28th February 1998
Molly sat at the kitchen table of her home and listened to the quiet. It wasn't truly quiet. The birds sang outside, and the house timbers creaked as they were wont to do, but the sounds of her home were silent. She had born and raised seven children. The last of them at Hogwarts, the rest out in the world, making their way, and she was proud of that. Few families could boast as many sons, and if they looked down at Arthur and herself for being poor, she'd most likely point out that they were rich in the ways that mattered.
The events of the last week wearied her; Molly could admit to herself that she wanted the fighting over and she could also acknowledge that it wasn't. The newspapers spread before her were proof of that. She, like everyone else, had been caught off-guard by the article in the Prophet. She'd owled the Order members including Dumbledore. They had all come back expressing how they hadn't known or expected it. Kingsley hadn't replied, but as the Minister of Magic, she'd half expected that he would be busy, but she was also cross with him. He was the Minister of Magic. He should be reining this Skeeter woman in. Not allowing her to corrupt Harry's version of events, if that was even what the account was.
When Wednesday's edition arrived with its interview with Hermione, Molly had felt her ire rise. Molly had taken Hermione in, tried to show her and Harry both, how magical families were. How different they both were to the Muggle homes they had come from. She couldn't help but feel a wash of bitterness at the parts of the article where Hermione had praised her parents understanding and acceptance. How could they understand? They were Muggles, and poor Harry had been taken in by them as well. That boy, who'd barely known what it was to have a family had been taken from his rightful world by an act of chivalry and was forced to live with Muggles, it was shameful. Oh, they had both made mention of the kindness of the Weasley family, but to Molly, it had read like lip service.
Molly had the wherewithal to know herself enough to know she felt stung, pushed aside, that the care she had given both had been nothing to that of a pair of Muggles. That same couple of Muggles had put Harry at risk, and for that Molly could not forgive them. They might have been well-meaning but they were Muggles, and they had in their ignorance put Harry's life at risk.
It stung more to realise that the Muggles had been in her home. Had spoken to Minerva and Severus as people they were well acquainted with, and that the same Helen Granger, who had taken Harry from Molly had had the audacity to threaten Albus Dumbledore in Molly's kitchen. The more she reflected on that, the more embarrassed Molly was for the woman. She surely couldn't have known who Albus was despite her words.
Thursday and Friday's editions had shocked her to the core. It was evident from the tone of all four interviews; if you could as far as to call them interviews, that they were out for blood. Molly thought they were no more than slanderous attacks on Albus and his efforts to bring them through the dangers of the war with You-Know-Who. This Skeeter woman was once again out to paint Albus in a poor light and had dragged the name of Hogwarts through the mud to do so.
Arthur had told her about the work going on at the Ministry. How Bill volunteered to help and she was proud of her eldest son. Proud that he was a principled young man, still dedicated to fighting for the light. She was concerned that he hadn't answered her owls or confirmed that he would be home for Sunday lunch at the Burrow but he had been busy, she could accept that.
Arthur had also told her of how inside the Ministry, Skeeter's work had become accepted as the truth. How there had been mutterings and murmurings that as bad as You-Know-Who had been, Albus was as guilty of interfering and swaying policies for his purposes.
Molly scoffed to herself, Albus was working for the betterment of society. With people like Malfoy pulling strings inside the Ministry, without Albus to offer a check and balance they would have been lost.
Molly sighed softly and sipped her tea; she hadn't heard from Fred or George. From what she understood their shop had only reopened in the middle of the week. Then there was Percy. She had been delighted and worried when he'd appeared on Friday stood with Kingsley. She had thought that he had finally come to his senses and come home. Then, Andrea? No that wasn't it. Audrey, yes, Audrey had appeared, and she'd been even more delighted, except Audrey had rebuffed her advances. Molly hadn't been able to discover which family she came from but judging by the air of disapproval the young woman had about her Molly presumed she was from a more neutral family. She'd have been a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts Molly thought, although a traitorous part of her mind whispered that she had acted much more like a Slytherin in her dismissal of Albus. Although since she also had conversed with the Muggles openly, perhaps not.
A shadow passed over the window drawing Molly's attention, and she saw an owl settling on the window sill. Molly rose and let the owl in, accepting the letter it bore and waving it over to the small bowl of treats she left out. Turning the letter, she saw the welcoming sight of her youngest son's handwriting and ignored the pang that it was not her daughter's. Molly sat down breaking the seal on the letter.
Ron wrote of the rumours of Hogwarts. How Ginny and Neville Longbottom had confirmed they were a couple. That snippet of news made Molly's eyes scan the horizon through the window again, looking for the owl bearing the news from her daughter. She caught herself and applied herself back to the letter in hand. Ron confirmed that the gossip was that the interviews were likely truthful since Ginny, Neville and Luna had met with Harry and Hermione in Hogsmeade and been told the same information then. That had gotten about the castle, and the student body had taken the subsequent interviews as the holy grail. Ron complained that several girls were now mooning after Snape and Molly felt a pang of sympathy at Ron's unwritten admittance that the witch he had been courting had fallen prey to the practice.
Molly dropped the letter ignoring her least studious son's complaints about the amount of work he had to do for his NEWTs. Ron, she knew, would perform well enough to join the Auror Corps if he wanted after graduation. She didn't want him to, but the training would mean he wouldn't see action for at least six months after he graduated and that was still four months off. At least he wouldn't have to face the threat of becoming an Auror while there was a brewing war.
Her thoughts wandered back to the newspapers she'd spread across the table. Albus was worried about Harry. The owl she'd received back from him had assured her he was going to continue working to find a way to bring Harry back into the fold of the wizarding world and away from the Muggles. She'd offered to let Harry stay with them; it hadn't been a sacrifice. Albus or the healers could see Harry and administered whatever treatment he needed. Then Harry could pick up his life and carry on. It might delay his final exams, and she knew Ron would be upset to start training without his friend at his side, but it might not be much of a separation, perhaps no more than a month or more, Merlin willing.
The sound of knocking on the front door brought her back to herself, and she rose puzzled as to who it might be. She opened the door to find Albus stood on her step, brightly robed, smiling genially despite the growing tiredness she could see lining his face
"Albus," she exclaimed.
"Molly my dear, I wondered if I might prevail upon your hospitality? I have something which I would like to discuss with you." Albus asked cheerfully.
