While the spiral stairs slowly moved him upwards, Harry wondered if there ever was a student who spent that much time in the headmaster's office. He guessed not.
He was about to knock, when he heard the deep and yet soft voice of his headmaster and mentor. "Come in Harry. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"Could I talk with you for a moment? It is about Hermione." Harry was a bit uncertain if he really should have this talk, but now that he was here it was too late to change his mind.
The headmaster got up and gestured to a pair of armchairs in front of the fireplace. "Of course, Harry. Please sit down. "
"Thank you. I would have talked with Professor McGonagall, but she just came back from St. Mungo's, and I don't want her to worry. I think she is not as well as she wants us to believe and I had hoped you could talk with Hermione instead."
"That is very thoughtful of you, Harry. We should make your Professor's life as easy as possible at the moment, though she would be very angry with me for saying that. Why do you think I should talk with Miss Granger?"
Harry shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He wasn't comfortable at all, talking about one of his closest friends, but it couldn't go on like that. "Well, she spends all of her time studying. She was always very studious, but never like that. I mean she studies non stop, she skips meals and barely talks with us anymore, and Ginny says that she doesn't sleep well if she sleeps at all. I tried to talk with her, but she totally blocks me out. She wouldn't even come with us to welcome Professor McGonagall back at Hogwarts. I am worried. That is not the Hermione we know."
"That sounds indeed not like our Miss Granger. Can you tell me when Hermione changed her behavior or do you have any idea what caused the changes?"
Harry looked thoughtful for a while. "Hmm…it was after Umbridge left, I think. Maybe a little earlier."
"I see. I might have an idea what bothers our Miss Granger and I shall talk with her. Thank you Harry, for telling me."
The young man stood, and with a short greeting toward Fawkes, he walked over to the door. Thank you, sir. Have a good day."
"And you, my boy."
Later that day Albus Dumbledore could see why his Harry worried about his friend. The young woman who entered looked tired and pale and the hollow cheeks gave her the face of a woman much older than Hermione was. Pity dwelled up and a short pang of guilt that he hadn't noticed the state of the girl.
"Good evening, Miss Granger," he greeted her as she stepped into his office.
"Good evening, sir," the young woman replied, following the headmaster to the very same chair Harry had sat it not too long ago. She didn't look pleased at all being summoned to the headmaster office, while she had work waiting for her.
Sitting down opposite of her, the headmaster took his time before he asked: "How are you, Miss Granger?"
"Just fine, sir." The uncomfortable looking witch's answer came too quickly and her voice was too harsh for the old man's liking.
He talked as gently as he could, looking at her encouragingly. "Be honest with me, Hermione. We both know you are far from fine. Why don't you just tell me what is bothering you."
"Really, I am fine sir." Her voce was softer this time and she observed her hands as if they were the most important thing at the moment.
"You look pale, you skip meals, and you study too much."
Hermione sounded more defensive than ever. "How could I study too much? I thought that was what we are supposed to do in school?!"
"All within healthy and reasonable limits, Miss Granger. You are the best student already; there is no need for excessive studying."
The young woman was becoming more agitated with every second. "You don't understand! I need to learn, sir. I am not good enough."
"Hermione, you are better than anybody else," he tried to sooth.
"It is not enough! It was not enough to protect her and it won't be enough to protect anyone."
Now he knew that his suspicion was indeed correct. "Her? Hermione, you are talking about Professor McGonagall, aren't you? You know that she doesn't blame you at all, don't you?"
" Of course she does. She can't even look at me in class. And she has every right to. I did nothing. I just stood there, watching her being attacked. I did nothing." The girl's words were nothing more than a whisper. A sorrowful statement of her lack of action to save the woman she felt so close to.
He needed her to relive what happened so that she could look into the future. "Hermione, what happened when your professor was attacked? What did you see?"
Her normally so oratorical eyes turned somewhat dull when the memory flooded her mind and soul. "We were in our finals in the tower when we heard shouting on the grounds. We saw it from the windows. She tried to protect Hagrid and they shot stunners at her. She got hit by four of them right in her chest. She just fell and didn't move anymore. I thought she… they didn't tell us for over a week if she was still alive. I…I couldn't think of anything. I just watched her being attacked. I didn't know any spell to help her."
The sad looking man swallowed at how desperate and defeated she sounded. He shouldn't have left the castle.
"Would you allow me to see that memory?"
Without even looking at him she took her wand and pulled the silvery memory out of her head and moved to look out of the window while the headmaster watched the memory she had seen countless times in her dreams.
He flinched when he saw the attack and fought hard not to scream in anger and sorrow. He could feel the young girl's desperation and helplessness at the moment of the attack and the fear that her mentor wouldn't survive.
