All the 7th year students-those who had survived-had decided to come back to Hogwarts to give their 7th year another go and take their NEWTs. With a war to be fought and their lives constantly endangered, none of them had taken the future very seriously, as it was likely that they wouldn't live to have one. They had come through the war, miraculously, and now had to go about finding a normal life. For Hermione, it was obvious that whatever else they decided to do, they would have to finish their schooling. So she had convinced the boys to return to Hogwarts, to try to recapture the last fleeting moments of youth that had been so savagely ripped away.
In addition to their own education, they would serve to help the school itself get back on its feet. It had seen so much death and loss of innocence. The castle, once full of warmth and magic, seemed cold and lifeless. She could not bear to leave it that way if she could do anything to stop it. So many professors had been lost that it wasn't certain that they could even reopen until the returning members of the DA had agreed to take on some of the lesser duties of professors while still being students themselves.
Hermione looked forward to this last year in the only real home she'd ever known. This year would be about healing-for her, for Hogwarts, and for all those involved. She had lost so much over the past year that she had emotionally shut herself down. She had every intention of slowly opening up her heart again, but not until she'd had time to heal.
With only a few more weeks until term started, she found herself longing for the safety and comfort of Hogwarts. She'd never fit in the Muggle world as a child. She supposed she had always known there was some place else for her, long before she learned that the Wizarding world even existed. She'd spent the last three months divided between the Burrow and Bill and Fleur's cottage. Meanwhile, Harry and Ron had taken up permanent residence at 12 Grimmauld Place. She saw them often but tried to distance herself from them gently.
Things had been awkward in the months since she had realized it was not going to work out with Ron. Her realization had started with the dreams. In them, she was at King's Cross Station with Ron, and then met Harry and Ginny. They were talking, surrounded by their children, loading them on to the Hogwarts Express. The dream itself was quite innocuous and yet every time she had it, she woke in a cold sweat, chest heaving and feeling nauseated.
It was around that time that Ron started pushing the boundaries of their new relationship. They hadn't even kissed until the final battle after years of tense flirting. Afterwards, in anguish and grief they'd held each other often, clinging to each other in sleep, lest their victory had not been real. Though kissing him had never caused her feelings other than comfort and safety, it seemed he felt more. She'd finally confessed the truth, that she loved him but wasn't in love with him. He seemed hurt at first but eventually admitted that he'd only rushed her in attempt to push away the brotherly feelings he carried for her. He'd begun dating Fleur's cousin, Clair, shortly after. Since Harry and Ginny were back together, she usually felt it best to leave the couples to themselves.
Instead, she spent the remainder of the summer doing much more domestic things. While she wanted the next term to start so she could stay a student just a little bit longer, she could not pretend she was still a child. She had always been more mature than the boys and the last year's events had worn on her, leaving her feeling much older, and more jaded, than her 18 years. She supposed it was just something that happened in times of war. Instead of fighting and acting out in flights of fancy and immaturity as the boys were wont to do, she embraced it. She helped Molly Weasley around the house, learning how to cook and run a household.
With the rest of her spare time, she went to Bill and Fleur's cottage as often as possible. She had quickly formed an attachment to Teddy Lupin, whom they had taken in. He was only a few months old, but quite advanced. When she spoke she was certain that he was not only listening, but understood everything she said. Sometimes she thought he was the only one who did. Not to mention that he was someone she could take care of. She'd spent the last seven years taking care of Harry and Ron. Now that it seemed unnecessary, she was at a loss.
While excited to return to her studies, the thought of not seeing him often made her anxious. Bill and Fleur promised to bring him to visit as often as they could. She tried to convince herself that, as Head Girl, she would be more than busy enough to take her mind of missing the child she'd grown to love almost as her own. Still, the ache in her chest grew as the summer drew to an end.
Finally the time had come for her to return to Hogwarts. As Head Girl, she would be returning two weeks early to prepare herself with the staff. The other returning 7th years would join them one week before the other students. It saddened her that she would not be riding the Express again but would instead be Apparating to Hogsmeade. She was to meet Professor McGonagall-now Headmistress-for tea before making her way from there.
"Miss Granger!" The Professor stood up to greet her and surprised Hermione by pulling her in for a quick hug. It had been two months since they'd seen each other at the last memorial service. After that, Hermione had stopped going to Order meetings and other gatherings and had refused to speak about them. She just wanted that part of her life to be over. She would not dwell on the past, horrific as it was. No one blamed her for it.
"Professor, it's very good to see you," Hermione said quietly as they sat. They made small talk about the summer and Hermione's future plans for quite a while before finishing their tea and making their journey up to the school. It seemed the Professor was stalling, putting off the inevitable business matters until they reached the main entrance. As though she couldn't wait any longer, she began explaining her duties and the changes made since she'd last been a student. As they reached Hermione's new quarters, the Professor asked her to sit in one of the over-sized chairs in the sitting room. She could tell she wasn't going to like whatever was coming.
"Miss Granger, after much deliberation we have decided that you will be assisting in the Potions classes."
"I look forward to it, Professor. It's always been one of my favorite classes and Professor Slughorn and I got on quite well my sixth year." She was relieved and couldn't understand why Professor McGonagall was so tense about this.
"Miss Granger...Professor Slughorn has decided not to return this year."
"Oh, that's too bad. Who will take..." Her voice trailed off as realization set in. "But...But...Oh." It was one of the few times words failed her.
"Yes. Professor Snape has decided to return to his prior position of Potions Master of Hogwarts."
"But I thought he'd want to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts," Hermione said softly, her brows knit in confusion. "That's what he always wanted before." She looked up in time to see the surprise on the older witch's face.
