In this place, at this time…
You're lying on my bed, face buried in the pillow. Your hair is messy from when I ran my fingers through it, when I –
No. I can't think of it. Bad enough that I did what I did, but to think on it, relive it, taking pleasure from the memory – no. I won't compound this error.
Error. The word doesn't even come close.
Thank Merlin you are sleeping, so you can't see my face. There's horror on it, and disgust, I know; but they aren't directed at you. Never at you. Only at me.
What have I done to you?
You curl up tighter in your sleep; there's only a thin sheet covering you, you must be cold. I pull up the coverlets, draw them around you. There's a reddish mark on the fair skin – a mark my lips made. I try not to touch you, afraid to defile you more than I already have.
Pity that fear didn't stop me only two hours ago.
I get out of the bed; you don't stir. Pulling my dressing gown on, I go into my sitting room and almost automatically conjure a cup of tea. I sip without tasting it. The fire has died down to glowing coals, and the room is dark.
In my bed lies my student; and with the hands now gripping the cup I can still feel the softness and warmth of her skin.
I am damned. And that is just.
But what have I done to you, Hermione?
Do you understand – can you understand – the strain it is to always be good?
Everyone relies on you; that you will be the voice of sanity in a world of unreason. That you will always be there, the calm centre when they wish to storm.
But you, yourself, are never allowed to storm, to be insane; that isn't your role. You are there to catch them when their flying fails. Your own wings are clipped.
And, of course, you are smart enough, and sensible – such a horrible word – enough to know that. And to know the consequences which invariably follow any attempt on your part to buck a system which seems to have been set up entirely without your input.
"Wow, Hermione! Didn't know you had it in you!" And, the unspoken commentary goes, I'd actually prefer it if I didn't know. Because, you know, it isn't your role to act impulsively, or get into any trouble. It's your role to stop us from doing so.
Change makes people nervous. And the wizarding world is nervous enough already. Voldemort's back, the Order of the Phoenix has been recalled, people are running home in time for curfew, and everyone is ready to jump out of their skin with fear. And it seems, in his seventh year, Harry is carrying – along with his bookbag - the fate of the world.
He's barely seventeen. It's already too much for him to cope with. I love him; he is my friend. So I don't make changes. I try to stay a calm centre for him, so at least there is something stable in his life still. But sometimes the strain makes me feel like I'm the one about to fly apart.
I want someone who will let me do just that.
I have always been reliable. Dependable. Even in my schooldays.
Such a long time ago, now.
And now, I am the stability of Hogwarts. Albus is the power, and the joy; but I am the one who keeps the structure. We divided the duties without even once talking about it, and it has been this way for fifteen years. And it works. Even in the midst of war – again – our students feel safe within these walls. It's a testimony to how well our division of labour has worked, that they believe this illusion.
Because the truth is that nowhere is safe anymore. Not even Hogwarts. No one is safe anymore. Not the students; not the teachers; not even Albus Dumbledore. There is no certain 'happy ending'. I have seen it in his eyes, when no one else is around to catch it, and he has assuredly seen it in mine. The knowledge, never to be acknowledged even between us two. We could lose.
But the students, still, don't believe that – not while I'm around with my hair in a tight bun and Dumbledore is giving his odd speeches at dinnertimes. While those things happen they believe their world is secure. The illusion still holds, and for that reason everything has been worth it.
Yes, it has cost me – something, something I've never been able to name. No, I wasn't born middle aged, with spectacles on my nose and my hair pulled back. Sometimes I look into a mirror and I wondered what happened to that girl who had loved Quidditch, loved to fly. And I can see myself, another fifty years from now, with more wrinkles and more grey, but otherwise unchanged, looking into the same mirror, asking the same question. There is a sense of sorrow, for the path not taken.
But life is full of choices and branching roads, and you can only walk on one. I have always chosen the path I felt was right – just not right only for me. And while there might be some loss, some regret, my students feel safe in the belief I can protect them, and that makes everything as right as it can be.
Even if, sometimes, my eyes hurt from the sudden realisation that I have forgotten what it feels like to fly.
Professor McGonagall sat in the shadowed room, hands clasped around a cup of tea, staring blindly into the glowing coals.
Hermione Granger watched her, unseen in the doorway. She'd taken the time to get dressed; some unknown wisdom had warned her it would be wisest.
The older woman must have sat there for hours, unmoving. The windows showed dawn's fast approach.
Hermione felt a painful lump rise in her throat as she took in the stiff shoulders, the set jaw.
"I don't regret it," she thought. "How could I regret it? It was… glorious madness. But she will regret it all her life." And, unspoken even in her mind, she wondered if sometimes a Memory Charm could be a kindness.
A mental debate – title, or name? But she knew, watching Minerva, what it would have to be in the end anyway.
The woman's head swung round at the noise, and she rose. Even with her hair wild around her, pulling her robe closer to her body, there was a great dignity about her. The cup left her hand and drifted to a sideboard.
Neither could speak, after that. Hermione nodded slowly, then walked deliberately to the door. Minerva did not move, her hands clasped tightly in front of her.
At the door she paused, searching for something to say. But Minerva's back was to her, unrelenting. Her own jaw clenched, and she closed the door softly behind her.
Alone, Minerva McGonagall sank back down on her chair and brought her shaking hands to her face.
The air in the room tingled with words unsaid.
How can I tell you that in your arms I was a tempest, yet you were unshaken?
How can I tell you that with you I was joyous and free?
How can I make you understand, that with you, within you…
… I understood…
… what it was to fly?