The station was empty—a small stretch of wooden platform and a stone, peaked-roof building and a creaking sign: HOGSMEADE. Hermione landed with a thunk of her heels against wood, her trunk in one hand and a cat carrier in the other.
She had never really noticed the station before, the platform, the tracks, the creaking sign, the wooden benches painted in alternating colors of red, green, blue and yellow. She had always arrived by train, too busy frantically rechecking her bag and robes, gathering stray candy, quills and cards that Ron had dropped or forgotten. Then she’d be pushed into a swirling swarm of teenagers, borne helplessly toward the carriages and driven away. Not once had she ever looked back at the station, her eyes were always fastened ahead, heart pounding with excitement.
Not this time. She had chosen to apparate to the station instead, avoiding the train and the crowds. She was here to finish her education and sit for her NEWTs, not relive her Hogwarts days. She didn’t feel like a student anymore, not even an “Eighth Year,” the special class the new Headmistress had created for returning Seventh Years. She envied Harry, who’d chosen to enter Auror training instead of returning. Ron tried to do the same, but his grades weren’t high enough—he needed NEWTs to qualify. He’d sulked for days over that letter from the Ministry. Hermione herself had no desire to become an Auror, although she’d received a personal letter from Shacklebolt inviting her into the training program.
She sat on the nearest bench, trunk and cat carrier settling obediently beside her, and tilted her head backwards to catch the warm sun. Odd, how clear and warm the weather was. Quite unlike Scotland. Odd to be at Hogwarts Station, sitting alone in a too-heavy uniform and robe, bathed in warm sunshine and silence …
A loud crack shattered the stillness, and Hermione leaped to her feet, wand out, eyes wide. Another student, also in uniform, also holding one handle of a trunk. His back to her, he stood facing the tracks, head drooping, fists clenched. She knew that profile, that shock of blond hair, that long, thin frame. For a moment, the only sound was the creaking sign and the boy’s—man’s, really—ragged breaths.
She gasped, and now it was his turn to leap to attention, wild-eyed, wand out. Grey eyes fastened on her instantly, then rolled dramatically, and Hermione knew his thoughts as clearly as if he’d spoken out loud: Of course it was her, of course she’d be here, of course he wouldn’t get two seconds alone to steel himself. … She almost sympathized, since she felt the same. She hadn’t purposely apparated herself here early so she could stand on the Hogsmeade Station platform with Draco Malfoy.
The light breeze from the mountains suddenly strengthened, carrying the faint call of a train whistle, and Hermione turned her head to see the scarlet engine burst out of a far-off tunnel and shoot toward the station with impossible speed. A fainter beating of wings from the opposite direction shifted her gaze back toward Malfoy, and the two silently watched a black line of skeletal thestrals wind down from the heights in single file, each pulling a black, low-slung carriage.
Another blast from the train whistle, this one almost deafening, and Hermione felt a strong urge to avoid the mob that would soon swarm the station. She walked down the platform, brushing past Malfoy, Crookshanks’ carrier floating behind. Her trunk she left to be brought with the baggage. The thestral carriages were now lined up alongside the tracks, and she had her eye on the last and smallest one. Hopefully it would fill up quickly and whisk her to the castle with the least fuss.
Again, she wasn’t the only one with such thoughts. Malfoy’s long legs quickly outpaced hers, and he leaped inside the last carriage in one fluid motion. Then he leaned back, arm slung over the back of the seat, insufferably smug, looking at her over the carriage’s folded-down top. Mine, his eyes said darkly, a familiar look for him. Mine, his eyes seemed to say, everything I want is mine, even after the war, after the failure and defeat, the destruction and the hatred, you are still a Mudblood, I am still a Malfoy, I am still free, and anything I want is still mine.
Hermione froze, her hyperactive sense of justice instantly kindled. She was here first! He purposely cut in front of her to take that carriage! Suddenly everything the man had done, the horror and tragedy he personally caused, paled in comparison to this one bold action. She was here first! Now she’d have to be the better person and huff away to a larger carriage, red-faced with righteous indignation, because that was what Hermione Granger did, not lower herself to his level …
Then she blinked slowly. Remembering. Remembering a trapped beetle, a scarred girl, an innocent couple obliviated and exiled for the crime of loving her. Malfoy, you have no idea what levels I’ve descended to.