"There was nothing you could have done to help her, Hermione. I understand how you feel…"
"No! No, you don't understand how I feel! I thought I was watching her die and couldn't think of anything to help her. I..." The anger was back as she stared directly into his blue eyes.
"I do understand how you feel, child. I understand because I feel guilty as well. I asked her to stay in the castle. It was me who left her. There was nothing you could have done to help her, Hermione. You are bound to the castle's magic. You couldn't have been there in time, child. You were too far away, but I could have helped her if I would have been there."
"What use is it being a witch then when I am not even able to protect the people I love? What use is magic if I can't do anything but watch the people I love suffer? No, I will study every minute of my life to make sure I am not that helpless again. Next time I will be prepared." There was a determination in the girl's eyes and voice that sent a shiver through the headmaster's body. This was not going well and he doubted he could help his student that held a special place in his heart, besides Harry.
"Hermione, stop. You can't be prepared for everything that may come in your life. Nobody…" He stood up and reached out to the crying child.
Then something snapped in Hermione and she started running.
Albus Dumbledore didn't prevent her from leaving. He knew that the only person who could convince the poor girl that it wasn't her fault was the very woman he hoped he could avoided bothering.
Just a few minutes later he stood in front of his best friend's door.
"Minerva?" he asked, entering her private quarters.
"Come in, Albus. I am here." It filled his heart with joy that he was still able to hear her lovely voice. It was moments like this that made him remember how close he was to losing her just a few weeks ago.
When he entered the sitting room, he found her on a sofa close to the fire, a cup of tea in her hand and a blanket covering her small frame. A walking cane that seemed to be thrown into the corner with some force caught his attention.
Noticing what her friend was looking at she shot him a warning glance followed by a "Not a word, Albus. Not a single world." She used the kind of tone that didn't allow any choice than doing, or in this case not doing, what she wanted.
Laughing, he sat down beside her. "Why my dear, could it be that you don't like your walking stick?"
She was about to open her mouth for a reply that would tell him exactly how fond she was of that cane when something in his eyes made her stop before she really started.
"What is it, Albus?" she asked concerned.
The old man gave her a half hearted smile. "Am I that easy to read?"
"I've known you for a very long time and I know that look on your face."
"You are right of course. But first I want to know how you are feeling." He took one of her hands in his large one and squeezed it gently. "You look tired and cold, my dear."
Minerva sighed deeply. "That about covers it. I am constantly tried, every simple spell leaves me weak for ages and despite of the fire and the blankets I am always cold. Not to mention the pain in my back and chest."
He put his arm around her frail shoulders and placed a small kiss on her head. It was an action he knew Minerva would not allow anyone else, but the long years of their friendship made them both so comfortable with each other that she enjoyed his concern and attention.
Leaning into his side she squeezed his hand in return. "Now tell me what is bothering you."
"I need you to talk with Miss Granger."
He felt her shift uncomfortably in his arms. "I don't think I am the right person to do that at the moment. I would be grateful if you could talk with her."
"Why is that, Minerva? As far as I know you are extraordinarily fond of our Hermione."
"That is not the point, Albus," she said with more force then she intended and added in a softer tone, "I disappointed her and now she is angry with me. I don't blame her." A feeling of sadness settled in her heart when she thought about what she did to her Hermione.
"How do you think you disappointed her, my dear?" he asked softly.
"Isn't that obvious? I left her. I got myself attacked and left them all to fight on their own without any protection against that woman. I deserve her anger, Albus. You asked me to stay and I couldn't do what you asked of me. I left them, Albus. Did you see their hands? Hermione's hand? How could I allow her to do that to my cubs." Silent tears were running down her cheeks now. She had never felt that guilty in her life.
The old man tightened his grip around her shoulders and brought her hand up to his heart. "Minerva, listen to me now. You did nothing wrong. Hermione is not disappointed at all and nor am I. You were so brave, dearest. I am very proud of you as all of your students are. You did the right thing, Minerva. Stopping that woman was beyond your power. Any more actions on your part would have provoked the ministry to take actions against Hogwarts."
The pale witch quickly dried her eyes and nodded slightly, but didn't seem to be convinced at all. "If you think so, Albus."
"Ah Minerva, allow me to show you something." He didn't wait for a response and pulled the silvery memory of his conversation with Hermione out of his head.
The old witch shot him a questioning look, but watched in stunned silence as the scene unfolded before her. She was absolutely shocked at her student's appearance. How could she have missed how emaciated the girl looked?! Well, maybe it was as Hermione just said. She indeed tried not to look at her during class, but only because she felt so guilty about leaving her. She felt bad for leaving all of her students, but she couldn't deny that her relationship with Hermione was closer than to any of them. If she had known that the gifted young witch felt guilty herself…
And Albus, her closest friend. Does he really feel bad about ordering her to stay in the castle?
