Author's Notes: My thanks to my wonderful beta, Tetleybag, who spotted everything, from dragon-sized plot holes to missing dots. Everything belongs to Rowling, of course, and if you propose money or want to buy film rights, I'll regretfully have to refuse.
The events surrounding Albus's death are based on Kelly Chambliss's story "Storytelling", currently unfolding on Fanfiction. It's a wonderful story, and Kelly's Grubbly-Plank is canon, as far as I'm concerned, so I was happy to tie in.
The sky was empty.
Which was not surprising; the last time she had checked was ten seconds ago. Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank forced herself to turn indoors, to put the kettle on. She made herself an instant coffee, slowly, the Muggle way, to make the activity last longer. Min would shake her head, she thought. Lingering over instant coffee? But then, Min always had had a thing about Italian espresso. A 'thing' verging on the religious mania, she, Willa, had once called it. It had been a running joke between them for years.
"And you call this 'coffee'? You drink it? It tastes of dishwater." Minerva shudders as she places the mug in the sink.
"I'll take your word for that. Wouldn't know it myself; never was one for dishwater. Can get you some, though, if you like that sort of thing," Willa deadpans.
"You know perfectly well what I meant." A hint of Professor McGonagall in Min's voice, in spite of the smile.
"Oh, come on, Min, it isn't as bad as that," Willa grins.
"No. It's worse."
"Well, it's what you get here, I'm afraid. No coffeemaker. Remember, it's just a rented cottage. It doesn't have all of Hogwarts' facilities. Look at it objectively. Don't see it as coffee, see it as a hot brown drink. A new, hot brown drink. What do you think of it?"
Minerva McGonagall takes a prudent sip. She tastes carefully.
"You want my considered opinion? It's disgusting. It's the worst concoctionI've had outside St Mungo's."
She flicks her wand in the direction of both mugs, Transfiguring them into small, elegant espresso cups.
That particular memory was of a cottage in Ireland. She had rented it for six months, to do research on leprechauns. As usual, Min had come to spend the summer with her. And that day they had celebrated not being at work with several excellent coffees, a long leisurely lunch, and …
Longing cut through her body like a knife.
She took the coffee outside. The sky was empty. Still.
She sat down on the wooden bench against the wall and forced herself to look properly, at everything, not just at the absence of owls. The sky was not empty, then; filled with golden sunlight and billowing, white clouds that seemed to touch the Tors on the horizon. She even saw a lark rising. Dartmoor really was spectacularly beautiful. On a normal day, she'd watch the clouds drift by, she'd drink her coffee. Then she would – the nice option – do some field work, on Pixies this time. Or, the boring option, she would write her column for Witch Weekly. Dreary, but it meant money and exposure. And she badly needed that to get the more interesting research financed. Or she would procrastinate over that column by sending an Owl to Minerva. Min!
The normal days had ended long ago. When, exactly? With Dumbledore's death? With the benefit of hindsight, yes. She had even felt it at the time. When the news came through, she had Floo'ed to Minerva's private rooms at once. And she had waited. For long, endless hours, in which Professor McGonagall had had to be everything to everyone, she had paced the sitting room. Waiting for Min, thinking that this was the end of the world as one knew it. The end of their world as they knew it.
When, finally, Min returned to her rooms, Willa had held her tightly, closely, for hours. The next morning, over breakfast, she had told Min that she would cancel the holiday and come to Hogwarts instead. Min had looked surprised, almost dazed.
"You'll need to be here to run everything," she had explained. "To prepare for next year. Now that you're Acting Headmistress. Headmistress soon, of course. No chance of going anywhere." Willa had paused briefly and had stared at her piece of toast. "Don't mind, either. I'll just stay here, with you. Assist, perhaps, if there's anything I can do."
At that, for the first time, Minerva had smiled.
