Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and Hermione Granger was drenched in sweat. Her eyes shot open and, with her chest still heaving up and down, she absorbed everything around her.
Gone was the steam of her hot breath in the frigid woods, Harry Potter was not tossing and turning beside her, and Ronald Weasley was not mumbling sentiments of envy. Hermione's world was so different than it was less than a year prior, and even though it was for the better, she still had not grown to accept it.
Because of her age and her place in the war, Professor McGonagall had granted her a private dormitory. She suspected a few others would have earned such a privilege if they had come back to Hogwarts, but upon her return, she discovered that very few had decided to join her in finishing their N.E.W.T.s. Harry, Ron, and Neville Longbottom had taken jobs as Aurors, despite their lack of scholarly credentials, and Luna Lovegood was living with her father in their rook-shaped home near the Burrow. Their absence made her all the more gracious for Ginny.
Hermione groggily changed out of her pajamas and into her robes. She still was not used to having a room to herself, and she felt a pain in her chest as she thought of Lavender. Perhaps, she had never gotten along with the girl, but she would never wish death upon her—especially not at the hands of Fenrir Greyback.
With the departed weighing heavily on her mind, she laced her shiny, black shoes and knocked on the back of Ulysse Moreau's portrait hole. The huffy Frenchman's portrait swung open, he bid her adieu, and she offered him a salute, as she now did every morning. How strange it felt to carry out a normal routine when so many were dead.
Hermione, as usual, had her thoughts interrupted by passersby. Much like herself, the first-years that crossed the hall in front of her seemed to be late for breakfast. Unlike herself, they seemed to care.
"No, Jeanie, there's no way it's that way because that's how you get to—wait, is that where the Transfiguration Room is?"
"Erm—I'm not sure."
"This place is just so big. Breakfast will be gone by the time we find it!"
"Are you looking for the Great Hall?"
The two first-years whipped around, eyes wide. Their age was clear not just because of their short stature, but also by the books that they carried. In their small arms,The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 1 looked as hefty as she remembered it being when she was in her first year. How fortunate they were to start school after Voldemort's reign. How fortunate they were to never fully understand the horrors he unleashed upon the Wizarding World.
Hermione had not grown to embrace being a celebrity. She had, however, gotten used to it.
"Yes, I'm her," she said, flatly. "Now, follow me."
The boy and girl fell into step behind her, suddenly silent.
The Great Hall was bustling. The two students murmured their thanks and scurried towards the Hufflepuff table, which was already buzzing with excitement. The Gryffindor table, impressively, was much louder. Once she found Ginny and sat down, Hermione discovered the source of the noise. A second-year named Bernard Sittlebaum had managed to sneak several Stinkpellets past Filch, and as any second-year would, felt the need to show them off to anyone that would listen to him. In all his excitement, he accidentally dropped one into the baked beans, leaving a terrible stench for the table and an unwelcome aftertaste for another student that ate the beans on a dare.
"I'm glad we didn't sit at that end of the table," Ginny said, prodding at the yolk of one of her fried eggs. It burst and covered the rest of her plate in oozing, yellow splendor. "It stinks all the way down here. Can't imagine how bad it is by that lot."
"Revolting, I assume," Hermione said, mildly.
"That's an understatement. That thing smells worse than a Dungbomb. They must've changed how they make them because I don't remember them ever being that bad when Fred and George used to chuck them everywhere."
How Ginny spoke of Fred without sullying her mood, Hermione did not know, because simply hearing his name was enough to make her eyes prickle. Fred, in all his humor and joy, could have so easily been Ron, and that thought only brought her back to the fact that she hadn't heard from Ron since summer. Even in training, she knew Aurors faced dangerous witches and wizards in the field, and with dozens of Death Eaters at large, she thought about him every day. Ron should have known better than to leave her to entertain her worries, but still, he left her to wonder if his fate would match that of his brother. Nevertheless, the breakfast table was not the place for such discussions, so all she said was, "I suppose."
"Are you okay?" Ginny mopped the yolk up with her toast and took a large bite. "You seem sort of—I don't know—distant."
"Oh, I'm fine," Hermione hummed. The sound of flapping wings filled her ears, and although she dreaded that very sound, she was grateful for the change of subject. "Sounds like the morning post is on the way."
In swooped at least twenty owls, each landing in front of the student whose mail they carried. As usual, a majestic snowy owl that looked much like Hedwig had landed in front of Ginny, a thick envelope tied to its foot. Ginny untied the letter and proffered the bird a kipper.
"Good boy, Altius," the Weasley girl cooed, patting him on the head. The bird fluttered away, fish in its beak and pride in its soar. "Don't tell Harry, but I think I prefer him to Hedwig. Such a sweet owl."
"Honestly, I was surprised Harry can even care for an owl with how little time he seems to have with work and all. Snowy owls are a bit high maintenance, aren't they?"
"More than most." Ginny ripped into the envelope and pulled out a long, folded piece of parchment, all handwritten, and quite obviously from Harry. "He says hi, by the way. Harry, I mean."
"Does he?" Hermione said, acidly, stabbing at the tomato on her plate. Tomatoes always reminded her of Ron.
Ginny tilted her head. "Are you mad at him or something?"
"I just think it's funny that I've written him twice now and he's yet to write me back, but you have gotten what? Ten different letters from him? All longer than any essay I've ever seen him write, mind you."
