This story was written for the HoggywartyXmas Fest on LiveJournal.
If anyone had asked the Reverend Robert Fingal McGonagall ten years ago what he'd be doing on the third Saturday of Advent in the year of our Lord 1990, he might have laid even odds on "thumbing the harp wi' the angels." Or, in his darker moments, "toasting my toes wi' Black Donald."
Irrespective of the eventual disposition of his soul, however, he would never have guessed "riding in a carriage pulled by a beastie resembling a horse turned inside out."
Yet here he was, cheeks numb with cold, nose running, and his eyes watering with a surprising excitement as he was whisked across a snow-dusted path at some speed.
The village receded in the distance behind them, and he looked back, the soft glow from the cottages and the candles in the trees drawing his eyes once again. It was beautiful in a way he remembered from his boyhood Christmases in Cromarty.
"Are you warm enough, Dad?"
Minerva's concerned voice broke through his hazy reminiscence.
Nevertheless, she tucked the rug a little tighter around him.
"Stop it. I promise I'll not freeze to death before we get to your school."
He hadn't intended to be so sharp, but her fussing over him as if he were a wee bairn was driving him round the twist.
Minerva's anxiety had been simmering below her composed surface since she'd met him in London for the trip on the Hogwarts Express. They'd argued yet again over the transportation—he still didn't quite understand why they couldn't just get the train from Wick to Inverness or whatever local station was closest to the school, then hire a car to take them the rest of the way. Apparently, though, cars couldn't get there, but Minerva had been mum on exactly why.
So, after spending two days getting to London, with the very necessary help of his game housekeeper, Mrs McGregor, he'd met Minerva, and the two of them had wasted an exhausting nine hours travelling back north on very nearly the same mist-shrouded route he'd just traversed.
The train itself had been a pleasant surprise. He knew, vaguely, that witches and wizards had their own means of getting around, and he'd worried about what sort of transportation Minerva had arranged, but when she'd brought him to King's Cross, he'd relaxed.
They'd been on the verge of a row when she'd taken his arm and told him to shut his eyes, but in the end, he'd done as she asked, and they seemingly went only a few steps before she told him to open his eyes.
A bright red steam engine had greeted him. It had been so like the first big train he'd ever taken, from Inverness to Aberdeen, and for a moment, he'd been a wide-eyed nineteen again, flush with the excitement of the big city and the prospect of four years of divinity studies ahead of him. Much more elegant than the snub-nosed ScotRail diesel engines that ran between Wick and Inverness these days.
He'd been so absurdly pleased that he'd barely noticed when he'd been whisked up, seemingly by invisible arms, into the carriage.
But the journey had been long, and the uncomfortable silences between him and Minerva had grown heavier as the hours stretched out, the awkwardness increased by the fact that they appeared to be the only people on the train.
Reverend McGonagall didn't care much for extravagance, and the idea of a bespoke train ride just to get his malfunctioning carcass to his daughter's place of dwelling and employment galled, especially after the expense of his and Mrs McGregor's fares and lodgings on the way to London.
The carriage that met them at the station, and the creature that pulled it, had been a less pleasant surprise, but Robert was too exhausted by the journey to make a fuss.
As they sped through the crisp evening air, he said, "I hope Mrs McGregor gets back to Wick all right," more to have something to say than out of any actual concern for the redoubtable woman who'd been cooking and keeping house for him since Isobel's death.
"How is she?" Minerva asked.
"It was kind of her to bring you to London."
"She was glad to do it. Says it took her mind off things. It's a hard time of year for her."
"Hard for all of us."
He was sorry to have mentioned it. Neither he nor Minerva needed reminding of their own losses.
Changing the subject, he asked, "What sort of animal did you say this is?"
"A Thestral. They're really quite gentle, despite their appearance."
"And those are wings on its back?"
"It can fly?"
He said nothing more, attempting to digest the fact of a flying skeletal horse. He couldn't help feeling it boded ill for the visit.
They rode in silence for several minutes until they came to a large, rusted gate, abutted on either side by crumbling pillars and tall, bramble-covered walls.
A sign read: NO TRESPASSING KEEP OUT! EXTREME DANGER OF DEATH! I'D TURN BACK IF I WERE YOU!"
"Welcoming sort of place," he said drily.
Minerva pursed her lips. "I'll just be a moment."
She hopped down out of the carriage and went to the gate. Her back was to him, so he couldn't see what she was doing in the low light from the torches on the carriage, but a moment later, there was a piercing sound as the gate squeaked shrilly open.
Minerva got back in beside him, and the carriage passed through the gate.
The scent of pine grew strong in his nose as they trotted up the path, and the trees that flanked them grew thicker.
Beyond the other side of the path, he could just make out the inky blackness of a loch, and as they progressed up the promontory, the path's western edge fell away into a vertiginous slope.
He looked down the side of the carriage to see how close to the edge they might be.
Too close, by his reckoning.
Minerva's hand fell on his arm.
"It's all right, Dad. The Thestral knows what he's doing."
I'm glad someone does, he thought.
Coming here was probably a mistake, after all this time, but the awful truth was, he'd nowhere else to go this Christmastide, with Malcolm in America, and his granddaughter and grandsons scattered to the winds and too busy to bother with a sick old man.
Besides, they didn't understand his way of life, nor he theirs. Only Rabbie, his sweet, sweet boy, had chosen to follow his dad into the kirk. And he was in his grave, thanks to a sudden heart attack, as best the Edinburgh Crown Office could determine.
