Hogwarts, the next morning
"Good morning, Professor, the Headmistress is in, today."
Minerva heard the cheerful voice of the gargoyle through the door of her office. She paused to consider. The cheerful voice of the gargoyle? Who on earth …?
A polite knock. "Enter," she called briskly, and Neville Longbottom did so.
"May I have a word, Headmistress?" he asked.
Minerva indicated a chair in front of her desk and settled herself to year whatever he might have to say. "What is it, Neville," she queried.
"A personal favour, really. I hope you don't mind my bringing this up. It's just … well … it's about Luna. Luna Lovegood. Perhaps you remember her?"
"Of course I do," Minerva replied, with restrained warmth in her voice. Curse Molly Weasley for being right at the worst moment, she thought. That's it. This is about the teaching job.
"Well, Luna will finish her studies soon. With a First, actually," Neville said, with pride in his voice. "And, you see, Headmistress, what she'd most want … I don't know whether you could help … but I thought …"
"Yes?" she said encouragingly.
"It's just that … Luna has always had this dream of working with Professor Grubbly-Plank. As her apprentice. She hopes to set up just such a practice, later. Much later, of course." Neville stared at the desk.
Minerva tried to compose her features. Mustn't look completely gob smacked, she thought. Luna … wants to work with Willa? It can't be … it's …
"I see," she said, playing for time. "Quite. And you thought …?"
"I thought that you might give her a recommendation, Headmistress. Speak to Professor Grubbly-Plank even, on her behalf." Neville looked up hopefully.
"I … certainly. I'll certainly recommend her. And speak for her. If that's what she really wants?"
"Oh, it is, Headmistress. Absolutely. Thank you. Luna will be so pleased. And I am, too. I mean …"
Minerva carefully let out a deep breath. "Well, if that was all?" she suggested.
"Yes, it was. Thank you. This is great." Neville bustled out of the office, looking for all the world like a joyful puppy, Minerva thought. When he closed the door behind him, she could hear the gargoyle say, "Good bye, Professor. Have a lovely day."
"Have a lovely day"? If Neville had that effect on the most hopeless of creatures, he was definitely future Head of House material, she thought. She'd considered the option before, but this settled it. In a couple of years … say two … Gryffindor would be in excellent hands with Longbottom … that would be one worry less, when the time came.
In the meantime, she would check on Willa that afternoon and bring the news. Bless Neville, she thought. Bless Luna, bless her First, and bless her career-plans. Bless Molly, while we're about it. She smiled as she turned to the stack of papers on her desk.
Professor Grubbly-Plank's cottage
On the dot of five, Willa heard the swoosh-and-bang of a Floo traveler. Min, she thought. Who had insisted she would come and check on her, "unless you'd really hate to see me, of course".
She turned towards the fireplace. Minerva stepped out, looking … positively radiant, Willa noticed.
"Willa, you can't imagine what's happened!" Somehow, Minerva's entire body expressed joyful anticipation, Willa thought. She suddenly looked years younger – in Willa's eyes, she looked exactly like the glowing twenty-something who had told her, with just such shiny eyes, that Dumbledore had offered her the Transfiguration post at Hogwarts.
Willa nearly shuddered as she remembered her own reaction then. How Min had been utterly deflated at first, then upset, then livid. As a result, they had been apart for several years, and Amelia had happened. And a few things in Willa's own life, as well. Whatever it is, Willa told herself, you'll not rain on her parade this time. Minerva's the centre of your life, and you'd better remember that and keep it that way or there's no point to anything anymore. "Tell me this instant," she said, pulling Min into a tight embrace.
By the time Minerva had finished her story, Willa could only stare. Then she forced herself to smile. "Luna …" she said. "I think it's great. Really great. Exactly what I wanted."
Minerva threw her a worried look. "Willa, what … you don't think it's 'great' at all, I hear it in your voice. I thought …"
"It is great, Min," Willa hastened to say. Trust Min to see right through her, she thought.
"It's really what I wanted," she added. "I told you so. I meant it. It's just … I wanted it when it wasn't possible. So that made it all right. But now… I mean, it's real, now. It's actually about retiring. No point telling myself that it isn't for years to come. It's two years we're talking about. That's damn close… Scares the hell out of me, Min."
"Yes, but … you wouldn't have to quit everything. You could still do some research … publish … it's not like …" Minerva's voice faltered.
Willa looked at the fire, at the table legs, at her hands. Tell her, she thought. Tell her what this really is about. You have to.
Reluctantly, she looked at Min. "It's not like Hogwarts, that's what you wanted to say, wasn't it? I know. I know I'm the lucky one. I can still do little bits of the old job. You can't. Either you run a school or you don't. And you're going to miss it like hell." She saw Minerva wince.
"Come here," she said gruffly, holding out her arms. With Min safely wrapped in her good arm, she continued, "That's just it, you see. Such an enormous change for us both, for you mostly. And we're both … we both need alone-time. Living with you in that cottage … somewhere … I want it more than anything, and I'm scared to death that it … that we … that it wouldn't work… There, I've said it."
