The difficult summer of 1977 was giving way to a tense autumn.
Albus Dumbledore was worried and preoccupied with the increasing number of disappearances and open Death-Eater attacks. The brazen murder of the Prewett brothers had shaken everyone, especially Minerva, who was fond of their sister, Molly Weasley.
The Ministry had been unceasing in their requests for Dumbledore to review this plan or that edict, and there was fierce division within the Wizengamot, with some Elders wanting to detain and interrogate family members and known associates of suspected Death Eaters. Albus had been vehement in his opposition to this idea, but with each new death, he and his supporters lost more ground.
He and Minerva had hardly seen one another that summer, sometimes encountering each other only during Order meetings at Moody's place for weeks at a time. The running of the school had been left largely to her for the holidays, and although it was a far easier task when the students and most of the faculty were away, she had been looking forward to the start of term in the knowledge it would bring her husband back to Hogwarts, if not to the full assumption of his administrative duties. He was far too busy for it, and as Deputy Headmistress, it was her role to take up the slack. She had had to abandon a promising research project when she realised there were not enough hours in the day to teach, mark papers, supervise staff, oversee the running of the castle, and plan budgets, in addition to her extra-curricular work for the Order. Something had to give, and her academic pursuits were the first casualty.
It was probably the combination of anxiety and exhaustion, but she and Albus had been at odds more often than usual, and it seemed to Minerva that whenever they saw one another that autumn, they quarrelled. They were not serious rows, but their depressing frequency placed an unusual strain on their marriage.
Sex had always been an important part of their relationship, and they normally tried to steal a few discreet hours every week to be alone together, even during term. But by the time Minerva discovered, after the fact, Sirius Black's attempt to lure Severus Snape to the Shrieking Shack during one of Remus Lupin's transformations, they had not made love in several weeks. She had tried to shrug it off, but it was putting her on edge.
Black was far from her favourite Gryffindor, and when she found out that Albus had not told her of the incident but had merely set the boy a series of detentions in punishment for the dangerous prank, her anger was incandescent. Albus had left most serious disciplinary matters—those that could not be handled by the transgressor's Head of House—to her, as he had much else that term, and she had spent entirely too much of her time dealing with the antics of "the Marauders", as Black and his friends had come to be known. The fact that Albus had left her completely in the dark about this latest and most serious incident involving them made her feel insignificant and used.
"He deliberately endangered another student's life. Do you honestly think a few detentions constitute an adequate punishment?" Minerva asked after marching into the Headmaster's office to demand an explanation.
The witch and wizard looked at one another across the enormous desk.
Dumbledore said, "Sirius is truly remorseful, and the Snape boy was not, after all, injured."
"Rubbish. Sirius Black has never felt a moment's remorse in his life. And as for Snape's narrow escape, that was entirely due to Potter, who at least seems to have a wee bit o' sense." Her accent became more pronounced with her fury. "Sense" sounded like "saince."
"We may hope that some of that sense rubs off, then," Albus said. His calm tone only infuriated her more, and she huffed in exasperation.
"Are you being deliberately obtuse, Albus? Surely you've noticed that it's Black who influences the others. James and Remus take their cues from him, and little Peter follows him around like a Niffler looking for gold. The others have their share of mischief, no question, but Black is the one who is truly reckless. It's high time he was taught a real lesson," she said, her voice rising sharply.
"Minerva, you must take the boy's upbringing into account," Albus said, a hint of irritation beginning to tell in his voice. "He has not had the advantages that most children can take for granted."
"Not had the advantages? His family is one of the wealthiest in Britain, what could he possibly have wanted for?"
"Now it is you who are being obtuse. I meant love and affection, and the care of parents to teach him right from wrong."
She was chastened, but only slightly. She decided to take a new tack.
"And Severus? What advantages has he had? Those boys pick on him mercilessly, and it's time it stopped."
"I don't think it would be doing him any favours to intervene too much. He is not a boy who accepts help willingly, and he will need to learn to fight his own battles if he is to overcome his background,"
"If he lives that long," she muttered.
Now it was Albus who adopted a new strategy. "I know you are fond of the boy, Slytherin though he is. I suspect it's because he's lonely and bookish, and quite powerful. Much like you were as a girl."
