A/N: Disclaimer, see chapter 1. Sorry it's been so long since I've updated, but I'm back in the swing of things, so hopefully updates will be more frequent. A huge thanks to everyone who added this story to their alert list, favorites, etc, and for leaving such wonderful reviews! I really appreciate it! Xx

Chapter 3

Slowly, the trio made their way into the castle. At once the warmth of the castle filled Hermione and she was glad to finally be home. Following the throng of students into the Great Hall, she noticed a lot of people were giving them dirty looks.

She narrowed her eyes at a Hufflepuff who was furiously whispering to her friend and pointing at them. Hermione wouldn't take any of this rubbish about Harry being a liar. Why would Harry even lie about such a thing?

Minister Fudge was surely losing his mind. Covering up the truth with lies was a rather funny way of being responsible, and once more Hermione thought Cornelius Fudge was not suited to his job.

Luna dreamily said good-bye before moving off towards the Ravenclaw table. Looking forward, the three of them made their way towards the Gryffindor table, sitting about halfway down with Neville. Ginny took off to sit with some girls in her own year.

Looking around, Hermione saw there were candles floating near the ceiling. She had always admired the magic that was involved with the castle. That was old, deep magic, nothing that anyone could possibly replicate today. She was a firm believer that the castle was sentient.

Her gaze moved towards the staff table, frowning when she realized Hagrid wasn't there either. Worry flooded through her… what if he had been hurt? There was no way Hagrid would have just upped and left Hogwarts. Perhaps he was doing something war related?

Either way, Hermione couldn't miss the worry etched onto Harry's face. She gently placed her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure he's fine," she whispered.

"Yeah," he grumbled, looking downwards.

Hermione internally sighed. It seemed like this year would be a bumpy one for them all.

First You-Know-Who, now this mess of no one believing Harry, Hagrid missing, and to top it all off, O.W.L.s were this year! How in Merlin's name was she supposed to keep this all together?

Looking upwards, Hermione scanned the table once more, her gaze landing on a woman who was dressed head to toe in pink. She cringed at the woman's dress. The woman turned and immediately Hermione thought she looked like a toad. She was short, fat, and chubby. "Who is that?" she asked, although she had already assumed that the woman would be taking over Defense against the Dark Arts position.

"It's that Umbridge woman!" Harry said with a low growl.

"Who?" she asked again. How did Harry know her?

"She was at my hearing, she works for Fudge."

Hermione frowned at the thought of someone from the Ministry teaching at Hogwarts, but then immediately gasped when her brain registered what Harry said. "A hearing?" she practically screeched, causing a few other students to turn their heads and looked at them.

Harry shrugged. "Yes, I had to attend a hearing this summer. You missed a lot, Hermione, when you were out having fun with your parents," he snapped at her.

Her feelings were hurt, but at least she knew why he was being so difficult. He was mad that she wasn't there for him during this rough time. But still, that was no reason for him to snap at her.

"You know, Harry," she whispered snidely, "I just figured with everything going on, I'd spend some time with my parents before things go too bad. Sorry about that," she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.

Harry huffed, turning towards Ron.

She rolled her eyes, shaking her head. When would he grow up?

Once more, her gaze flicked upwards towards the staff table, surprised when she locked eyes with Professor Snape. He held her gaze across the room, causing her heart to race a bit. She didn't know why he was looking at her, but she didn't want to look away. So she didn't.

The two of them stared at each other for a few minutes before his face turned into a sneer. He jerked his head away, the connection between them breaking.

Hermione shivered a bit. That was weird, she thought to herself, wrapping her arms around her body.

She always wondered what teachers did during the summer session, but it was Professor Snape she thought about the most. He was an… interesting man, and she was just curious as to what he was like in his down time.

But as Hermione looked at him once more, she noticed he looked tired. He obviously didn't want to be there right now because his expression was one of boredom, but she could have sworn she saw bags under his eyes. Hell, his skin looked rather pale and gaunt, as if he was on his death bed.

She fervently hoped that wasn't the case because despite his hardness, Snape was one of her favorite professors. He always knew what he was doing and when he brewed in class, it was obvious he loved it. He always spoke about potions with such a passion; Hermione couldn't help but feel his excitement. To be honest with herself, she always put the most effort into his class. Snape was so smart and subconsciously, she was always looking for his approval.

The doors to the entrance hall opened and the long line of scared looking first years filed in. Professor McGonagall followed them, carrying the stool and the sorting hat.

All the talk and excitement in the Great Hall died down at that moment, all them waiting to see what the sorting hat said this year.

