Being a Head of House meant a lot of extra responsibilities. You had to discipline the students, ensure they don't do anything reckless. Or plain stupid. Educate them in many more ways than your prime subject demanded. And also be there for them whenever they needed you. After all, to those kids the Houses were like a family while they were in Hogwarts.
Albus Dumbledore usually enjoyed his duties. To his best knowledge, there was nothing more rewarding than watching his pupils grow up to be responsible young adults. There were certain days during his career, though, when he was unable to appreciate the outcomes of his continuous efforts. The days in which he'd kill for a free evening or die for a long night sleep. Meanwhile, he was on his way to the Gryffindor Tower in the middle of the night to check if the party thrown in honour of the Gryffindor Quidditch team had ended and the students had finally got to their beds.
Albus opened his mouth to give the password to the portrait of the Fat Lady when he noticed a small figure sitting in front of it.
"Miss McGonagall?" he asked, surprised to see a first-year student out of the common room at this hour. Minerva jumped. She watched in panic as Professor Dumbledore took a few steps forward. Her gaze dropped from his icy blue eyes to the floor as she cringed, apparently waiting to be reprimanded for her behaviour. Instead, the professor smiled with compassion. "Forgot your password, haven't you? Don't worry, my dear. I am more than willing to help you get inside."
Minerva looked a bit surprised by his statement.
"No, sir," she replied hesitantly. "I know the password."
"Oh." Dumbledore rose his eyebrows. His face sharpened. "Then I should immediately remind you that any student is forbidden to wander around the school at this hour. If there is another incident like this, you'll give me no choice but to give you detention, young lady."
"No, sir, please! I wasn't wandering, I swear."
"Then what were you…"
"I'm afraid," sounded a low voice from behind, "I am the one responsible for this child's misbehaviour."
Albus looked over his shoulder to meet the eyes of the Fat Lady, whose portrait guarded the entrance to the Gryffindor common room. He thought he had misheard her. Was she… defending a student? For what reason? Albus remembered that in his youth the Fat Lady used to scold him for waking her up at night, snort exasperatedly whenever he forgot his books or roll her eyes with a deep sigh when he bothered her without a good enough reason. That's why, at least in his eyes, the portrait's current actions didn't make any sense. At all.
"You?" Albus asked, more and more confused. "Could you explain yourself?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Dumbledore noticed Minerva crumpling her school robes nervously, her cheeks blushing slightly.
"Naturally," said the Fat Lady calmly. "The young miss was nice enough to come and keep me company for a little while. We were in the middle of a conversation about one of my favourite set of robes when you arrived, Professor. I must have got carried away, though, because we usually end our little chats much before a night round. Not that it is my fault. It wouldn't kill you to put a clock on the wall, you know!"
"Thank you, my dear," Albus managed to interrupt when she paused to take another breath. "I've heard everything I needed to hear. As for the clock, I will mention the matter to Armando."
"I'll hold you to it," answered the Fat Lady. She still looked suspicious.
"Miss McGonagall," said the professor, focusing his attention back at his pupil. "Would you mind having a few words with me?"
"No, sir," she whispered, forcing her voice not to tremble.
Albus gave the portrait a meaningful look. The Fat Lady pretended to polish her nails. He raised his eyebrow. Still, no reaction.
"Would you mind?" he asked.
"Password?" she said in response.
"Dungbombs," Minerva gave the password hastily, wanting to show Professor Dumbledore that she hadn't lied. The portrait swung open, revealing a hole in the wall. Dumbledore gestured Minerva to enter before following her. They both sat down in silence on two different sides of a wooden table.
"So," Dumbledore started after a while, "you seem to be on friendly terms with the Fat Lady."
"Yes," Minerva stated weakly. "I hope I still am."
"Oh, don't worry, dear!" Albus gave out a chuckle. "She defended you. I've never seen her side with a student. She must be truly fond of you."
Minerva's cheeks visibly blushed, leaving the rest of her face ivory pale.
"You're not going to punish me, then, sir?" she asked hopefully.
"I'm not," he admitted, looking at his peculiar young Gryffindor with interest. "But, to be honest, Miss McGonagall, I am a little curious. How did you get so friendly with the Fat Lady? And why didn't you celebrate with the rest of your House?"
Minerva sighed with relief. She spoke a bit louder than before.
"I did, sir. I just didn't enjoy the party much. As for the Fat Lady, I'm not sure. One day I asked her how she does think up all the passwords she gives to the students and she opened up after a while. Told me interesting stories from her past, insisted that I shared mine. She must have guessed I had nobody to talk to."
"Nobody?" Professor Dumbledore interrupted. She looked around to make sure there was no one else in the room before giving her answer.
"Well, there's Sir Nicholas." She looked at her clasped hands. "We're having short talks once in a while. He's often busy."
"What about your brother?"
Minerva's face darkened a little.
"He has his own friends. Doesn't want to drag his little sister along."
Albus found it hard to believe. How could this charming girl be lonely in a castle full of people? Was her only company a portrait and a ghost? She didn't seem to be that hard to get along with.
"And who is this?" Albus indicated an orange owl who had just jumped on Minerva's shoulder to get some attention. Its grey face was watching him carefully.
"His name is Hermes, sir," she answered, stroking the bird's beak and feathers. Hermes hooted merrily. "Don't worry, he won't bite you."
Albus smiled faintly. An owl's bite was the least of his problems.
"Hi, Hermes. How are you?" he said, patting Hermes's head gently. "What kind of an owl is he?"
"Ashy-faced, sir. He's very friendly and sociable. Likes to cuddle up at any occasion."
There was a short silence before Professor Dumbledore got up to his feet.
"I'm sorry, but I need to get some sleep," he said, rubbing his eyes. "And so do you, I believe."
"You're right, sir," admitted Minerva, standing up. "Thank you for your time."
"The pleasure is all mine," he replied with a nod and headed towards the exit.
Minerva watched her teacher go. She had no idea what had just happened. When he caught her out of the dormitory in the middle of the night, talking to the last person she wanted to be seen with, she was ashamed and scared. Of the consequences, sure, but more of the reaction of the only living person, besides her family, that liked her back. What would a respected Hogwarts professor think of a student holding a conversation with magical canvas? To her astonishment, this particular wizard didn't seem angry nor irritated, but rather… concerned? She must have been imagining things if such a conclusion had crossed her mind. She sighed and turned back to her room.
"Miss McGonagall?" she heard Dumbledore's voice, which forced her to look around. The professor met her deep green eyes and continued. "Would you like to come tomorrow to my office for a cup of tea?"
Minerva was uncertain if she'd heard him correctly. He must have asked her something, though, because he was clearly waiting for an answer.
"Sure," she finally said.
"See you tomorrow, then."
"Sir?" she called after Professor Dumbledore, wanting to add something, but hesitated.
"You can bring Hermes along, if you'd like."
Minerva smiled back at him.
"Thank you, sir. And goodnight."
Albus nodded in response.
"Goodnight to you, too, my dear."