A/N: Thank you for all the lovely reviews. You have made me feel extremely welcome in this fandom. I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
Ash coated the area over blackened, splintered wood and pulverized stone, debris making passage through the Clock Tower entrance virtually impossible. The massive pendulum hung at a slant, and the portcullis was partially lowered. Hermione stood viewing the damage, the voices of Filius Flitwick and Pomona Sprout floating through the air as they discussed possible strategies for repairing this section of the castle.
It was rare for Hermione to be working without Minerva nearby. She had noticed that Minerva had seemed preoccupied as of late. Of course, Hermione understood that she was not aware of everything happening in the elder witch's life, but they had grown close enough that she was privy to most events.
Hermione just hoped that Minerva was not upset with her because of what had happened last night. They had dueled in preparation for the practical portion of the Defence Against the Dark Arts N.E.W.T. The exams were in merely two weeks, and Hermione had realized that she needed to practice—she hadn't cast a spell since the last battle.
At first, they had traded the standard attack and defense spells.
Hermione extended her wand and uttered a stun spell, which Minerva easily blocked with a shield spell. Minerva then cast a knockback jinx which pushed Hermione into the wall. She pulled herself off the floor quickly, upset at how easily Minerva had gotten through her defenses.
"Langlock," Hermione shouted as she lunged forward, but Minerva was ready. She blocked the jinx and countered with an impediment spell. Hermione barely blocked it. Calm down, she instructed herself.
"Come now, Hermione," Minerva said. "Surely you can do better. Trying to silence me—is that all you have to throw at me? How did you survive while on the run? Or did Harry and Ron protect you?" Minerva goaded.
Incensed, Hermione yelled, "Flipendo Tria. Rictusempra!" as she thought Levicorpus while flicking her wand in an upward motion. Stopping suddenly, Hermione blinked several times. She'd done it. She'd bested Minerva McGonagall, witch extraordinaire, one of the most respected, powerful witches ever known to the wizarding community.
Staring at the upside-down witch, Hermione distractedly wondered how she kept her robes and hair from falling toward the ground. Blushing at the stray thought, she focused on the word Liberacorpus and quickly cast a cushioning spell as Minerva was released from the spell and fell toward the ground.
She watched mutely as Minerva arose and walked toward her, a strange look in her eye. "That was unexpected, Hermione," she said softly. "A nonverbal spell—very good. Shall we go again? You will want to think out of the box, use what is available. You have at your disposal your knowledge of transfiguration, charms, and the Defence Against the Dark Arts."
"Yes. I do need the practice. Thank you, Professor," Hermione answered.
"Professor, now?" Minerva looked closely at Hermione, waiting for an answer.
"I am finding it hard to fight a friend, Minerva. I do not wish to hurt you," Hermione muttered, looking at the ground between them.
"Very well, but I can take care of myself. You will not catch me unaware again. And for now, I am not your friend—I am your opponent, someone attempting to find your weak points and to exploit them."
Hermione watched Minerva return to her previous spot on the other side of the Transfiguration classroom. Taking a deep breath, Hermione raised her wand. This time the fight was fast and furious, streams of magic clashing in the middle of the room, a cacophony of sound and a myriad of colors erupting violently as both yelled out incantations to attack, block, and transform.
Suddenly, Minerva was hidden by the unwelcome sight of Bellatrix, laughing evilly before sneering the word Mudblood. Frozen by the boggart as it came closer, Hermione felt fear slide through her. "No!" she shouted, her mind raging. "Crucio!"
A scream of agony pulled Hermione away from her overwhelming feelings of hatred for Bellatrix, and she looked past the boggart to find Minerva crumbled on the ground, her back arched in pain. Hermione lowered her wand, horrified by what she had done.
Raising her wand once more she yelled, "Riddikulus," and banished the now bald, toothless Bellatrix to a side closet before running across the room.
Dropping next to Minerva, Hermione didn't know what to do. "Minerva, my God! I am so sorry!" Tears streamed down her face. "Are you all right? Should I get Poppy?" She was afraid to touch the woman, afraid to cause more pain.
"No, dear, just give me a moment," Minerva gasped. She took some deep breaths before gingerly sitting up. Hermione tentatively placed an arm around Minerva's lower back to provide support. They sat that way for a few minutes, and Hermione leaned her head against Minerva's shoulder listening to her breathing as it normalized. The sound was soothing, and Hermione was able to regulate her own breathing, her tears lessening as she focused on Minerva's familiar scent and comforting heartbeats.