"Of course," She stepped back gesturing him in. Molly took him through to the kitchen, a flick of her wand refreshing the tea things and bringing a plate of his favourite lemon biscuits to the table. Albus settled himself at the table accepting both the tea and biscuits.
"Thank you, my dear, very kind of you."
"How can I help?" she asked settling herself at the table once more.
Albus glanced at the newspapers spread upon the table top wearily. Molly followed the direction of his gaze and flushed.
"Do not alarm yourself on my part," he said smiling gently at her. "I have weathered worse."
"But you shouldn't have to," Molly protested. "And Minerva and Severus, well, I thought better of them than to turn against you in such a manner."
Albus settled back in the chair favouring her with another gentle smile. "Alas, I find myself quite as puzzled as yourself. My relationship with Severus has always been one of tumultuous necessity. I am less surprised than many, at the charges he lays before me."
Molly reached out and patted his hand comfortingly. "Minerva, she should not have spoken as she did. You are the best Headmaster Hogwarts has had. You have had the keeping of all my children and Arthur, and I would send them again to you in a heartbeat."
"Your loyalty does you credit," Albus said. "But you are correct. Minerva has long been by my side and if she had perhaps raised these concerns with me, thenꟷ. Well, maybe it does not do to dwell. I will no doubt weather this as I have endured worse and maybe if the political climate settles we can address what we can with this list of crimes within Hogwarts walls. However, I did not come to speak of Hogwarts."
Molly made a polite noise indicating he should continue.
"Ms Skeeter has inferred in today's edition that she will soon start her investigation into myself. I wondered if you and Arthur could perhaps get word through to the Minister's office? If Kingsley is made aware of the falsehoods she is printing, it might be best if she stops before she begins."
"Could you not speak to Kingsley?"
"Alas no. The last time we spoke, Kingsley and I parted not on the best of terms. While I would not hesitate to offer the hand of friendship and forgiveness, should Kingsley wish it, his current position as Minister means that I cannot visit him directly. Kingsley, while resigning from the Order of the Phoenix still holds our core values very much to heart, and he can be a force for the light within the Ministry. That is a worthier goal."
"But your reputation Albus, you've done so much," Molly protested insistently.
Albus nodded. "That is why I must impose upon you, my dear. I cannot be seen to visit the Minister. However, I believe that your family is still closely connected to the office?"
"Arthur?" Molly queried. "He works in the Ministry, yes, but he hardly has occasion to see the Minister."
"I was thinking more of your son, Percy," Albus corrected.
"Percy? Oh yes, Arthur told me he was still working with the Minister's office. Yes, I can send him an invitation to Sunday lunch tomorrow, he could bring his new girlfriend with him."
"That would be an excellent suggestion, Molly. However, I'm not sure that the attendance of a Muggle to your house would be—"
"Muggle?!" Molly cut him off.
"Yes," Albus raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I thought you knew; I felt no magic coming from her."
"No," Molly answered. "No, Percy is involved with a Muggle? But how? She came here!"
"Yes," Albus mused. "She did."
"Are you sure she's Muggle and not a squib? Or even a witch with very little magic?"
"It is possible," Albus allowed. "She displayed an understanding of magic that would be unusual in a Muggle after all."
"Yes," Molly said picking up and putting down her cup in agitation. "She wouldn't be a Muggle. A squib is much more likely if she's not an actual witch. They have a small number employed as part of the Ministry liaison to the Muggle Prime Minister, don't they? I'm sure I heard Arthur and Kingsley discussing it. Percy would have met them as part of his role within the Ministry." Albus shifted in his chair snapping Molly's attention back to him. "Oh, I am sorry Albus, you don't need to listen to me wool-gathering." She stood up bustling the tea things back to the kitchen forcing Albus to rise with her. "I'll send a note to Percy and have him come for lunch. He'll understand how important it is to have the truth printed. This investigation into you, well it's nonsense, isn't it? They should be reporting on what matters. This Rita Skeeter, I'm sure she's just selling gossip."
"Thank you, Molly," Albus responded letting her bustle him out the door.
"No, no, Albus, it's nothing. You're a good man, we all owe you a great deal of gratitude for what you've done for us." Molly reassured him earnestly.
Molly closed the door behind Albus and returned to the kitchen, newspapers forgotten as her hands wrung in her apron. Percy couldn't be seeing a Muggle. Think of the children! They'd be without magic. They wouldn't be witches or wizards. They'd never come to the Burrow and ride their training brooms around the garden. Or get on the train and go to Hogwarts. A squib would be better, at least the magic might come back but even then, it might not.
Molly shuddered to herself unconsciously feeling for her wand in her apron pocket. It didn't matter, either way, Percy needed to see the consequences of his decisions. She'd invite him for lunch, not Audrey of course, Squib or Muggle she couldn't come to the Burrow. Once she got him here, and Percy would agree to help with what Albus needed. She'd see if she could find him a nice witch, someone intelligent.
Molly thought about it a bit more. Apparently, Percy suited the Ministry. Perhaps he of all her children would need to find a partner with breeding. One that could host the Ministry parties she and Arthur never attended. Someone that could move in the circles that people like the Malfoys populated. Molly suppressed another shudder. She loved her husband and her children fiercely and wished the same for all her children. But perhaps she could pave the way for Percy to find someone who would help his career. She was sure that some witches would overlook the Weasley finances considering Percy's position in the Ministry and if they held traditional views, well, the Weasley family was sacred twenty-eight. If that meant they would require a bit more decorum than her family displayed to feel comfortable, Molly would adapt. Perhaps she and Arthur could meet Percy and his witch away from home; they could dress up and be polite. Brush up on the necessary political manoeuvrings. She'd do it for Percy, they both would. Better that than let Percy continue with this fancy of his with this Audrey. Just think of the grandchildren.
"Have you read this rubbish?" Ron spat throwing the copy of the Daily Prophet he was reading to the floor and getting up from his place on the sofa in the Gryffindor common room to pace angrily.
Ginny Neville and Luna ignored the outburst; it was the third they had heard in the last half hour. Instead, they bent their heads to the homework they were trying to complete to free up the rest of their weekend.
