Summary: After the battle, Minerva finds comfort in new beginnings

Disclaimer: All recognisable characters are the property of JK Rowling. This work of fiction is intended for personal enjoyment only, no profit is being made.

Now

She doesn't actually see him. Her eyes are too fixed upon the creature that used to be Tom Riddle, and he is quick and quiet as his Patronus, as always.

It's Hell, this battle; hate and curses flying past and raining down from the beautiful ceiling. Even Horace - dear, spineless Horace - cuts and parries beside her with a skill she often suspected and never saw, until now. The creature, the monstrous, broken soul spits and snarls with none of the elegance Tom-the-Boy once had. Then, from somewhere close, in this crumbling Hall, sounds a wild battle cry, then a high, brittle laugh.

Tom-the-Monster screams; an unearthly, sickening sound, and then there is nothing but force and yielding and then gravity, numbing pain, and darkness.

She can't get to her feet; the spell too powerful and the wall too hard against her bones, and then he is there. Kingsley, bruised and bloody and so beautifully strong, pulling her to her feet with his steady, encircling arms. It would be so easy, just to fall into him and surrender, but Potter is still fighting, and Kingsley leads her closer, the crowds parting wordlessly for him even here, even now.

His arm is tight around her when the monster falls.

After, when the fear gives way to hysteria, all around her people are laughing, embracing, nursing their wounds like badges of honour and she walks, alone, amongst the rubble. She is shocked; for the first time, when children look up to her in expectation, she cannot find a word to say. It used to easy, being in charge, but something seems to have shaken loose within her, because she feels only lost, broken and overwhelmed as the children gathered at her feet, so she does her best to pretend. She sends the worst of the wounded over to Poppy and Molly Weasley and their makeshift nursing station, and tells the others to stay together, stay in the Hall and keep out of the way of the adults.

She walks, catching sight of him presiding calmly like a loved monarch over an assembly of old Ministry staff; he meets her eye and smiles wondrously, but he has work to do, and she is tired, so tired.

She passes Potter and his friends on the way; they all pause before the toppled gargoyle and she cannot help staring, just for a moment. He's still a boy, nothing more; all gangly limbs and messy hair, but his eyes look older now, ancient witnesses to far too much, too soon. He smiles, and allows her to kiss his cheek, and then they are gone, three little children, hands tangled together and laughing, quietly.

It's been a year since she last stood in this office; a year full of hateful bile and disbelieving disgust for its new occupant, but nothing now can be so simple. The blue eyes find hers, and there are tears tracked into the paint. She leans, heavily, against the old desk, and gazes at her friend. So many words - questions, doubts, awe, anger - run through her mind, but there is one that preceeds her thoughts and slips off her tongue in a rush.

"What Potter said, about Severus?"

She does not truly want to hear the answer, because if it is true then she will have no way to make amends. But Albus, or the paint and canvas memory of him, nods in his usual, infuriating, knowing way.

"He was fearless, braver than I could have ever thought him to be. Right to the end. The things I asked of him..."

The blue eyes close, a long lifetime's worth of regret ageing his face even further. More tears, and she can hardly bear it.

"He's gone, Albus."

He nods again, eyes still squeezed shut behind the spectacles, and Minerva has a sudden realisation. It is something small, in the full scheme of it all, but the most she can do, now.

"There is no portrait! There must be a portrait, Albus, he deserves to be hung in this office more than any other -"

"More than I, indeed. Much more." The twinkling, starlight eyes appear again and fix upon her, the sudden horror causing her tired, battered body to tremble.

"I hated him, Albus! I hated him, the poor boy!"

Even as she says it she realises, grotesquely, that as she speaks of Severus she could just as easily be speaking of Tom Riddle. She could've been his friend, long ago, and she'd have sworn he'd looked disappointed, just for a second, before she'd turned her back. Oil and water, Gryffindor and Slytherin, never the 'twain shall meet, and that's what all this has been about, hasn't it? Severus and his Lily, and she can remember, now; when they were small, how she'd see them huddled together, red and black in a tangle, heads bent over a book, a spell, a secret. She remembers, and now she cannot understand how she forgot.

Tom Riddle, briliant and beautiful and dark, and at school they had both been so bright; both prefects and both destined for greatness. He'd talked to her, after their inter-house meetings, and even though she'd been intrigued it just wasn't done, ever, Gryffindor and Slytherin.

As if he can read her very thoughts, like always, the portrait smiles like some ancient sage from its gilded frame, wistful but still brimming with mischief, even now.

"What's done is done, my friend. My dearest, dearest friend."

It is her turn to press her eyes shut against grief, and there is so much to mourn, now. The words come quiet and small, and she feels like a girl, again.

"I miss you."

A chuckle, perfectly typical.

"Ah, you'll soon tire of my presence peering over your shoulder all the live-long day. Five Galleons says you'll have thrown a sheet over me by Christmas."

Of course. The responsibility must now fall to her, inexorably, and it doesn't feel like an honour, like it should. Not yet.

Footsteps, agile and feline, and she knows it is him, before he says a word. She turns slowly, newly afraid to look upon his handsome, easily-smiling face. She must, however, and so she does.

"Congratulations, Minister."

A gently quirked eyebrow, a twitch of those lips, and he inclines his head, eyes not leaving hers for a second.

"And to you, Headmistress."

It doesn't sound right, not at all, but there is time, now, to worry about it later. He is smiling more broadly, and she knows what is coming.

"Nothing has changed, Kingsley, not regarding this - "

The familiar, frustrating expression appears upon his face, as if she is amusing him with her old-fashioned precautions.

"And what needs to change, Minerva? So you have a few years on me, so we're different... who's going to begrudge us, now?"

She can positively feel Albus's gaze burning into her back, and she blushes like schoolgirl, not a school matron.

"Kingsley, please - "

But he is quick on his feet, and in an instant he has moved around the desk and taken her hand in his, his touch warm and undoing in its tenderness.

"I've done enough fighting today."

That resonant, golden voice moves like molten sunshine right through her, and suddenly she, too, cannot draw the strength to argue any more.

The burst of applause is almost restrained, and through the blissful haze she is quite certain that the heartiest clapping, and certainly the loudest, originates from the large, gilded frame right behind her.