkin juice and samplings of each dish within arm's reach until she felt fit to burst. She leaned back on the bench and laughed at Ginny's ridiculous impersonations of Filch, finally feeling some of the tension of the day leaving her, but trying, unsuccessfully, to keep her eyes from wandering back to the dark figure at the head table.
After dessert had been consumed, and Professor McGonagall's closing remarks had been made, the students began stretching their over-filled bodies and slowly pushing their ways back to their dorm rooms. As Hermione stood by the doorway, waiting for the rest of the Gryffindors to gather, she heard a thick scottish accent through the crowd.
"Professor McGonagall!" she called in surprise.
"Please accompany me to my office," the professor said, then turned and strode out into the hallway.
Hermione followed the aging witch through the castle, bewildered. She wondered what she could have done to get into trouble already. During previous years, it had not been entirely unheard of for her small group of friends to be in trouble this early in the term, but without the trio's two main troublemakers here this year, she was hard pressed to imagine what she might have done to illicit the attention. At the thought of her two missing friends, her chest tightened again, and she frantically pushed the thoughts away.
McGonagall approached the stone gargoyle guarding the stairs to her office.
"Domestica Felines." The gargoyle leapt aside, revealing the long spiral staircase. Hermione walked quietly into the familiar office as McGonagall seated herself behind the spacious desk. Hermione took in the various mystical items filling the room. She tried to ignore the pull of the packed bookshelves lining nearly every wall of the room, and noticed the stone pensieve that Harry had told her so much about. Her eyes were drawn up to the colorful portrait of Albus Dumbledore. He smiled down at her, eyes twinkling behind his half-moon glasses, and winked.
Professor McGonagall relaxed into her chair, finally releasing the stern expression from her face and smiling amiably at Hermione.
"Thank you for coming in, Miss Granger. I know you have a great deal of settling in to do tonight."
"Of course Professor," Hermione answered. "It's no trouble."
"I wanted to give you a chance to ask me why you were not made Head Girl this year," McGonagall said, businesslike.
Hermione sat back in surprise. She couldn't possibly be that transparent, and besides, she'd only been on the premises for barely over an hour. But at least she could be relieved that she wasn't here to be chastised. "There's really no need, Professor, I didn't expect..."
"Of course you did, girl," McGonagall interrupted, "We all expected it. I want to be sure that you know that you weren't overlooked for any lack of qualifications."
Hermione flushed. She had, in fact, been expecting to be Head Girl, and had been surprised when she hadn't received the request with the year's supply list. She had been almost as surprised when Ginny, grinning with excitement, ran down the stairs of the burrow with her Head Girl badge in hand.
"You've been through a great deal this past year, my dear. More than most. I imagine it's been rather difficult to get back to a regular life, after everything that has happened. I didn't feel that the added pressures of Head Girl would be advantageous for you."
But it would be for Ginny? Hermione thought, then scolded herself for the hint of jealousy she sensed in herself. She truly was happy that Ginny had been chosen for the position. She was going to be an excellent Head Girl.
"I must admit though, that concern for your emotional recovery was not my only motivation in making this decision," McGonagall continued. "May I ask if you have chosen a career path to pursue after you graduate?"
"Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures," Hermione answered automatically.
McGonagall chuckled. "Still going to free the House Elves then, are we?"
Hermione subconsciously lifted her chin with just a hint of defiance.
"Well, that is a worthy cause. You are signed up then, for Care of Magical Creatures,
Wizarding Policies and Governments and Advanced Arithmancy?" the professor asked.
"Yes," Hermione answered, "in addition to Muggle Studies and Magical Histories."
"Good. I will be straight with you Miss Granger," Mcgonagall said, looking her in the eye. "I have no doubt that you will make a significant contribution in Control of Magical Creatures. You will do a great deal of good there. But I ask you, is that all you want to do?"
Hermione frowned, confused.
McGonagall leaned forward and placed a small item on the desk in front of Hermione. It was a time turner.
It was the time turner. The very same one. Possibly the wizarding world's only remaining time turner.
"I believe that your potential far exceeds your current ambitions," McGonagall said seriously. "You have access to the best education that the wizarding world can offer. I suggest you take advantage of that fact."
"But-" Hermione began, taking the familiar item in her hand without even thinking about it, "-none of the other classes this term relate to my chosen career."
"Precisely," McGonagall said. "In this school, we have a staff of highly qualified experts in almost every area of study. Can you truly tell me, Miss Granger, that the only thing you are interested in learning this year is politics?"
Hermione shook her head, eyes downcast. She looked again at the small hourglass suspended in the circular bands of gold. She held the time turner hesitantly, as if afraid that the small artifact may suddenly force it's own use on her.
Highly qualified experts... That part was certainly true. She could probably be tutored in just about any subject she'd want. Perhaps she could even gain an apprenticeship. The sheer potential for learning promised by the item in her hand was immensely tempting. It almost seemed to grow heavier in her hand and she realized the possibilities that could now open up for her. Her hand closed around the small device as if of its own accord. There was so much she could learn. She could finally learn... everything.
That was, if one particular "highly qualified expert" agreed to it.