I warn you, this contains some mentions of nasty stuff like depression and suicide. Mentions only, but I'm aware that some would rather not read, so I warned you. :)
Hermione had tried to sleep – she'd lain awake for four hours, and she was fed up. But she had tried. Now, she was wandering the draughty halls of the castle aimlessly in her dressing gown and a sturdy pair of boots from her 'camping trip'. She was purposely haunting the more damaged areas of the castle; she didn't want to meet anyone else and she knew that the entirety of the remaining people at Hogwarts knew which bits were whole and which to avoid. Therefore, logically – and logic was her strong suit, she thought mockingly – she would not meet anyone tonight.
She was relieved that Harry and Ron had left the castle the day before, wishing to avoid the limelight; they had wanted to go home, mourn Fred as they should. Hermione pushed down her tears at the thought –Fred's smile didn't deserve drowning in salt; he should be remembered with as wide a smile as his own, the girl had already decided that. He'd want jokes made, not tears shed. But, whether the boys went to laugh or cry, Hermione was relieved that she had time alone now. She needed it – she didn't want to be near them after the events of the last year.
She felt guilty for not supporting the Weasleys as Harry was – but he was part of the family; he had no parents, and they had become his surrogate family. She had no excuse for intruding on their grief; her family remained alive and well, as far as she knew, and she wanted to avoid Ron as much as possible anyway.
Letting out a frustrated shout and punching at a large but battered stone in the revered castle's wounded wall, Hermione watched in surprise as it detached from another and fell to join many more on the grass a few stories below. A light breeze tousled the girl's brunette hair, laughing at her.
"Need you make the struggle facing us more difficult, Hermione?" a light Scottish lilt teased. Hermione turned to see its owner smiling slightly, also wrapped in a dressing gown. The girl did not smile back.
"I couldn't sleep, Professor." She replied tightly, frustrated that her logic was flawed. Of course McGonagall would have the same idea.
"Me neither." Minerva answered, surprising Hermione with the rare personal admission. "Here, let me heal your hand."
Hermione glanced in surprise at her hand, which was dripping blood and which had torn flaps of skin hanging off the knuckles. Averting her gaze, she held it out. "I hadn't noticed." She said shortly, bracing herself as the skin knitted together once more. "Thank you." She ground out.
"I'm proud of you, you know." The older woman said gently, leaning her forearms on the stones which, now damaged, created a kind of balcony. Hermione joined her, saying nothing. "You've done well this last year. Generating ideas, unravelling all the puzzles that old fool left you" – here her voice became almost fond –"and, ultimately, winning this war."
"But at what cost, Minerva?" the young witch threw back. If her teacher was surprised at the uninvited use of her first name, she didn't show it. "We pushed ourselves to win this war. We worked so hard…but as a group, we failed dismally, and I can't go through life being worshipped as a hero because the golden trio" – this, contrary to what Minerva expected, was a scathing, hate-filled couple of words – "failed. As a trio, we failed. And perhaps we, the side of light, did win the war, but…how many did we lose? Does anyone know? What counts as a loss –death only, or the rest of the damage? Was it really worth it? Should we have let it get that far? And how –how–can we single out individuals to blame and to congratulate? How is any of this fair, Minerva? And how can we be expected to just move on?"
Hermione's breathing was rapid and shallow by the time she'd finished. Her cheeks were flushed and she took great lungfuls of the air seeping into the castle through the ragged wounds in her walls, trying to calm the shaking of her limbs.
"Hermione…" Minerva was lost for words. She reached out, tenderly stroking the girl's cheek, and fought for something to say. "Everyone knows you're the brains behind the three of you, Hermione. Of course you will be seen as a hero, but that doesn't have to control your life. Every loss…every loss is painful and that's life, limb, mind, memory, property…" she saw Hermione flinch at her mention of memory. "But we won. You're here, that's proof of what we have gained – you wouldn't be if we'd lost. That is what is fair. We've gained equality." Her emerald eyes burned with the intensity of the passion she felt as she spoke. "We won."
"Won?" Hermione cried hysterically, laughing. "Oh, we won. But everyone has lost, on both sides. Such is the nature of war."
"We have equality, Hermione – how is that losing?" Minerva reasoned, but Hermione was not to be stopped.
