There were things that one never forgot. Things that didn't just stick in the memory, they were seared there, branded and scarred in every detail to a degree that no passage of years could fade or blur. At seventy-four years old, Minerva had long learned how to tell when something would remain in that thin, vivid catalogue, and perhaps oddly, or perhaps not – she had never bothered asking anyone else – they were all faces.
The face of her father when he had thrown the Prophet onto the kitchen table and used words that he had never spoken in front of his wife and children that London had been bombed and the Wizengamot had voted to remain neutral. The face of her husband when he had kissed her goodbye on his way to the airfield. The face of her old school rival, pale and distorted, the first time she had seen him as Lord Voldemort. The face of her best friend, bloodied but unflinching, telling her of the Order and asking her to join. The face of a sleeping infant who shouldn't have survived, freshly lightning-marked and unaware of the incredible deed he'd done.
And now there was, she knew, another. If she lived twenty, thirty, forty more years, Neville Longbottom's face would be as clear as it was now, less than an hour since she had seen it pressed against unforgiving stone, contorted in cries he had refused to grant sound, increasingly pale beneath the spatters of crimson. He had taken the flogging with all the courage that could have been asked of a man, but when the first strike had lashed across his bared shoulders, his eyes had flown open in shock, and she had seen in them the instant when his innocence broke.
She had not wanted to watch. The commotion at the Gryffindor table had tempted her attention, and it had seemed so very rational to want to see to the students who had not been taken beyond her control, but she knew she did not have the luxury of looking away, not for any reason. It would have been seen as weakness by the monstrous creatures masquerading as her fellow teachers, and no matter how good her reasons, they would have been right.
So she had watched. She had watched both of them, though whether it was fair or not, Minerva knew it would be Longbottom's face that stayed, and not merely because she hadn't been able to see the other youth clearly from her vantage at the Staff Table. For all that Macmillan was so young himself, the body stretched against the chains had been that of a workman, hardened and tanned and tough. Longbottom was pale, smooth, an adult's physique just emerging from the body of the plump, shy boy she had known as Augusta's grandson long before he had been her charge at Hogwarts.
A drop of ink fell from the tip of the quill she had held too long suspended motionlessly over the parchment, and she flicked her wand, vanishing it. Dear Mrs. Longbottom:
It seemed ridiculously formal for a letter to a woman who had been her friend for well over half a century, but there was no option for Dear Aggie. As it was, how in Merlin's name could she phrase it? Something that would be appropriately harsh and disapproving to those she knew would intercept it, yet still convey all the pride that Frank's boy deserved.
I regret to inform you
"You feckin' coward!" The quill dropped, and reflexes Minerva hadn't realized were still so sharp snapped her to her feet, the wand in her hand and aimed before the door of her office even slammed against the wall. Sparks flew from the end, and it would have been a hex if she hadn't recognized the intruder just in time.
Seamus Finnigan. The seventh-year was standing just inside the door, face so red it was almost purple, chest heaving, hands clenched into fists at his sides, eyes burning rage through a sharp glitter of tears. "Feckin' coward!" he repeated, and it was no less intent than the first shout, even if this time it cracked a bit.
Slowly, she let out a deep breath, composing herself as she took her seat again, the wand used casually to shut the door before she laid it beside the barely-started letter. Finnigan hadn't moved, but he was clearly braced for retaliation, and she caught the crease of confusion between his brows as she steepled her hands on the desktop.
A silent count of ten, equally allowing him the chance to apologize for his outburst or be taken off-balance by her lack of response, then she spoke, her voice utterly calm. "Putting aside the matter of your vulgar language for the moment, Mr. Finnigan, that is a very serious accusation."
In fifty-four years as Head of Gryffindor House, there had only been three students on whom that tone had no effect, and she was mildly surprised to see that she now needed to add a fourth. Finnigan's shoulders drew back, his spine straightening defiantly as he lashed an arm towards the castle beyond the door. "He's still down there! Bleedin' and hurtin' and not a damned wand lifted t'help! You left him! You…you let…and you left...and -aagh!"
He was too angry to go on, the words sputtering away into a frustrated outburst as he stamped his foot in a gesture that should have been childish, even funny, but was definitely neither.
"Mr. Longbottom's punishment is being handled by the Headmaster," she replied coolly. "I do not have the authority to interfere, and he has no interest in my counsel."
The last words were a black condemnation, but Finnigan didn't seem to hear it, and he surged forward, bracing both hands on the edge of her desk and leaning forward until his face was less than a foot from hers. "It ain't about no authority! 'Tis about basic bloody decency, Professor! How could you sit there and do nothin' while they tore those lads t'bits and shreds like that?!"
