The last rays of the February sun lightened up the old brick houses in Highfield Road, when the day in the little village Ottery St. Catchpole drew to a close. An icy wind kept people from the roads and silver smoke gushed out of the chimneys.
Inside the house with the high beech hedge in the front yard burned a cozy fire in the fireplace and from time to time a strange green light pierced through one of the windows on the first floor. If somebody had been able to look through the hedge from the street, they would have noticed the slim woman with bushy brown hair, who frantically whirled around the kitchen. Cooking for guests wasn’t one of Hermione Granger-Weasley’s favorite things to do, because she was quite out of practice by now.
For years, she had successfully struggled against the advice of her husband Ronald Weasley to engage a house elf. But when she had assumed the post of the minister for magic several years ago, she had no choice but to give in to his constant hustle. After all, Ron also was quite busy in the joke shop of his brother George, and taking care of their two children Rose and Hugo was quite time-consuming for the couple as well. So one day, Danny, a proud but eager house elf, had moved into the house and catered for an organized household and a smooth everyday life since then.
Hermione had insisted on paying the elf an excellent salary and praised his work sometimes more than he deserved. For the most part, things couldn’t have been better for Danny and he expressed his thanks with unwavering loyalty and great diligence. This evening, however, Hermione had been determined to cook a delicious meal for her dearest friends herself, especially as she had found a very promising recipe in the Witch Weekly just recently.
Harry Potter and his wife Ginny didn’t have the chance to visit them as much as they had in previous years. Like Hermione, Harry’s job kept him quite busy, since he had assumed the leadership of the Auror Headquarters at the ministry. His wife Ginny was a correspondent of the Daily Prophet for Quidditch games and therefore had to travel a lot, too. So their regular meetings with Ron and Hermione had declined noticeably, which made it even more important to Hermione to prepare a delicate meal for their guests. The chances that her plan would work out diminished minute by minute, though.
With a sigh, she wiped the sweat from her forehead, cursing quietly, when a green flame rose from one of the pots again. Why had it sounded so easy in the Witch Weekly?
”Do you need any help, Hermione?” Ron’s red shock of hair appeared in the kitchen door. “It smells kind of weird in here.” He raised his head, sniffing pointedly.
“You can offer Harry and Ginny a glass of butterbeer,“ Hermione grunted, displeased by his implicit critique of her cooking skills. “It won’t take much longer.” She handed Ron salt and pepper and took a deep breath, as soon as his head had disappeared from the kitchen. “Danny?” she whispered quietly.
A distinct pop was audible in the kitchen and then Danny stood in front of her, his small body wrapped in a warm, grey cloak and with one of Hermione’s knitted hats on his head. “What can Danny do for you, mistress?” Hermione hadn’t been able to break him of this submissive address, as much she had tried to.
“Oh, Danny.” Hermione desperately looked at the bubbling pots on the stove. “I know it’s your free day today, but there must be something wrong with the recipe…”
“Coc au vin?“ Danny peeked with his big head over the edges of the pots, damp drops forming on his knitted hat. “Have you used a spell to marinate, mistress?”
”Yes, of course.“ Hermine blushed, wiping her damp hands with her apron. “I didn’t have time to go to the groceries yesterday.”
The house elf nodded wordlessly, but the expression on his face indicated unmistakably that he considered Hermione’s cooking skills pitiful. “Danny needs some space,” he said eventually, which apparently meant that Hermione was supposed to leave the kitchen.
So she disappeared into the bathroom, correcting her blurred make-up and changing her wild hair strands into an acceptable hairdo again. When she walked back into the kitchen, she found a steaming gratin dish and four plentifully filled plates next to the stove, filling the air with a spicy smell.
Hermione darted a grateful look at the house elf and flicking her wand, she caught a bouquet of white roses out of the air. “I don’t want you to go to Winky with empty hands,” she said with a wink. “Have a nice evening with her.”
Danny bowed deeply and Hermione could have sworn she saw a hint of pink on his greyish face. A loud crack, then he was gone and Hermione quickly took care of the full plates. “Wingardium Leviosa”, she muttered with a flick of her wand and opened the kitchen door to direct the hovering plates to the dinner table.