"I'm scared, too," Minerva whispered, with a voice so small that none of her students would have recognized it. "But I want it to work. I've thought about all this… That's why I never brought the retirement thing up – well, not in a concrete, time-scheduled way. But yesterday … they just wrote 'badly hurt' and I thought that you … and then it suddenly seemed to settle things.
"So," Min sounded a bit more like her usual self, Willa thought. "So, we'll have to try. Give it time. Find a way of being permanently together that works. But, of course, if you decide that you really don't like working with Luna … or don't want to … then …"
"I'll see her," Willa replied robustly. "I'll see her, and I'll try to come to an arrangement with her. You're right, Min, I have to face the fact that I need an assistant of some sort. Get used to the idea … and at least this time we both want the same thing."
Softly, she kissed Minerva's cheek. "Got some time to spare before you Floo back?" she asked. "I could do with a bit of holding you."
Professor Grubbly-Plank's cottage, three days later
"So, that's more or less it," Willa said briskly. "What do you think?"
"It could work very well, I think," Luna replied calmly. "But we'll both need some time to get used to each other. You're not really in the habit of working with someone, are you? Or having someone around all the time? Neither am I. I don't think you'd mind that I'll not live in?"
Luna still had that startling quality of saying exactly what she thought – and of second-guessing what everyone else thought, Willa mused. And it was true; she'd prefer Luna not to live in. Not just because of Min's visits – Luna was old enough to realize that Hogwarts was a school, not a nunnery. But simply because the only person she'd want around on a permanent basis was Min – and even that idea felt sometimes a bit claustrophobic. But that was something she'd have to deal with. She would deal with it. The alternative … As Min had said: they'd find a way.
"No, I wouldn't mind at all," she replied. You can easily Floo or Apparate, whatever you prefer. Well, now that we've covered the basics, we'll just have to see how it works out. I'd like to try." To her own surprise, it was the truth. She'd really like Luna as a sparring partner … and when it came to passing on a lifetime of knowledge – well, Luna was ideal.
"I'm currently in digs in Hogsmeade," Luna said. "I plan to look for a place of my own after my apprentice-ship. Something not too big …" She cast an appraising look around the cottage.
In others, that look would be presumptuous, Willa thought. I'd feel threatened, as if she were about to take over. But not with Luna. She just looks at general proportions, at something like this.
She noticed how Luna's eyes briefly rested on an open copy of Transfiguration Today, a black-and-white picture of an old Hogwarts Quidditch team. Luna looked carefully at the dark-haired captain. She smiled.
"Something this size is really very convenient for two, isn't it?" she said. "Especially when one only comes during the school holidays."
Willa gasped for breath; even for Luna, this was incredibly direct.
"And luckily, Neville isn't at all fussy about where he lives," the girl remarked calmly. "As long as he can find a place for a small green-house."
"Ne … Neville? Longbottom?" Of course, Willa thought. They both have had an appallingly lonely childhood: too much in the company of adults, seeing things a child shouldn't have to see. It has set them both apart. Neville can hide it, with his feeling for people, for what makes them tick. Luna can't, but in the end it's the same. I can see how they could be comfortable with each other in ways they couldn't be with anyone else.
"Oh, yes, Neville. We've been together for some years, now," Luna replied. "I think I'll like working here. When do you want me to start?"
When all details were settled, Luna Disapparated – to The Three Broomsticks, Willa thought. To tell Neville. They could build a snug little greenhouse against the south wall. She checked herself. Early days yet. See how it goes. In a year … a year and a half, even… Soon enough to make further plans. And she and Min had to find a cottage first. Willa firmly intended to sell her own place. It's so very much my cottage, she thought. Doesn't matter for the holidays and the odd visit. But it'll be hard enough for Min as it is. Letting go of Hogwarts. No need to feel like a permanent guest in someone else's house. Wherever we'll be, it'll be our place. I'll have to let go, too.
And now, she wondered. How do I tell Min? Shouldn't Floo on my own, just yet. Can't write. Left-handed Patronus still doesn't work – not a speaking one. While she pondered the problem, she heard a soft tapping against the window. An owl, a Hogwarts one. She let the bird in and carefully detached the message, noticing it was tied in an easy-to-handle way.
It was, of course, from Min. My dear, I've been thinking about you all morning , it read. How did it go? And below that, a list of possible options, ranging from she's hired to it didn't work with carefully drawn circles in front. All Willa had to do was tick off the appropriate one and return the message.
That's my Min, Willa thought. Always thinking one step ahead. Capable of running a thousand other lives besides her own. She quickly stepped back. The very last message Min needed was a tear stain on the parchment.
She took out her quill. Ignoring Min's list, she painstakingly drew a large circle – well, it was roundish, at least. In it, she made two dots for eyes, a line for a nose, and then she traced, with the tip of her tongue between her lips, a huge watermelon-grin.
She gave the message to the owl. "To the Headmistress," she whispered, briefly tickling the animal's skull.
She stared after the fast-disappearing bird till the sky was empty.
Smiling, she went inside.
A/N Next week another Minerva story. With a slightly unusual pairing.