Professor McGonagall placed the stool in front of the staff table, laying the hat upon it. Stepping back, she waited.

The hat's brim opened wide like a mouth and burst into song.

Hermione listened carefully to the words.

It started out talking about the Founders and how they decided to split up the classes, but it was the last part that sent chills down her spine.

Oh, know the perils, read the signs,

The warning history shows,

For our Hogwarts is in danger

From external, deadly foes

And we must unite inside her

Or we'll crumble from within.

I have told you, I have warned you…

Let the Sorting now begin.

At once mutters and whispers broke out throughout the hall, scattered with applause.

Everyone knew just what exactly the Sorting Hat was referring too, although no one wanted to believe it. This was proof; the You-Know-Who has risen again and was gaining strength.

Hermione trembled slightly at the implications.

"Branched out a bit this year, hasn't it?" said Ron, his eyebrows raised.

"Too right it has," Harry mumbled, lost in his thoughts.

Scanning her mind, Hermione realized they had never heard the hat really give advice before. Looking around, she realized Nearly Headless Nick was sitting right next to them… surely he would know. "Has the hat ever given warnings before?" she asked him, wondering what his reply would be.

"Yes, indeed," he said almost immediately, moving a bit closer. "The hat feels itself honor-bound to give the school due warning whenever it feels-"

But his was cut off as Professor McGonagall began to call the students up for their sorting.

Hermione internally sighed. She was wanted to know more about the hat and its' duties. The hat was sentient, just like the castle. Maybe a trip to the library was in order, but she doubted there was anything there. But she could hope.

She listened along, but not really paying attention to the sorting. She clapped furiously though whenever her house gained a new member. The sorting always brought back previous memories of their first year. She smiled wistfully as she remembered how nervous she was to sit upon that stool and be sorted.

Hermione had thought because she was Muggleborn and didn't know much about magic, that the hat wouldn't be able to put her anywhere. She was so afraid that she'd be rejected in front of all those people.

The Sorting finished and Professor Dumbledore rose to his feet. "To our newcomers, welcome! To our old hands- welcome back. There is a time for speech making, but this is not it. Tuck in!" He beamed at the students, a smile etched across his face.

Food appeared all along the tables at once. There were pies, vegetables, sauces, and flagons of pumpkin juice. Feeling her stomach growl, she scooped some food on her plate. She didn't realize how hungry she was until that moment.

Looking at Ron, she cringed when she saw he was already piling food into his mouth. Typical.

Glancing back at Nearly Headless Nick, she figured she'd continue their conversation. "What were you saying before the Sorting? About the hat giving warnings?"

"Oh yes," said Nick, turning away from Ron with a look of disgust on his ghostly face. "I have heard the hat give several warnings before, always at times when it detects period of great danger for the school. And always, of course, its advice is the same: Stand together, be strong from within."

Hermione immediately wondered just how exactly it was able to detect trouble brewing. Unluckily for her, Ron voiced that question, but not very clearly.

"Ow kunnit nofe skusin danger ifzat?" he muttered, his mouth so full Hermione was surprised sound even came out.

"I beg your pardon?" Nearly Headless Nick asked, looking just as revolted as Hermione felt.

"I think he's trying to ask how it can know if the school's in danger if it's a hat." Hermione offered, to which Ron nodded.

"I have no idea," the ghost replied. "Of course it lives in Dumbledore's office, so I daresay it picks things up there."

"And it wants all the Houses to be friends? Fat chance," Harry mumbled, his gaze drifting towards the Slytherin table.

Hermione rolled her eyes at his lack of enthusiasm. Harry was just so thick headed sometimes.

"You shouldn't take that attitude," Nick said reprovingly. "Peaceful cooperation is the key. We need to maintain links of friendship if the school is to survive when disaster strikes."

"Yeah, I don't think so," Ron said, snorting.

Nearly Headless Nick shook his head. "That is why there will always be hatred between the Houses; because people like you are too narrow minded." The ghost started to drift away.

"Nick, wait! We weren't saying that at all!" she called after him, but he had already left. Furiously, she turned towards Ron and Harry. "Well done, both of you!" She still had more questions that she wanted to ask the ghost about the hat, but the boys just ruined that for her. Hopefully, she'd be able to get ahold of Nick later on.

Ron grumbled something about her overacting before turning back to his food. Harry did he same.

As the chatter began to increase, the food disappeared. Professor Dumbledore stood, glancing out at the students. "We have a few notices we need to go over before I release you all for the evening. First years ought to know that the forest in the grounds is out of bounds to students- and a few of our older students ought to know by now too."