Ron snatched the paper up again and in a scathing voice recited. "'Hermione Granger, upon learning of the fate the Ministry of Magic planned for her, bravely took matters into her own hands to secure her safety, future, and happiness by leaving the country of her birth behind and forging a new life for herself far from our shores.' They make it sound like she was the only one affected! Like she was some kind of victim!"
"She was Ron," Neville said with a heavy sigh born of repetition. "They were going to marry her to Malfoy remember?"
"The Order was sorting it out," Ron rebutted. "She didn't have to leave or lie about it."
"Ron," Ginny snapped, tired of the haranguing. "She did. It was Malfoy or Professor Snape. You were there at the meeting! You said she made the right decision. What's wrong with you?"
"It's Skeeter!" Ron exclaimed. "She writes rubbish!"
"It's the truth, and if you'd have come with us to the Three Broomsticks, you'd have heard all this from them yourself," Ginny retorted.
"She's making Snape out to be a hero!"
"He is, sort of," Ginny said wrinkling her nose up at the idea. "He might not be the nicest person ever, but you can't deny what he's done."
"It's all lies!"
"It's not Ron!"
"'On being questioned where Harry Potter has been since leaving our shores, the saviour of the wizarding world smiles. I left Britain behind because of the marriage law. It had gotten to the point where I was facing more and more danger within Hogwarts due to the actions of Headmaster Dumbledore, and the obsession that Tom Riddle had with killing me. The marriage law was one more example of how the Ministry was not protecting the interests of all the people. The Ministry forced Hermione into something that was a grave breach of her rights as a person and a witch, and an overstep of the Ministry's authority. The law should not have passed…' blah blah blah, and it gets better!" Ron declared pausing for breath. "'Hermione's parents have been a source of great strength for me, they have treated me as their son and provided a much safer environment in which to study what it is to be magical. They might be Muggles, but it does not reduce their understanding of what being magical means to either Hermione or myself. It was through their care that I came to understand that Headmaster Dumbledore had taken liberties and acted outside the law, pertaining to my placement with my relatives. It was not the wish of my parents for me to be raised by my Aunt and Uncle but by my Godfather. By removing me from Sirius' care, I believe that Headmaster Dumbledore directly contributed to the false imprisonment of Sirius Black for crimes he did not commit. Headmaster Dumbledore's decision and subsequent inaction allowed a great miscarriage of justice to occur, by never ensuring that Sirius received a fair trial. Which was under his purview as Chief Warlock.' He's blaming Dumbledore! Harry didn't say that he didn't!"
"He did Ron," Neville said not looking up from his notes.
"It was Hermione," Ron replied. "I got Mum's owl you know, she says Dumbledore thinks Harry needs help because he lived with the Muggles so long and they weren't able to help him properly. That these interviews are just a way of covering up what's really going on, Harry needs to go to St Mungo's! Even Dumbledore said so!"
"That's crap Ron, and you know it. If Dumbledore was so worried about Harry living with Muggles, then why send him to his Muggle relatives?" Ginny argued.
"Because of the blood wards!" Ron said triumphantly.
Ginny snorted in derision. "Harry and Hermione went to a magical school. They used magic at home. Talk to Fred and George if you don't believe me, they weren't living as Muggles, Ron, just with Muggles."
"Mum said, Dumbledore said. What does it matter? Harry's meant to be your friend, Hermione too."
"Some friends since they ran off and left me behind," Ron retorted.
"That's what this is about, still? I thought you'd sorted all that out?"
Ron grumbled something inaudible, and Ginny shook her head at her brother laying her quill down to stare at him. "You're not going to be a prat about Hermione's parents being Muggles, are you?"
"They are Muggles," Ron said his confusion evident.
Neville laid a hand on Ginny's arm stalling her retort. "Not all Muggle born and half-bloods give up their families."
"Yeah, I asked Mum, and she said some choose to live as Muggles and never use their magic," Ron replied horror crossing his face at the concept.
"Harry and Hermione aren't doing that, though," Neville assured him.
"They aren't Ron," Ginny said sinking her hands into her hair in frustration. "Hermione's parents were at the Burrow Ron. They were treating the injured; they aren't afraid of magic. They just can't use it as we can. Fred and George have met them, spent time with them—,"
"Well if you spoke to anyone but Mum," Ginny said sarcastically. "You'd know, and if I were you, I wouldn't say anything bad about Helen and John being Muggles in front of either of the twins."
"I can't believe this!"
"Well, you better get used to it if you still want to be friends with Harry and Hermione. You've seen the papers. They won't take you being a prat about Hermione's Mum and Dad."
Ron scoffed reading from the paper again. "'My Mum and Dad have been a source of great strength for me. They accepted that I was a witch and encouraged me to learn everything I could about being magical. They were disheartened to hear that the magical society, which treated those born to Muggle parents as inferiors, had taken the extra step in approving the marriage law.' It's like her parents are so much better than everyone else."
"Exactly," Neville said. "They encouraged Hermione to embrace our culture then they protected her from it, more than our magical society has done, don't you think?"
"It's rubbish. It's just out to slander being magical and Dumbledore because they can't understand it."
"It's not," Neville argued. "I talked to my Gran, and she said that the articles have brought to light how the Ministry has come up short on things. How the comparisons that Harry and Hermione make between our government and the government they live under now shows that we are lagging behind other magical societies. That we'll continue to lose our brightest and best if we don't make changes."
Ron huffed again dissatisfied by Neville's calm. "It's still not right, and now Skeeter is investigating Dumbledore."
"If he's done nothing wrong she won't find anything," Ginny pointed out.
"She'll make it up!" Rom claimed hotly.
"I doubt she'll have to," Neville muttered quietly so only Ginny and Luna could hear.
Ron, finally having enough of the lack of support he was getting stood up and walked to the staircase leading to the dorms. "I'm going to write to Mum," he said by way of farewell.
They watched him go Ginny shaking her head and sighing. "I don't know why he's taken Mum's side. He's got a real problem with Muggles doesn't he."
"Most people don't think about them," Luna offered quietly. "Those that accept Muggle borns and half-bloods don't really think about the Muggles. They're just an abstract concept, something other, or less because they don't have magic. Very few people deal with them day in and day out. Harry and Hermione have highlighted the fact that we know so very little about them and that we lack as a society. It's easier to blame them and Hermione's parents than look at our faults."
"Do you think they'll ever be friends again?" Neville asked quietly.
