--Checkmate-- A/N: I don't own 'em. This was written as a companion piece to Potions: it can stand alone fine, too, but it will add to it if you read that first. I didn't write romance into this: read it in only if you want to, but don't complain if you do. Cheers. Please review.


The best thing I could think of to do was play chess with her. I was no great shakes at chess; not now, or ever. So, the deal was: every time she took a piece of mine, she would ask me a question.

I proposed the method, or she never would have agreed. It was too unorthodox. I was serving detention for something or another, one of many clumsy infractions not intended to harm anyone – or maybe HE arranged this one, which would have been ironic – but I had asked her if I could have detention with her, and play chess. I explained my terms nervously.

"I lose a piece, you get to ask me something."

"Longbottom, are you saying you have something to tell me?"

Freeze. Stop. Think. Gather your resolve. I nodded. "Yes, I do."

"Well, you know you are always welcome to confide in me, with no chess game necessary . . . ."

"Professor, p –please, will you?"

She looked at me curiously over her glasses, sighed, and agreed. "Eight o'clock tonight in my office then, to serve your detention."

From eight that morning until eight that night, I regretted it. What had I done? Neville Longbottom, infamous bumbling fool, had just put his foot royally in his mouth and so far down his throat it was a wonder I wasn't retching. What, in the name of Godric Gryffindor, had I just gotten myself into?

But then . . . . then IT happened again, and after IT, my resolve was back. During IT, I was dead. That was how I had come to think of IT. I would die every time, and be reborn an hour later; each time a squalling, wretched babe, with no wits about me. I didn't like dying. If I had liked dying I might have taken up poison a few years ago; when my parents were hospitalized, after numerous visits where they didn't recognize me. After IT, a million ITs before.

And at eight o'clock that night, having eaten no dinner whatsoever because of a serious case of nerves, I was standing outside Professor McGonagall's office, holding my Wizard's Chessboard in one hand and a paper sack on black and white players in the other. I knocked, and she opened the door. I swallowed.

"Good evening, Longbottom," she said.

I smiled nervously. "Good evening, Professor." Stiff and formal like Gran's starched dress robes. Awful. I didn't care.

She beckoned me in and bade me sit down at a small mahogany table with lions painted up and down the legs and across the top. I obeyed, and set down my chess set over the lions. One roared contentedly as though I had petted it. I grinned nervously.

Within a minute or so Professor McGonagall had come back, and sat down opposite me, appraising me silently. I said nothing; I looked her over in return. I knew she looked physically considerably younger than she really was, like a woman in her early forties instead of her seventies; the way my mother might look in a few years.

No, my mother would never look like that. Mom had that bewildered sort of half-inoocence in her muddled eyes, and Professor McGonagall's were the tired eyes of an old woman. The war was working her hard, and she showed it in her eyes. I felt suddenly guilty for bothering her with my little problems. In the grand scheme of things, what did it matter if I had a problem? Defeating Voldemort was ---

"Do you want to play white, or black?" she asked me, breaking into my thoughts. I blinked.

"Uh . . . . black, I suppose." White got the first move; she was more on the offense than I was, so it made sense. I reached for the bag and began unpacking the pieces, setting them up over the chessboard. I was a terrible chessplayer, actually: was going to lose this game. I knew that.

I only hoped that in losing, I would win.

"Ah . . . should I – should I explain the rules?" I suggested as I worked.

"I do know how to play chess, Mr. Longbottom," she said with a wry smile.

I grinned a little weakly back at her. "Sorry, Professor – I meant the rules to my game, why I'm here." I wondered if she knew how nervous I was. It almost reminded me of IT.

"By all means," she said primly, as she picked up the white pieces and began setting them up for me.

"They're simple, really," I said. "When you take one of my pieces, you get to ask me a question. I have to answer."

She raised her eyebrows for a moment as she thought, her strict face pulled into a comtemplative expression. "And what, Mr. Longbottom, happens if you take one of my pieces? Will you ask me a question, too?"

I blinked in surprise. I hadn't thought about that – hadn't expected, really, to be taking one of her pieces. "Um . . . ." I mumbled. "I don't know."

"Then you will ask me a question when you take one of my pieces."

I nodded wordlessly. The board was ready, and I quietly instructed my pieces to be quiescent about my mistakes throughout the game. I didn't need them throwing in their typically caustic commentary this time. "Shall we . . . begin?" I asked.

She moved her pawn.

I moved mine.

It took several moves before she took the first piece. The small black pawn fell wordlessly, and I mentally applauded my usually rambunctious chess set for toning it down for me. They had listened . . . . .

"Why did you want to come here?" she asked.

I swallowed. "I wanted to ask for tutoring in Charms and permission to, on a routine basis, cast a Calming Charm on myself." We had studied them in Charms, but Professor Flitwick had informed us that they could potentially be dangerous if used to excess. They were, however, useful for calming things like panic. Like IT. We had practiced them on some enchanted hyperactive teapots, and I had, as usual, made more trouble than I was worth.

