Cross My Heart
Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous; and it pricks like thorn.
- Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
Chapter One: Grey and Pretty
Aberforth's hand closed over the rough box in his pocket. He was whistling tunelessly, attracting many curious stares from his brother's students, but he didn't care much. The only time Aberforth Dumbledore cared about privacy was when it was his own secrets at stake.
"Butterscotch," he said to the gargoyle.
Albus looked up from a paper as he came in. "Aberforth, what do you want?"
"What, I'm not allowed to drop in when I want?" Aberforth replied, acting hurt. "I came to use the library … If you don't mind?"
"Go ahead." Albus went back to his paperwork just as the door behind him opened.
"Oh, hello, Aber …" Minerva yawned, revealing pointed teeth, running her hands through her hair. "Forth." She looked at Albus. "Doing anything interesting, dear?"
"Defence Against the Dark Arts applications."
Two pairs of eyebrows went up. "We have applicants?"
"Yes: one. Her name's Teasel Ferre, heard of her?"
Minerva frowned. "I know that name … I can't place a face though."
"I know," Aberforth said, bouncing on his toes.
"Who is she?"
He tilted his head onto one side. "Let's just say I don't think she will get on with Minerva."
"As long as Teasel Ferre isn't an alias for Dolores Umbridge, I don't care who takes the job, as long as they're good."
Aberforth shrugged. "Don't say I didn't warn you," he chided. "Anyway, I'm off."
"Why do you want to use the library anyway?" Albus asked curiously.
"Oh, no reason …"
Five minutes later Aberforth poked his head round the Hospital Wing door. "Morning, Poppy."
She flicked a rubber band at him.
"Ouch!" Aberforth rubbed his nose in annoyance. "What was that for?"
Poppy chuckled. "Sorry, I was aiming for the bullseye." Aberforth looked round and saw a paper target pinned on the door.
"You could say so. The students are on their way home and I don't have anything to do."
"You could always look me over," Aberforth said cheerfully. "I was on my way to the library but I can wait."
Poppy raised an eyebrow. "The library? You're a bit out of the way to go to the library, aren't you?"
"I came from Albus' office. Thought it best to ask permission."
"First time for everything, I suppose. What did you want to use the library for, anyway?"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Aberforth huffed.
Minerva retreated to her rooms. It was always the same this day of the year: legally, the staff weren't allowed to leave the school until the Hogwarts Express reached King's Cross, in case there was an accident on the train – until then they were still their responsibility. Everyone packed up before term ended, so there was one long day with nothing to do. Minerva sighed. She and Albus normally travelled during the holidays but since Voldemort's return they'd been staying at the Hog's Head, having no place of their own. Most of her things were staying at the school, which she considered her only home. She ran a finger along her bed-post, thinking.
She wasn't the only one with no proper home. She'd seen the way Harry dreaded the summer holidays. After Sirius' death, she wondered how he was coping. Sneaking into the Gryffindor dormitory in cat form during the night could only tell her so much. All she knew was that he was having trouble sleeping.
Maybe she should pay him a visit. She was the only one that could. She had visited the area before but never stopped to say hello – until recently she'd thought he wouldn't want her spying on him. Now she supposed he'd be glad of the company.
Albus had gone off to interview Teasel Ferre, who'd arrived half an hour ago. When he returned she'd ask. Or rather, pretend to ask. It was only polite, even if she went against his answer in the end. But she was almost positive he'd let her. There was no risk. Well, hardly any risk.
Minerva decided to wait in the corridor outside the Defence classroom – no doubt Albus would be showing her around if she got the job. She was just about to round the corner when she heard voices. Peering round the corner, she saw Albus and, presumably, Ms Ferre a few feet away, coming in her direction.
Minerva's senses went on red alert. She didn't trust this woman. There was no denying it, Teasel Ferre was pretty, for her age. Minerva thought she looked about ninety. Her eyes, a light shade of hazel, were lightly creased with laughter lines and although she wore no make-up her cheeks were rosy and her eyelashes thick. Her hair was long like Minerva's, but smooth and brown, and flecked with grey.
Grey and pretty. I don't like her.
Minerva frowned. This – woman – was laughing at something Albus had said, her hand flicking her hair back over her shoulder every few seconds. Both of them were smiling widely at the joke. It wasn't unusual for Albus to flirt – he did it all the time, and Minerva didn't mind because she knew it was perfectly harmless. But this woman was flirting right back.
Aberforth said Albus always had a thing for brunettes at school. Brunette, grey and pretty. She fits them all.
Oh, stop it! she scolded herself. You're being paranoid, Minerva. Albus flirts with everyone. Just because she's doing it back doesn't mean she likes him. Besides, Albus devoted his life to you.
No, she couldn't help but correct herself. I gave my life to him. Albus is mortal. He still has free will. He can still choose someone like himself, someone who he can grow old with -
"Minerva, there you are!"
She shook herself. Now was not the time. She plastered on a fake smile as Albus and the new woman stopped in front of her.
