Disclaimer: I'm not even British, so how can I be J.K.R.?

A/N: This is AU for certain events in books six and seven. Basically, Snape and Dumbledore are still alive and Hermione has no interest in doing the horizontal mambo with Ron. There are various other small changes, which you'll notice as you encounter them.

The platform seemed smaller, somehow, and she couldn't put her finger on why. The students bustling around were fewer in number, but they sported the same looks of anticipation that they always had. What was it that made her feel that the joy was a mask concealing something rotten?

Harry brushed her arm as he came up beside her and she could feel his eyes. Harry in particular had been worried that Hermione would suffer from the separation. She turned her head slightly to the right and gave him the best reassuring smile she could muster.

He wasn't fooled, but he only said quietly, "Ron's coming with your bags."

She glanced past him. Indeed, a red-faced Ron was staggering along the platform, and Hermione wondered if she really needed that extra copy of Water Magic, 1800-1960. Ron would certainly say not.

The fact that Ginny's luggage obviously weighed at least twice as much as Hermione's did something to ease her guilt. Ginny was grinning a little as she watched her brother approach with his burden, but she looked almost as weary as Hermione felt. She was clutching her fiance's hand as she might a lifeline, her fingers almost white from the force she was exerting. Harry was clinging just as tightly to her, and Hermione looked away.

Ron reached them at last, and he too found the scarlet train a much more suitable view sight than his sister's desperation. He met Hermione's eyes and smiled wistfully. They could never be each other's lifelines, not that way.

Harry cleared his throat, and the moment of perfect understanding passed. He released Ginny's hand and waved vaguely at the engine. "You should get on board."

Hermione nodded in acknowledgment and extended her arms awkwardly towards Ron. He put the bags down and hugged her. She held on to him for longer than was usual, until she caught a whiff of something like tobacco. His hair. Tears pricked her eyes, and she sprang back.

Harry let go of Ginny long enough to hug Hermione and remind her not to wear herself out with studying. Then both girls seized their bags and forced themselves to walk away. Once they were on the train, they would not look out the window to wave a last goodbye. There was too much danger of being unable to leave.

Luna was already on the train, sitting in a compartment near the rear. She was glad to see her friends, but the instrument in her lap, apparently a bizarre cross of pliers and a magnifying glass, had most of her attention. Ginny didn't seem to be in a chatty mood, so Hermione stared out of the window at the countryside, where disinterested sheep whizzed by under a leaden sky.

When the castle was close enough that Hermione could see the towers rising in the distance, she bit her lip until she tasted the sour tang of blood. As much as she had loved Hogwarts, as much as she wanted to finish school, this building was hers no longer. The Astronomy Tower, blackened and pitted from a spell cast in the battle for the school, attested to that.

So did the children getting off the train, who avoided Hermione as though she had fought with the Death Eaters, rather than against them. No one but Ginny and Luna met her gaze as the students retrieved their luggage and hauled it away towards the carriages. The others never brushed against her, never so much as looked in her direction.

Hermione's dread only increased when a second-year Gryffindor holding a black kitten on her shoulder stopped dead in her tracks, looking at the carriages as though they were sprouting wings and belching flame. The girl's cornflower blue eyes welled with tears, and Hermione followed their weepy gaze to the front of the carriage, where a monster waited with snake's eyes and a pale horse's ribs. The girl could see the Thestrals. Judging by the devastation in her mien, she knew what it meant as well as Hermione did, and she wondered what friend the waxen child had lost.

The lake was a dull grey today, and the grass barely clung to life. Hermione involuntarily scanned the landscape, and memories mingled with the blood in her mouth, making a taste very like ashes. Here Harry had stood against Voldemort, and there Dumbledore had watched it happen. By that venerable oak had Ginny battled Bellatrix. Here Lucius Malfoy had fallen, and there Hermione herself, who'd killed him.

The castle had more ghosts than walked through walls and showered icy cold on unsuspecting students. For Hermione at least, Hogwarts was forever haunted.

A/N: I don't know how random Ron's tobacco-scented hair seemed, but I had a boyfriend in high school who smelled that way. It was nice, actually, but I could never figure out why, since he didn't smoke. Anyway, I thought it was a nice way to personalize the scene.