She raised her eyebrows more dramatically this time, and opened her mouth like she was going to speak. Then, she glanced back at the chessboard, pursed her lips, and said, "Your turn."

I moved another pawn. She took it with a rook I hadn't seen coming.

"Why do you want to use a Calming Charm?" she asked me.

"Because of IT," I said simply, having forgotten that she wouldn't know what IT was. I opened my mouth to explain it to her . . . . and then I looked back at the board and closed my mouth, too. She could ask me that next time. It would be hard enough to tell her anyways.

I moved; she moved and I took one of hers; a knight, which was surprising. She gave me a permissive nod.

"What did you think I'd wanted to talk to you about?"

She thought a minute. "I . . ." she said slowly. I was surprised. Seeing my strict Transfigurations Professor like this was interesting. She had those tired eyes and she looked . . . well . . . a little more human. And moreover, she was going to answer me honestly. Perhaps it was because I was older, in the sixth year now. No, I was still really very young.

"I think I thought you were going to ask me if there was anything you could do to help against – You-Know-Who."

I was startled. Why would I ask that? I bookmarked it for my next question.

She moved, I moved, back and forth, until she took my rook, knocking it over gracefully with her queen. I looked at her hands; her fingernails had perfect half-moon shapes at each base, and the nail looked as clear as glass. Her hands did not look young, either. She could have been someone's grandmother: she had just as much indomitable pride as mine.

"What is IT?" she asked.

I blinked as I heard her put the capital emphasis on it, and then swallowed hard as I realized that I had to tell her now. It came out easier than I expected, though, in the situation of this game.

"I'mafriadofprofessorsnape," I said in a rush, then said it again, slower. "I'm afraid of Professor Snape."

I could see her brow furrow slightly as she thought this over, trying to comprehend what it meant. At last, she nodded bemusedly, and I moved. Within a few minutes I had taken a pawn.

"Why would I have wanted to help against You-Know-Who?" I asked her.

"I suppose I thought it had something to do with Ron and Harry," she said. "That you saw them helping, and wanted to do it too."

Ah. So that was it. I thought she was going to say something like 'You wanted to avenge your parents.' No; Ron and Harry indeed. Interesting. "Your move," I said.

It was a long time before either of us spoke again. Then she took my knight. She was relying heavily on her queen, sending it flashing across the board. If only I could take that queen, she would be defenseless, and I could . . . . but I wasn't here to win. I probably couldn't catch the queen anyways; it was too quick.

"What has being afraid of Professor Snape got to do with Calming Charms?" she inquired. I noticed that she didn't say, 'because everybody knows you're afraid of him.' It was there; but she didn't say it. Which was good. Everybody knew I as afraid of him. They didn't know how much.

"I think I could enjoy Potions more if I weren't terrified," I said. "I like Herbology. I love Herbology. One would think that I would bring all that knowledge to Potions and enjoy mixing the plants together. But – I'm afraid of Professor Snape. It's like the Cru – like the Cruciatus Curse."

Her eyes widened as I said the words. Cruciatus Curse. C-R-U-C-I-A-T-U-S C- U-R-S-E. The curse the Lestranges had used to kill . . . well, not really kill. . . do that to my parents. It terrified me, too. I remembered seeing Moody do it to that spider, and feeling a little like IT was happening at the thought.

We played again. She took another of my pawns.

"What do you mean, it's like the Cruciatus?" she asked.

I had known that one was coming, and I still stammered. "Well – it's supposed to be pain as intense as possible, right?"

She just looked at me. I realized that she thought that was all of my answer. "And – IT – being afraid – all that fear – physically afraid. It hurts. It hurts my body and my mind and I always think I'm going to die. They say Cruciatus victims pray for death."

I don't say it, but there's always that 'my parents prayed for death.' I keep expecting this conversation to come back to them. Maybe it only does in my head.

She gave a curt nod and I moved, swiftly taking one of her pawns. Her defenses weren't that strong, really. Was she distracted? Throwing the game? Or was she a chess player more on my level – not stellar? Probably the first or second. A witch as brilliant as she couldn't be lousy at chess. But a near-squib like me could.

"What would I do to help?" I asked.

She thought for a long time, lips flattened in a traditional McGonagall fashion. "I don't know," she said finally. "Do you mean what can you do, or what did I think you want to do?"

She's not allowed to ask another question, and she remembered suddenly. I smiled. "Next time," I say. She moved her piece.

Within a minute she was asking a question. She didn't ask about the war; she was still asking me about IT. I guessed she figured I'd elaborate next time I asked her a question.

"What does it feel like?" she asked me.

I took a deep breath, and let it out in a shudder. Thinking about it, I could feel my heart pound, crazed. "Like a nightmare," I said at last, "like a nightmare. Only in nightmares, you wake up before you die. With IT – in Potions class, with Snape – I don't wake up before I die. My heartbeat speeds up too fast. I keep thinking it's going to stop beating, or explode. I can't draw breath. Sometimes I can't see. Sometimes I get dizzy. And I scream. In my head of course, not out loud; but I scream. 'Get out, get out of here, run away;' it gets worse when he's angry. Or when he's cold to me. I can't hold things steady. It just gets worse and worse through the hour and by the end I'm lucky if I can talk at all. Yesterday I actually collapsed. Just fell down, sitting stupidly. That's when I decided to talk to you. I forget all the plants I know, and what they do and why they might do well in a potion. I forget my name. I die."