"I should have anticipated how your boggart would manifest itself," Minerva murmured, her voice hoarse. "I do apologize, Hermione."
Bewildered, Hermione pulled back to stare. "Why are you apologizing? I hit you with a Cruciatus curse! I am sorry! I hurt you, the one person I would never wish to harm."
"It was as much my fault as yours." Minerva squeezed Hermione's hand and held it fast as she stood up, forcing Hermione with her. "And this is not the first time I have experienced that particular curse." Minerva grimaced. "It never gets easier." She released Hermione's hand to retrieve her wand, walking slowly. "I think we have practiced enough. I will see you tomorrow."
But tomorrow was today, and Minerva was nowhere to be found. Shaking her head to rid herself of these thoughts, Hermione walked over to the others to find out what their course of action would be. She could not let her mind wander while restoring the castle—it took too much concentration to complete the necessary complex spells. It was probably just as well. Her thoughts of Minerva were jumbled at best, interweaved with feelings she could neither understand nor fight. A few hours not dedicated to that enigmatic woman would probably be a good idea. Smiling automatically as her name was called, Hermione focused on the tasks at hand and pushed all thoughts of Minerva away.
Not hearing from Minerva all day, Hermione took a shower and changed before joining everyone in the Great Hall for dinner. Again, Minerva was nowhere to be found. Just as she wondered who she could ask about Minerva's whereabouts, a large barn owl swept through the hall and landed in front of her. It extended a leg, and Hermione unraveled the binding to remove the letter. Thanking the owl with a strip of fish, Hermione quickly spotted Minerva's seal and ripped open the correspondence.
I apologize for not contacting you sooner. I was unavoidably detained by some Hogwarts business and will be unable to meet tonight. I expect to return some time tomorrow.
We can reconvene tomorrow night in my rooms at our regular time if that suits you. I believe we have earned a night off from N.E.W.T. preparations. Don't you?
Hermione smiled, relieved. So Minerva was not avoiding her. That was welcome news. She had feared that Minerva was upset with her after their duel. Her smile faltered. She had wanted to cause pain during those moments, wanted to make Bellatrix suffer as she had. But her anger hadn't made sense. She knew Bellatrix was dead, knew she had been dueling with Minerva.
She needed to do a better job of not allowing her emotions to get the better of her. Where was her vaunted superior intellect and cool head when she had needed it? She would not make the same mistake again.
Realizing she had the night free, Hermione decided a visit to the Burrow was long overdue. She felt a pang of guilt, admitting to herself that she had been avoiding Ron, the Weasleys, and even Harry for weeks. After the funerals of Fred and all those others who had died during the last battle against Voldemort, Hermione had taken solace by focusing on her studies, the repairs on Hogwarts, and her deepening friendship with Minerva. Still, she should have attended to her established friendships, too.
Walking to Hogsmeade, Hermione wondered where the time had gone. The days had flowed together, and now it was the end of July. In two weeks she would take her exams, and then she would have to find a place to stay. It didn't make sense to remain in the castle after N.E.W.T.s. Repairs were nearly complete, and the new school year would soon begin. Certainly, Hermione could not remain in the Gryffindor dormitory. She had no idea what to do next. Perhaps she could stay at the Burrow while she looked for a place to stay. She also had some money in Gringotts to sustain her while she completed her initial training to become an animagus. But then what?
Hermione wondered what animal she would become. She knew she could not choose her form: it chose her according to her innate gifts, attributes, and personal characteristics. She hoped she would not become a rat or a beetle. A cat or dog would be acceptable. Even a bird of some sort, although if that were to occur, she would rather be a raptor.
Reaching the disapparation point, Hermione visualized the Burrow and felt a pull as magic tingled through her. She walked toward the front door, gratified to see lights streaming through the window and to hear several voices chatting. Smiling, she knocked on the door.
"Hermione, my dear. How lovely to see you! Please come in," Molly Weasley greeted her. "How have you been?"
"I am fine." She kissed Molly on the cheek and followed her into the kitchen where Harry, Ginny, Molly, George, and Ron sat conversing. "Hi, everyone," she greeted the group. The welcomes she received warmed her heart. Several hugs and shoulder pats later, she sat at the table drinking butterbeer as they caught up on each other's lives.
