Hogwarts, early May
Rolanda hung the last broom on its hooks. That was the storage room cleared out. Spotless, she thought. The upside of living in limbo. I suddenly have a neat storage room, an office where everything is archived and ordered within an inch of its life, and private quarters that look like an advertisement on how the house-proud witch should live. It's amazing what you can accomplish in all those hours you're not spending with Min.
Slowly, she walked towards the castle. I'm still glad, she thought, I left when I did, that night of Wilhelmina's party. That we managed to avoid that screaming row. We would have been history months ago if I had let that happen. Now at least we're still a couple. Things could still work out, Rolanda told herself. It wasn't Minerva's feelings for her, or a lack thereof, that made them spend less time together. Rather, it was the hectic, make that crazy, year they were going through. And the need - Minerva's need - to keep their relationship a secret still.
At least Rolanda knew that it wasn't the idea of a future together in itself that scared Minerva. When they had talked, the next day (and Rolanda had argued, in a calm and controlled manner, until she was blue in the face) it had transpired that Minerva simply couldn't see how it would all work out.
Living more or less together at Hogwarts – but in shared rooms? Sneaking into each other's rooms, "like first-years!" Rolanda had said scornfully. At which point Min had seriously explained just how the houses were charmed to avoid that very thing, and that she sincerely hoped the first years wouldn't have found the various lovers' lanes yet. Rolanda had wanted to slap her and hug her then.
"And how about … you will retire sooner than I," Minerva had continued. "And I really must live in the school. Of course, there are many relationships where people live apart for large periods of time, due to work, and they're none the worse for that, but would it work for us? I'd hate the idea of not being near you," and for quite some time option had followed option with all the pros and cons.
Rolanda understood much of it. The revelation in Paris had given her a new and deep understanding of what lay behind Minerva's caution, her desire (and undisputed talent) for organization and control. You didn't have anything approaching normality until you were in your twenties, Rolanda thought. And then there was already such a burden of loss and grief to carry along. Now that you've created this place for yourself, you'll do anything to keep it. You simply can't let go and see what happens. You're willing to risk your life, for your school, for your students, for me. Yes, you'd do that. But the idea of risking your safe harbour scares you shitless.
And I can understand that. I know that you need to have some clear idea of the future. Of what it will look like. And until I came along, you had just that. Be Deputy Headmistress, and then, one day, Headmistress. After that, a retirement cottage, time for research, and perhaps some publications in Transfiguration Today, as well as long walks, visits to the theatre, and reading. She smiled as she remembered Minerva's outspoken comments on Rolanda's suggestion that she might be asked to serve on a Government Committee on Education or some such. "Do you really think that my idea of a peaceful retirement is to join anything that has meetings?" Min had said, and her description of some of the Hogwarts committee meetings and Min's thoughts while attending had made Rolanda laugh until her sides ached.
Carefully, she steered her thoughts back to Minerva's reluctance to announce their relationship to their colleagues. As things had been, Minerva had had a perfectly safe and assured future at Hogwarts. As things were, she still had that, and a loving and ever deepening relationship as well. And if that relationship wouldn't work out in the end, there would be the discomfort of continuing to work with Rolanda, but if nobody had known about it in the first place, she'd at least be spared the gossiping and unbearably kind tact of the whole staff. Outwardly at least, her safe harbour wouldn't change.
"You'll have to risk it, Min," Rolanda had said. "At some point, you'll just have to risk it." She had carefully avoided the words "Gryffindor courage", and was glad for that.
"I know," Minerva had said. "But it's not just that one risk. There's Dolores and her insane ideas. Worse, there's the Ministry behind her. Where is Hogwarts going to, at this rate? What if they come with orders I'd have to refuse? I could leave, but that would mean leaving the students...
"And there's You-Know-Who. I'm an Order member; if people know about us, he might try to use you as leverage. He might succeed, too. I'd do anything to keep you safe - but what if he uses you to make me do things to students? How could I live with that?"
All in all, Rolanda thought, there were just too many ifs and whens to live with - for Minerva, at least. Rolanda herself rather felt that, in the midst of so much insecurity, there was simply no planning ahead or control possible. The only thing to do was to live by the day. And to enjoy what they had together, and take that forward at least. She had said so. But Minerva, who had learned to crave normality at an age where young people should crave change, simply couldn't do it. And Rolanda did understand that. Truly, she did.