As expected, the Coc au Vin tasted deliciously, and even though nobody really thought that Hermione had prepared the meal herself, her friends were polite enough not to mention it.
During dinner Ginny talked about two Quidditch games of the previous week that had eventually turned into a real mudbath because of the bad weather. “The game lasted ten hours and I was so frozen over at the end that I couldn’t use my quill anymore.” Ginny shivered at the memory. “Harry had to leave his office earlier to take care of the kids, which was really difficult that day.” Ginny gave Harry a kiss on the cheek, but her face betrayed that she wasn’t happy about the long hours Harry spent at his office these days.
“We’ve registered an increase of assaults on muggles lately,” Hermione defended his old friend. “Unfortunately, it causes us a lot of extra hours, especially at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”
Harry nodded worriedly, putting his hand on Ginny’s. “We all hope it’s just a temporary phenomenon. Maybe it’s only a random accumulation, but I’m afraid there’s more behind it.”
“One wonders where all the Death Eaters are these days,“ Ron said with a frown. “As soon as Voldemort was defeated, nobody has ever been a Death Eater and nobody ever had had anything against muggles.”
“In many families hostile attitudes against muggles exist for generations,” Harry agreed with him. “These things don’t just change, just because there’s no leader like Voldemort anymore.”
“Of course you must do something against it,” Ginny sighed. “I understand that. But I don’t want to end up like Mum, who had to take care of her children night and day because her husband constantly worked overtime.”
“Mum definitely enjoyed that,“ Ron grinned. “Now that all her kids had left their nest, she’s darting at her grandchildren.”
“Thank God, she is.” Ginny took a sip from her butter beer. “I don’t know what we would do without her – and I guess you don’t either,” she added, glancing over at Ron and Hermione. Indeed, Molly was just babysitting the two youngest kids Hugo and Lily, so that their parents were able to spend an undisturbed evening with each other.
”I’m afraid it will go on like this for a while.” Harry filled his plate a second time before Ron could eat everything himself. “We haven’t caught any of the perpetrators yet.”
”We have to approach the issue from various sides,” Hermione explained. “We don’t only need to fight against the crimes, we also need more public relations work and we have to intensify education at school. In addition to Muggle Studies, there should be projects and courses. There’s no better place than school to reach people – everybody has to go there.”
“Have you talked to McGonagall about this?“ Ginny asked, intrigued. “It sounds like a great idea.”
“No, not yet.“ Hermione shook her head. “It’s still too half-baked and I want to elaborate a draft first…”
A clicking sound at the window pane interrupted their conversation and Ron stood up to let an excited young owl in that was flapping around in front of the window. “Speaking of the devil,” he muttered when he loosened the parchment from the bird’s foot. “It’s a letter from the Headmistress.” He took a closer look at the role of parchment. “For both of us,” he added, handing Hermione the document.
Hermione bit back her question why Ron couldn’t have read the letter himself and cautiously broke the seal. She instantly recognized McGonagall’s energetic handwriting:
Dear Mrs. Granger-Weasley and Mr. Weasley,
I ask you to meet me in my office next Thursday at 4:30 p.m. for a parent-teacher meeting. Please let me know if you are able to keep the appointment.
Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
“She wants us to go to Hogwarts.“ Hermione thoughtfully rolled up the parchment. “For a parent-teacher meeting.”
“Is anything wrong with Rose?“ Ginny asked worriedly.
”Not that I’m aware of…,“ Hermione responded hesitatingly. Her daughter had been sent to Hogwarts the previous summer and Hermione had seen her only during Christmas break since then. Rose had seemed gloomy and sad at Christmas, but when Hermione had asked her about it, she had evaded her. Eventually, Hermione had given up, hoping her daughter’s strange mood would be only temporary. Maybe that was the reason why McGonagall wanted to talk to her parents? Or was it about something entirely else? “Are parent-teacher conferences common practice now at Hogwarts?” Hermione asked to no one in particular.
”She hasn’t written to us yet.” Harry shrugged. “But if there was something seriously wrong with Rose, Albus would have told us about it. They’re in the same class after all.”
Hermione nodded, not really convinced. “Will you be able to make it next Tuesday?” She turned to Ron.
Ron took a long nip of his butter beer. “Can’t you do that by yourself, Hermione? You’ve always been on better terms with McGonagall.”