Robert didn't believe it for a moment. A hale man didn't drop dead of heart attack at age forty-one. Minerva had only said that wizards usually died of different things than did non-magical folk, and that it was best to let the procurator general believe there was a history of heart disease in the family and list "myocardial infarction" on the death certificate. But a peculiar stench Robert suspected was magic had pervaded Rab's home for weeks afterwards, and none of Minerva's stick-waving could dispel it.
If Rab hadn't been carried off by whatever it was that left him lying on his kitchen floor, eyes wide open and not a mark on him, he'd likely have had his father sorted long before the Parkinson's had progressed to the point where he couldn't be trusted to live on his own and had to burden his busy daughter with a visit neither of them could pretend to want this holiday.
The carriage went over something and jostled them. Robert looked up, his breath catching in his chest. Rising above them in the distance was a magnificent gothic castle. The light that glowed from the windows in the towers gave it a warm, welcoming feeling, almost as if he were coming home.
He glanced over at Minerva, who was looking at him, the ghost of a knowing smile on her face.
He looked away from her and cleared his throat.
By the time they'd reached the castle foregrounds, the warm feeling had grown, although the winds that whipped them as they crossed the long, wooden bridge had made his nose start up again.
"Oi, there, Professor McGonagall! Over 'ere!"
"Merciful heaven!" Robert gasped before he could stop himself.
Standing in front of the oak doors, waving a lantern, was the largest man he had ever seen. He had to be ten feet tall and half again as wide, and his wiry hair and beard stuck out wildly in all directions.
The carriage rolled to a stop near the doors. The man laid an enormous hand on the beastie's head. Despite his rather frightening appearance, his words were soft.
"Ah, there's a good boy," he said as he petted the animal's skull. Robert watched, fascinated, as the man slipped a hand into the pocket of his coat and pulled out what looked suspiciously like a raw steak. He offered it to the beast, who gobbled it down, snorting. Robert shuddered when the thing's tongue darted out to lick the juice from the big man's hand.
The man wiped the hand on his coat and held it out to help Minerva from the carriage.
"Good trip, Professor?"
"Yes, thank you, Hagrid, and thanks for having the carriage meet us. It was very helpful."
"My pleasure. Orcus is always ready for a bit of a trot, aren't you, boy?" He patted the creature on its skeletal flank, and it whinnied, a thin, papery sound.
"Hagrid, this is my father, the Reverend Robert McGonagall. Dad, this is Rubeus Hagrid, our groundskeeper."
"Pleasure to meet you, sir," the big man said, holding out his hand.
Robert hesitated before relinquishing his hand into the slab-like paw that was proffered, but when he did, the handshake was surprisingly gentle.
"The pleasure is mine, Mr Hagrid."
"Just 'Hagrid', if you please, Reverend. It's what everyone calls me."
"Can I help you down, sir?"
Robert glanced at Minerva, who gave him an encouraging nod.
"That's very kind, thank you."
Hagrid reached into the carriage and lifted Robert right out of it, setting him carefully on his feet.
"Er . . . thank you."
"This your trunk?" Hagrid didn't wait for an answer but lifted Robert's battered bag from the carriage with one hand and set it down on the steps to the castle doors.
"I'd best see Orcus back to 'is pen," he told Minerva. "If you hurry, you'll be in time for dinner in the Great Hall."
Hagrid led the animal off, and Robert remembered too late he'd forgotten his cane.
"My stick . . ." he muttered.
"What was that, Dad?"
"My stick. I'm afraid I've left it in the carriage."
"It's all right." Minerva turned in the direction Hagrid had gone. "Accio cane."
Robert tensed when the item in question came sailing through the air into Minerva's waiting hand.
He remembered the first time he'd seen Minerva do something similar, before he'd known about it. She'd been about four and having a bit of a strop.
Robert had been reading some scripture aloud for his family, but Minerva had wanted Moorland Mousie. She'd climbed from her stool and retrieved her preferred book, turning the pages to look at the illustrations and humming loudly to indicate her distaste for her father's choice of reading material. He'd sighed, put down his Bible, and taken the book gently from his daughter's hands, saying something about it being unsuitable for Sunday evening. No sooner had he set it on a high shelf than it had whizzed right past his nose and back into Minerva's hands.
He'd nearly fainted.
He would never forget the expression on Isobel's face when he looked over at her. There'd been shock, certainly, and worry . . . but also unmistakable pride, and Robert had known in that moment that his life was about to change irrevocably.
He hadn't seen any of his children do it since Rabbie had been a boy. The unspoken rule of the McGonagall family home—no magic in front of your father—had rarely been broken.
There had been moments in their marriage when he'd wanted desperately to ask Isobel about it, about what she could do with it, but the fear of what the knowledge might do to him, to his knowledge of the world, and to their marriage, had kept the words stuck in his chest.
Cane in hand, and his other arm supported by Minerva, Robert entered the castle.
He sighed audibly when he saw the enormous staircase that he would no doubt have to climb to get to his daughter's rooms.
"Don't worry, Dad," Minerva said. "We can—"
"I'm not going to be . . . magicked up and down the stairs. I can manage on my own."
"You might change your tune when they start moving," she snapped. Then she sighed. "I wasn't going to suggest Levitating you. We can use the door from my office. It's a magical door, but I won't have to cast any spells on you, and it will take us directly to my quarters. Which are in Gryffindor Tower."