The 'liquorice wands' duly persuaded the stone gargoyles to spring aside and give them access to the revolving spiral staircase, which slowly transported the two visitors to the door of the headmistress's office.
"Wizards!" Vivian muttered under her breath, marvelling at the magical security measures.
John grinned apologetically before turning to the heavy wooden door. The smile vanished from his face; Vivian could see his jaw clench and his shoulders stiffen and frowned. What was wrong with entering Minerva's office?
"John?" she started apprehensively, but he shook his head, took a deep breath and knocked twice, listening for Minerva's voice to bid them enter.
The headmistress was seated behind her enormous desk, with her back to a large painting showing a white-haired wizard who seemed to be peacefully asleep. As were all the other portraits in the circular room, the collective snoring creating a steady background of sound in the office. Vivian looked around, shaking her head incredulously. She had seen some magical photos before and was familiar with the fact that the people in them moved and seemed to interact with the viewer, but she had never known them to produce sounds. How could Minerva concentrate on her work with all this noise?
"You get used to it. I must admit, it was a bit annoying at the beginning, but now I just don't notice it anymore," the old witch said with a knowing smile. Vivian forced herself to smile back, albeit wryly. How she hated this disconcerting magical knack of reading other people's thoughts!
"You wanted a word?" John asked brusquely. Instead of sitting down in the second chair next to Vivian's, he had gone to stand by the window, his back to the room. He didn't turn.
"Aye, about Jeremy..."
"You don't have to obtain our permission for punishing him. Give him detention, subtract house points, do whatever you consider appropriate..."
"It isn't about punishment, John. Professor Beetlewings and I have already decided to make him help Hagrid shell fresh dragon scales and prepare them for drying."
"Hagrid has fresh dragon scales?"
Curiosity got the better of John and he turned towards Minerva quickly.
The headmistress smiled, enjoying the effect she had created.
"It is a secret more or less, not even all of our teachers know about it. Hagrid has been keeping a dragon for a couple of years now, with permission by the Ministry, of course. Deep in the Forbidden Forest, with his half-brother Grawp working as its keeper. I was very sceptical about it at first, but we've had no problems so far; I had to put my foot down, however, when Hagrid wanted to make Suzy part of his lessons."
"The dragon. She's a female."
"Does Jeremy have to go near this…eh…dragon?" Vivian asked anxiously, not quite sure what to make of the fact that Minerva and John were talking about a creature whose existence she had believed to be restricted to myths and legends in as matter-of-fact a manner as if it were their neighbour's dog.
"No, of course not. Hagrid has a fresh supply of scales at his cottage."
"Jem would consider visiting a real dragon a privilege rather than a punishment," John remarked dryly. "No, I think shelling and drying the scales is a good idea, Minerva, it's nasty work, slimy and smelly."
"Exactly the sort of detention you would have given when you were a teacher, John," Minerva replied, eyeing her former colleague with obvious amusement.
John looked uncomfortable.
You still haven't told us what you wanted to see us for."
"Oh yes, right. The PWC."
"PWC?" John asked.
"Potions World Cup. Jeremy has shown great potential in his potions work. His knowledge and talent are remarkable; he is a credit to you, John. Therefore Professor Beetlewings suggested that he should take part in this competition for the most talented potion students from all over the world. It is to be held for the first time this summer, modelled on similar events Muggles have in what they call natural sciences."
John made an affirmative noise and Minerva continued.
"The first round is going to be in Paris in May, and the great final is in the summer holidays in Salem, Massachusetts."
"Massachusetts," Vivian repeated unhappily. She had been looking forward to having her sons at home during the holidays.
"As he is underage, we need your consent, of course," Minerva said, in a tone that suggested that there was no question of them not giving it. She picked up several pieces of parchment from her desk.
"This is the brochure and this is the application form. You can read them through, while I'm helping the new charms teacher to deal with the havoc Peeves has created in her classroom. This poltergeist is becoming more and more of a nuisance; he seems to be getting cheekier by the minute."
She adjusted her glasses, picked up her wand and left the office.
John handed Vivian one of the brochures. They read in silence.
"It's only a few days in July," she said thoughtfully, "perhaps we could accompany him to Salem, we haven't booked a holiday yet..."
"It's an excellent opportunity for Jem to test his knowledge and his brewing skills... to learn about exotic ingredients and their properties, to try out new methods of brewing... to make new friends and do experiments with students from other countries – it's amazing, absolutely brilliant," John added enthusiastically, scanning the brochure and turning it in his hands as if he couldn't believe what he was reading.
"Let's sign the form."
"A good decision, if you ask me," a male voice said.
Vivian jumped, spinning round, looking for the owner of the voice, but there was no one there except John and herself.
John remained quiet, he merely sighed deeply, his attention still on the application form.
"We didn't ask you, Headmaster," he finally said, raising his eyes to the portrait behind the desk. Vivian followed his gaze and gasped. The white-haired wizard was awake now, sitting in his overstuffed purple armchair, alert and very erect, peering at them over the rims of his half-moon spectacles.