"I know you would do just that," she had said. "Thank you. I wouldn't know what I'd do …" A brief but somewhat too careful examination of a teacup, a few rather large gulps of pumpkin juice, and Professor McGonagall was back. "It won't be necessary, though. Just a few extra days …"
Wilhelmina had taken that as a sign of typical, stiff-upper-lip, effing Gryffindor courage. It had been the simple truth. Professor McGonagall had run the school to such an extent in the last years that the Headmaster's final absence made very little difference to the day-to-day business. Wilhelmina had felt like a good rant on the lack of acknowledgement, on Albus's ridiculous 'you're my second in command' attitude. Minerva, however, who occasionally could be quite acerbic where Albus was concerned, had not been ready for that yet. So Willa had said nothing, until Cornelius Fudge called Professor McGonagall "a most worthy Acting Headmistress" in a Daily Prophet interview. Then she had said so much that Min had literally held her sides laughing.
In the end, they had spent most of the summer, as planned, in Wales. Wilhelmina with research, Minerva with not marking, reading, some cooking, which she enjoyed but had no opportunity to do at Hogwarts, and, just occasionally, some days away on Order business. And both with endless talk, leisurely meals, walks, and frequent, passionate love-making. It had been a surprisingly normal summer, given the abnormal circumstances.
She recalled some of them. The grieving for Albus. Painful, cutting deep.
Then the dreadful news in the paper. The bridge, the storm, the loss of lives.
Min had gone very quiet, that day. Wilhelmina had muttered something about fieldwork, quite nearby, call if you need me, that sort of thing. She had taken herself just out of sight of the cottage and had sat there for several hours. Should write that dratted Witch Weekly column, she had thought. Or, better perhaps, a letter to the Agony Aunt. 'Dear Agony Aunt, what do you say to your partner who just heard of the brutal murder of an ex-lover? Someone she cared deeply for? Oh, and by the way, they became lovers because at the time I had walked out on said partner over a little matter of career choices.'
The tears had finally come that night. Silently and discreetly. Willa had given Min the only thing she could: privacy. After what had seemed like hours in which Willa had lain quite still, taking slow, deep, I'm-soundly-asleep breaths, Min had dropped off. Only then had Willa dared to gather her in her arms, careful not to wake her. And she had stayed awake until Min, instinctively, had relaxed and snuggled against her.
Wilhelmina put down the long finished mug. She checked the sky. Empty. Or was it?
A dot. A tiny dot, growing slowly. An Owl, she thought. The dot grew further. A witch on a broomstick, she hoped, with a sudden flutter of her heart. The dot grew further still, until it was Hagrid-sized. And the only thing Hagrid-sized in the Wizarding World …
Seconds later the man himself landed his motor in front of the cottage. Incoherent, blubbing, begging her to come. Willa briefly considered inviting him in and plying him with hot, heavily sugared tea. Given the size of the front room, better not.
It turned out that the problem was – why wasn't she surprised at this? – a dragon. A "spectaculer, real dragon – yeh've got ter help, Professor, we've got ter save the darlin'." In the end, she took her healer's bag and boarded the side-car. Hagrid more or less filled her in on the details during the flight, and Willa, silently and freely, cursed Potter, You-Know-Who, Gringott's, and side-car transportation.
After a brief journey, she stood white and shaken like a dry martini at the dragon's side. Various Stunning Spells had rendered it unconscious, in a very temporary way. Willa recalled an almost forgotten article on "Hypothetical Treatments of Dragons." May as well give it a try, she thought. Not as if there was a choice of non-hypothetical options in the first place.
Hagrid held the dragon's head just so that the soft skin between the fourth and fifth neck scub was exposed, she crossed her fingers, and performed a Petrificus Totalus. Thank Merlin, the dragon was, indeed, Petrified. Professor Grubbly-Plank took some notes in the interest of science. How often was it that one could verify a hypothesis that necessitated the friendly collaboration of a Giant (or a Half-Giant)?
While she did her testing and diagnosing, Hagrid explained about his other 'little problem', his half-brother. Well, she had seen that at Dumbledore's funeral. By all means, let the man return, she thought, let's not have a family reunion here. "I'll handle it…"
"Him!" Hagrid interrupted. "He's called Bunnykin."