"Equality." She repeated, her voice high-pitched. She grabbed the sleeve of her robe, pulling it up. "You call this equality, Minerva?" she brandished the whitening scar at her professor. "I have lost everything. My family, my friends, my dignity, and my freedom and privacy. This war has left me with nothing. Not even pride. Maybe it would have been better for me if we had lost. Not everyone else, but…for me. I have nothing."
Swallowing, Minerva whispered "You have me." as her fingers traced the ridged scars. "You have Hogwarts, you have your future."
"A future, after this? With no family, no qualifications, and a completely undeserved celebrity status?" Hermione shook her head, defeated. "No, I-I can't do this. I cannot live with this."
"Then what will you do?" Minerva snapped, hoping that anger might provoke the girl into a response. "Jump?" She gestured over the wall they were leaning on.
"I have considered it." Came the emotionless response. Minerva gaped. Her idea wasn't working, she realised; she hadn't provoked the girl's emotions. There wasn't much left to provoke. How had she not realised?
"I-I'm sorry. I meant only to provoke a response." She said softly. "What will you do?"
Hermione laughed bitterly. "I have responses." She said. There's no reason to try and cheat them out of me." She surveyed the black-looking grass below her in the starlight. "I will either move abroad, or live once more as a muggle – perhaps this magical period will fade from my memory; it hasn't really been that long – or both. Or I may yet find a use for these holes in the walls."
Minerva was shocked, but she did not show it. "You're an amazing witch. It would be such a waste for you to give magic up."
"Where are your family, Hermione?"
"My parents are in Australia, with no memory of me or of their own lives since I entered it. I have no other family."
Again, Minerva took the information in her stride without missing a beat.
"Then the Weasleys. Harry. Surely they are practically your family, or at least your closest friends."
"They are grieving, Minerva, and I will not intrude. They are not my family, and they are unaware that I have no other family left. And the trio"– again, that hate-filled word – "are hardly as close as they once were."
"Hermione…"Minerva pleaded, trying to understand the once-hysteric, now-emotionless girl who had been so bright, so interested in everything before the war. Now she was lifeless, empty there was nothing to her; once-sparkling chocolate eyes were now a dull brown, and hair once bushy and wild hung limp and lank. It was as if she'd aged fifty years before Minerva's eyes, and gone from having everything to being the meanest of peasants – and it was heart-breaking. "Hermione, please…why are you not proud of what you have achieved? The three of you…you're as thick as thieves, have been – minus the odd bump – for seven years. You fought Voldemort so many times – you killed so many parts of him. You won us this war. The majority of the Wizarding world owes you their lives, or at least their freedom."
"I have achieved nothing but useless high grades, many deaths and widespread suffering, Minerva. I see nothing to be proud of." Hermione answered coldly, her voice matching the wind, which had strengthened. She was bored of the conversation; it held no interest for her as it once had. Nothing held any appeal any more. "As for the three of us – yes, we had many the odd bump. And now, we all know why. Because we don't fit, and we failed."
"How? Tell me, Hermione, because I get the feeling I'm missing something!" Minerva snapped, losing her temper. "We won the war!"
"Yes, and now comes the happy ending, hm? Harry marries Ginny – they're already engaged, by the way – and I marry Ron. The trio are all related and all live happily ever after, close as ever." Hermione's tone was empty, mocking; it chilled the elder woman to her very core, because it was so eerily different from the mature and optimistic young woman she was so fond of. As she listened to that icy tone, she shivered and tied her dressing gown more tightly around herself. "Well, newsflash:" Hermione continued. "That is not how it's going to be."
"That's entirely up to you." Minerva told the girl. "It's your life, your marriage, and it's nothing to do with anyone else, nor does it mean you failed."
"No!" Hermione cut her off, voice rising. "No, it isn't up to me, because the entire magical population expects what I cannot do. I can't do it. I've failed, because things weren't meant to be this way. Harry's failed, because he took little notice of us throughout this mission; he was set on one thing. Revenge. And Ron has failed, because he left us. We failed."
"Hermione, these things can be forgiven…" Minerva tried, reaching for the girl's hand. She dodged, pulling her hands closer to her body, tracing the words on her arm – remembering the mocking words of the death eater who still haunted her nightmares.