Hermione’s expression darkened before he had finished. Ron was a wonderful father, but every time a problem occurred, he chickened out and left the issue to Hermione. With a start, she rose from her chair and brought the parchment to her study, in order to declare the matter closed. She didn’t feel like fighting with Ron in front of Harry and Ginny.
However, her guests didn’t consider the matter closed at all. “Do you have an important appointment on Tuesday, Ron?” Ginny prompted when Hermione sat down at the table again. “Surely, your daughter’s well-being means something to you, doesn’t it?” she added in a reproachful voice.
Ron, who felt cornered, reacted grumpily. “It’s a waste of time if we both go,” he defended himself without looking at Hermione. “School has never been my cup of tea, you know that.”
Hermione was angry with herself that she responded to his remark, but she wasn’t able to hold back. “This is not about you, Ron,” she said pointedly. “It’s about our daughter.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?“ Ron shot back. “But this conversation will work out a lot better if you talk to her alone, Hermione. You get along with McGonagall swimmingly. It has always been like that.“ He filled the remaining food on his plate with an angry snort. “And I don’t need her to tell me that our daughter doesn’t learn enough or causes problems…”
“Of course, you instantly assume that she did something wrong,“ Hermione interrupted him. “If that’s how you approach the meeting, there won’t come anything good of it for sure.”
“Maybe it’s actually better if you do this alone, Hermione,” Harry cautiously stepped in. “There’s no doubt that McGonagall has always liked and appreciated Ron and me, but you have to admit that you and her kind of shared a special bond in our school days.”
“What gives you that idea?“ Hermione was annoyed about her blushing. “Just because she gave me that time turner back then?” She looked at Ginny, seeking help, but her friend only smiled knowingly.
“We can talk about everything, as soon as you’re back,“ Ron suggested, noticing that he was getting the upper hand.
Hermione started to say something, but she knew that the rest of the evening would be ruined if she didn’t give in. “Well, all right,” she sighed, standing up to get the dessert. “I just wished McGonagall would have given us a hint what this is all about.”
* * *
The following days, Hermione couldn’t think about much else than Professor McGonagall’s strange letter. Why hadn’t the Headmistress mentioned the reason of the meeting? Had it just been her terse way? Or was the issue so trivial that it wasn’t even worth mentioning it? Or was it so terrible that McGonagall didn’t want to worry Rose’s parents in advance?
Something wasn’t right, Hermione could feel it, even if her friends pretended it to be just a bagatelle. At least, it couldn’t be something urgent, for in that case McGonagall would have summoned them right away.
Hermione was relieved her brooding would soon come to an end when she apparated in front of Hogwarts’ gates on Tuesday afternoon. She had made a quick stop at home after work, changing clothes, because she didn’t want to give the impression that she visited the school as the minister of magic. She quickly had grabbed a night blue, woolen cloak that fell heavily around her shoulders now. At least it was warm.
Hermione felt her heart beating in her chest, when she paced through the gates of her old school. The snow was crunching under her boots and a strong wind was blowing over the area, which made her shiver involuntarily. With a turned up collar, she walked on the trail and the sight of the old castle immediately warmed her up. As minister for magic she had been a guest at Hogwarts several times, but for the first time since she had left school the reason of her visit was private.
The lake in the valley was frozen over and Hermione could recognize a crowd of students, throwing snowballs at each other. How often had she sat at the shore of this lake, mostly with a book in her hand, eagerly memorizing spells. She knew every corner and every blade of grass of this terrain because she had explored the official and unofficial paths of the castle with Ron and Harry so many times.
Hermione would have loved to watch the students a little longer, but she was already late and didn’t want to make McGonagall wait. With a queasy feeling she entered the Great Hall and a new caretaker, whom she hadn’t seen before, led her to the gargoyle and up to the office of the Headmistress.
“Mrs. Granger-Weasley.“ Professor McGonagall had risen from her desk when she had heard the quiet scraping of the spiral staircase, moving upwards to her office. “Thank you for accepting my invitation.”