"Bunnykin???" Of all the daft names …
"Yeah, well, I had a baby … a… No, I have a theory, that if yehgive a dragon a fiery, proud name, say, Norbert or summat like that, well, yeh get a fiery dragon. So I wanted ter call him something soft …"
Don't ask, Willa thought. Never ask Hagrid why he does things. You should know that by now.
"Anyhow," she replied, briskly, "I'll handle him, and I'll keep you informed."
After various comments she chose to ignore ("Be gentle with him! He's just a big baby, he is!") Hagrid left, and she continued her diagnosis. Quickly enough she saw that the dragon's eyesight could be restored. There was enough of the original eye to Transfigure the rest. If one had exceptional talents in the field of Transfiguration, that was. Truly exceptional talents.
She pondered the problem for a while.
There really was only one solution, and that was sending an Owl to Professor McGonagall. How should she start? As they had left off on their last meeting? Now, that would set the tone for the asking and giving of favours…
"Merlin, I've missed you," Wilhelmina grumbles as she softly pushes Minerva towards the bed. At the last moment, she notices the condition of the grey-ish, crumpled sheets. "Min, don't you want to …"
Minerva stares back for a moment. "Oh! Oh, yes, of course…, " she says and wordlessly Transfigures the unsavoury bed into a comfortable four-poster. "I do wish Aberforth would clean sometimes," she mutters.
"Could meet in your room. At Rosmerta's, even," Willagruffly replies. "But you said…"
"It's too much of a risk. With the Carrows around? And Rosmerta was under the Imperius before, remember? I must say this for Aberforth, no-one, not even Albus, could make him do anything he didn't want."
"Right. " Wilhelmina jumps on the thick duvet, smiles at a most satisfactory bounce,and pulls Minerva towards her. It has been long. Too long for idle chat; there will be time for that later, hopefully. Now there is urgency. Urgency in her lips, her tongue, her hands, and her voice. "Spread your legs," she whispers, and it's not quite an order, but not a plea either. Her fingers are deft and impatient and take pleasure as much as give it. She briefly glances at Min's face and sees her lips quiver.
She knows what this means. She has seen it before. It's Min's face at her most concentrated.
Min's face when her thoughts are so absorbing that her lips quiver with unspoken words. When she is about to resolve a difficult problem. Professor McGonagall's 'at work' face.
One moment Wilhelmina is motionless, still tense, still aroused. Then she sags. The Professor will soon be able to tick off one tricky item from her to-do list, she realizes. Two, if "Let Wilhelmina have sex" is also on it.
"Bloody hell, Min …," she starts. Absentmindedly, she wipes her fingers on the duvet. She watches as Professor McGonagall slowly realizes that something is excessively amiss.
A most unholy row had ensued. After several fierce rounds of "How can you?!", "I was not!" and "Don't deny!", at one moment even interspersed with "Am not!" and "Are, too!", Willa had crumpled against the wall.
"I promised you I'd be there for you, when they appointed Snape," she had said. "And I've tried. Merlin knows I've tried. I've accepted the cancelled appointments. I've accepted your staying at school for the entire Christmas break. I've accepted unanswered owls. Absentmindedness. A complete lack of interest in my work. Assignations at the Hog's Head, for crying out loud. But this is it, Min."
"You don't understand," Min had started, but without the anger now. "It's such an impossible mess… I'm sorry. I really am. It wasn't intentional. I looked forward to our meeting as much as you did, believe me! I know you want me to let it go, I want to let it go, but I can't… I'm so sorry! I'm just so worried all the time, I can't stop thinking, trying to work things out. Those children … They fight the Carrows, they fight the Slytherins, they fight me when I try to stop them … and I don't want them to stop … I just want them to live. So they have to stop. And now Luna is missing –"
"Luna Lovegood?" Willa asked the question in spite of herself. Sweet Merlin, such a clever girl. Strange, but clever. And with a feeling for beasts. And now she was …
"Yes, Luna Lovegood. And there's no stopping Longbottom since she's gone. They may be after him already. If they Crucio'ed Luna for long enough, they might know by now how deeply Longbottom is involved in the students' resistance … I've tried to warn him but … at the mere mention of a Cruciatus … Someone must be there to keep an eye on them … "
"And you're The Chosen Two?" Willa shouldn't have said that; she knew that now. But at the time she just wanted to hit back.