It was not the first time she had been faced with a student's anger, but even though Minerva knew she was in the right – she had gone over it a thousand times in her mind already in search of the smallest loophole she might have missed – the agonized demand still cut more deeply than she had expected. Part of her wanted to shout back, to argue every bit as fiercely, but she knew how vital it was that she keep her authority over these young people who were already beginning to rebel against everything else. "What would you have had me do?"
"Fight back!" His chin lifted in pride. "I would've, but Ginny took me wand. Picked me damned pocket, she did!"
The edge of a smile touched her tone, if not her lips at his wounded air. "I will have to thank Ms. Weasley for her presence of mind." He glowered at this, but she moved on before he could complain that she had failed to take his side. "And if I had, Mr. Finnigan? What do you suppose would have happened then?"
The simple question seemed to startle him, and he drew back, but it was only a few seconds contemplation before he shrugged. "You coulda taken' them, or even…you wouldn't have been alone, Professor. There's more o' us than there is o' them, they coulda been stopped."
"Let's continue that, then," Minerva offered, and she could hear the shift in her own voice from disciplinarian to teacher. "According to your plan, we take out Snape, the Carrows, even perhaps Mr. Filch while we are engaging in this little rampage of yours. What then?"
Finnigan frowned, biting his lip, and she noticed for the first time that it seemed to bear a small, fresh semi-circle of a scar that she didn't remember from the previous year. A boy's antics over the summer leaving their mark, or a more recent reminder of the encounter with Carrow at the start of the month? At last, he threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine, then, I don't know. Play it as it goes, I guess."
"You don't know," she pointed out, "because you have not thought that far ahead. Do you suppose they are the only Death Eaters You-Know-Who has at his disposal, or that we could barricade ourselves in the school indefinitely?"
The absurd futility of the idea seemed to finally penetrate, but he was dissuaded for less than a minute before the fervor returned, perhaps keener-edged now than ever with the thin pain of desperation below it. "But we can't just do nothin'! It ain't right, Professor!"
"No, it's not." Minerva allowed her voice to soften, experience having proven that occasionally, a show of humanity and a show of weakness were not at all the same. "I assure you, Mr. Finnigan, this is not easy for me, and if you have an actual, rational plan, I would welcome it. But there is a Shield Charm around them which prevents me from so much as providing them water or numbing the pain of their wounds unless I wish to, at best, lose my position."
He seemed shocked by her confession, and he shook his head incredulously, staring at her as if trying to determine if a stranger was wearing her robes. "How can you worry 'bout keepin' your job in the face o' somethin' like that?"
"Because for all that my wand is tied, I do have a very precarious power." She tapped the nameplate at the edge of her desk, drawing his attention to the brass letters etched below her surname that proclaimed her position as Head of House. "Myself, Professor Sprout, and Professor Flitwick have academic credentials and reputations enough that we cannot simply be dismissed without reason, and as long as we do not give such a reason, we remain the last barrier that prevents Death Eaters from overseeing you directly every moment."
"And why's that even matter?" He challenged, undaunted. "What's all this grand business you can do for us if you're not willin' to make no move?"
"It is what I have not done that you should be grateful for, Mr. Finnigan." There was a crisp, hard snap to the words, but Minerva could not pretend that his continued obstinacy had no effect. He simply refused to listen, or perhaps more accurately, to think beyond his passions. "Such as not telling Professor Snape when he asked if I knew the identities of the perpetrators that you were the one who had inscribed Mr. Finch-Fletchley's name in my classroom."
The blue eyes widened in sudden shock, and his mouth fell open for a few seconds before he found words. "How'dja –"
"I have received written material from you weekly for six years," she interrupted matter-of-factly. "I am aware of your allergy to hyphens, as well as exactly what a capital F looks like in your best block hand. May I suggest in the future avoiding your own initials?"
Perhaps it was being confronted with an error in judgment he had already made, something that couldn't be argued as purely theoretical, but the young wizard's temper at last began to lose steam. Finnigan let out a long, deep sigh, and she was struck by how very, very young he truly was. By legal terms an adult, but his face was still so boyish, and with his short stature and light, wiry build, he could have passed unnoticed among even the fourth-years. A boy, truly, especially when what said otherwise was his eyes and those had dropped to his shoes and were masked behind lashes golden-fair and baby-fine. They'll be thinkin' we've abandoned them up there, they will."
She almost reached across the desk to rest a steadying hand on his shoulder at the guilt-ridden pain in the whispered fear, but she doubted it would be welcome. Boys were so sensitive at that age to any suggestion they might still need comfort. The gesture was in her tone instead. "Then when they are brought down, we must show them otherwise."