What I can't do, won't do, she thought, is go along with it. I do need commitment. You'll have to admit that your life has changed. That it's us now. And you'll have to do it soon. And on your own; I won't beg for it. I'm willing to compromise, I'm willing to understand, but I can't stop being me. Not at my age. Not even for you.
So now she was in limbo, waiting. First it had been the decree that teachers were not allowed to give information beyond lessons. Then, and Rolanda had fully understood that one, the frantic, worried days after the attack on Arthur. Then Dumbledore had left, if one could call it that, and Min had insisted on getting some stability back in the school before "indulging in any navel-staring about my personal life."
By now the excuses were running thin, and they both knew it. True, the career counselling sessions did take up a lot of time. But that doesn't mean, Rolanda thought savagely, that you can't think about what should be the most important thing in your life. And yet, once again, she hadn't forced Min. Hadn't even gone near the point of no return. You'll spend your life waiting, you fool, she had thought. And had said nothing.
Last week, the Weasley Twins had left – Rolanda, who had always been partial to those excellent flyers and players, much more so than her colleagues, thought of them in capitals now. That had been the one truly joyful moment in the last few months. What an exit. What a show.
And then they had discovered the Portable Swamp, and even Filius had been impressed by the spellwork. "I knew they could be brilliant – when they bothered – but I didn't know they were capable of this. I'd mark it with an 'O'."
That was where Minerva had surprised Rolanda. Predictably enough, she had started with "Filius, how can you say that?" In such a Headmistressy tone that even Pomona had sat up straight. Rolanda, too, had felt that brief, long-forgotten 'thank Merlin it's not me she's after' feeling from her own school days.
"It's an 'O' star, with recommendation, at the very least. In fact, they should get a School Trophy," Min had chuckled – yes, chuckled.
That had been two days ago, and Rolanda had had high hopes of change being in the air. But she had barely seen Minerva since, not even in the Great Hall. Which was were she was heading now. Dinner, she thought, and an early night in my spotless room. My bleak, barren, spotless room. Would a bottle of Ogden's Old add a bit of a lived-in feeling?
As she hurried along the corridor, she noticed several students looking up in an amused manner. She followed their looks. Peeves was trying to unscrew the big, crystal chandelier. I wish him luck, Rolanda thought, that thing is an eyesore. The students hurried towards the Hall. There was Ron Weasley. Not a patch on his brothers, but he had his moments. About once in a decade, though, a bit like the Chudley Cannons. Their slogan, 'let's all keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best', would fit Gryffindor, too, now. And I even hope they win, woman, for your sake. Can't you at least appreciate that?
"Sorry, Madam Hooch."
Potter, who hurried past her to catch up with Weasley. And past Minerva, who had appeared as well, and headed purposefully towards Peeves. Rolanda smiled ruefully. The eyesore would stay, after all. Minerva would tell him … she stopped to listen.
"It unscrews the other way."
Potter was the first to react. He scuttled away as fast as he could. Sensible lad.
Peeves was the second. He looked at the chandelier, at Professor McGonagall, at the chandelier again, closed his mouth, and started unscrewing the right way.
Finally, Rolanda moved towards Min. Who looked at her in a way that outdid every firework the Weasleys ever created. Rolanda fought the urge to yell, yodel, turn somersaults, and kiss Min senseless.
Taking a deep breath, she managed, "Do you think you should be doing that, at your age?"
"Should have done it months ago. Weeks ago, at least. Am I too late? Can you ..." Minerva looked around for long enough to notice a new batch of students, heading for the Hall. "My rooms, tonight, please!" she whispered.
Rolanda nodded fervently. A kingdom for a bit of privacy, she thought. If I say a word now, I'll start blubbing and we'll have another swamp.
Quickly, briefly, she grasped Min's hand before she hurried to the Hall.
At least the Umbridge isn't here, Rolanda thought, looking round the table. Since The Weasleys –and the Swamp - That Woman preferred to eat in her rooms. It was a small mercy.
She tried to get some food down; it wouldn't do at all for the staff to notice that something was going on. It was more than enough that Minerva had clearly reached some favourable decision about the two of them. No need to advertise things.
Aurora asked a question about next years' curriculum. Something to do with Firenze's notions about stars and her own lessons. How, in Merlin's name, did Minerva manage to look truly interested and concerned? And to answer? Rolanda forced herself to listen. What she heard took her breath away.
"Of course," Min said, "if Firenze continues to give the Divination lessons, or part of them, we must look again at possible overlaps. But I think that the curriculum won't be truly relevant until we've decided, all of us, whether there will be a next term."
She then calmly observed the collected gasps and near-chokes of her colleagues.