"Miss Granger, I'm quite certain that Professor Snape would not appreciate what I'm about to divulge so I ask that it not be repeated." She spoke slowly, pausing long enough for Hermione to nod her assent. "Obviously, the past years have been quite troubling to Sev--Professor Snape." Her voice softened clearly in concern for the man. "Much more troubling than he'd care to have others know." She rose to pace the room with a worried expression. "I have asked Professor Snape to return in hopes that these familiar surroundings would be a comfort to him and keep him from withdrawing from the world, as I fear he would if left to his own devices." She stopped pacing again to take a long look at Hermione. "I offered him the Defense position he once coveted in hopes that it would be enough to tempt him to return. At which point, he informed me that he had no desire or intention to return in such a capacity."
"Because he wants to distance himself from the Dark Arts, ma'am? Even the defense against them?"
"Precisely, Miss Granger. I was able to convince him to return to his Potions position and surprisingly as Head of Slytherin." The Professor returned to sit in front of the younger witch. "I don't want to give you false hopes, Miss Granger. Professor Snape has not changed as much as one would hope at the end of all this. He is still the hardened, sarcastic, caustic man he ever was. In fact, I fear he will be worse now that his attentions are not divided."
"You mean since he doesn't have to serve the Dark Lord and keep up appearances. He can be fairly unfair, as it were."
"Indeed." Hermione noticed the appraising look the Headmistress gave her before continuing. "Are you prepared for that, my girl?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Professor Snape has been making my life miserable for seven years. I can handle him." The two shared a conspiratorial smile.
"I believe you can, my dear. I believe you can."
Hermione spent the next couple hours unpacking, arranging her rooms and preparing for the staff meeting after dinner. Just after 5 p.m., she stood before the Great Hall, trying to see it as it actually was, instead of how she'd last seen it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and willed away the visions of groups of people huddled around the bodies of their dead loved ones. When she opened her eyes, she looked up see the lovely blue skies of the charmed ceiling. She was glad she'd decided to come early to dinner in case of such a reaction. She did not wish to show weakness in her first day back.
Being as early as she was, there was no one else seated at the large table. In lieu of the long table at the head of the hall, the tables had been arranged into a square at the center of the room. She hated having to choose a chair in a room full of people so she was glad to have arrived first. She'd much rather people come to her instead. She didn't like feeling like she was forcing her presence on others. Pulling out a textbook from her bag, she read as she waited.
Hermione didn't have to wait long before other staff members trickled in and took their places around the table. She made small talk as they waited for the others to arrive. There were only two empty seats, one on the corner and one across from her but this was normal. Six years of meals in the Great Hall had taught her quite a bit about the professors and their habits. Professor Trelawny was rarely on time, shuffling in a few minutes after the meal began. Professor Snape did not come to dinner one minute before 5:30 p.m. and didn't stay a moment longer than was required. Madam Pomfrey was usually the last to leave, making sure everyone had finished their dinners.
As though waiting for his cue, Professor Snape entered in his usual swirl of black robes as the clock chimed the dinner bell. Of the two chairs available, she was surprised when he chose the one across from her. Her eyes locked with his for a long, silent moment before the house-elves began serving. In that span of a few seconds, he was as the last time she had seen him five months ago.
They had left his body in the Shrieking Shack. She looked back repeatedly, but followed Harry and Ron to the castle. She had gone to Ginny after finding the Weasleys gathered around poor Fred's body. Hermione held her for a few moments before something inside her broke. She ran from the Hall, fled full speed back across the grounds to the Whomping Willow and through the tunnel to the Shack. He was still lying where they'd left him in a pool of his own blood. She threw herself on his body and cried. She couldn't bear to think of him alone. The others who had fallen were surrounded by loved ones, but he who had sacrificed so much was there alone. As she sobbed, she thought she heard something. Afraid that one of the Death Eaters had followed her in, she quickly stilled and listened, clenching her wand. No, she thought, I'm imagining it. I must be having a breakdown. As she listened though, she became certain what she heard was a very faint, and very slow, heartbeat.
The rest of the memory was a frenzied blur. She'd exhausted herself trying to bring him back from the edge. She'd then Apparated him to St. Mungo's. She deposited his body and alerted a nurse without letting anyone see her before rejoining the battle soon after. In the confusion, no one had even noticed she was gone. She had never told anyone that she was the one to save him. It might call her feelings into question and that was something she wasn't willing to do. At least not yet.
The memory haunted her dreams but there he was, sitting across from her in the Great Hall, warm and alive. Still, for the rest of her life, she would never forget how he looked lying in blood, his black eyes unseeing. She didn't meet his glance for the rest of the night.
It was with much apprehension that she made her way to the Dungeons the next afternoon. She was to go over her duties as his assistant and help him prepare the stores for the students' arrival. Various healing potions were to be made and an inventory taken before the end of the week. Most of their work was done in silence as they counted, sorted and made notes. The next few days went the same. She would arrive, begin working and not speak more than a few words until she left for dinner. Every once in a while she caught him watching her, one brow arrogantly arched. Obviously, her new found penchant for silence surprised him.
When she arrived, as usual, a few days later, his expression was openly questioning. It caught her off guard.
"Is there a problem, sir?"
"I'm surprised to see you, Miss Granger," he said as though it explained everything.
"It's two o'clock, sir," she answered as she began working, ignoring his curious stare.
"Potter and Weasley returned today. I assumed you'd be off celebrating the triumphant return of the Gryffindor Golden Trio," he said, his voice dripping with disdain.
"No, sir," was her only answer. His sneer no longer unnerved her. In fact, she was having trouble containing the chuckle that threatened.
Perhaps this year was going to more different than she'd expected.