"No," Ginny shook her head. "He's picked his side. I've spoken to the Twins and Bill, for better or worse they've going to support Harry and Hermione over Mum and Dumbledore. They worked with them while Harry and Hermione were away. They know what was done to make sure it was over for good. They don't understand why Dumbledore isn't accepting what happened or why Mum is blindly following. It's probably going to cause grief with Mum, but the Twins have said they'll make room for me if I don't want to stay home once my birthday has passed."
"You think it will get that bad?" Neville asked worriedly.
"My Mum thinks Dumbledore can do no wrong," Ginny shrugged. "I don't think she's going to like the Monday edition of the Prophet much."
3rd March 1998
"Severus?" Hermione entered the room worrying at her bottom lip three envelopes clutched in her hand.
Severus looked up from his book. He had escaped the kerfuffle at the castle to Minerva's library for the evening. Helen and John had gone back to America. The twins had returned to their shop, Percy and Audrey had left, Ollivander had been admitted himself to St Mungo's to be checked over. The house now only held Harry and Hermione, and they had been making themselves scarce. The library had become quiet again, and he had retreated to it rather than stay in the castle and face the staff and students after the publication of Skeeter's article on him.
"Hermione," he said placing a finger in between the pages of his book, marking his place.
"Could I ask you something?"
Severus gestured to a chair, and Hermione crossed the room slipping into it. She fidgeted under his gaze then huffed out a breath. "I wondered if you would offer your professional opinion."
Severus raised an eyebrow, emboldened she continued. "I, I have applied to take a Mastery when we return to America."
"In Potions?" Severus asked surprised.
"Yes, I know you said I was only an adequate brewer, but I've been talking to the twins. I've registered the patent on the healing cream, and it's currently going into medical trials here and in America. A lot of the work they do is brewing, but they don't have any qualifications. With a Potion Master on staff, they will be able to expand their market. While I study, I'll research for them, invent, and there are the glamour rings they'll go into production, so I'll earn enough while I study."
"You have a question for me," Severus interrupted.
"Ah, umm, yes," she said holding out the three letters. "These are the offers I'm considering. I'd like your opinion on which to accept."
Severus took the letters giving her a long look before removing the first of the three and reading it. "You want to invent pranks Hermione?" he asked as he read.
"No, well yes, I suppose that I'll be doing a bit of that too, but Fred and George aren't just about that. And I like the inventing, the research, the trial and error. It's not saving the world I know, but I think I've done enough of that. They don't care about my blood status. They don't care about the war heroine crap that's going around. They don't mind me staying in America with my parents and Harry. It's work I can do, enjoy doing, with people I like and respect and who like and respect me."
Severus nodded his understanding and tossed one of the letters back to her. "From what I know of you Hermione, the way you learn, the way you might be best encouraged, I would suggest accepting that one."
Hermione looked down at the letter checking who he had selected. She bit her lip and nodded. "Thank you for your advice. There's just one other thing."
"Yes?" Severus asked.
"Would you permit me to write to you? If I have any questions? I know you're going to be busy what with doing whatever it is you're going to do now… If you don't go back to teaching," she trailed off lamely looking embarrassed.
"If Hermione, you feel I am the only person whom can answer your question and you can keep your question under two inches of parchment then yes, you may write," Severus allowed. "You would not use the mirrors?"
Hermione risked a smile. "Ah, well, I, um, thought you might say no to that."
Severus felt his mouth twitch up in one corner. "Perhaps. What will Harry be doing while you study?"
"He's going to try out for Quidditch." She frowned at Severus snort of derision. "Flying makes him happy. I think he's entitled to a bit of happiness doing something just for him." She shrugged conceding. "He doesn't know if he's good enough to play professionally, but he's going to give it a shot. If it doesn't work out, then he'll think of something else. He's got the grades to join the Aurors equivalent in America."
"Do you plan to return to the UK?" he asked curiously.
"I don't know," she answered. "Not for the foreseeable future I don't suppose. I'm starting this." she lifted the letter. "If Harry gets accepted then he'll be tied there as well. But it's not as if we're disappearing this time. Ginny is going to try out for professional Quidditch once she graduates and since she knows someone living in America, she's got more options than just the European teams."
"She's thinking of joining you?"
"If she gets a good enough offer."
"Has anyone told Molly?" he asked amusement glinting in his eye.
"No," Hermione said smiling at him, her amusement pulling up the corners of her mouth. "And until she graduates she's keeping quiet about it."
They sat quietly saying nothing, Hermione nibbled her lip once more in the growing silence.
"Say it," Severus said a little impatiently.
Hermione blinked at him a small nervous smile gracing her lips. "Ah well, I suppose I was just thinking of the best way to thank you really, without annoying you. For everything you've done."
"You do not need to thank me," Severus said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"We do," Hermione said. "Me especially. I know I left, so the point became moot, but you were going to marry me to keep me away from Tom. That's not something you just forget you know."
"You did very well saving yourself and managing things with Harry. It might not have ended like this if you hadn't written the letter to Minerva. I, however, am not going to indulge in the usual Gryffindor sentimental congratulatory rounds. We all played our parts, and it ended better than expected." Severus replied.
Hermione smiled at him. "Well thank you anyway, and my Dad has left you a couple of bottles of whisky in thanks as well."
Severus allowed himself to smile. "That I will gladly accept as all the thanks I need."
Hermione got to her feet. "We're going back tonight, so this is goodbye as well."
"Goodbye Hermione, you may pass along my best wishes to Harry as well," Severus said solemnly. Hermione nodded and left the room leaving Severus to sit thinking in the returning stillness. Giving himself a small shake, he returned his attention to his book. Slowly, one hand slipped beneath his lapel to feel the envelope hidden in his frock coats internal pocket. The letter Helen had written from her and John before they had left a week earlier, inviting him to write, or call on the mirror, or come and visit. The honest offer of friendship.
6th March 1998
Albus was many things to many people. He had rarely had to bow his head to anyone over his lifetime, and despite the outcry, he would be damned if he was going to now. Albus was unsurprised the week of the investigation into his life had seen him retreat from the Great Hall in the mornings. Preferring to learn in the privacy of his rooms what was appearing in print about him. Molly had owled to say that the lunch she'd planned with Percy hadn't gone well. That Percy hadn't attended, never mind agreed to help his former Headmaster.