Her face must have changed, because Malfoy’s eyes widened slightly. Hermione awkwardly hopped into the small carriage, sitting opposite him, and his staggered expression swelled her heart with satisfaction. Crookshank’s carrier dropped beside her on the seat; she could hear her familiar’s low growl. Smart cat. She zipped open the carrier and a fluffy orange head popped out hissing.
“Manners, Crooky,” Hermione crooned, petting his fur. “There’s nothing to fear here, Snoogy Woogums.”
“Get out,” Malfoy said, his growl matching the cat’s.
“Did you hear something, Crooky?” Hermione asked, basking in the heat of Malfoy’s glare. “Did anyone of importance say something? No, I didn’t think so, my Boo-Boo-Kitty.”
The train had stopped in an explosion of steam and squealing brakes, and the first wave of students rushed the carriages. Hermione’s back was the station platform, but she could clearly hear the gasps and shouts behind her: “It’s Granger! And Malfoy! In the last carriage! Look! Look!” The news shot through the crowd and their names, coupled in disbelief, rang repeatedly in their ears. Hermione grimaced, keeping her eyes on the cat. Maybe she hadn’t thought this through.
Then another name rippled through the crowd: “There’s Weasley! Ron Weasley! Weasley!” Hermione refused to turn around—why should she, just so she could watch him stride down the path, beaming from the acclaim of being one of the Golden Trio who saved the Wizarding World? She risked a look at Malfoy, who looked smug again.
“Hermione!” Ron was so tall that he could look straight into the carriage from the ground. “Are you mental? What are you doing there with him! It’s not safe!”
“Nonsense, Ronald, it’s perfectly safe,” she said.
“Are you sure, Granger?” Malfoy shifted to the center of his seat and stretched his legs slightly, one foot against hers.
Ron flushed. “Get away from her! Hermione, get out of there!”
“Did you hear something, Granger?” Malfoy asked. “Did somebody of importance say anything?”
Hermione suppressed a snort of amusement. “I’m not getting out, Ronald.”
“Well, I’m not sitting with him!” Ron snapped. “Nobody is going to sit with a Death Eater! Hermione!”
Malfoy’s eyes glittered and his fists clenched. Hermione tried very hard not to sigh. Ron had actually stumbled onto something resembling a point. Malfoy was a Death Eater to most of the students and a blood traitor the rest. The curse of the last-minute defector, reviled by both sides. She had no sympathy, but now they were just wasting time.
“You’re right, Ronald,” she said. “This carriage may be considered full.” Her voice rang out the last sentence, the tone of command, and the carriage’s thestral immediately leaped into the air, thrusting Hermione back into her seat and drawing an outraged yowl from Crookshanks. Malfoy braced himself with his legs to keep from falling on top of her, and Hermione looked down at a rapidly shrinking Ron, his dumfounded face upturned, as the carriage sailed beyond a line of trees and over the lake.
“You’re all right!”
“Of course I’m all right,” Hermione huffed at the Gryffindor table. “Have we met? I can handle a carriage ride with Draco Malfoy.”
“But why would you want to?” Ron asked, as she dropped into a seat opposite him. “It’s Malfoy!”
“Who?” Hermione asked.
“Mal—” Ron stopped himself and glared. “Why weren’t you on the train?”
Hermione shrugged. “I overslept.” She had stayed with her parents in the months following Voldemort’s defeat, helping them readjust to life in England again. While she had mostly reversed the memory charms she had placed on them in Australia, there were still gaps and fuzziness in her parents’ minds, mostly regarding anything related to magic. Which was probably for the best—they had picked up their dental practice again well enough, and didn’t object to her returning to Hogwarts.
Another ripple shuddered through the Gryffindor table. Hermione overslept? On the first day at Hogwarts? Our Hermione? Her friends’ looks practically bordered on betrayal. Missing classmates and still-shattered castle walls they took in stride, but Hermione Granger was never tardy.