She didn't even notice the tears running down her cheeks now. "Albus?" Looking into the sad blue eyes she squeezed the hand she had gripped while watching his memory. "Albus, I never want to hear again that you are sorry for ordering me to stay in the castle. You did what was right, what you always do, and that is one reason you are so dear to me." She reached up and placed a small kiss on his cheek.
"I was terrified when I heard you were attacked, Minerva. The thought of losing you…"
"I am still here, Albus. You won't get rid of me so soon." She gave him a small smile feeling truly grateful to have a friend like him. "And now I need to talk with Hermione. I can't believe I've been so blind not to see her go downhill. Why didn't she tell me how she feels? We used to talk about everything."
"You have become as close as a mother to her as you can while you are still her teacher. You are friend and family for her and to protect you is her first priority even if that means she has to learn every spell on this earth. Think about it, Minerva. Your whole house behaves better than they ever did to give you the rest you need."
For the first time since her attack Minerva McGonagall smiled brightly at the thoughtfulness of her cubs.
"I am sorry, but I have a meeting with Kingsley in a few minutes. I trust you are going to see Miss Granger now?" He slowly got up and headed for the door.
"Of course Albus and thank you."
"You are more than welcome, my dear." With a flick of his wand he sent the walking stick into her hand and left before he could even hear her complain about it.
A little 'pop' announced the presence of the little house elf. "Yes, Mistress McGonagall? How can Dobby help you, miss?"
"Ah there you are. Hello Dobby. Would you please tell Miss Granger to meet me at the front doors as soon as possible? And please remind her to take her jacket."
"Of course, Professor. Dobby is on his way, Professor" Another 'pop' and he vanished into thin air.
Minerva slowly and painfully struggled to stand up and started heading for the entrance of the castle to meet her student.
She cursed her fate when she noticed she had been so slow that Hermione was already awaiting hers. She looked so uncomfortable the older woman wished she could just go back into her warm quarters and forget the world around her.
"Miss Granger, hello. I want to talk with you and I find talks like that a bit easier outside. Come and take a walk with me, please."
"A walk? But professor you are still…" too unwell was what she was thinking, but the look the older woman gave her caused her not to voice that thought.
"Yes, Miss Granger?" Every first year student knew that there was no correct answer when Professor McGonagall asked like that.
"Nothing." Hermione turned around and pushed the big doors open.
They walked in silence and Minerva had to stop several times. She tried to cover up by pretending to enjoy the landscape, but Hermione saw immediately that she needed breaks because of her poor condition. After a while they reached a bench near the lake, a place Hermione hadn't discovered before, and the older woman told her to sit.
A bit unsure if she should offer her help, Hermione held her hand out for the older woman to take. It surprised her that after a moment of hesitation the tired looking woman indeed grabbed her hand as she painfully sat down with a groan.
They sat in silence for a while, for neither of them knew what to say or how to start until Hermione couldn't stand it anymore. "You wanted to talk with me, Professor?"
"Yes, Miss Granger. I wanted to talk with you." She didn't look at the girl beside her. After what felt for Hermione like an hour the older woman began to talk. "This is probably the first time in my life that I don't know how to approach a subject, but there seems to be no other way than the bold one. The headmaster showed me the memory of the talk the two of you had."
"He had no right to do that. That was a private talk."
"He means well, Hermione. And he helped me see that we have to talk about it, even when I want to forget what happened." She turned to face her student. "Hermione, you are in no way responsible for what happened. There was no way that you could have helped me and it never even crossed my mind that you could have seen the attack." Seeing that the young girl just kept on looking at the lake she carefully placed her hand on her students arm. "Please look at me." She waited until the girl obeyed. "Hermione, I'm… I'm so sorry." The older witch lowered her head as the memories of the attack filled her mind and the feeling of guilt flooded
Hermione watched her mentor closely and found a picture of upmost desolation. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Professor. I have never seen anyone so brave in my life. You tried to protect someone you care for." She turned her head to look at the lake and whispered almost inaudibly. "You did something I wasn't able to do."
Minerva fought back her tears when she faced her young student and gripped her arms. "Hermione, listen to me now. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing. And there is no spell you can learn that will make sure you won't lose someone dear to you." Suddenly she let go of the girl's arms and pulled her in a bone crushing hug, wincing as pain shot in her chest. "Please stop, Hermione. Don't make me watch you go to bits and pieces over something I have caused. I can't take it anymore."