"Albus, do call me Albus, Sever...eh, sorry, John."
There was a certain hint of nervousness in the old man's voice and in the way his fingers were fiddling with the ends of his long white beard.
Vivian looked from her husband to the portrait, then to the other portraits on the walls. Their eyes were still closed, they remained motionless; the snoring, however, had stopped completely. Now, this was odd. Did they pretend to be asleep while listening in on the conversation going on in the room? Nosy hypocrites, she thought and couldn't help grinning to herself while she turned her attention to the white-haired wizard again, whose eyes were still locked in battle with John's. The grin faded. Given her husband's notorious stubbornness, and what she had heard about Albus Dumbledore and his role in Severus Snape's life, this could go on forever and turn into something thoroughly unpleasant, unless she, as the only other person present, would do something about it. Coughing softly and trying not to think about the absurdity of talking to a painting, she began to address the former headmaster.
"So you are the famous Albus Dumbledore," she said in the most cheerful voice she could manage, smiling brightly at the portrait, "nice to meet you. I'm Vivian, John's wife."
Being a gentleman, the old wizard immediately tore his eyes away from John and focused on her.
"John's wife. Of course! What a pleasure, Vivian. Nice to meet you at last."
He beamed at her and made a courteous little bow.
"Was it your idea to lure us here?" John interrupted the social niceties, his voice thick with suppressed fury.
"My dear boy – what are you thinking? Minerva wanted to talk to you in private, this is her office, you know; I just happen to be here."
John snorted in disbelief.
"She could have talked to us about the PWC in the hospital wing. It's not so confidential a matter as to require the privacy of her office. Isn't it rather that you happened to suggest asking us to come here?"
The portrait raised an indignant bushy eyebrow and managed to look hurt.
"What do you take me for, John?"
"A meddling old schemer, what else?"
"Now, now, John, these are harsh words. I'm only..."
"Stop the bloody play-acting, Albus. The part of the innocent old fool doesn't suit you."
The portrait sighed deeply.
"Oh, I see...you refuse to indulge the innocent whims of a frail old man..."
Again John snorted vehemently and started pacing the room. Vivian and the painted wizard watched him in silence. Finally, the portrait heaved another deep sigh and raised his hands in surrender.
"Yes, alright, it was I who suggested asking you to come here. Your being here at Hogwarts was a chance not to be missed. I know that you have been deliberately avoiding contact with me for years, John, which has caused me immense grief and sorrow. Oh, I've been telling myself over and over again that you had your reasons, that your anger was justified, and yet it hurt...Don't you understand that when I learned about your survival, I wished to see you again, alive and well...and I wanted to meet your lovely wife... Most of all I wanted to say sorry... Marriage suits you, by the way. You look so much better... "
"You have met Vivian now, you've seen me as well. Let's come to the next item on your agenda: What do you want to say sorry for?" John demanded curtly.
"For the way I treated you, the way I used you for my purposes..."
"For the greater good, I think you used to say it was...", John replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"The greater good? Oh...oh, yes, and it worked eventually, as we all know, thanks not at least to your unwavering loyalty and outstanding courage...but retrospectively we...I...I mean, I ought to have shown some more concern for..."
"Headmaster...Albus, for God's sake, stop babbling."
John had stopped his pacing and was standing opposite the portrait, leaning on the heavy wooden desk in front of him.
"All this belongs to the past, all this concerns a different person. Severus Snape is no more, Albus, he died in the Shrieking Shack many years ago. I am John Smith, whose life started on a wet night in a meadow near Girvan. I'm a married man, I have two sons and a good job at St. Mary's Convent in Edinburgh. I found out that I'm a wizard and registered with the Scottish Ministry of Magic, but I prefer living as a Muggle and I'm perfectly content this way. I have found peace and happiness with my family and my friends, I'm successful in my work. I also have come to terms with what happened to Severus Snape. I can remember him and his life without regrets. I bear no grudge. Against anyone. You did what you thought was right at the time, Albus. Your main concern was freeing the wizarding world from the scourge of the Dark Arts and from domination by the Dark Lord. You succeeded and that's what counts. All of us had to make sacrifices to reach this aim. Ironically, in my case fate decided to do me a favour in the end. So don't feel obliged to apologise, Albus. Let's close the book of the past once and for all."
The old wizard had removed his glasses and was dabbing at his eyes with a large white handkerchief. He kept shaking his head, clearly at a loss for words. Vivian stood next to John, her hand gently touching his back. She, too, was unable to speak. Inside her chest a warm sensation of love and joy had started to spread, taking over her entire body, urged on by her rapidly beating heart. Finally, after all these years, John had learned to let go of his fears and doubts at last...
John straightened, exhaled deeply and put his arm around Vivian's shoulders, just as Minerva returned. The headmistress looked from Dumbledore – still deeply moved and rendered speechless by his emotions, and totally absorbed in polishing his glasses – to John and back again, her eyebrows raised in a wordless, anxious question.