"You don't understand …" Min had repeated.
"Of course I don't," she had answered, unable to keep the hurt out of her voice. "You've shut me out completely. For months, you've obsessed about Snape, and how it was possible that he didn't take revenge, and that you and the rest of the effing Order were still unharmed. And then you went silent and just muttered "Order business" and right now I haven't the faintest idea what you feel, or think, or do, or want. You and he could be lovers, for all I know!"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Min had snapped. "As if I ever … Willa, you can't think … not really …
Minerva had taken a deep breath. "I know this sounds crazy, but … it seems that we're … allies again. It seems that Severus did act on Dumbledore's instructions. In everything. They just … didn't feel … like confiding in me ... And the last weeks, Severus needed help to fulfill a mission for Dumbledore, and that, too, was the most unholy, difficult mess … No-one, absolutely no-one … For Merlin's sake, it's not that I don't want to tell you …
Willa had sighed. Really quite remarkable, that anyone that intelligent could miss a point so completely, she had thought. In the end, she had just said: "Well, I know what I want. Always wanted. To grow old with you. Somehow. Somewhere. I don't mind your career, Min. Have one of my own. Accept what Hogwarts means to you. But you must choose. 'Cause if you want me, I need to be part of your life. Need to know that I matter. I'm not one of your books – pick it up, read a page or so, forget it again for a couple of months. "
"You're not …," Minerva had begun, but Wilhelmina had silenced her.
"Feel like it," was all she had said. "Choose, Min. Grow old with Hogwarts or with me. Owl me when you know."
And she had turned and left the room, with the sickening feeling that the answer was already given. Min had not shown up in the bar. Disapparated, she had thought, or perhaps just waited until she had left. Which would have been a long wait. Although they had both cast Silencing Spells, Aberforth had poured a triple Firewhiskey and had handed it over without a word. As pragmatic as his brother, he was, and considerably more restful to be with. She had paid him for the use of the room and several more Firewhiskeys some hours later.
And now … she looked at the sleeping dragon. I can't send that letter, she thought. Can't beg Min to come. But I must. If I don't, it means killing the beast in cold blood. Can't let it live as it is. Can't kill it either; it's such a beautiful animal. So I must send that Owl.
She turned around, preparing to Apparate to the cottage, to write the damned thing, when she saw a silver flash. It took the shape of a doe, and she was gobsmacked by the voice as well as the message.
"Hogwarts is under attack. HE is on his way. " After the first, sickening flash of terror, she stammered, with the metallic taste of fear still in her mouth, "Severus! YOU … why?"
Why do you bother to come, she thought. Why do you care? Which side are you on this time? And finally, completely irrelevantly, but right now the biggest mystery of all: Merlin's scrote, how did YOU get a DOE for Patronus?
"Professor McGonagall will explain my … somewhat ambiguous position," the Patronus drawled. "We've worked well together during the last months."
Willa shot an inquiring glance at the doe. Animals don't smile ironically, she reminded herself.
"I needed to leave Hogwarts in a manner that would not … incriminate me with the Dark Lord ... And Minerva managed that admirably. Except for one rather over-the-top display of Gryffindor fireworks, involving daggers and a harness. I could have riposted on the spot, but that would have been worse than a mistake; it would have been discourteous. So instead … She'll be overjoyed at your arrival. And furious at my warning 's a far more Slytherin way of teaching that damned pride a lesson. I hope it will be a beneficial one.