Hermione felt a nervous flutter in her chest when she faced the Headmistress. Looking into the intelligent face with vivid eyes, it felt as if no time had passed since her last day of school. Professor McGonagall wore a long green robe, its velvet-like fabric shimmering in the candle lights, and her black hair was tied in a tight bun as usual. Her square spectacles gave her something puritanical as well, but as strict as her exterior usually was, it was barely able to hide the fiery temperament underneath.
The fact that about 30 percent of the witches and wizards didn’t seem to age anymore from the age of 60 was one of the research projects Hermione had commissioned this year. The cause of the different aging processes was still unresolved, although there were several theories about it. Albus Dumbledore had possessed this gene and Pomona Sprout, Rolanda Hooch and Minerva McGonagall seemed to be blessed with it as well. Other wizards and witches like Arthur and Molly Weasley obviously aged normally like muggles and Hermione had often wondered, whether she would be among the 30 percent or the 70 percent. Nature wouldn’t reveal that secret though before she had passed her 60th birthday.
“Unfortunately, my husband couldn’t make it,“ Hermione explained quickly, noticing the Headmistress’s quizzical look. “But we considered it better if I visited you without him than postponing the meeting.”
Professor McGonagall didn’t seem delighted at the news, but didn’t comment on it. “May I offer you a cup of tea?” she asked instead, pointing at an armchair in front of the fireplace. “Please take a seat, Mrs. Granger-Weasley.”
“Yes, thank you.“ Hermione sat down in the armchair and glanced around the big office. The circular room had experienced several changes since the beginning of Hermione’s school years. Severus Snape had already removed Albus Dumbledore’s playful, buzzing instruments and had replaced them with various scary appliances. McGonagall, however, preferred the room plain and clear. Endless rows of bookshelves decorated the walls, only interrupted by the numerous portraits of headmasters and headmistresses of Hogwarts. In front of the portrait of Albus Dumbledore was a big desk with piles of parchments, probably class essays.
Hermione politely greeted her former headmaster, who nodded kindly at her from his portrait. To her relief, Dumbledore leant back again after a while, closing his eyes like his snoozing colleagues. “Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me about Rose,” Hermione started nervously as Professor McGonagall handed her a cup of tea. “I hope it’s nothing serious?”
The fact that the headmistress didn’t object right away worried Hermione even more. Professor McGonagall’s face didn’t reveal anything, so Hermione had no choice but to wait for the older witch to take a seat next to her.
Incendio. With a silent flick of her wand Professor McGonagall made the ambers rise higher and a cozy heat spread through the room. “I think we should come straight to the point, if that’s all right with you,” she started after taking a ginger newt. “I’m worried about your daughter.”
“Worried?” Hermione’s teacup clattered loudly as she put it back onto its saucer. “Why worried?”
“It’s…“ Professor McGonagall’s green eyes looked seriously at Hermione. “She doesn’t seem to be well here.”
“Why not?“ The professor’s piercing look frightened Hermione. “Isn’t she able to cope with the teaching material?”
At that, the hint of a smile crossed Professor McGonagall’s face. “She’s your daughter, Mrs. Granger-Weasley. Of course, she’s more than able to cope with the subject matter.”
Hermione leaned back in her armchair with relief. She could remember her own fear of failure all too well, though she had been the school’s best student back then. But sometimes good educational achievement and fears didn’t necessarily correlate. It hadn’t been a coincidence that Hermione’s Boggart in third grade had actually put on the shape of Professor McGonagall, who had told her she had failed all her tests. Maybe Rose was tormented with the same worries?
„Does she lack confidence?“ Hermione probed. “Or doesn’t she find friends here?“
Professor McGonagall thoughtfully looked at the cracking wood in the fireplace. “She often hung around with Albus Potter at the beginning, but after a while she secluded herself more and more, even from Albus. He does a lot of things with Scorpius Malfoy now.”
Draco Malfoy’s son??? Hermione frowned. Harry wouldn’t like that. Hadn’t Scorpius been sorted to Slytherin? “But Rose was so happy that the sorting hat sent her to Gryffindor…”
“That’s still the case,” Professor McGonagall clarified before Hermione could finish her thought. “The problem seems to be of different nature. Has your daughter ever mentioned in her letters that she doesn’t want to be at Hogwarts?”