"I'm his girlfriend, Hermione. He's supposed to write to me."
"So he's not supposed to write to me?" Hermione snapped, standing. For a split second, she noticed Draco Malfoy staring at her, but she decided it was best not to dwell on him. "We've been friends since first year!"
"Hermione, I didn't mean—"
"No, it's fine. I ought to be going anyway." She sucked down the rest of her orange juice. "I have homework."
Before Ginny could get another word in, Hermione stormed out of the Great Hall, infuriated with Ron, Harry, and anyone else that had anything to do with either of them.
Not speaking to Ginny reminded Hermione how dreadfully lonesome Hogwarts could be without friends. She wove in and out of her respective classes, passing most of them with extraordinarily high marks. There was, however, one class that still bested her. Potions with Slughorn was, somehow, more challenging than the class had ever been with Snape. She remembered he challenged her in her sixth year, but some of the potions they were brewing were far from complicated, especially compared to some of her more impressive mixtures, such as the Polyjuice Potion she brewed when she was just a second-year. No matter the simplicity of the assignment, she was never able to pass—and this time, there was no blaming Snape for being unfair.
It was after Defense Against the Dark Arts that Hermione decided to wrangle her Arithmancy homework. As they walked out of Whittlewood's classroom, Ginny shouted, "Hermione! Hey, Hermi—" but Hermione heard nothing more after that, because she ignored her. Instead, she tailed a small group of students that were headed in the other direction. One by one, each individual split away from the group, and to her horror, the last person left to follow was Draco Malfoy. Of course, she wasn't following him, but to him, it might have appeared that way.
The library was nearby, and to properly do the Arithmancy homework that they had both been assigned, they would need to reference additional source material. Her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. What if Malfoy took the book that she needed? He had already proven that he could move much more swiftly than she could, and she could hardly ask him to share.
Shortly after having this awful thought, her irrational fear proved to be nothing more than just that. Rather than continuing down the corridor, Malfoy disappeared behind a rather ugly statue of a centaur; it certainly had not been there in Hermione's previous years, so it must have been commissioned after the centaurs played their role in the war.
With Malfoy nowhere in sight, Hermione was convinced that the statue led to a hidden room, and she found herself doing as Harry would have done. Instead of ignoring him and going straight to the library, she purposefully dropped her Arithmancy book—this made her want to vomit—and as she reached down to pick it up, she examined every inch of the statue. It did not appear to have any kind of loose addition that could be a trigger, but Malfoy would not sneak behind it if it did nothing. At least, that was what she thought.
"You can stop following me, Granger," he drawled, making her jump in surprise. "I'm working on Slughorn's essay, nothing more."
If he hadn't spoken, Hermione might not have noticed him. The statue was large, and with it shielding him, she could barely make out the flutter of his robes as he shifted around behind it.
"How did you—"
"Disillusionment Charm," he muttered, briefly reappearing in full as he rifled through his schoolbag and pulled out From Aconite to Zebra Grass. "Aren't you supposed to be smart?"
"Well yes, but—but it's—it's good," she admitted, quite certain that she could not cast such a successful Disillusionment Charm wordlessly. "When did you learn how to do it without saying the spell?"
"When do you think?" he asked, darkly.
"Oh, right." Her face suddenly felt very hot. "Why are you doing homework here, though?"
"Not all of us can just go to the library."
"Erm, ah—right. Well, I guess I'll leave you to it, then."
The library, like it did most days, beckoned her, but as she padded down the hallway, she found it difficult not to look back at the statue of the centaur and the troubled boy behind it.
After a successful visit to the library, an informative Transfiguration lecture, and a rather awkward Herbology lesson, Hermione was glad to be back in her dormitory. Professor Sprout had developed a bit of a stutter since the war, which, to Hermione's disgust, gave the seventh-year Ravenclaws and Daphne Greengrass something to giggle about each time that the woman spoke. Unfortunately, no amount of scolding seemed to make them stop.
Since she and Ginny were not on speaking terms, Hermione had been spending more and more time in the library and in her private room. While she did make time for a bit of breakfast, she never made her way down to the Great Hall for lunch or dinner, mostly because she wanted to avoid Ginny's constant attempts to make amends.
In actuality, she knew Ginny did not deserve to be on the receiving end of her frustrations, but she could not help but feel a little jealous of the redhead. Hermione had written to Harry, and not once had he responded. It was not Harry that upset her, though. It was Ron.
They shared a heated kiss during the war—a kiss she had been dreaming about since their fourth year—and while she might have understood his absence if that was the only time, it wasn't. Kingsley Shacklebolt offered Ron and Harry positions as Aurors not long after the final battle, but Ron found time for her when he was not in training. Stolen kisses in his bedroom and greedy hands after visits to the pub were the highlights of her summer, and back then, she thought they might have been the highlights of his too.
While she had sent Harry two letters, she had sent eight to Ron, each one longer than the last. The letters covered everything she could think of: Auror training, memories of summer, recollections of their childhood, and sometimes even her dreams. Still, he never wrote her back. Livolai, the school owl she had grown to know quite well, always returned to the Owlery with empty talons, ready for her next pathetic attempt at rekindling their summer romance.
With a sigh, she buried her face in her pillow and pulled her blanket close to her. Ronald Weasley, it seemed, would never grow up.
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