Monday, while all the students and most of her colleagues were distracted with lunch and the week's announcements and pronouncements, Hermione made her way to the Heart's courtyard. Clearly, Minerva felt that she could protect Hermione, the reputation of the school, and her own reputation, but Hermione wanted to be able to protect the both of them, too. She had gone toe to toe with the most vicious, immoral journalist of the day, and had won - sometimes, in her fear, she forgot that. She would talk to the Heart, to learn what her connection to it and to the school was, so she knew exactly where the line was, and how she could push it, if she needed to.
The massive doors loomed above her, and Hermione reached out tentatively, unsure if they would open for her as they had for Minerva. At the slightest touch, the serpentine metal bolts slithered back from their locked positions, and the doors swung open just enough for Hermione to slip through.
The courtyard looked much different in the daylight; without the walls, the stone altar might have been in the middle of meadow somewhere. The knee-high grass, already turning brown with the change of the seasons, brushed against her teaching robes, and the sunlight was dappled and heavy, just as much a tangible thing as the moonlight had been during her previous visits.
"Hello?" she offered softly to the empty space, and a slice of light turned almost liquid in the air in front of her, and coalesced into the shape of the Heart's vague approximation of a human.
Little Fox, its voice drifted into her mind.
"Hello," Hermione said, feeling shy for some reason - probably because this was her first interaction with the Heart without Minerva's presence. "Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?"
The Heart flickered in what Hermione understood as an affirmative. Her first question was one that had popped in to her head while the Heart had been working its magic on her. "Why me?"
The magic calls to certain people, the Heart said. That is something that I have no control over. In the past, Guardianship was conferred upon those who were loyal to Hogwarts, protective of wizarding children and magical creatures, and as good as can be managed. Expediency and the choices of other Guardians led to some…less than admirable choices, and there was not much I could do, as I was not able to make conscious decisions.
Hermione nodded in understanding; sometimes there was just a lack of choices, and a person (or magical entity) could be backed in to a corner.
Somewhat shyly, the Heart continued. You are the first caretaker I've chosen for myself.
"But why did you chose me?" Hermione insisted, still not understanding why she would be chosen, especially when there were others who had not been touched so directly by the darkness of Voldemort and his followers.
You have a big heart, Little Fox. I knew that even when I knew less than I do now. And you have forgiveness for even those people who did you a considerable amount of hurt.
"Not all of them," she muttered, thinking immediately of Rita Skeeter and her less-than-ethical journalistic practices.
Perhaps some things should not be forgiven. You are an extraordinary witch, and that is why I chose you, in hopes that you would choose to belong here.
Hermione pursed her lips in thought, unsure how she felt about what the Heart was telling her, and drifted further into the courtyard, perching herself, perhaps sacrilegiously, on the stone altar.
"Can you read my thoughts?"
Not unless I am in direct contact with someone. I am able to sense emotions - an important part of unicorn magic, and how they maintain the health of the herd. The Heart wavered a bit, its edges blurring, and a puff of breeze whipped through the grass like a sigh. There are many questions about my origins and my transformation that may never be answered, but there is a great deal of magic here that should be protected from those who would ill use it, and that is not a task I can undertake on my own.
"You're very powerful, though. The amount of magic required to maintain the wards around the castle and forest alone…" Hermione could picture the web-like lines of power that had fed magic into the powerful distractor and barrier spells that ringed the area.
I am just one consciousness, though, since the battle. Before, my awareness spread through the forest, to the mountains, to the depths of the lake, and to the borders of the village. Now, I am just one 'pair of eyes' so to speak, and my Guardians are more important than ever.
"Oh," said Hermione, her mind already formulating scenarios to explain the changes the Heart had undergone since the battle; even with minimal information, it was fascinating to consider. "Well, I'm glad I can be of service, then."
She pondered a bit longer before her attention snapped back to the Heart, who was just manifested there, apparently waiting patiently. She had one more question, one that weighed heavy on her new-found sense of happiness and contentment.
"The first time I came here, when you touched me, you implied that I had a choice in regards to my relationship with Minerva - does she have that same choice? She hasn't been impelled by any magic in to a relationship with someone unsuited for her?"
The Heart seemed to be confused by her question. Love cannot be compelled by magic - only given freely. If her feelings for you are changing, why would you assume that it was not a natural occurrence.
"It's just…there's so much magic involved in our lives, and in all the stories, it seems to eliminate a lot of the choice people have in their love lives."