"No, they can't. They can't and they won't. We may forgive each other, but we can never forget – the locket made sure of that. Harry's need for revenge, when you've got a horcrux around your neck, is a lack of care for his friends – we were only tools for him to use to get what he wanted. It's a self-absorbance and a using, abusing, of trust. True or not, we will always wonder whether that is true or just the horcrux talking, and we will never truly know. Ron leaving wasn't fear, when we were wearing that horcrux; it was cowardice, it was a willingness for us to be caught while he was safe, a willingness for me to be murdered by the people we were fighting because he didn't like being away from mummy. It was him not lifting a finger while Bellatrix carved that word into my arm."
Hermione stopped, hesitating for the first time. Minerva was almost relieved, after the awfully hard and emotionless way she'd spoken about her two closest friends, to hear some shame enter her voice. "And me…my distance, from the loss of my parents, was a complete lack of emotion – I didn't care for them, either of them, only my own safety. I cast those charms each night to protect myself from the enemy, they just happened to be sleeping in the tent I cast the charms around. I was the knowledge behind all of our plots, simply to save my neck and destroy the dark, regardless of their fates. I led them, with knowledge I already had and what I gained, into danger after danger – to make sure my blood status didn't kill me."
She looked up. "We don't know what is real and what is imagined and what was placed – or emphasised – by that locket. How are we to ever trust each other – or ourselves – ever again?" Hermione gazed once more into the darkness.
"You will get through this, Hermione. You will." Minerva told her, showing no signs of the shock and sadness she felt.
The young witch shook her head. "No, I don't think I will. I don't think any of us will." She answered softly. "I don't think I'll trust anyone again, magical or not." A pause followed her words. "I can't marry Ron. I can't. I kissed him, when the war ended…that's what we were expected to do, that's what was meant to happen. I've had time to think since then. I can't do this. That's why I'm avoiding the Weasleys, as well as to leave them to grieve. Harry and Ron haven't spoken since they got back, Molly told me so in her letter."
"I never expected you to marry Ron, dear." Minerva told her, surprising them both with the endearment. "Your personalities don't match. But don't you think you can give both of your friends the benefit of the doubt and at least be on speaking terms again?"
Hermione's hand darted forwards, squashing a beetle which was crawling over the ruined stonework in front of her. "No." She said flatly, once again allowing no emotion to cloud her voice. "I cannot." She paused, immersing herself in a memory. "He left, Minerva. He ran away. And I shouted for him to come back, I told him I needed him, I called after him – and he didn't so much as glance at me. He didn't look back. Of course, he came back in the end; he felt guilty. But that is a true memory, no horcrux-planted emotion or suspicion, and I cannot forgive that. He ignored me when I shouted his name."
Minerva wrapped the stiff and unresponsive girl in her arms, holding her tightly. "Even if you three never speak again, you can find your parents. You can make new friends. You will learn to trust again, Hermione, and the spotlight will soon fade away from you if you do not plan to stay in touch with Harry and Ron, or have a high-flying career."
"I will grieve for my parents and leave them be. They hated my magic anyway." Hermione informed her tightly, still stiff in her arms. "I may learn to trust again, but I may not. Time will tell, but I don't know whether I want to devote that time. And the spotlight will fade in too long, even if it fades tomorrow. I don't want this, I never did. We may have won the war, but not because of me or the golden trio; it was won through hard work and pain, if this is indeed winning. As I said before, it wasn't worth the suffering we've all endured."
"And as I said before, bull." Hermione glanced up in surprise at the profanity, but found no trace of humour in the face of her mentor. "We may suffer now, my dear, but this will fade. For the good of future generations, this had to be done."
"So Slytherin can go back to scoffing at mudbloods? Sure, great work, everyone." Hermione said easily, the insult rolling off her tongue as if she'd practiced it – which, Minerva realised, with self-esteem as low as hers, she probably had.
"Hermione. We have seen our mistakes; we will set them right. We will work this out. And I promise you I will try to find a way to help you."
"I don't need help." The younger witch told her mentor, choosing to ignore everything else she said. "I will stay to rebuild the castle." She added, before turning and walking away – a husk of Hermione, the soul of the girl gone.
Minerva watched her go, and did not try to stop her. She felt more than apprehensive about the future for them all, but particularly this vulnerable young woman – a woman who she was very keen to keep close to her, even more so now, but who she worried she would lose – physically, emotionally or both – in just a few months.
Thank you so much to my beta, who gave me confidence in this; I wasn't convinced, but she said she really identified and suggested improvements. I hope you guys all like this – well, you know, appreciate – and thank you so much to Imagen99, who is brilliant.
Please, if you read, leave me a review. I adore feedback, good or bad, that might help me improve.