The comparison unnerved her. "You are daft, man, that boy is nothing like I was. I feel for him because of his appalling circumstances. In truth, he scares me a little. He's intelligent, yes, and immensely talented in some areas, but his interests and way of looking at the world are vastly different from mine."
Albus fixed her with a pointed stare. "Have you stopped to consider that you might have developed a similar outlook if you had not had the advantagesof your father's wealth and position, and more importantly, his love and guidance?"
"That is rather beside the point," she said icily.
"I think not," he said. "You take those advantages for granted, my dear, and you ignore the fact that, growing up without them, Severus and Sirius are cut from similar cloth, whether or not they see it. They're both desperate for love and attention; they just go about getting it differently."
"Be that as it may, it's no excuse to ignore Sirius's flagrant and persistent violation of school rules."
"I'm aware of your feelings about rule-breaking, but I recall that there were one or two rather significant ones you were quite willing to shatter during your—seventh year, wasn't it?"
The days he could make her blush with the mention of her brazenness during the months of their clandestine affair were long past.
"Albus Dumbledore, the safety of the students is not a joking matter; I'm serious about this."
"So am I," he said, his voice suddenly low and dangerous. "And never imply that I take the safety of the students of this school lightly."
She had crossed the line, and she knew it.
"I apologise. But I still think Black needs—"
"Leave it, Minerva," he said, warning in his voice.
The battle was lost, she thought. She was not a good loser. "As you wish, Headmaster."
He sighed. They had planned to spend a few hours together that night for the first time in weeks. But he was exhausted, and his attempt to quell her anger and salvage the evening flew far wide of the mark.
"My dear, you've been working so hard lately, what with your normal teaching duties, the preparations for the Yule Ball, your research proposal."
You mean the one I abandoned weeks ago? she thought bitterly.
"Why don't you have a day off?" he said.
This was too much.
"Albus, I don't need—"
"I daresay we can manage to keep the castle standing without you for one afternoon," he said, ignoring her protest.
Gods, how she hated it when he was dismissive!
"Why don't you go into Hogsmeade and find yourself a new dress for the ball?" he said. "Something nicer than the one you've been wearing for the last ten years. As fetching as you are in it, it is a bit . . . staid."
She couldn't believe he was shooing her off to go shopping like some idle Ministry wife with nothing but frocks and frivols on her mind. He rarely patronised her like this, but Circe! it made her white with fury when he did.
"Fine." She had nothing more to say to this man.
"Good." He smiled and rose from his desk. "Have fun, my sweet."
As she left his office, quietly seething, she had an idea.
Be careful what you wish for, Albus Dumbledore.
Several hours later, while a disappointed but unsurprised Albus was Vanishing her half of the dinner the house-elves had prepared for them in his suite, Minerva was in her quarters, setting down a package bearing the label "Gladrags, Fine Apparel for the Discerning Witch and Wizard" with a feeling of smug satisfaction.
She hated shopping of any kind, and found shopping for clothes particularly odious, but she had outdone herself today. The gown she had finally selected was perfect for her purpose, and it gave her an extra measure of satisfaction that it had cost her more than one month's worth of her wages and Albus's combined to purchase it and have it altered in time for the ball.
Her husband and employer would be shocked at how obediently she had followed his suggestion.
"Minerva, you didn't!" Poppy Pomfrey squealed with delight.
Minerva had made the mistake of mentioning her quest to Pomona Sprout, and now she and Minerva's other friends on staff, Poppy and Rolanda Hooch, were insisting on viewing the results of Minerva's highly unusual shopping trip.
"I'm very much afraid I did," Minerva said, unable to prevent a wry smile from curling her lips.
"Well, go try it on," urged Pomona. "I want to see."
Rolanda rolled her eyes.
When Minerva emerged from her bedroom several minutes later, her three friends sat dumbstruck.
"Is it too much?" Minerva asked nervously.
"I'd say it's just about enough," said Poppy, giggling.
"Yes, a few minor alterations, and it should just about cover your bum," said Pomona. "I'd say it's perfect."
"If you ever switch teams, Minerva, promise you'll call me first," Rolanda said looking at her friend appreciatively. "You look good enough to eat."
"Thanks, Ro. I just might do that if Albus doesn't appreciate my efforts," said Minerva.
"Tease," said Rolanda, winking.
The four women broke into gales of laughter.