As neither of the two men seemed willing to volunteer an answer, Vivian cleared her throat for a way out of the awkward tension of the situation.
"All is well," she said with a smile of genuine happiness and handed Minerva the application forms. "We've signed them. Thanks for supporting Jeremy and giving him this chance. We'll say good-bye to him now and go back home, I think."
"Well, yes...I...," the headmistress cast another doubtful look at the wizard in the portrait, who had finished the polishing and readjusted his spectacles, still refusing to meet her eyes.
"Yes, we're off," said John. "Good-bye, Minerva... and... Albus... farewell."
The old wizard blew his nose, pocketed his handkerchief, cleared his throat and looked up. His eyes met Vivian's and he bowed again, smiling fondly.
"Good-bye, Vivian, my dear."
Then his gaze turned to John and lingered there, longer and more intensely.
"John, my boy, I'm so glad that you...I'm really...well, thank-you, thank you very much indeed."
Once more he bowed and smiled, his blue eyes twinkling merrily as Vivian and John left the circular office, leaving the headmistress of Hogwarts school staring after them, shaking her head in bewilderment.
"Don't worry, Minerva, John's wife was right, all is well," said the portrait, settling back in his armchair comfortably with a deep sigh of relief, about to close his eyes and go to sleep again.
"Would you mind filling me in of what happened here? How did the two of you make it up? What did you do to make him accept your apology?" Minerva snapped at the painting.
"Well..." the old wizard opened his eyes and frowned thoughtfully, "it wasn't anything I said or did actually...let's say that it was a matter of time being a great healer..."
"I still don't believe it," a bald wizard next to the window exclaimed, "Snape! Who would have thought to see him in this room ever again!"
"And still his old, sarcastic self!" his neighbour, a tiny witch with a mop of unruly black curls, said. "He hasn't changed a bit!"
"Merlin's beard, that's not true. Didn't you pay attention, he has changed!" a formidable witch with iron-grey curls in the painting next to Dumbledore's protested. All the portraits were awake now, some were whispering to each other, all of them eager to express their opinion on what they had just seen and heard.
"Must have if he managed to get himself a wife," an Elizabethan wizard on the opposite wall remarked dryly. "Nobody would have married the greasy git he used to be."
"Don't you dare call him names!" Phineas Nigellis Black, the old Slytherin headmaster interfered. "He was the bravest headmaster Hogwarts ever had and all of us should..."
Minerva McGonagall went over to the window and opened it wide, leaning out to leave the babbling voices of her predecessors behind and breathe the cool spring air. All was well...
The wizarding world was at peace again, both on a public and on a personal level, the number of students attending Hogwarts was rising constantly, soon they would have to hire more teachers for those subjects where classes had to be kept small to guarantee high standards of learning or simply to prevent accidents, soon they would need a second potions master. Perhaps...
Outside in the corridor Vivian grabbed John's arm, stopping him and making him face her.
"Since when have you been able to view your past so calmly?" she demanded.
He answered with an apologetic shrug and a lopsided smile.
"Well, actually...since last night. I was down there in the dungeons, brewing the potion for Jem. It just happened, I suddenly realized the past had become like a book; I could open it, peruse it, experience stories and images as an onlooker – and close it again whenever I wanted to, put it back on the shelf, without its content haunting me any longer. I realized I was free."
"Oh, John, how wonderful! I..."
Overcome with emotion she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
He drew her close, his lips finding hers, caressing, teasing, demanding. Sixteen years of marriage had done nothing to diminish the fascination of his kisses. Once again, she lost herself in his embrace; nothing existed outside his arms, his body, his lips...
It took some time for the indignant noises to attract their attention. They had not realized that they were standing next to a painting, its large gilt frame accommodating a gentleman dressed in a Victorian greatcoat and top hat, the scarlet colour of his face clashing violently with the ginger of his sideburns and carefully trimmed moustache. He was shaking his head, brandishing his walking stick and spluttering in exasperated disbelief.
"Disgusting! And adults, too. Have you not any sense of decency? In a school corridor! At your age! Incredible! Brazen insolence!"
Vivian blushed guiltily; John, however, merely raised an eyebrow at the painted wizard's futile rage and then deliberately turned his back on him, bending his head to kiss his wife again, slowly, gently, making the angry portrait's rantings fade from her consciousness, making her forget everything outside their own private bubble of love and joy.
Somewhere along the line, the Victorian wizard abandoned his attempts to stop them; he stormed out of his frame in protest, on his way to visit the other portraits and alert them to the fact that morals had become shockingly lax at Hogwarts. But before he had completed his round and could return with his entourage of curious and disbelieving friends, John and Vivian had already left the castle and were on their way home.
Thanks to Ms Rowling for letting me borrow characters and plot.
Dear readers, that's it. For the better part of a year, John and Vivian have occupied my imagination and kept me company whenever I needed a break from work. I enjoyed their company and it was fun interfering with their lives. Now, however, I think the time has come to leave them alone and let them live happily ever after.
Thank you for staying with me and encouraging me with your reviews.