The young witch grabbed her mentor tightly and sobbed like she never had before. "I thought I watched you die. I thought I had lost you."
Minerva started rocking her back and forth. "I know… shhh. I am here. My dear girl, I am so sorry."
They stayed in the comfort of each others arms until Hermione felt her mentor shiver. She let go of the older woman to take a better look at her. "Professor, you are cold. Why don't you use a warming spell?"
Minerva shifted uncomfortably. She wanted to tell the girl that she was just fine, but the look on Hermione's face stopped her before she even started. "I have very little energy at the moment and if I cast a spell, even as simple as the warming spell, I won't have enough energy left to make it up to the castle."
Hermione could have beaten herself for asking such a stupid question when she saw the sad look in her mentors eyes.
"Would you allow me to cast the spell for you?" she asked shyly.
"That would be lovely, Hermione."
The young witch didn't lose any time and Minerva sighed in relief when warmth flooded her aching body. "Thank you, Hermione." She offered a small but grateful smile.
The young witch looked very thoughtful for a moment. "How do we go on from here?" she asked quietly.
Minerva took a deep breath, understanding the meanings of the seemingly simple question that wasn't simple at all. "We go with our heads up and straight forward. You stop learning and start living again and I try to get my strength back. And when you have the feeling you need to talk, you will always be welcome in my quarters."
"Thank you, Professor. I know that might sound odd, but if you ever want to talk, I am here. I know you are a strong woman and you don't need to prove anything to me. It is all right to accept help sometimes, you know. That is not a sign of weakness." Hermione's eyes showed a seriousness Minerva rarely saw when someone, and not many people dared, offered her help.
The older woman was very touched by the girl's words. It didn't happen very often that someone besides Albus offered her heartfelt affection and friendship and though Hermione was still her student, she knew that she could do with a friend to lean on now. The attack affected her more than she liked to admit to herself and others, and the thought of spending more time with Hermione warmed her neglected heart.
She pulled the girl into a gentle hug, not wanting the unshed tears in her eyes to be seen. "I shouldn't say that, Hermione, but you are a very special girl and I think it would be lovely to spend more time with you and find out in which ways we can support each other."
The young witch smiled brightly at her mentor's words and covered Minerva's hand with her own. "That sounds wonderful to me."
"Would you like to have a tea in my quarters with me to warm you up for a start?"
"Yes, I'd like that very much."
Minerva stood up a little too quick and a wave of dizziness overcame her. Trying to gain balance again she was grateful for the arm that reached around her waist to steady her.
"Easy now, Professor. I have you." Hermione held the older woman securely with one arm, her free hand grabbing her mentors shaking one. "You want to sit down again?"
"No no, just give me a second. I'll be all right in a moment. Just don't let go." She held on tightly to her student, praying that the world stops spinning around her.
Hermione soothingly rubbed her thumb up and down the back of the hand she was still holding. "It's all right Professor, I won't let you fall."
Minerva smiled at the kind words. "I know, dear girl. And please call me 'Minerva' when we're in private."
The young witch blushed a deep red when she heard her mentor use the endearment, something she never witnessed from her normally very stern Professor in all the time she spent in the castle.
"Thank you, Minerva" the girl tried the new name. It felt strange, but good. Like crossing a bridge to a place you always wanted to visit.
The older woman reached down a bit to grab the walking stick, not letting go of her new and yet long known friend. "Shall we go?"
"Yes. Lean on me, and when you want me to let go of you, just give me a sign." She slowly started walking, keeping her supporting arm around her friend's waist.
Minerva was so glad she didn't need to talk with Hermione about discretion about their friendship. It wouldn't do to let the other students see their deputy headmistress leaning heavily on the star student.
They made slow progress and the young witch made sure they stopped for a little break when she felt the older woman become a bit shaky. When they came nearer the castle Minerva let go of Hermione. "I think it is time to put on my stern face now."
"Are you sure? You look so tired." The girl asked, concerned while letting go of her friend.
"I am very tired, sweetheart, and quite weak as well. But I need to manage the rest alone." She surprised herself and Hermione by stroking the girl's cheek with the back of her fingers. "Please stay close though, just in case."
"I am right beside you and when we make it to your quarters, you lie down and relax for a while and let me prepare tea and ask Dobby for a few sandwiches." Hermione didn't even notice that she just gave very clear orders to her own professor.
But Minerva did. And it didn't bother her at all to let Hermione take care of her and the situation. The older witch felt the beginning of something growing inside of her that she thought was long gone from her heart.
"You can't imagine how much I'm looking forward to it." She smiled a last time at the girl before she put on her stern face. "Let's go."