"What if…" Finnigan hesitated, then dropped into the chair he hadn't seemed to notice before in a haphazard sprawl of limbs. "What if he ain't okay again? I ain't never seen someone so badly tore up." His eyes came up again to hers, and the anger was back, but mixed amid a toxic brew of guilt, shame, fear, shock, and revulsion. "Some o' the skin hangin' clean off like crepe streamers, ma'am, and I'd swear on me Mam's honor I saw the bare bone o' Ernie's shoulderblade 'fore the blood hid it."
There was no need to remind her of the gory details, but she understood the compulsion to verify that what he had seen was true, no matter how much he wished it wasn't. Minerva nodded in too much understanding, but merely agreeing to the carnage would help no one. "The reason that Professor Snape was legally within his rights is that he invoked a rule so arcane that no one even bothered to wipe it from the books." A mere fraction of the distaste she felt tightened her lips on the recitation. "Several hundred years ago, flogging was considered a commonplace punishment for severe infractions, and even at Hogwarts, it was permissible to have a student beaten 'not to exceed forty strokes with a common livestock whip.' It is brutal, yes, but it is survivable."
He shook his head slowly, scarcely able to believe or to absorb. "How can you stay so calm?"
"If I were younger, I would not be," she admitted. A long, penetrating look, searching the boy's eyes for the real question behind his words, then Minerva brought her right arm to stretch across the desk, pulling the sleeve back. Even without the long sleeves of the faculty robes and her personal opinion that no matter how healthy she was for her age, she was at least twenty years past suitable to bare much flesh, she had not worn short sleeves in almost seventy years, and it showed in the blue-white pallor of the limb.
"When I was younger, I was not." What also showed were her own scars. She expected him to ask, she was half-prepared to tell the story of the November night in Coventry, of magic unnoticed in sheer panic and how the world could go so mad that a stranger had to throw water on you because you hadn't noticed that the searing heat had crossed to actually set you on fire. But that was farther than he needed yet, and the ancient ripples and gnarls of her flesh were more than close enough to the shadow of war.
His hand shifted on his knee, as if he wanted to touch, to verify it was real, but he caught the impulse in time, yanking it to his belt instead to fidget with the handle of his wand. His grandfather's wand, she'd know that carving anywhere, and she felt a twinge at the realization that it meant he had probably died. Already, their generation was starting to go, and after them, who would remember what real war was? Not these children, not if she could help it. Even if this boy carried Seamus' first name and firebrand spirit in addition to his wand. Finnigan drew it now, rubbing his thumb across the intricate knots as he looked not at her, but at the display of ravaged skin between them.
"Do you just lose it when you get old, then?" He tapped the back of his fist against his chest, struggling for the word. "The…this…this burnin'? This feelin' that if you don't do, you'll eat yourself from the insides?"
"It is still there, Mr. Finnigan, but one develops the ability to control it." She pulled the sleeve down and returned her hand to the arm of her chair, allowing herself to rather enjoy the look of new respect on his face. Respect wasn't hard to come by from the students, no matter how they misbehaved, but it was always nice to see their faces on the occasions they realized she might deserve it beyond age and title. "It is mine to use, not theirs to turn against me."
"And will you use it?"
If she was reading him right, he no longer simply meant to help Longbottom and Macmillan, and she nodded. "When the time is right, Severus will have a great many things to answer for."
Finnigan made a face, slapping the wand against his open palm so hard that it sparked. "I can think o' forty."
"Myself, I intend to hold him to eighty, and I believe that list is likely to get longer." She picked up the quill again, the first sign that an observant student would take to mean that she had come to the end of the conversation, and one which she assumed correctly that he would miss entirely. "However, you will have your own opportunity to improve both your maths skills and your self-control."
A slow smile slid across that newly-lined mouth with a chillingly out-of-place darkness that made her shiver, even as his eyes sparkled mischief. "You mean as the year goes on and we've got to match our wits 'gainst that bastard?"
"Yes." Minerva dipped the quill again, finishing the sentence that Finnigan had interrupted in the first placed, then raised one eyebrow to him as if only just now recalling that he was still there. "You will also be honing them the next two Saturdays detention in my office, beginning at noon, when I expect you to make a far less dramatic entrance." She could hear the half-formed syllables of shock as he gathered himself to protest, but while she couldn't stop him in full cry, fledgling protestation was completely silenced with a single look. "Now, I have business to take care of, and you might want to go check on your friend."
Nodding slowly, as if just now remembering that they were not, in fact, equals, Finnigan got to his feet, and she heard the scrape of the chairlegs as he pushed it back into place. He said nothing else, but Minerva cleared her throat just as his hand touched the doorknob, turning him back just enough to catch her final word on the matter and just maybe, she could only hope, understand. "You may be surprised how a mere refusal to be driven away can, in fact, be doing a great deal."