The Patronus slowly dissolved in the air. "Decent bit of spell-work, though…" Were those words spoken? Or thought? And by whom? She didn't bother to answer the question. Despair rose in her throat like bile, and she had to steady herself for a moment. Despair caused by the messenger, not the message, she realized. By choices made, by owls not sent. Not even now.
Mechanically, she started casting protective and restraining spells around the dragon. She would go, of course she would. She had made her choice, too. A long time ago. In the end, it would always be Min, even if that bloody Gryffindor Madam couldn't be bothered to send for her …
Later, much later, she would smile at the ridiculous, wonderful intimacy of recognizing the way someone clears her throat. Then, she just turned around, incredulous, staring.
The silver tabby cat looked back. "Hogwarts is under attack. You-Know-Who will be here any minute. We must hold the castle long enough for Potter to fulfill a mission."
The Patronus held up a paw and studied it intently. "If …."
Then, after what seemed like an eternity, it looked her in the eyes. "Please, come."
And it disappeared on the spot.
Willa finished checking the dragon and setting wards around it.
But what if I'm not back within twenty-four hours, she thought, how do I keep it under control for longer? Suddenly she grinned. If she wasn't back within twenty-four hours, then they would have lost. The battle. Hogwarts. Potter. Her mind refused to add the unthinkable. "A fully grown, half mad dragon -- lovely start to your First Hundred Days," she muttered. "Accept my homage, Lord V."
Their reunion was brief, businesslike, observed by hundreds of students and a variety of Order Members. "I've come," she simply said. At Min's request, she limited her activities to the Forbidden Forest, which she knew best. She routed out as many Death Eaters as she could. Even during the agonizing hour when the castle 'could collect its dead and wounded' she doggedly stuck to the task Min had set her. Was it loyalty? Or fear of what … whom she would find, were she to go inside?
She watched Voldemort's procession from the distance. Hagrid, with Harry in his arms. Then that one, desperate "No!" It had pierced her with agony and relief alike.
In the ensuing mêlée, no Death Eater managed to make it past her to the Forbidden Forest. As far as her wand could reach, she took them down, one by one, like the butterbeer bottles she and her brothers had cursed off the fence at their parents' home. "For Potter," she muttered. For hurting Min, she thought, that agonized 'No!' still ringing in her ears, until it finally drowned in the cries and shouts of their victory.
Once more, she waited for Min. Potter disappeared halfway through. Lovegood helped him. Really remarkably astute, that girl, for all her scatterbrained ways. If ever she'd need an apprentice …
Min was needed everywhere. The time passed, slowly first, then horribly fast. I need to be here, she thought. I need to see Min, I must be there for her, dammit. "But you can't let a sleeping dragon lie," her professional half mocked her. "You must return. Check those spells. Reinforce those wards. Your side has won now, you can't leave this problem for Shacklebolt. Or Potter. Or – Merlin forbid – Hagrid. You must go. What you want simply doesn't come into it."
At last, she drew an utterly exhausted looking Minerva aside.
"I came," Willa says. "Always will."
Minerva looks sharply at the flat tone. Please, no! she thinks. Don't go again. Not now. "I know that," she replies carefully. "I really know that. I …" She falters.
"There's a problem. A practical one," Willa adds hastily. "A rather urgent one. It's a dragon," she specifies.
At this, Professor McGonagall feels her jaw drop. She stares. Tries to think. A dragon. The problem is a dragon. The floor suddenly seems to move. Focus, she urges herself, think coherently. But she can't get beyond disconnected flashes.
Harry's Cruciatus. Severus like a giant bat against the evening sky. The battle. Flashes of green, from her own wand. They bring the dead back to the castle. Walk in Willa please walk in, and the first body and the second and the third and none of them Willa, thank Merlin -- what an awful thought to have… And now it's a dragon …
Harry's body. Slughorn – Slughorn! – fighting hard.
And now it's a dragon. A dragon. Willa's hands on her body, and her own, unforgivable fault, and the anger, the tears, the loneliness. And now … the practical problem… is a dragon.
