For Hermione Granger, sitting in the Great Hall at Hogwarts was still like coming home.
Everything was back the way it should be, candles floating towards the stars in the bespelled ceiling, tables in four long rows and lined with boisterous, hungry children, another long table at the front with teachers eating and conversing.
It wasn’t exactly the same, of course. There were still black scorchmarks here and there on the stonework and rafters from the last battle. The benches and tables looked the same as they always had, but it was easy to see the new wood in amongst the old, highlighting repairs, not yet darkened by years of hands and shoes and backsides wearing them to an almost ebony sheen. And at the head table, there were new faces replacing those who had left or, more likely, died.
Thankfully, Harry wasn’t paying any attention to the teachers. He and Sir Nicholas were reminiscing about the deathday party Harry, Ron and Hermione had attended in their second year, Sir Nicholas with misty eyed nostalgia, Harry with good-natured eye rolls, meaningful glances at Ron, and half whispered descriptions of the banquet to the horrified, ecstatic lower years sitting around them, all with a joyful grin on his face that Hermione hadn’t seen in too long.
She had worried that he wouldn’t follow them up to the castle from Hogsmeade after all. He had nearly isolated himself after the events of last spring, getting her to the airport, buying her ticket to Australia for her to go rescue her parents and then returning to the Burrow with Ron. There he shut himself in Ron’s room and according to Ron rarely came out for meals or company. Ginny sat with him often, but wrote to Hermione how quiet he was, how closed. Ron didn’t talk about it, but Hermione had heard his concern in the notes he scrawled to her at the bottom of Ginny’s letters. She wasn’t sure what she expected to find when she met them at Diagon Alley before the start of term. He’d been reticent, almost brittle, but had seemed grateful to see the shops open, people milling about, safe now.
He hadn’t so much as glanced towards Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, though.
But he had stopped to greet the thestrals at the carriages in Hogsmeade, stroking their long noses as they bent their heads to them. Nearly all the students could see them now, so no one thought his actions odd. And as they’d come up the road and into sight of the castle, all aglow with light from the Great Hall and all the towers, he had drawn a shuddering breath as all the tension seemed to drain out of him. He’d poked Ron in the shoulder and pointed to the Whomping Willow off in the distance. “Want to go say hello?”
“No thanks, mate.” But Ron had grinned. “Stupid thing might try to take my bollocks next time.”
And Harry had laughed.
Ron squeezed her knee under the table, laughing with Harry. He saw it, too, and knew she did. He might be a lump when it came to emotions sometimes, but she knew how deeply he cared about his friends. Especially Harry. She covered his hand with hers in a gentle squeeze.
The last of the feast vanished from the table and the room quieted to low murmurs as Professor McGonagall approached the headmistress’ podium. “Now that we have full stomachs,” she started, her crisp brogue clear even in the cavernous hall, “I suspect you can all pay a bit better attention to this year’s start of term announcements.”
“As much as we ever did,” Ron said under his breath. Harry grinned.
“As ever, the Forbidden Forest is off limits to students. Those of you determined to flaut this rule, please give my apologies to the centaurs for teaching such unspeakably recalcitrant students.”
It was Harry’s turn to whisper, “I think she’s talking about us.”
“Who else has been daft enough to go down there every single year? We probably know the place almost as well as Hagrid does.”
Hermione shushed them both, smiling in spite of herself.
“—in his office should you need the reminder.” The professor finished her usual warning from Filch that none but the first years paid attention to. “As ever, we have several new instructors this year. Professor Slughorn has returned to his well-earned retirement, and Professor Holmes will be taking his place as potions master. Professor Hooper is your new Muggle Studies instructor, and Professor Watson will be taking over Defense Against the Dark Arts. I know you will make them all welcome, or at the very least be gentle with them the first few weeks.” A titter of laughter washed over the room.
Ron leaned closer to her. “Holmes looks familiar, doesn’t he?”
She had been too busy trying to confirm if the new Muggle Studies teacher was the same seventh year Ravenclaw she had seen in the halls during their first year to notice the Potions teacher. She looked at him now. He wasn’t very old, perhaps Bill Weasley’s age or a little older, and handsome in an artless way, unconscious of it in a manner Gilderoy Lockhart had tried to ape. His dark hair curled across his forehead, framing serpentine eyes that were pale even from this distance and that shifted over the room, taking in everyone in cool calculation as he drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. “What do you mean?”
He glanced across at Harry, who was staring at the Potions master, oblivious to them. When he was sure Harry wasn’t watching, Ron mouthed, “Snape.”
Her heart sank. She could see it now that he said it, so obvious it should have been her first thought. Holmes was tidier in appearance, but had the same dark looks and sharp, hooded eyes, light where Professor Snape’s had been dark. Even his robes were similar, cassock-like black fabric fit close to his torso, emphasizing a blaze of purple down the front that Snape would have considered frivolous. As though sensing her gaze, he turned to her, studying her with that same intent look. Instinct said to look away, but she forced herself not to, chin up, looking at him just as intently. He answered with a slight nod before moving on.
She wasn’t sure why, but it felt like a victory.
Harry’s face was white now. She reached across the table to touch his elbow. “Harry?”
“’m fine.” He swallowed and tried again, this time with a weak smile. “Really, Hermione, I’m fine. Just tired.”
She was interrupted by shrieks of wood over stone as the students pushed away from the tables. Over the din, Professor McGonagall reminded them to “Follow your prefects and eighth years to your houses! Room assignments are posted in your common rooms!”
She reached for Harry again, but he slipped her grasp. “I’ll see you upstairs. I just want to say hello to Hagrid.”
She started to follow him, but Ron gripped her arm. “Let him go. I know you mean well, but he’s got to work this out for himself. It’s why he’s here.”
“To torture himself?”
“No, pet. To settle with the ghosts.”