"Wait a minute! How many N.E.W.T.s are you taking?" Ron squawked.
Stalling for time, Hermione drank more of her butterbeer before admitting the amount.
"That's bonkers, 'Mione! Why put yourself through that?" Ron said.
"It's just something I have to do," Hermione said quietly.
"Ron, leave her alone," Harry directed. "She certainly has the ability to do it."
"Yeah, you're just jealous that you can't hold a candle to her. She is one of the smartest witches alive," Ginny added, smile cheekily as Ron's face heated up, the flush covering his face and ears.
"Right, then. Good luck, Hermione," Harry said, patting her hand.
"What are you going to do once you finish exams? Have you thought about work?" George asked. "We could use some help at the store, you know. Until you figure out what you'll be doing, of course."
"Yeah, I'll be working there, Hermione. It will be fun," Ron said with a grin.
"Thank you, George. I might just take you up on your offer if I can't find anything else," Hermione said.
"Well, there's nothing better than being a last resort," George joked.
"Hermione, you can get any type of job you desire. I'm going to be an Auror at the Ministry. You can too," Harry said. "All you have to do is put out the word, and you'll be swimming in job offers."
"Well, I don't want to take on a job that will be too demanding. Not just yet. I am going to be training to become an animagus, you see…" Hermione stopped talking when she saw the shocked looks. "What?"
"Who's training you? Oh, let me guess—McGonagall," Ron said sarcastically.
"And what if she has offered to train me? What of it?" Hermione said, becoming upset by his attitude.
"Nothing's wrong with it," Harry quickly placated her. "It's just very unusual for her to train anyone, and I have heard that the discipline is very arduous."
"Arduous?" Ron parroted.
"That means hard, you dolt," Ginny said while slapping her brother on the side of the head.
"I know!" Ron responded while rubbing at the stinging area.
"Do you think I can't do it?" Hermione challenged Ron.
"No. I think you can. I just don't get why you are bothering," Ron answered.
"Well, I want to, so I am. I just need to figure out how to support myself during that time." Hermione finished her beer. "So, George," Hermione said. "Tell me what's going on at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes."
Conversation became lively and lighthearted as they talked about the store's newest gadgets, some which Fred had designed. Eventually, they began to speculate on what Ginny's last year at Hogwarts would be like. She admitted that she could hardly imagine school without so many of her friends present. And none of her brothers would be there, either. Still, she was looking forward to moving forward and finishing her schooling.
During a lull in the conversation, Hermione stepped outside for some fresh air, only to be joined by Harry a few moments later.
"So, how are you really, Hermione?" Harry asked.
"I am good, really good. This summer has helped me get back on track. I've been able to delve into the books, which I love." She smirked as Harry agreed heartily.
"You seem happier. And you've been spending time with McGonagall?" he asked.
'Yes. She has been very kind to me. I am extremely grateful," Hermione sighed, staring at the emerging stars.
"You like her," Harry stated.
"Of course I like her. What's not to like? She is brilliant and compassionate. I have always respected her. There's a reason why I was known as the teacher's pet, at least when it came to her," Hermione stated.
"No. I mean you really like her. You are attracted to her. You care for her. I can see it every time you talk about her. And I saw you two interacting at Hogwarts. There's something between you two."
Hermione slowly turned to face her friend. "Harry, you can't tell anyone! I am only just coming to terms with these feelings. I know she can never return them, and I need to find a way to get past them before I ruin our friendship."
"Especially once you start training. You won't be able to hide your feelings then," Harry said.
"Well, I've hidden them so far. Besides, it would never even enter her mind," Hermione admitted bitterly.
"Don't be so sure, Hermione," Harry said. "Any dolt can see she cares about you, and these feelings do not evolve without some type of encouragement, even if she is not providing it consciously."
"I don't dare hope," Hermione admitted.
They sat in companionable silence, both lost in thought. "Do you love her?" Harry asked quietly.
"I do. Very much. I hadn't quite realized what was happening. I just knew I needed to be near her whenever possible. And now I cannot imagine my life without her being a large part of it. It terrifies me because I know this can only end badly." Hermione gratefully received Harry's hug.
"It will work out," he whispered into her ear. "It will work out."