"Has no-one thought about that, yet?" she queried. "On the positive side, there is always the chance that the DADA jinx will work once again, and that we'll somehow be rid of the High Inquisitor. On the downside, that does not automatically imply that we will be rid of Ministry interference, though we could hardly get anyone worse. And there is a possibility that Dolores will be impervious to the jinx – so far, all affected teachers were human."
She got a round of nervous giggles on that one and smiled back. "I don't know about you," she continued, outwardly calm, but Rolanda by now knew the little signs of emotion when she saw them. "But I don't intend to let this go any further. We've had those ludicrous inspections, she's tried – and will probably succeed – to sack several colleagues, and she's forbidden all organizations, where students learnt vital skills such as working together and organizing. And now she hasn't only stopped us from doing any teaching outside lessons, but she's obstructing the students' future careers as well. She positively threatened Potter … I mean, what's the point of a school that aims to stop students having a career?"
"That's true," Filius burst out. "She sat in on my session with Miss Lovegood and practically said that she would thwart her ambitions to study Care of Magical Creatures – simply because Xenophilius publishes the truth about You-Know-Who and Potter."
"Well, that's it," Minerva said. "She's done it cleverly – one slice at the time. But by now, quite frankly, Hogwarts is no longer what a school should be. And if we continue, we'll all just be the Ministry's minions. So I intend to oppose her forcefully, and should that fail, I'll resign."
"You can't! The danger! You could get hurt!" Predictably, that was Poppy.
"Hardly hurt. You don't really think that the Ministry would physically attack Hogwarts teachers? It would cause a scandal. A public outcry. As far as I can see, the only real risk is that they'll try to come up with a reason to send me to Azkaban – membership of an illegal organization or some such notion."
"Professor, no! Ye can't mean that. Ye'll have ter excuse me for saying it, Ma'am, but ye don't know what it's like."
Hagrid this time, and Rolanda only had to watch his face, paling beneath the ruddy outdoors glow, to get a very fair idea of what Azkaban was like.
"As with Albus, they'll have to catch me first. Ever tried outrunning a cat? Who knows every stone of this castle?"
Not even a tremor, Rolanda realised, just a deepening of Min's voice. But it spoke volumes. This is breaking your heart, she thought. That's why I hardly saw you last week; you had this on your mind. And now you are willing to turn your whole world upside down, to risk your safe place.
She'd given up all pretence of eating. Her colleagues, she noticed, still made valiant efforts. Filius carefully and lengthily chewed a mouthful of mashed potatoes. Pomona cut a pea in halves, then in quarters. Aurora drank her wine, put her glass down, and started on Irma's. Only Severus continued his meal as if no landslide had taken place.
Then, at last, the main course disappeared, and the pudding showed up. I might manage a spoonful or two of custard, Rolanda thought. And then I'll disappear before the coffee and wait for you in your rooms, as usual. The fact that there was an 'as usual' again was the one miraculously good thing to come out of all that heartbreak. Rolanda took up her spoon, determined to give nothing away, to save Min that additional embarrassment at least.
Minerva cleared her throat. "I'll hope you'll excuse us," she said, slightly louder than usual. "Rolanda and I will skip coffee. In fact, I think we'll skip the pudding, too. If I resign, we'll have a lot of decisions to make about our future together; we could do with a quiet evening to discuss that."
"Min!" Rolanda gasped. "You don't have to..." She swallowed the rest of the phrase, inwardly cursing herself for letting it out in the first place.
"I hardly think skipping Hogwarts coffee is much of a sacrifice," Minerva remarked in a mildly amused tone. She looked around the table. Rolanda followed her eyes.
"You do that," said a beaming Aurora. Beaming? Rolanda thought. So you knew?
"We'll keep Umbridge out of your hair," Filius added. It was the most unobtrusive high five Rolanda had ever seen, but a high five he made. She smiled ruefully. So much for keeping a secret in this place, she thought. And there we were, thinking that our dear colleagues were still in the dark.
"We'll consult her about our lessons if we have to," added Pomona, embracing them both in one wide smile.
"And if consulting her doesn't help," Severus added, with his blankest, most inscrutable voice, "I'll flirt with her!"
The surprised laugh he got with that was enough to get them away from the High Table and out of the Great Hall. Which was why he had made that completely outrageous statement in the first place, a dazed Rolanda realised as she followed Minerva up the stairs. He wanted to give us – give Min- an easy exit.
But by then they had reached their rooms, and Minerva closed the door firmly behind them.