Harry sent Hermione and Ron grins.

"Mr. Filch, the caretaker, asked me to remind you once more that magic is not permitted in the corridors between classes, nor are the things listed on his ban, which can be found outside of Mr. Filch's office door.

"We have two new changes in staff this this year. We're welcoming back Professor Grubbly-Plank, who will be taking Care of Magical Creatures lessons; we are also delighted to introduce Professor Umbridge, our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher."

Dumbledore continued to talk, but Hermione didn't hear much of what he was saying because at that moment, Professor Umbridge stood, loudly saying, "Hem, hem."

Her jaw practically dropped. No teacher had ever dared to interrupt Dumbledore before and judging by the other professor's looks of surprise and hated, she assumed that they weren't too pleased as well.

Even Snape looked like he wanted to throttle the woman in pink.

Hermione listened to the woman's speech, feeling more and more restless. How could that vile woman think she could just waltz into Hogwarts and take over? Immediately she knew this was the Ministry's idea of interfering.

Minister Fudge had seriously taken this much too far.

Once the toad woman finished, she sat down. Professor Dumbledore clapped, but he was practically the only one. Glancing around, Hermione saw similar looks of confusion and disgust on her fellow students' faces.

"What a bunch of rubbish," Harry mumbled.

"But did you realize what they were saying?" Hermione pressed hurriedly.

"Not really," Ron answered sheepishly.

She sighed. "Progress for progress's sake must be discouraged? And pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited?"

"What does that mean?" Ron snapped, making it obvious that he was rather tired and cranky.

"It means the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts."

Harry's expression turned murderous at once. "That vile woman… Fudge has no right," he muttered under his breath.

Looking around, Hermione noticed that everyone was standing. She jumped up, grabbing Ron's arm. "Come on, we're supposed to show the first years where to go."

"Oh, right," he said, turning pink. "Oi, midgets!"

Hermione smacked him upside the back of his head. "You can't call them that," she whispered to him. "First years, this way," she said loudly, so everyone could hear.

Together, she and Ron escorted the small frightened children towards Gryffindor Tower. Harry had walked ahead of them, hands in his pockets, a grim expression on his face.

"Do you reckon he'll be all right?" Ron asked, looking worried.

"I'm not sure," she mumbled sadly. "I do hope so."

Once they reached the portrait of the Fat Lady, Hermione turned towards the First Years. "In order to get inside the Common Room, you must know the password. Our password is Mimbulus mimbletonia. Do your best to remember it or else you'll be stuck out here for quite some time." Walking inside, she waited a moment for all the students to look around and take it all in.

"Blokes' rooms are up on the right, the girl's up on the left," Ron said, pointing each way.

"Now off to bed, I'm sure you're all exhausted and you have a big day tomorrow," Hermione said, smiling at them all.

After making sure everyone made their way upstairs, Hermione turned to Ron. "I had rather hoped Harry would have waited down here for us."

Ron shrugged. "He's probably just in bed."

There was an awkward silence between the two of them.

"Er, goodnight then," Ron mumbled, turning pink in the face.

"Goodnight," she replied, turning and making her way towards her room. Once inside, she noticed that Lavender and Parvati were furiously whispering about something, stopping once they noticed Hermione. Fay was curled up in bed, reading a book.

"Is it true?" Lavender whispered. "All that stuff about Harry?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Harry's telling the truth."

"But no one else was there," Parvati snidely protested. "How can you be so sure he isn't making it up?"

"Because he's my best friend and I trust him," Hermione snapped. "Now leave me out of your gossip before I give you detention." She was a Prefect now, might as well swing her weight around.

"How was your summer, Hermione?" Fay asked, smiling at the girl.

Hermione smiled back. "It was nice. I went on holiday with my parents."

"That sounds lovely. My older brother got married this summer, so it's been pretty hectic," Fay added. "But I'm glad to be back at school." She put her book down, turning on her side. "I believe Harry, just so you know."

Hermione had always liked Fay. She was quiet and studious, but was always there to talk. The girl kept to herself, but the two of them got along.

"Thanks Fay," she said with sincerity.

Fay smiled at her, before turning off her light.

"I'm exhausted, so goodnight," Hermione mumbled, yawning. She had just gotten under covers when Crookshanks jumped up. "Hey Crooks," she said, stroking his fluffy orange fur. The half-kneazle curled up by her feet, falling asleep.

Hermione fell asleep moments later.