"You are mad," she says, and to her surprise it's a coherent thought, though perhaps one better left unsaid. Firm hands grip her shoulders, push her onto a chair.
"Sit," Willa orders, her voice calm and competent. "Take deep breaths. DON'T forget to breathe out as well as in."
She does as she is told, and it's an infinite relief.
"Should have put that better," Willa says gruffly. "You've been through hell and back again. No wonder you don't get it. It's that dragon Potter escaped on. From Gringotts. Know what I mean?"
"Yes," she says. She does know. There is a dragon somewhere in all of this. A real flesh and blood one.
"Hagrid found it. Asked me to heal it. It's sedated, but not for much longer. Can come round any minute. Must go back to it." Willa's voice falters.
The dragon from Gringott's, Minerva thinks. It's wounded, and Willa heals it, and it's sedated. And about to come round. Yes, that's a problem. I can see that. Someone must sedate that dragon.
Suddenly Willa's arms are around her, holding her tightly.
"Don't want to go," Willa whispers. "I need you, god, I need you. And you need me. But I must. Is that what it was like for you? Between me and Hogwarts? Me and your students? Torn like this? Oh, Min …"
"You must go," Minerva whispers. "How long will it take to heal it? Can Charlie collect it? When will you be back?"
"Well, that's it, really." Wilhelmina suddenly sounds brisk and businesslike. "It needs Transfiguration. The eye. It'll take an expert healer, but an expert in Transfiguration as well. Wanted to ask you. But after last time … it was a bit awkward. And now … You have the whole of Hogwarts asking for you, waiting for you. And Shacklebolt was looking for you. Headmastership, I dare say. And … well … I know that nothing has changed. Not really. So I'll just …
She had left in a hurry, towards the nearest fireplace. Nothing has changed, she had thought. Min's made her choice. It's Hogwarts, more than ever now. Min finally made Headmistress, there won't be room for anything else in her life … No point in hanging around.
That had been several hours ago. She had recast the protective spells. Had caught some hours of much needed sleep. Now, she should check on the damned beast again. Still, there's time for some breakfast, she thinks. And time to consider. Where do I go from here. Dragon-wise and …
She puts the kettle on. She makes herself an instant coffee, slowly, the Muggle way, to make the activity last longer.
"And you call this 'coffee'? You drink it? It looks like dishwater."
Slowly, she turns around to look at the slender, elegant witch behind her, who flicks her wand in the direction of a stack of mugs, Transfiguring two of them intosmall, elegant espresso cups. Wilhelmina opens and shuts her mouth several times, still staring. At some point, I'll manage a word, she thinks. And I'll look marginally less silly.
"How … why …"
"You said you needed me."
"Hogwarts ... the students … Kingsley wanted … "
"The students have been sent home. Hogwarts is unlikely to crumble any further. It can wait. And so can Kingsley, never mind what he wants or doesn't want. He's not important."
"Not … but he's the new …" Again, Willa just stares. Kingsley can wait? Hogwarts can wait?
"I don't want to grow old with Hogwarts," she hears Minerva say. "Nor with Kingsley, charming though he is. I do want to work at Hogwarts, for some time to come… Be Headmistress … not just to clean up the present mess, but really make my mark as Headmistress … But I don't want to grow old with it, like Albus did …
"I had thought, perhaps, some day, we could find something in Surrey? Or Cornwall? Cottages are rather pricey in Cornwall, but we might … unless you have other ideas, of course ..."
"Cornwall's fine," Willa manages. "Or Surrey." She still stares at Min. Who is here. With Hogwarts in tatters, parents clamouring for her left, right and centre, exams that have to be rescheduled, students dead, the Chosen One and his cronies who will want their N.E.W.T.s sooner or later, and in the case of the Granger probably yesterday, Min is actually here.
"Let's go and heal a dragon," Wilhelmina says, and her voice is jubilant. "Let's heal that dragon and then I want …"
"Oh, yes, please…" says Minerva.