“No.“ Hermione shook her head. It was unimaginable to her that her daughter couldn’t feel well here. She herself had been overjoyed being a student at Hogwarts. “I only noticed that Rose lost some weight and I suspected something was bothering her during Christmas break,” Hermione admitted. “But she avoided my questions, and eventually I stopped thinking about it.” She wrinkled her forehead as remorse overcame her. “Why wasn’t I more persistent?”
Professor McGonagall rose from her armchair and walked towards the window with her teacup. Outside, it had started snowing again and big white flakes were dancing in the light of the torches, before they fell softly on the ground. “I confronted your daughter with my impression several times,” she said, turning to Hermione again. “She avoided me, too. Last week however, she suddenly burst into tears during detention and begged me to send her back home.”
Hermione stared at Professor McGonagall, aghast. Was it that bad? Why hadn’t she noticed how much her daughter suffered?
“Rose told me only hesitantly what was bothering her and I had to conjecture one or two things,” Professor McGonagall continued. “But from what she said I reasoned that she is worried about her parents.”
“About… us?“ Hermione almost dropped her teacup. “But…“
“She’s afraid that you and Mr. Weasley would separate,” Professor McGonagall explained in an unusual empathic voice. “She told me she had always tried to reconcile and mediate when you and your husband had an argument. Now that she’s at Hogwarts she can’t do that anymore, so she’s scared that her parents would get a divorce.”
Hermione sank deeper into the armchair. She felt totally numb. How could she have missed that? How could she have overlooked that her eleven year old daughter felt the responsibility to save her family?
“The relationship between you and your husband is none of my business, of course…“ Professor McGonagall had stepped next to her. “But I suggest you to take the pressure of your daughter, no matter how right or wrong her assumptions are.”
Hermione nodded silently. She felt so ashamed. Not only was she disappointed about herself, she also felt ashamed before Professor McGonagall. Her former Head of House had always been her great role model and she had never stopped trying to impress her and to prove to her, what a gifted witch and courageous person she was. And now she was sitting here, having completely failed – as a mother and as a wife.
Professor McGonagall seemed to guess what was going on in her mind because Hermione suddenly felt a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We can’t always do everything right in our life,” the teacher said sympathetically. “That applies to all of us.” When Hermione looked up, she removed her hand and sat down in her armchair again. “What matters is that we try.”
Hermione felt a sudden urge to explain herself. “Ron and I have been fighting ever since we’ve met,” she said as if this would make anything better. “That’s just how we are, and I’ve never really thought about it. I love Ron anyway.”
Hermione dared a look at Professor McGonagall, who seemed to listen to her carefully. There were things she had never really talked about to anyone, because nobody would have understood. “It’s just… if you went through the things we went through…,“ she explained hesitatingly. “You start to distant yourself from the world. You think that nobody could ever understand what’s going on in your mind… Only Ron and Harry were able to do that. We knew about each other, we’ve been there… And for a long time, especially when we were looking for the horcruxes, we only had each other. “
“Of course.“ To Hermione’s surprise she found no judgement in Professor McGonagall’s voice. She seemed to understand completely, maybe because she had survived several wars herself.
”Back then, starting a relationship with Ron was the most natural thing,“ Hermione continued, encouraged by McGonagall’s reaction. “In our small world there were only the three of us. Harry has been like a brother to me right from the start. Ron, however, teased me, irritated me, fancied me, adored me and supported me.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “He’s a great person,” she added a bit defiantly. “I really love him, but…” She struggled for the right words. “But in the end… we live in separate worlds.”
It was difficult to admit the truth to herself. They had children after all, and Hermione couldn’t just leave or stay at her convenience. “It’s gotten worse since he’s taken over the joke shop with George,” she sighed. “Ron can be so pragmatic and superficial sometimes. He has no idea what I’m talking about when I’m worried about something. He either trivializes things, or we get into a fight.”
“Mrs. Granger-Weasley.“ Professor McGonagall put her hands in her lap and cleared her throat before she continued. “You are a brilliant witch. Brilliance often causes loneliness, though. A leadership position causes loneliness, too. And the consequences of the fight against Voldemort and his followers will always affect your life. It will always be difficult for somebody like you to really find yourself in another person.”