Damningly it was Monday, the first day of Rita's expose on his younger life and his relationships with Gellert, that Kingsley had finally stepped forward. Not to offer assurances that the news was false, that Albus was still a leader of the light, but to state that the Ministry had found nothing untruthful in the previous week's articles.
Albus had sat staring in shock at the two short paragraphs in a side column next to a picture of a much younger him and Gellert. The picture was from that first heady summer they had spent together, and it tore at Albus, so many knives in freshly reopened wounds. They had been so very much in love. He could remember the moment the picture was taken. How they had posed, arms wrapped around each other, beaming smiles on their faces, turning to look at each other to share a joke. He watched as the image started again, two young men leaning on each other smiling, laughing, turning to look at each other, then it paused and started again. Albus knew what had happened just after they had turned to each other, Gellert had kissed him. A searing kiss that had set him aflame, flames he hadn't thought he could survive but had thrown himself back into again, and again. He had known that whatever made up a soul, whatever element being wizards added to souls, his and Gellert's were made of the same thing. They had chimed together in perfect cohesion. It had been a moment of revelation that had stunned them both, to find such a kindred spirit so purely by chance.
The fire, like all fires, had burnt him eventually, and the endless winter had arrived. Gellert was gone, his sister dead, his brother unforgiving.
Albus had lifted a hand and wiped the silent tears away, glad he hadn't made it to breakfast in time. Swearing he would not attend while his mornings were under assault. He had been young, and it had been a storm he hadn't weathered.
His heart had never been given so freely again, his passions never since so fully indulged. He did not need the school to see how affected he was.
It had been a week of hell as his life was poured over. Speculation raised about his role in Gellert's downfall and why it had taken him so long to move against his former lover. How he had once supported the ideas that magic was might and that Muggles were inferior. His reputation was left in tatters but not as tattered as his emotional state. He'd forced himself to read about the confrontation between himself and Gellert, reliving the memories as he did so.
The look on Gellert's face as Albus had come to him, the apology Gellert had finally offered for his sister's death. Not an admission of guilt but a sincere regret that it had happened. The longing Albus had felt wanting to be young again with his love. Hating what he had to do, triumphing over Gellert and finding nothing but bitter ashes in it. He'd never confessed to anyone that as Gellert had surrendered to him, Albus had thought about giving him his wand back and running away with him. Fleeing from everyone to find those moments again, to throw himself into the flames again, to feel once again. Gellert had known though, seen it on his face. Let Albus see it reflected back and it was more than Albus could bear.
Besting Gellert in a duel wasn't the hardest thing, letting them take away the man Albus still loved fiercely, the man who still loved Albus, was.
Albus knew that love was the greatest power because it tore at him every day, wore him down, burdened his spirit. Knowing that he had betrayed his love, left him to rot. He told himself Gellert had been mad, out of control twisting the ideas that they had to improve the wizarding world to something they had never been. His reckless heart whispered that if Albus had stayed by his side, then he could have tempered him. They could have achieved something brilliant and beautiful; they could have loved each other.
Now this, the demand he stepped down or be ousted. Albus looked around the office that he had called his own for so many years. He'd left before, but this time, Albus did not think he would return. He looked at his blackened hand, pushing the sleeve of his robe up. His forearm was looking as withered as his hand, and he knew the curse was straining against the binding Severus and Poppy had put it under. He was tempted to let it loose. To stop pushing his magic against the straining and let it take him. It was evident from the week of articles that his reputation was utterly shredded. He had struggled after being ousted as Supreme Mugwump to repair the damage to his reputation. He was never invited back to reprise the role of Chief Warlock, and now Headmaster of Hogwarts had been stripped of any prestige.
He was now known as the Headmaster who recruited school children for his armies. For throwing the hope of wizarding Britain's future into the jaws of war instead of stepping forward himself.
He was the Headmaster who had twice tried to decimate the ranks of magical Britain's children to fight a war. Never mind the Ministry failings, he as Headmaster had not taken due care of his students.
His mind moved back to Harry; it was never far from him recently. A constant loop of regret and bitterness. He was still sure that Harry was no longer Harry, and if Hary was to saved before Harry succumbed, then action was desperately needed. But they wouldn't listen, preferring the tales of heroics instead. It was the same as it had been despite everything he'd tried.
He picked up the letter lying on his blotter, leaning back on the throne-like chair in his office. He was Headmaster, Hogwarts was his domain. He kept the Ministry wolves from the door, and under his protection, the children of wizarding Britain learnt. They might not see it now but they would. He stroked his beard thinking.
He picked his wand up. He'd taken it from Gellert and couldn't resist using it, not while he knew Gellert had used it, had pushed his magic through it. He believed Gellert, believed that it was one of the Hallows and cursed that by the time he'd found the Resurrection Stone Harry had taken the cloak out of his reach. Albus had wanted to reunite the Hallows, even if it was just once. He wanted to fulfil that dream of theirs even though he knew it would feel hollow.
A swish and flick and a trunk appeared. Another gesture and Albus' things left the shelves around him to neatly funnel into the chest. Albus stood wearily making his way to the stairs to his chambers. Another trunk and more of his things leapt from their places in the room.
He felt old, he felt weary, he couldn't find the energy to fight them, they wanted him gone so he would go. He would go home and let the sound of the surf crashing into the cliffs beneath his home sooth his soul. He would dig out the pictures he had long buried and let himself look them over just once more. His trunk quietly clicked closed all his belongings held within it leaving the room around him looking sparse. Albus turned back to the stairs, the trunk bobbing in his wake. The trunk in his office had finished its packing; the lid closed waiting. Albus shrank the pair of them slipping them into his pocket. Picking up a quill from his desk he reached for the letter, he flipped to the back page where his severance agreement was clipped. Albus signed it with a flourish and watched it vanish. He tried to feel something, anger, regret, anything, but he felt tired, weary to his bones. He'd had such dreams, such ambitions. Life had killed them all.
The door to his office swung open, and Filius stood there a parchment clutched in his hand.
"Albus?" Filius asked looking around the mostly bare room.
"Filius," Albus greeted him. "What can I do for you?"
"I-I. You've forgotten?"