She was staring. She had every right to. I suddenly felt uncomfortable under her emerald gaze, and quickly moved my piece.

She, too,. looked back at the board and started playing again. She took one of my piece. I wasn't paying attention to which one anymore.

"And you think Calming Charms will help?" she asked.

I shrugged. I could feel my heart fluttering involuntarily. Talking about IT made IT come back. "I think . . . I . . . I think they might help me remain slightly . . . . c- coherent."

"How do you feel now?"

I forgot that she was breaking the rules by asking me a question without taking a piece.

"Badly," I squeaked.

"Badly?" she asked.

I nodded. "Talking about it – thinking. It comes back, in memories." A pause. "I've been skipping meals because he's at the staff table. I go to the kitchens, instead."

"I could arrange to have your meals brought to your dormitory to spare you the walk," she offered. "As a last resort. Here." She raised her wand and said gently, "Quieto anxium."

I felt the Calming Charm settle over my bones, slowing my heartbeat, letting me breathe easier. I smiled my thanks. The wispy image of Professor Snape faded away like a dream. A bad dream.

"They can be addictive, you know," she said, and then she gestured for me to move my piece and would say no more.

I took one of hers and asked about it. "Addictive? The charms? How?"

"It's the calmed sensation," she explained. "That's why they can be dangerous: some wizards find it addictive; of course, they rarely have problems to calm, they just do it because it's fun."

I thought I detected a hint of bitterness in that comment.

She moved her queen and took out my other rook. I winced; now there was a big, gaping hole in my defenses, and stupid as I was I couldn't even take the queen to make up for it.

"How do you feel now?" she asked.

"Saner," I answered.

I took a pawn.

"What do you think?" I inquired boldly.

"I think you're going to need a more permanent solution than Calming Charms. From what I understand, you would be almost constantly under the influence of one; at dinner, in Potions class. That's not to mention chance meetings with Professor Snape in the halls. I will be happy to help you improve yours, and allow you to cast them sometimes, for . . . emergencies, but even in your situation with a perfectly good reason for them, the chances of addiction after prolonged exposure is too high. I will admit to not knowing exactly what to do for you, however. I am sure that there are some kinds of anti-phobia ward spells, and that we probably could modify one to suit your panic attacks. Would you like that?"

This question certainly wasn't forbidden by the rules. I was feeling more and more relieved. "I would," I said, "if it works."

"If it doesn't," she said with surprising resolve, "we'll try something else."

She moved her pieces, and I followed. There were a few moments of silence and then she took another one of my players. The hole in my defense widened. I winced, and tried vainly to think of ways to patch it up.

"Would you be willing to help in the war?" she asked next. I was surprised.

"Sure," I said. "I don't know how I would be able to – all I know is Herbology – but I'd be happy to. I – I—really, could I?"

She nodded. "If we think of something," she said, "I will be happy to contact you." She sighed. "We need all the help we can get."

Yes, I mused, she did look very old, despite her deceptively young skin. She was trying to be too many people's mother. "Is HE- Professor Snape—he's helping a lot, isn't he." It wasn't really as much of a question as it could have been.

"Yes," she sighed heavily, "Yes, he's helping a lot."

I moved again, making another attempt to guard my dangerously exposed king. Then, her queen came sweeping along, and knocked mine down. I grimaced.

"Did we go over everything you wanted to?" she asked.

"Yes," I said simply. "How can I help in finding the right anti-phobia warding spells? My wandwork's a real pity, and I'm not really all that great with books." I was used to feeling stupid, but suddenly, admitting it before my teacher, I felt a blush rise.

"It's all right, Neville," she said. "I'll do it."

I was surprised: she'd just called me Neville. Usually it was the formal Mr. Longbottom, but she had chosen to make me an equal for a moment by calling me Neville. I smiled tentatively, and moved my remaining knight.

She moved her rook. "Check," she said simply.

Oops. Umm . . . I moved my king one space to the left.

One of her bishops took a pawn. "How many detentions do you have left?" she asked.

I shrugged, counting slowly on my fingers. "Uh . . . seven."

"Did Professor Snape give them to you?" she asked.

"Mostly," I replied honestly.

She made a tsking sound. "The man may be a genius, but he's heartless," she muttered in what I think was supposed to be under her breath. I grinned into the chessboard.

"Would you like to come back and play chess again for some of them? We can talk about the charms and wards."

"I'd love to . . . .Oh," I said suddenly. "Look!" She had asked me her question instead of delivering a crucial piece of information.

Professor McGonagall looked me dead in the eyes and smiled. I saw a few years lift from her eyes. "Checkmate," she said.