Hermione put her napkin on her lap and tried not to sigh. Again. She understood, really she did. They just wanted security and peace and a feeling of normality, whatever that was. Would it kill her to give it to them?
“I was up too late reading my Potions textbook,” she lied. “The Salt of the Earth powder can temporarily nullify all magic within …”
Relieved murmurs all around. Ron smiled and shook his head. That was our Hermione. Staying up all night in needless study. All was well. The chattering and squabbling resumed, and Hermione stared into her goblet. She really hated pumpkin juice.
“Ron,” breathed Romilda Vane, shifting close to his side with a sweep of long black hair. “That was a wonderful interview you gave The Prophet.” With Harry’s absence, Vane was happy to move on to another war hero. “Everyone needs to know the truth.”
Hermione snorted softly. That interview revealed only a passing resemblance to the truth, dwelling on Ron’s exploits and minimizing Hermione’s and even Harry’s roles and failing to mention Neville at all. She met Neville’s eyes, expecting to see hurt at the snub, but he was talking softly to Ginny, flashing his newly sexy smile. Somebody had certainly grown up over the past year, she realized with a shock. A long way from her first journey to Hogwarts, when Hermione had roamed the compartments looking for Neville’s toad. She felt an almost maternal pride. The day she met Harry, and Ron doing some rubbish magic … and met Malfoy, too, she realized suddenly, remembering his sneer when she burst innocently into the Slytherins’ compartment and met only ridicule.
She looked over at Malfoy now, sitting a bit apart at the Slytherin table, expecting to see that same sneer but he just lounged on his bench, ignored by his housemates. It would take more than total ostracization to humble that man. A dragon with a meat cleaver couldn’t humble that man. Hermione was actually glad to see it—a chastened Malfoy would be almost as horrific as an irresponsible Granger. Perhaps her fellow Gryffindors weren’t the only ones eager for normalcy.
The entire Great Hall clapped as a seemingly endless line of first years—this year’s class plus all the muggle-borns banned from attending the year before—followed Hagrid up the center aisle. The Sorting Hat sang a long song about Peace and Friendship and House Unity, then divided all the children up. The Gryffindors groaned each time a student was placed into Slytherin, Ron loudest of all, which irritated Hermione.
“Stop it, Ronald!” she hissed. “They’re just children!”
“They’re Slytherins!” Ron cried.
“They’re 11 years old—now they think the whole school hates them!” Hermione’s voice cut through the babble of voices. “They need our support!”
Ron’s eyes narrowed. “You seem mighty fond of Slytherins all of the sudden. Have you forgotten—”
“I haven’t forgotten anything, but what do you want to do? Create a new generation of vicious snakes?”
“They killed Colin.” Dennis Creevey’s voice was harsh, and Hermione turned to look more closely at the dark-haired Fifth Year. He was still small, and spindly, with his bangs falling into his eyes, but those dark eyes were narrowed and burned with an almost fanatical hate.
“Those children,” Hermione said, pointing to a group of youngsters now nervously seated in the empty spaces around a bored Malfoy, “didn’t kill anybody. But if you treat them like criminals—”
“Hermione!” Ron cried, obviously convinced that if he repeated her name often enough, she would suddenly adopt whatever misguided opinion he held at that moment.
“She’s right,” Neville put in. “They’re just kids.”
Dennis and Ron glared, but blessedly shut up, and the groaning at the next Slytherin Sorting was a bit more subdued. Hermione risked another glance at Malfoy, who was now amusing himself by floating juice pitchers just out of the First Years’ reach and ignoring her completely.
Headmistress McGonagall stood to give the welcome speech, drawing Hermione’s eyes to the teacher’s table. Slughorn’s face was hidden by his enormous silver goblet. Beside him was an empty chair, undoubtedly for the next Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Madame Hooch, the new head of Gryffindor House, sat on McGonagall’s right, an arresting figure with white-blonde spiky hair, a multicolored Quidditch jersey clearly revealed by open black robes, and a bright red eyepatch. She had lost an eye during the Final Battle, Hermione remembered, flying above the melee casting curses until she was brought down by a curse from the ground. Hooch wasn’t the only one; Professor Sprout bore a burn scar on her forehead and McGonagall herself was still limping. Hermione thought of the faint silver lines on her own neck and the raised red letters on her arm, of Lavender, who had miraculously lived through Fenrir’s attack, and even of Malfoy and his Dark Mark. They were all scarred, teachers and students alike.