Albus creased his brow trying to remember as Filius came further into the office looking around him. Albus was about to enquire what he had forgotten when the door opened again, and the rest of Hogwarts staff appeared filing into the room. Staff meeting, to discuss the upcoming exam timetable. Yes, he had forgotten, it had been one of those weeks it seemed. Albus started to laugh at the thought, a deep rolling laugh that came from his toes startling the staff into staring at him.
"Albus?" Minerva asked hesitantly.
Albus' laugh settled down to chortles. "I am afraid that you will have to continue without me. Fawkes?" The Phoenix fluttered from his perch to land on Albus' arm, and with a burst of flame bright enough to cause the staff to duck and shield their faces Albus was gone.
"What in Merlin's name?" Pomona asked puzzled.
Minerva stepped forward, looking for clues on the Headmaster's desk. The portraits covering the walls suddenly started clamouring, and Minerva winced as the noise washed over the room.
"BE QUIET!" A voice bellowed startling the portraits into astonished silence. Severus was standing at the fireplace glaring at the walls causing more than one or two of the portraits to wilt and shrink back.
"Thank you, Severus," Minerva said primly, the corners of her mouth twitching. "Now would one of you care to explain?" she addressed the walls.
There was a hushed silence until a drawling voice came from one portrait. "Isn't it obvious? Dumbledore got his marching orders." All eyes swung to a smug looking portrait indolently lounging in his frame.
"Headmaster Black do you know for sure that Albus has resigned?" Minerva asked politely.
The portrait stared at her and Minerva thought for a moment it wouldn't answer, then he raised a shoulder in an indolent fashion. "You're the Deputy Head aren't you girl? Ask the question for yourself."
Minerva bristled at the use of 'girl' but reached out with her magic for the feeling that was Hogwarts and the connection to the wards she used when Albus wasn't in the castle. The magic responded to her like it had never done before and she staggered slightly under the feel of it. A wingback chair identical to those in her library but upholstered in black appeared next to her, and she gratefully sank into it, sending Severus a nod of thanks.
"The school is currently without a Headmaster. As Deputy Head, I will fulfil the role until we are appointed a new Head. Has anyone got a problem with that?" she informed the room.
There was a chorus of questions, Minerva held a hand up against the flow. "I know no more than you. I will contact the Board and find out what's going on but in the meantime, the exams are nearly upon us and we have a responsibility to our students."
The clamour died off, and the meeting began. It was only afterwards, once the staff had filed away leaving Minerva alone in the Headmaster's office with Severus, she let the weight of everything show on her face.
"It's that taxing?" Severus asked concerned.
"No," she answered. "I'm used to it with Albus gone so much."
"He's resigned Severus, right before the exam season. Which means while overseeing my student's exams, my duties as Head of House and Deputy Head, I've now got to deal with the Board of Governors and make sure that all the paperwork is complete before we close for summer. Then I'll have to work with whomever the Board decide on as the next Head to get them up to speed before the new term."
"There's that much to do?"
Her responding laugh was grim. "Yes, and you can't tell me you think Albus has done any of it, that bastard."
"Won't they offer it to you?" Severus asked. "You've all but done the job for years."
"They can offer it to whoever they want," Minerva told him.
"But," Severus objected scowling.
"I don't much care right now," Minerva said gently. "Albus has left, that's quite enough for one day. Everything else can wait until after the exams finish, and the students are back home." She got to her feet Severus beside her and left the office closing the door smartly behind her. Privately she fumed as she returned to her office, the Board could have at least let him stay until the end of the term. Disgraced as Albus had been in the papers, as willing as the Board might be to accept the changes the school needed on the back of Albus' departure she couldn't help but think sourly of her increased workload.
Percy and Kingsley sat in Kingsley's office at the end of an eventful week. Using the cover of Rita's interviews the week before, they had quietly rounded up all the remaining Death Eaters they could, along with those supporters of Riddle that were unmarked and buried within the Ministry that they had dirt on. The week of Rita's investigations into Albus kept the public riveted enough that most of the trials had been done and dusted before the public had thought to think of them. The remaining were scheduled for the next week but were few enough not to cause too many ripples.
"I've got the notes of the meetings scheduled Monday morning before the trials in the afternoon," Percy said reaching for the satchel at his feet. He'd given up trying to carry all the folders and files he needed in his arms after the first day and resorted to a satchel which had some useful charms cast on it.
"Enough Percy," Kingsley protested. "It's Friday night, shouldn't you be going home to Audrey?"
Percy shook his head. "She's away with work this week. There's a fair in Wales somewhere."
Kingsley frowned slightly. "What does she do again?"
"Antiquities," Percy said. "She works for a company that do valuations and restoration work and have a small auction house on the side. She's training to become an auctioneer."
"I knew it was something to do with furniture," Kingsley said.
Percy nodded leaning back in his chair to relieve the ache in his back from being on his feet all day, closing his eyes briefly.
"So," Kingsley said the clink of glasses bringing Percy's eyes open to look at his boss.
Kingsley poured the drinks and pushed a glass over to Percy and raised it. "Here's to the second most powerful man in the Ministry of Magic. Without you, this last two weeks would have been impossible. We got the bastards, well most of them, and have pulled the teeth of the rest so they shouldn't be a problem."
Percy demurred. "Hardly powerful."
Kingsley sipped his drink observing Percy. "I don't know how to do this. You've been telling me what to do since I took office. Oh certainly, I've had ideas, and I've not been blindly following, but I was the head of the DMLE after being an Auror. I've no pretensions to knowing how the office of Minister runs."
Percy tasted his drink before answering. "You're the Minister. It is my job as your Undersecretary and Advisor to guide you. Until you can do it without me and then by gathering and disseminating all the information you need to run the office. I've done nothing more than I'm supposed to."
"I don't want it you know, the office as Minister," Kingsley confessed.
"Then why accept it?" Percy asked.
"Because I was the best one for the job," Kingsley replied. "Because the measures that were already in place, measures we had put in place, meant that the Ministry wouldn't crumble and we could clean house. The tide of legislation that the Ministry has been approving that is doing nothing but discriminating against sections of our society can be turned, and we can achieve a brighter future. We're failing out future generations clinging to trivialities such as blood purity. No bloodline can stay 'pure' without risking dying out there's enough proof of inbreeding being hushed up along with the increased risk of the birth rates. The Ministry needs to be leading the charge on inclusion and acceptance, I can do that, and I already know it's something you support."