"You must be Professor McGonagall." The brunette reached out and shook her hand firmly. "Albus has told me all about the staff, you especially. I'm really looking forward to working with you."
First-name terms already? Minerva fought to keep her face neutral. "I don't believe we've met?" she said pointedly.
"Oh, Minerva, this is Teasel Ferre," Albus quickly said. "The new Defence teacher."
Of course. Well, at least she would be gone in a year. Minerva decided to change the subject.
"Very nice to meet you," she lied. "Albus, can I have a quick word?"
"Of course -"
"It's about Harry," she said firmly. "Excuse us, Professor Ferre."
"Teasel, please!" the woman called after them as Minerva took Albus firmly by the wrist and dragged him out of earshot. Teasel Ferre, to her annoyance, though she couldn't hear them from that distance, stood still and watched.
"What is it, Minerva?" Albus asked. "Are you all right?"
"I'm worried about Harry," Minerva said, not really lying. She was, that just wasn't what was on her mind at the moment. "Can I go and see him?"
Albus stared at her. "You've never asked permission before. Are you sure you're all right, Mina?"
"I'm not asking permission to check up on him, I'm asking permission to stay. With him. For as long as he needs it. Please, Albus."
He opened his mouth, closed it again, and thought. "Well … I can't really stop you. And I suppose it would be all right. Just be careful, Minerva. He's not at his best right now."
"I know, that's why I want to go to him. The last thing he needs right now is to be on his own." Happy that she wouldn't have to go against his wishes, she relaxed. Suddenly she spotted Teasel still watching them and had an idea.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "Before I go …" She took a handful of his robes below his neck and pulled him down to her level before planting a kiss on his mouth. He froze, surprised – goodness knows neither of them had ever been much for public displays of affection – but got over it quickly and kissed her back. Minerva felt the usual pleasant shiver run down her spine as he ran his tongue over her mouth.
"Mm." She pulled back. "That's not fair."
"What's not fair?" he asked innocently.
"You're not allowed to do that when I want to go somewhere or get something done," Minerva said firmly.
"Oh." Albus mocked disappointment, even going as far as the pouting lip. Minerva chuckled.
"Oh, you." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll keep in contact."
"Yes, you will," Albus said with a silly grin on his face. "I, uh, had better show Teasel to her quarters."
Minerva nodded. "You'd better tidy up first." She carefully rearranged the front of his robes. "There, that's better."
She looked across at Teasel Ferre, who was staring at them and making no effort to hide her gape. Minerva silently celebrated.
Well, now she knows he's taken she'll think twice about the flirting, she thought smugly. Ha!
The drive to the Dursleys' house was a quiet one. Harry leaned back in his seat, his eyes closed, resting. Every now and then he would pinch himself to stop him falling asleep. He dared not fall into slumber. Dudley did after a while. Harry felt relief at his cousin's snoring, as it guaranteed he would not fall asleep by accident for a while.
The year had been a bad one, and Harry was dreading the summer. He sensed that the Order's threat had hit Vernon in the way it wasn't meant to. The car was filled with his silent rage.
As the car drew up outside number four, Harry jerked awake, alarmed at the realisation that he had failed to stay awake. Part of him wasn't surprised: he had had hardly any sleep for the last few nights, ever since … That Night.
Not surprised at the Dursleys' refusal to help him with his trunk, Harry was left to heave it out the boot himself and then drag it up to the house, ignoring Vernon's growls at him to hurry up.
Tired and uncoordinated, Harry ended up dropping his truck about a foot above the ground. The corner landed on his toe. He didn't even whimper, just grimaced and heaved it up again.
It was as he was doing that he noticed something sitting by the doorstep.
Vernon let out a howl as the trunk dropped again, his time onto his own foot. Under normal circumstances Harry would have silently congratulated himself, but he was distracted, staring at the front of the Dursleys' house. Not for long. Vernon seized him by the scruff of his neck, snapping him out of his surprise.
"Get this – this thing indoors now. And don't you dare do that again!"
Harry's sense of self-preservation kicked in and he muttered hurriedly, "Yes, Uncle Vernon, sorry," and grabbed the end of the trunk, dragging it towards the front door. He knew it would be difficult heaving it over the step, but to his surprise the truck seemed to lift itself off the ground a couple of centimetres, allowing him to get it up easily. He stole a glance at the silver tabby cat. It winked at him.
"Shoo!" Vernon said loudly as he reached the front door, barely looking at it. Harry had to hide a smile as she merely twitched her tail and glared at him. It was slightly scary how Professor McGonagall could look so much like herself in cat form.
Vernon unlocked the door and Harry pushed his trunk inside. He could have sworn it was slightly lighter than it had been a moment ago. He left it by the stairs, ready to take up, and went back outside in the pretence of shutting the boot.
