Disclaimer: All the people found within sprang into being from the imagination of J. K. Rowling. Sadly, they belong to her, not me.Interlude
Chapter One: In the Garden
Remus Lupin left the castle after delivering his package to the office of its Headmaster and decided to take a walk through the gardens before heading back to the hot stuffiness of the summer city. Hogwarts was always a special place to him, but he'd come to love it even more since he'd been forced to leave it. The package that he'd had to deliver could certainly have come by owl, but any chance that he had to sneak back and enjoy a few more minutes within the solitude of its walls or in the beauty of its landscape was like finding money under the davenport…an extra bonus with so many unexpected possibilities attached.
Summer was an especially lovely time here. When he was a student, he never had the pleasure of wandering around the sprawling grounds and gardens of the stately old structure during the warmth of the true growing season. It was only after he became an adult and began to come and go on the Headmaster's whim as a member of the Order that he got a chance to experience this side of Hogwarts.
Set amongst the majesty of the surrounding scenery, there were a series of walled gardens that brimmed with secret life. Long cool cloisters of aged stone covered with ivy and scented with the heady fragrance of old roses and the serene buzzing of fat bumblebees as they went about their life spreading their own form of magic within the growing world. If he had the time, sometimes he'd sneak up here with a book and steal a few hours amidst the beauty and serenity of this place. It truly was a haven from the cold uncertainty and bleak fear that made up so much of the rest of his often lonely days.
As he rounded a corner of the castle and stepped out of one of the cloisters into the seclusion of his very favorite rose garden, he heard the totally unexpected sound of girlish laughter. He paused and scanned the flowerbeds and immaculate squares of lawn in front of him. No one was in sight, yet he was certain that he'd heard a sweet voice laughing with enjoyment about something. Were there students still here for some reason?
When the sound came again, he realized that whoever was laughing wasn't a child at all. The sound had a lilt of maturity to it that he'd never heard from the throat of a child for all that it was light and carefree. For a moment he indulged in the fantasy that the garden was secretly populated with fairies and sprites from the Muggle tales that his mother had often read to him as a boy. Perhaps the heady blossoms that sagged under the weight of time and moved sluggishly in the faint breeze were actually full of the tiny magical creatures who were all excited to see that a foolish mortal had wandered into their midst.
He smiled to himself at the silly notion. Still there was definitely a magic to this place beyond that practiced within its walls, and it always set his mind to exploring the oddest thoughts when he dwelt here for any length of time. As the sound of definite giggling returned, he realized that it was coming from behind a particularly large and well laden rosebush in the far corner up against the castle wall.
Curious to see who was so enjoying being hidden away behind the shrubbery, Remus crept quietly across the soft grass and parted the bushes carefully to peer into the dim retreat. The sight that met his eyes was absolutely the last thing that he ever expected to see. There on the soft earth of the garden bed lay Minerva McGonagall and crawling all over her as she smiled and laughed were six small and energetic bundles of fluff.
Remus gasped rather loudly in shock, and the woman on the ground started at the sound meeting his surprised eyes with her own that still danced with recent merriment.
"Oh my goodness…" she exclaimed as she tried to sit up without totally dislodging the tiny kittens who had made her the current center of their world.
Remus stepped around the bushes and knelt down next to her as she sat up and began picking small bundles of cat out of her hair and off of her shoulders. The kittens themselves seemed totally unfazed by her abrupt change of position simply digging fine sharp needles into their perches to remain wherever they were with ease.
Minerva smiled in a face tinged rather rosy with embarrassment as she tried to pull a particularly reluctant ball of black fur out of her hair. "Remus…how unexpected to see you," she laughed as the kitten in her hands mewed piteously at being dislodged and scrambled against her bosom in an attempt to find a new position on its favorite perch.
Remus laughed at the sight of the usually so meticulously turned out Minerva totally disheveled and covered in cat hair. "I was just taking a little walk and heard all this playing going on, so I just had to take a look. I'm sorry if I startled you. Are…are all these yours?" he asked with a smile.
Her face reddened even more at the comment. "Mine?"
"Yes…oh, I mean…is the mother yours…" He blushed too as he realized the slight tactlessness of asking that question of a woman who can become a cat at will.
They both burst into embarrassed laughter at the same time defusing the slight awkwardness of the moment.
"No. Actually the mother is a stray, I think. The castle does seem to attract a lot of them since there are so many cats around here during the school terms. I just happened upon the litter a few days ago while taking a walk myself, and I've been keeping an eye on them. They were simply in the mood to try exploring today, and the thing that they seemed to want to explore the most was me. I decided to indulge them, since I thought I was alone." She shot him a mock chiding glance seeming for a moment the much more prim and proper woman he was used to.
He sat back on his heels and tried to look abashed. "Ah, sorry. I must have missed the 'do not disturb' sign."
That lovely smile crossed her face again. "Well, perhaps I forgot to put it out this morning. I do get rather forgetful sometimes."
While they were talking, the boldest of the kittens a gray male and his equally bold sister decked out in stripes began to climb up on the new arrival. Their little claws finding purchase wherever they wished heedless of the sensitive skin that lurked beneath the handy cloth.
"Ow," exclaimed Remus softly as he hurriedly readjusted the female who'd climbed directly into his lap and was attempting to scale the wall of his chest.