McGonagall’s welcome speech expanded on the topic of house unity. When Hogwarts got hold of an idea, she knew from experience, the teachers pushed it hard. Many students, especially Ron and Dennis, were shifting in their seats, flushing with anger, but the appearance of the feast on their plates cooled everyone down.
She managed to dodge Ron in the chaotic race to the House dorms, but he captured her hand in the Gryffindor common room and pulled her to a large windowsill.
“Hermione,” he said huskily, his other hand tangled in her curls. “Haven’t seen you in weeks. Missed me?”
She looked up at him levelly. Sleeping with Ron in the days after the last battle, when they were racked with grief and guilt, had been a truly impulsive move. They had cheated death, and old rules and morals simply didn’t seem to apply. Sex was a way to feel better, and had certainly worked spectacularly for Ron. His tears for Fred and the other victims had vanished as if she’d waved a wand (which perhaps she had in a way) only to reappear when a little extra wheedling was required. She’d finally broken it all off, saying she was too sad and overwhelmed with worry over her parents for a serious relationship, but now he believed returning to Hogwarts meant everything was back to normal.
Hermione knew what Ron was thinking: They (he) had won the war, and it was time for the spoils—heroes would bask in women and adoration while the defeated Slytherins lay crumbled and broken. Ron was in for a rude awakening, and she didn’t look forward to dishing it out. (Honestly, was there truly no one else around to deliver unpleasant truths to the masses?) She knew what was ahead for Ron, though. The public adulation would inevitably die down, even a Merlin Second Class medal couldn’t change a bad NEWT score, and none of the Slytherins she saw tonight looked particularly broken.
“No, Ronald,” she said, drawing back. “We talked about this.”
“I know you want it,” he breathed. “I remember …” He pressed her against the edge of the windowsill. “Remember Dad’s muggle shack? Hermione?”
Well, yes. He’d taken her on the splintery wooden floor, surrounded by broken clocks and blenders, her head pressed against a Shop-Vac. She remembered the heat and excitement and her blood singing —and for a few seconds, Ron’s touch brought it all back, that wanton need—and her hand around his wrist tightened. But then it all fizzled out somehow, and she saw only Ron’s shocked face at the thestral carriage, demanding that she leave the big, bad man and his big, bad shoe and return to Ron’s protective arms.
“No, Ronald,” she repeated. Honestly, they didn’t even need to argue anymore; the two of them could simply repeat each other’s names back and forth.
“I’m going to bed,” she announced loudly, stepping away with a less-than-graceful swerve as Ron’s arm shot out to block her. The man was so fucking physical whenever he was thwarted. Harry in such a situation would look probably look reproachful but try to understand, and Neville would likely just crumple with hurt. Well, maybe not anymore, he’d changed considerably, but Neville certainly wouldn’t be grabbing at a girl trying to get away. She couldn’t even imagine Malfoy doing that; such an action would be beneath his dignity, No, Malfoy would probably just arch an eyebrow: Such a timid, sad girl, denying herself such unparalleled pleasure.
Hermione chuckled at that last thought as she hurried toward the girls’ stairs, dismissing the rest of the common room with a wave. Ron would recover soon enough—plenty of girls were eager to sleep with a War Hero. They could have him.
Tucked into bed in her pajamas printed with dancing penguins, with Crookshanks curled up on her bed, Hermione watched the moonlight peeping through the curtains long after her roommates came to bed. Wind rattled the windows. Finally, she pulled her wand from under her pillow and set wards around her bed, repelling any intruders. Old habits died hard. Perhaps Eighth Year wouldn’t be so bad—it would be nice to be responsible only for herself. She had already turned down McGonagall’s invitation to be Head Girl—Padma Patil would do a fine job. Hermione didn’t even want to be a prefect. She’d done her bit for the Wizarding World, and for now, anyway, Hermione was the only cause she was interested in.