"My relationship with Audrey isn't about inclusion," Percy said sharply. "I love her. It's no more or less than that."
"You love her, and you're making a life with her despite the views of the magical society," Kingsley said.
"We're not going to be a rallying point," Percy said firmly placing his glass down. "My relationship is exactly that, mine. It's nothing to do with my work."
Kingsley held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Do you want it?"
"Want what?" Percy asked suspiciously.
"The job, as Minister."
Percy gaped at him.
"Come on Percy, don't tell me you haven't thought about it," Kingsley grinned.
"I, that is, I suppose yes, I have," Percy admitted. "But never seriously."
"Why not? You could do it. Your credentials check out, you know the way the office works, and you got here on your own merits."
Percy snorted at that.
Kingsley gave him a sympathetic look. "I know what your family said, and they were perhaps not so much misguided in their concerns as the way they expressed them. You might have moved up to the Minister's office as a way to keep track of Harry, but you stayed on the back of your hard work. Once you broke with your family, they could have buried you again. The fact you managed to keep the job and your principles, well it says a lot about you."
"I've never seriously considered it," Percy said. "Not as any real possibility and considering my choices I doubt it's something I could achieve."
"You could do it," Kingsley said confidently. "No one can doubt your bloodline or your family's allegiance."
"Audrey, she's a Muggle. They'll never elect a Minister married to a Muggle."
"Not today," Kingsley agreed. "Not even next year, but they will. We'll continue to clean house. We've got the chance to do it properly this time. Those marked can't hold Ministry jobs and everyone else we'll bind to an oath of loyalty like they used to do in the old days. We're on the cusp of a new dawn when we can push for change this time. Malfoy's gone, his blackmail network exposed." Kingsley thumped his glass down on the desk decidedly. "We're going to drag this place kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages."
"My family," Percy shook his head.
"What about them?"
"Percy, your family are loyal and have shown that blood doesn't matter. You've got connections through Minerva, Severus, your brothers, your contacts here at the Ministry. Even Harry and Hermione would support you if you asked. Your sister helped lead the contingent of Hogwarts students which had led to a political change already. Don't think for a minute these things won't matter."
"My parents are hoping I'll change my mind about Audrey, they worry about the grandchildren being squibs," Percy admitted his anger and shame at is confession colouring his voice and face.
Kingsley winced. "All your family? I thought the twins?"
"Mum and Dad, possibly mostly Mum. She asked me to lunch last Sunday. Wanted to talk to me about what the Prophet was printing and possibly get the Minister's office to come out against it."
"But we didn't," Kingsley said sending him a regretful look.
"No," Percy agreed. "We didn't, but she also didn't extend the invitation to Audrey, so I didn't go."
"Are you, ahem, planning on a family?"
Percy shrugged his face closed. "At some point but if they are magical or not, I don't care. Healthy, happy, that's important. If they aren't magical, then they'll grow up as Muggles. I wouldn't turn a child away for the lack of magic."
"We've got four years until the next election," Kingsley said. "If you don't want it or aren't ready for it I won't push, I'll take another term."
"I don't think you get to decide, do you? Since the Minister is an elected office," Percy commented wryly.
"It is," Kingsley agreed. "But we're going to use the time we have to get you ready so that I can return to the DMLE, and wizarding Britain can hold its head up again."
Percy looked at Kingsley before sighing. "I see you leave me with little choice." He raised his glass to Kingsley in salute.
Kingsley grinned. "You're welcome."
30th of June 1998
Minerva had been summoned and had come suspecting that she could guess the reason for the meeting. The students were gone, the exam season over and the castle quiet once more. Decisions were to decided. She had thought long and hard about it, long and very hard.
She had been a teacher, a Deputy Headmistress, and a de facto Headmistress. She knew the job. Had kept the school running, had dealt with the idiots, a lot of paperwork, the pressures, and the stress. In the last few months amongst everything else going on Minerva McGonagall had done some serious soul searching and had evaluated what was actually important to her. She had come up with the only answer that brought her any peace and had stood against all the other possible reasons as more important.
Minerva wanted to teach. As much as it was a thankless task, the opportunity to impart her knowledge was simply more attractive. After the year she'd had, she didn't feel like taking on the full weight of the responsibility of Headmistress. She rather liked being able to leave the castle to see people, have dinner and live her life outside its walls in a way she'd previously never done. Becoming Headmistress would severely curtail that. She thought that maybe she'd like a holiday, a sabbatical, taking on the role of Headmistress would seriously reduce her ability to do that as well. So no, it was a great honour to be sure, but her mind was made up.
The door opened, and she was ushered in by the receptionist, a slip of a girl Minerva remembered after hearing her name, she'd taught her some ten years ago. Minerva took the seat offered to her, the one opposite the current Board of Governors and settled herself comfortably. Minerva accepted the tea with a small smile of thanks for her former student then once the girl had left she decided to get proceedings underway. "Gentlemen, Lady," she said nodding at the sole female board member, a travesty if there ever was one. "I believe we have much to discuss. Shall we begin?"
It took only an hour to convince them she wasn't taking the job. It took her half an hour more to get them to accept her proposal. Minerva left the meeting with her head held high and a jaunty skip in her step.
Minerva McGonagall wasn't going to be Headmistress of Hogwarts and wasn't that just the most wonderful thing? She was going to continue to be Deputy Head and her six months sabbatical in twelve months' time was all but signed off.
Minerva put the letter she'd agreed to deliver for the Board into her robe pocket, patting it through the fabric. Well agreed was the wrong word, she was the only one that stood half a chance of being able to speak to the recipient. At the apparition spot, Minerva twisted away into nothing to land in her office a satisfied smile gracing her face. She'd maybe not give up that particular privilege.
Minerva paused in thought for a moment then shrugged to herself. Her next destination was not so far away she couldn't walk. She left her office and made her way to his rooms, letting herself in.
"You're back rather early," Severus drawled. "Am I to offer my congratulations?"
"Yes," she said settling into her customary chair. "You should. It went marvellously well."
"Really?" Severus rose fetching two glasses and the decanter.
"Is that one of John's?" Minerva asked before he removed the stopper.
"Yes," Severus said sardonically. "You weren't this picky before."
She shrugged and accepted the glass he held out.