Minerva sighed thoughtfully as she watched the kittens testing out the suitability of this new climbing opportunity. "Since I become a cat myself, it never seemed right to try to "own" one, but I do love the new litters of kittens. So much energy and life. It's a pleasure to realize that no matter how dire things can sometimes seem…life goes on and nature renews itself. It gives me hope, I guess."
Remus smiled in understanding, trying not to dislodge the kitten who'd now made it all the way up his chest and was perched somewhat precariously on his shoulder while tasting his ear to see if it would make a good snack. The tiny tongue and miniscule teeth tickled more than anything else, and he found himself chuckling and cuddling the kitten against his neck protectively.
"I know. With all the painful things that are going on in the world right now, it's reassuring to see something so carefree and innocent. It makes me want to protect them from all the evil out there…but you can't," he said with a sigh, his thoughts drifting down bitter roads.
Saddened by this turn in the conversation, she rubbed her face against the soft down of the little black, who was still determinedly lavishing interest on her. "No," she whispered softly, thinking about the other young ones in her charge as well and the perils that they all faced everyday. "You can't protect them all."
Minerva's smile returned as she watched Remus juggle the kittens carefully while more of them turned their interest to climbing on the newcomer.
"You're very good with little ones, Remus," she noted quietly. "Have you ever given any thought to having some of your own?"
"What? Kittens?" He laughed.
"No, children." She smiled in return. "I worry about you sometimes. You've lost so much, and you always seem so alone. I think having a family would do wonders for you."
A sober expression crossed Remus' face, and he pulled the gray out of his hair and cuddled him against his chest, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the wiggling ball of fur. "I don't know. It never seemed very fair to inflict the life of a werewolf on a wife and kids. The time has never seemed right either. Something horrible is always lurking right around the corner. So much death…so much pain… This would be an awfully dangerous world to bring children into. I just can't see it…not now, but yeah, I suppose that I would like to have a family. I just don't see it happening for me."
Regretful at bringing up a painful subject, Minerva reached across the short space that separated them and squeezed his arm reassuringly. "I'm sorry, that was too personal a question, wasn't it."
Raising his eyes from the squirming kitten, he smiled back at her. "No, of course not. In fact, I could ask the same of you. You obviously love little ones…no matter the species. Why didn't you ever have a family of your own?"
"Oh, it just never worked out that way, I suppose." She reached out a slightly dirty hand to caress the kitten that was now gnawing determinedly on Remus' finger, plucking it easily out of his hand as he jumped in reaction to the sharp teeth and setting it down on the ground to watch it scamper away chasing a nearby tail under a bush. She sighed slightly and turned her gaze back to the one leveled so thoughtfully at her. "Life's path isn't always as straight and clear as it seems when you're young. There are always new obstacles to face and new challenges to tempt you down side roads, and before you know it…the road ahead looks very different than it once did."
Impulsively Remus reached out and pressed a gentle hand to her dirt grimed cheek holding her face softly for a moment as they exchanged a smile of wistful understanding. Somehow here in this secluded spot with their hair mussed by the kittens and dirt and grass staining their clothing, the usual barriers of time and position didn't seem quite so high or half so wide. A silence full of meaning descended upon them for a few moments, then they both pulled back simultaneously refusing to dare too much.
As the kittens had all found other occupations by now, Minerva got to her feet and began to brush the dirt from her clothes. "My goodness, I look a fright. Though what else should I expect when I go and roll around in the dirt, I suppose." Her eyes sparkled mischievously.
Remus laughed and got to his own feet. "I imagine that I don't look too much better myself."
Together they stepped out into the sunshine of late afternoon in the garden and spent a moment trying to straighten themselves out. A few brisk sweeps of stiff fingers managed to loosen and dislodge most of the dry specks of earth and the rest was easily whisked away with a handy spell. Then they stood and smiled at each other for a moment before turning and strolling slowly along the garden path towards the nearby cloister.
"So where are you off to now, Remus?" Minerva asked quietly as she smoothed her hair back into its usual place.
He sighed. "Nowhere in particular. I guess I'll head back to Grimmauld Place and open a tin of something or other for dinner. The house does get awfully quiet in the evenings now that Sirius is gone. I usually try to spend as little time there as possible actually."
She nodded in sympathy. "Yes. The castle is very quiet at the moment, too. I'm only here for a few days between places that I need to be, but it always seems so lonely when all the students are away."
The air suddenly seemed heavy with waiting as they came to the end of the cloistered walk and the moment to go their separate ways was at hand.
"Well, I guess I should go then…" Remus stated firmly, yet his feet never moved onto the softness of the lawn that he'd need to cross to be on his way.
A smile crossed her lips once more as she noted his hesitance to leave, as it matched her own to have him go. "Listen, if you're free…would you like to stay and have dinner here with me? As far as I know, I'm alone here at the moment…other than Filch of course, and he's always so determined to keep himself to himself. I haven't spoken to anyone but the house elves for days, and I really would appreciate having the company."
His eyes warmed her with their sparkle as he smiled back and nodded his head in agreement. "Thank you. I think I'd really like that."
"Excellent," she murmured softly as she reached out to take his arm in hers and lead him back down the walk towards a side door and an evening of unexpected possibilities.