Professor McGonagall seemed to have disappeared. Slightly disappointed that she hadn't waited for an opportunity to say hello, Harry trailed back into the house and began to pull his belongings up the stairs to his room. The Dursleys had retreated into the living-room and the kitchen, leaving him to his own thoughts. He tried hard not to dwell on anything as he made his way upstairs and concentrated instead on his trunk. It was hard work, but not as hard as it would have been.
Pausing only to catch his breath at the top of the stairs, Harry pushed his door open and dragged his trunk inside. He looked down at the floor as he did so, shut the door firmly behind him and turned to his desk and placed Hedwig's cage on it. She hooted at him and nipped his finger in comfort.
"Ouch. Thanks," he murmured quietly, stroking her feathers. She stretched her wings, ruffling her feathers. Harry pulled three old pieces of parchment towards him and scribbled a note on each.
Back at Privet Drive. You probably know that some of the old crowd threatened the Dursleys. This probably won't be a bad summer. Thought you would want to know I arrived here safely.
Harry copied Hermione's letter out again and addressed it to Ron. He signed his name and started on the last note.
Thought you'd want to know I arrived home fine. Dursleys are scared to pieces about the threat. Think I'll be alright.
He sighed and looked up at Hedwig. "I know we've only just got back, but could you take these?"
She hooted at him.
"I know, I know. Here, this one's for Hermione, this one's for Ron, and that could you deliver to any of the Order."
"I could take that one."
Harry yelled in shock and whirled round, seizing his wand, a curse on his lips.
"Sorry!" the intruder said hurriedly. "I forgot you didn't know I was here."
Still breathing hard, Harry tucked his wand away. "How long have you been there?"
"I was here when you came in. You didn't see me, and I didn't want to interrupt you when you were writing. Sorry, Harry."
It was the use of first name that surprised Harry more. He sat down at his desk and stared. "What are you doing here, Professor?"
"Two reasons." Professor McGonagall sat down on the bed. "Firstly, although Riddle has suffered a blow with all the arrests that have taken place recently, I still feel uncomfortable about letting you stay here with no other protection other than the wards and your wand." She took off her glasses and began to polish them. "Secondly, on a less professional level, I was worried about you." She replaced her glasses and looked up at him. Her tone became quieter and much more serious as she said, "You've suffered a loss, Harry, on top of a hugely stressful year. The last thing you need is to be alone."
"Thanks for your concern, but I'm fine," Harry said, looking down at the unsent letters on his desk. Professor McGonagall pursed her lips.
"Well like it or not, I'm here now, and I'm staying." She even folded her arms to make her point. Harry was stunned. It was in her character to be stubborn, that he knew, but with the exception of the Umbridge episode last year, she'd never shown any inclination to be unprofessional.
"Um," Harry said, thinking fast, "it's not that I don't appreciate it, Professor, but I don't think my aunt and uncle would like having someone else magic in the house. They only just tolerate me."
Professor McGonagall's expression softened. "Do you think they would tolerate a cat?"
"Er …" Harry knew the answer was no – Aunt Petunia hated animals. "Only if they don't know there is one."
"Well, then, it looks like I'm staying. What's for dinner?"
While Harry was downstairs finding something for them both to eat, the Dursleys were in the garden and Minerva was sitting on the windowsill in cat form, her tail twitching, watching the neighbours. There was a "For Sale/Sold" sign outside the house on the left. Two removal vans were parked outside. Minerva's attention was diverted by a mouse scurrying across the front garden.
Instinctively she jumped down and pounced, trapping the rodent between her paws. Forgetting Harry was already getting dinner, she leapt back onto the window-sill with the struggling animal in her mouth.
"Professor?" Harry said quietly, nudging the door open with his foot. "I've got you some dinner, if you want some." He paused. "You're not a vegetarian or anything, are you?"
He flicked the light on and blanched at the sight. Minerva guiltily realised he probably wasn't too keen on watching her eat the mouse.
"Um … obviously not." Harry tried not to look and set the plates down on the bedside table. Minerva deposited the relieved mouse out of the window and transformed back.
"Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I didn't expect you up here yet. And no, I'm not a vegetarian." She sniffed. "Is that bacon?"
Small-talk turned to the Defence post as they ate together, Harry on the bed and Minerva at the desk.
"So, what's the new Professor like?" Harry asked, playing with his fork.
"Don't mess with your food." Minerva was tempted to answer "Forward" but bit her tongue. "I don't know exactly, I've only met her once so far, this morning. She seemed … competent. I suppose."
"Well, she can't be worse than Umbridge."
"True." Though at least Umbridge hadn't shown any desire to do anything less painful to Albus than jinx him. Minerva shook her head. She was being paranoid again, she told herself.
But she had instincts, and they hadn't let her down yet. She could sense there was more to Teasel than met the eye. She wondered where Aberforth knew her from. She should ask him next time she saw him.
She's got something I'll never have, she mused regretfully. A second later Harry said, "What's that?" and she realised she'd spoken out loud.
"Never mind." But in her head, Minerva answered.
Grey hair. Lines. Age. Mortality.