"So, when do you take over?" he asked toasting her with his glass.
"I don't," she said unconcernedly, savouring the whisky.
He paused in the act of raising his glass to his mouth to look at her then placed the glass down untouched and folded his arms. "They didn't offer it to you?"
"No, they did." Minerva tossed the letter at him, nodding to it. "I wasn't the best-qualified candidate."
"There were no other candidates," Severus pointed out sharply. "You've been running this school for years" There are no better-qualified candidates."
Minerva didn't respond, just sipped her drink. Severus broke the seal of the envelope she'd indicated and read the letter within. His face went blank, the empty blankness she had learnt was due to his Occulmency.
"This is a mistake," he said turning to her.
"No, it's not."
"Yes. Yes, it is."
"It isn't," she repeated.
He glared narrow-eyed at her. "This is your doing?"
"Well, I may have recommended the best-qualified person for the job since it wasn't me. I have been Deputy Head for a number of years I would obviously have useful insight."
"Filius and Pomona both have seniority," Severus protested.
"And neither have the necessary skills to swim in the shark pool that is the job. Albus was a master manipulator and a devious son of a bitch. It wasn't for nothing that he ran this school for so long. It's not me, Severus, I could manage but the infighting just this last year." Minerva shook her head. "It's a job for a younger man, a man who is also a master manipulator who has proven his worth in ways that cannot be questioned."
"You are throwing me into the shark pool?"
"Yes," Minerva said smugly. "I get to stay Deputy Head and tell you what you need to know until you can do it alone. I want to teach Severus. I like teaching, you, on the other hand, can't stand the little monsters. Also, I've negotiated a nice sabbatical for myself for six months which only needs the Headmaster's sign off at the time I want to take it. I can go and catch up on research attend a few seminars."
"So not only are you throwing me to the sharks you're planning on leaving me to sink as well?" he demanded.
"Only once you've learnt to swim," she agreed.
"What if I say no?"
"What earthly reason would you have to?"
"Maybe I want to go live somewhere warm where it doesn't rain ten months a year and snow for two, with no students, no responsibilities."
"You'd get bored,"
"Nonsense, I am sure I could also attend seminars and write research papers. Venture into lucrative private brewing practices. Why would I take this up instead?"
"You can attend seminars and write research papers here as well. Merlin knows Albus seemed to have enough free time to meddle. I'm sure you could use it more efficiently."
Severus picked up his glass and took a healthy swallow.
"You do realise that the school needs you?" Minerva said in a gentle tone.
He narrowed his eyes at her again. "I do not have tender feelings which you can pluck, Madam."
Minerva laughed. "Oh Severus, this is me, I know you, as much as you hate it. The school needs someone who can end this senseless division in the student body. Someone who can stand up for the students who can't stand up for themselves. Who can halt the Ministerial meddling and corral the Board."
"You're the bleeding-heart Gryffindor here not me."
"The Slytherin students wouldn't trust me in a month of Sundays. I have been part of the old guard for too long. You haven't."
"At least a full three-quarters of the student body hates me."
"They dislike your teaching practices, yes, but you won't be teaching. At least not once we've found a new Potions Professor and a Defence Professor. You will have to promise not to chase them out of the castle. We'll never get another qualified Master. Albus was onto a very good thing when he got you, and he knew it. I'd also like to point out your popularity with the student body has undergone a sudden surge. At least half of them seem to be quite enamoured of you." she smirked at him. He glowered at her in reply, he'd taken to warding his door heavily against the intrepid, and students caught waiting outside his rooms without an appointment had found themselves in detention with Argus. It had helped, but the sighs and stares during meals had quite put him off eating in the Great Hall.
"So, you have planned and plotted this without considering what I might want?" His voice had a chill to it that made her look at him closely.
"No. I made a recommendation to the Board as to the best candidate for the role and despite what you seem to think it is not me. You could do this Severus, you could do it well, but I will not force you to take the job. There is no way I could, but don't think that you refusing it will induce me to change my mind."
"You'd let them appoint someone else?" he asked shocked. "You'd let someone come in and let them take over?"
"I made my recommendation to the Board. I would work with whoever is given the post."
Severus finished his drink in a short angry motion and poured another into both their glasses.
"Do you want it?" Minerva asked accepting the top-up.
"I've never…. I never thought I'd ever get the chance. A marked Death Eater? Who would be insane enough, other than Albus, to put me in charge of a school?"
"Now you do?"
Severus clamped his lips closed, staring down into his glass, tilting his head to make his hair fall and partially hide his face. Minerva sat quietly waiting, watching. Letting him come to his own decision without her input, being the friend he wanted. Eventually, he let out a hiss of breath and tipped his head back, blinking at the ceiling. She pretended not to see the sheen in his eyes and quietly waited until he faced her once again.
"I'll do it."
Minerva raised her glass in a silent toast, and he clinked his glass against hers.
"It's going to be a media circus," he said resignedly.
"Piffle," she retorted. "As if what the papers say makes a jot of difference. My offer was never made public at my strict behest, and it would be a brave soul that said to either of us that you didn't deserve the job. Do remember, Severus, that the outcome of this war was somewhat different to the last."
Severus snorted. "A little yes, I had noticed."
14th April 2001
The British Ministry of Magic repealed the marriage law instituted by the former administration by a majority vote in the Wizengamot. Under the law, twenty-three witches had married, and forty-six had entered into betrothal contracts. The Ministry of Magic agreed to a one-time remuneration for those that needed monetary aid in releasing themselves from marriages or contracts brought about by the law.
The house on the private beach in the Bahamas was crammed full of people. The wedding of Harry and Hermione was, despite the number of guests, still an intimate affair, and no one could say that the couple were not very much in love. Finally free from the law that had forced their betrothal they stood before their friends and family and swore their commitment to each other.
After the ceremony inside the house, the guests spilt out on the sun-drenched beach to enjoyed fruity rum cocktails, copious amounts of excellent whisky and the best of Dobby's cooking until the sun went down and the stars came out.
A/N That's it, it's done! Thank you to everyone that has read, reviewed, followed or favorited this story. It's been a long journey and I'm grateful to everyone who came along with me.
There is now a companion story - Mr and Mrs Percy Weasley that tells Percy's story. It starts before the events in Escape and continues after Escape finishes.