The Heart sighed again, gustier this time, sending a flurry of grass seeds to explode from the tall grass around her and then drift lazily by on the resultant breeze.
I assume by 'stories' you mean the books and periodicals that young witches and wizards like to hide behind their assigned texts?
"Yes? Romance and love stories. I read my fair share, even with all the studying I did."
They are not real, Little Fox, and are particularly unrealistic when it comes to the intersection of love and magic.
"Oh?" Hermione was genuinely shocked - it had never occurred to her that wizarding romances would be untrue, though she had assumed some exaggeration, like in her mother's muggle romances. But even with exaggeration, the basics of muggle romance were true; apparently the same could not be said of wizarding romances.
"But why are they like that?" She asked, incredulous and feeling a little betrayed, if she was honest with herself. "I spent years worrying that I would have some sort of inescapable magical bond with someone I didn't event like!"
I could not begin to guess, Little Fox, but love magics, those that arise from the existence of love between magic users, are not often discussed.
Hermione's confusion grew. "Why not?"
Love magics are powerful and private things that require nurturing, selflessness and sometimes sacrifice - talking about them is akin to talking about the intimate details of one's marriage or family life.
"So its not something that even all wizarding children know about?"
Perhaps those whose families include such bonds, but part of the power of a love bond comes from others not being aware of it. Harry's mother protected him from Voldemort with such a thing - powerful and secret.
Truly. There is no need for you to worry about love bonds. If such feelings blossom between you and the Tabby, you and she will address it.
The idea of a magical bond with Minerva, one formed because they loved one another, made Hermione flush with pleasure, which was, she realized, a far cry from the reaction the idea gave her when she thought such bonds were coercive forces of magic.
"Thank you for telling me," she said softly, and struck by the need to think about what she had just learned, she absentmindedly sat herself on the stone altar that dominated the center of the courtyard, laid back on the sun-warmed stone and made herself comfortable.
Hermione didn't think she'd fallen asleep, but a shadow falling across her face brought her back to herself. The subject of her rumination was peering down at her, backlight by the buttery light of the fall sun.
"Minerva," she sighed, entranced by the gleaming black hair and piercing green eyes; the tall witch had discarded her ubiquitous hat and spectacles somewhere, so she looked like the Minerva that inhabited their quarters more than the stoic schoolmistress.
"You were not at lunch - I was concerned. Are you alright, my dear?"
"I am; I just had some questions for the Heart and lost track of time." She smiled reassuringly, because she really was just fine (she had been reassured herself), and reached back, seeking out one of Minerva's hands to hold on to.
Minerva gave her a rueful grin. "I am familiar with that affliction, and this place makes one's mind more prone to wandering."
"Time doesn't feel quite real here," agreed Hermione. "It is easy to forget that the school is bustling on beyond those doors."
She sat up, swinging her legs around, then reclaiming Minerva's hand. "Thank you for finding me; I had completely lost track of time." In this position, Minerva's lips were right at eye-level, and Hermione could not help but stare. She wanted to kiss Minerva in this strange, liminal space; a space that symbolized an important connection between the two of them. Stretching up, she brought their lips together, her free hand slipping around Minerva's waist. Minerva melted into her, until they were both mostly supported by the altar.
Hermione groaned when Minerva's tongue brushed against her lips; she opened her mouth to her and gripped the slender woman tighter. Minerva felt so amazing and solid against her - her head was spinning from the sharp lavender scent of her mixed with the smell of the contained meadow around them.
Time swirled away for the two of them, just as it had for Hermione when she had lost herself in thought, and before they realized what was happening, Minerva had wormed a hand beneath Hermione's teaching robes, her fingers flirting with the bare skin exposed by the chemise Hermione wore beneath her professional attire. Hermione's own efforts had been frustrated by the magical closure on Minerva's custom couture, but she found her fingers digging into the other woman's shoulder blades through the layers of her clothing.
Something caused them to pull apart, but they didn't go far, remaining clasped together. Minerva rested her forehead against Hermione's, her breathing a bit labored, her green eyes dark with something that thrilled Hermione to her very bones.
"Hermione," Minerva rasped, and Hermione hummed her satisfaction at the passion between them. How could she ever have thought that this was something artificial, a product of a magical hold on their emotions? The truth was, as adults - equals in all things, much to Minerva's credit - the chemistry between them was just that powerful.