Hermione swallowed heavily. It was indeed difficult for her to find people, who she felt really close to. Well, it wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends, on the contrary. Because of the Weasley family she was part of a huge circle of friends, and she knew that Ginny and Harry would always be there for her, just as she would always be there for them.
Hermione was aware that she was surrounded by dear people, who she cared for and who cared for her. But there were areas in her heart and in her mind, where nobody could or wanted to follow her. Other people often considered her too complicated or too ivory-towered, and when she started to philosophize about some fascinating question she had read somewhere, hardly anybody would take her seriously.
Hermione didn’t want to seem ungrateful, she knew very well, how lucky she was in her life. She had two wonderful children and she was a successful and popular minister of magic. People appreciated and liked her, at least usually. But the moments in life, when somebody actually had inspired or moved her, or when she had found herself in another person, had been extremely rare. The world of books, the world of learning, of logic, of reasoning, of exploring… nobody followed her there.
Professor McGonagall still sat calmly in her armchair, watching Hermione through her square spectacles. Hermione remembered well how often she had knocked at the office door of her Transfiguration teacher with burning cheeks. Sometimes she had had a question or an idea she had wanted to share, or she had noticed a contradiction between two theories. Professor McGonagall hadn’t rejected her even once. She had always responded to her questions, even if they had been of marginal importance. Because she had understood that Hermione needed a counterpart.
The girls in the dormitory had teased her since she had quoted McGonagall so frequently. Especially Lavender and Parvati had razzed her that she would have a crush on her teacher. Of course, she had firmly denied that. But at night, when she had been lying in her bed in the dark, she had often imagined Professor McGonagall sending for her and telling her in tears that Hermione would be her favorite student, though it was so immensely important to her not to favor anybody.
She had imagined saving Professor McGonagall from a dangerous situation, preferably a life-threatening one, and how the teacher would be grateful to her to the end of her life. She had pictured how Professor McGonagall would confide her most intimate secrets to her, or how she offered Hermione to sleep in her bed, after she had told her about a nightmare. And one time, she had even imagined that she had kissed her.
All these phantasies had never really worried Hermione. Almost every girl in her class had a crush on somebody. Sometimes it was a male or female teacher, sometimes it was a rock star of other celebrities. It seemed to be as much a part of school life as the subjects studied and Hermione had been convinced it would vanish after finishing school like all other experiences at Hogwarts.
And indeed, Hermione had drawn a big fat line under her life at Hogwarts. She had wanted to be successful in her career, she had wanted to marry and get children – and she had actually succeeded in all three departments. She had brought about several important changes, she had improved the elves’ rights and abolished the defamation of werewolves. And she had managed to change the corrupt and chaotic ministry into a decent working agency.
“Maybe I do Ron an injustice,“ Hermione mused. “You’re right, Professor. It is difficult for me to feel entirely understood by somebody else. So maybe I expect too much of Ron…” Hermione hesitated, then she looked straight at Professor McGonagall. “But you, Professor, you’ve always been a counterpart to me,” she said with great gratitude. “So it’s not impossible, is it?”
It was the first time in the 27 years they had known each other that Hermione saw Professor McGonagall blush. “I’m glad to hear that, Mrs. Granger-Weasley,” she answered, brushing over the armrest with her hand. “As a teacher one wishes to be that for their students.”
Hermione wondered, whether Professor McGonagall had ever found a counterpart to herself, somebody who understood her completely. Rumor said, she had been married once, but her husband had died after an accident with a poisoned tentacle plant only a few years after their marriage. Had this man been a counterpart to her? “Professor McGonagall?”
“Yes?“ The Headmistress looked up abruptly, surprised by Hermione’s voice.
Hermione felt her face flush. “Meanwhile, you’re the only teacher at Hogwarts who still addresses me with my surname…”
“Oh…“ Professor McGonagall stood up and offered her slender hand to Hermione. “Minerva,“ she said with a warm smile.
Hermione gratefully took the offered hand. “Hermione,“ she responded, trying to lay into the handshake all the appreciation and affection she felt for the older woman. “With your permission, Minerva, I’d like to see my daughter now.”
“Of course, do that.“ Minerva escorted her to the door. “I wish you all the best, Hermione.“
“Thank you again for talking to me.“ Hermione shook her hand again. “I really appreciate it.”