This is the second, and longest, instalment of my series chronicling the life of Minerva McGonagall. (The first, a short story titled "Bonnie Wee Thing", is also available here.) As in most of my Minerva stories, I have stuck largely to the canon storyline but have played free and easy with what I consider "extra-canon" information; anything not included in the seven Harry Potter series of books, I have felt free to use or disregard, according to my whim, most conspicuously, J. K. Rowling's Pottermore backstory for Minerva and her 2007 revelation that she conceived the character of Albus Dumbledore as homosexual.
Epithalamium takes place against the backdrop of Muggle history, and I have used it in spots throughout the novel. The dates, places, and historical events I've borrowed are real, and I have tried to remain faithful to both the facts and the flavour of these, but I beg the reader to forgive any historical inaccuracies or glaring anachronisms.
Wake now, my love, awake! for it is time;
The Rosy Morne long since left Tithones bed,
All ready to her silver coche to clyme;
And Phoebus gins to shew his glorious hed.
Hark! how the cheerefull birds do chaunt theyr laies
And carroll of Loves praise.
~ Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion [74-79]
"Bei Mier Bist Du Schön" – The Andrews Sisters (1937)
"More Than You Know" – Billie Holliday (1939)
"Moonlight Serenade" – Glenn Miller & His Orchestra (1939)
"You'll Never Know" – Frank Sinatra (1939)
"I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" – The Ink Spots (1941)
"It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" – The Ink Spots (1941)
"(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover" – Vera Lynn (1942)
"We'll Meet Again" – Benny Goodman with Peggy Lee (1942)
"My dear, sometimes we have to make sacrifices to get what we really want in life."
The dark-haired girl slammed the book shut in irritation. She had hoped to finish the slim volume Professor Dumbledore had lent her before she had to go for rounds, but the incessant chattering and giggling of the other students in the Gryffindor common room had kept her from being able to concentrate on what she was reading, and Minerva McGonagall was a girl who liked to give her full attention to a text.
She rose from her chair by the fire and started toward the dormitory to stow her book and retrieve her cloak. As she passed, a petite, red-haired witch quipped quietly to her friends, "Seems we've upset the Cailleach beàrr".
Their giggling was aborted when Minerva said as she swept past, "I think you mean Cailleach Bheur. As the granddaughter of the Muggle Duke of Argyll, I should think you'd know that, Finnonula Campbell."
The group of girls started, realising that the tall witch had heard them. It wasn't wise to cross Minerva McGonagall; she was quick with a wand and could hex a person four ways to Sunday before the unfortunate subject of her wrath could blink. There was good reason she had been Hogwarts's duelling champion for the past three years.
Although she maintained an air of unconcerned aloofness, Minerva couldn't prevent two spots of colour from rising on her cheeks. She often told herself she didn't care that she was not especially popular among the other girls, but in truth, their frequent barbs about her icy mien stung a little. She was not, in fact, a cold fish, and she had a few friends who could attest to it, but her drive to excel in everything she did, coupled with her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, had not endeared her to many of her schoolmates.
She shot the book a wistful glance as she left the dormitory to start her rounds. It was a fascinating treatise on theoretical concepts behind sentient-to-insentient Transfiguration, but she had found herself unable to read more than a few pages that evening. If she had been honest with herself, she would have admitted that the silly chatter of her noisy housemates was not the only reason for it. As she read, she hadn't been able to keep thoughts of her Transfiguration professor from intruding between her and the text. At nearly every paragraph she wondered what he might think about this or that concept, and if her analyses would please him.
Pleasing her professors generally came easily to Minerva. She had an exceptional mind, which had been nurtured and honed by her father, who delighted in his only daughter's insatiable thirst for understanding. She also possessed an intensely powerful magic—even more so than her mother's, Thorfinn McGonagall suspected, and Morrigan McGonagall had been a formidable witch. When combined with her prodigious work ethic, success in most of Minerva's endeavours was all but assured.
She had been accustomed to the easy praise of her teachers—after Thorfinn's exacting tutelage she had found most of Hogwarts's professors surprisingly unintimidating—but Albus Dumbledore was different. While he was lavish with his compliments to other students every time one or another of them mastered a difficult Transfiguration or handed in a particularly well-thought-out essay, he didn't dote and cluck over Minerva's accomplishments as the other teachers did. She knew when she had pleased him by the spark of pleasure in his eye and the almost imperceptible nod of his head as he observed her work or handed back a paper. She knew she had missed the mark when he looked at her a little too long after one of her efforts had disappointed. He gave her high marks, of course, but he seemed to know instinctively when she needed praise and when she needed to be pushed.
She was pondering this as she patrolled the corridor when she heard a voice behind her call, "Minerva!" interrupting her thoughts. She turned and was not at all pleased to see Tom Riddle striding purposefully toward her.
"Hello, Tom. Are you on duty tonight too?" she asked.
"No," he answered, "I just hoped I might bump into you before curfew."
Minerva frowned. It was more likely he had been skulking around Gryffindor Tower and followed her as she went on her rounds. He had been paying her a great deal of attention of late, and it made her uncomfortable. Most of the other girls she knew would have given their wands to have handsome, charming Tom Riddle pay them court. After he had won the Award for Special Services to the School the previous year, his popularity had soared, even among the Gryffindors, who traditionally loathed Slytherins on long-established principle.
Minerva couldn't put her finger on exactly why Tom disquieted her. He was one of the few students who could compete with her intellectually, and he was a fierce opponent in Inter-House duelling matches, although he had only bested her on three occasions. Those things should have appealed to her, but she couldn't bring herself to like him.
Maybe it was because she sensed insincerity behind his easy smile and pleasant words. He was always gallantly apologetic after winning a duelling contest, as if he had accidentally trodden on her toes during a waltz rather than blasted her across the duelling platform, leaving her in an untidy, panting heap on the floor. But his extravagant praise for her skills and his insistence that his victory was a matter of luck didn't erase the memory of the predatory gleam she had recognised in his eyes as he fixed his wand on her before firing his spell. He had looked on those occasions as if he wanted to Crucio her, or worse, rather than hitting her with a forceful, but ultimately harmless, jinx.
There were rumours that he dabbled in the Dark Arts, but that was par for the course for a Slytherin. She knew that most of the boys in that House, and a few of the girls, liked to pretend they were secretly devotees of Dark magic, but it was mostly empty boasting, much like that of the girls of her own House when they whispered and giggled at night in the dorm about their amorous adventures.
Tom said, "I was wondering if you might like to accompany me to Hogsmeade for the last weekend of term. I hear Dervish and Banges have got a prototype of the Cleansweep Four on display this month—probably hoping to get a bunch of orders in before Christmas—and I thought we might go take a look, then head to the Three Broomsticks for a couple of Butterbeers."
"That sounds lovely, but I can't. I have lots of work to catch up on, what with N.E.W.T.s coming up," she answered.
He walked beside her as she continued down the corridor.
"Come now, Minerva, your N.E.W.T.s are almost six months away. Besides, you could probably sail through them right now without even cracking a book, you're so clever," he said.
She was annoyed. She disliked empty flattery, and besides, she was well aware that Tom had absolutely no interest in the newest broomstick. He didn't even like being on one, as flying was one of the few activities he found difficult. He had only started attending Quidditch matches when she had become Gryffindor team captain at the beginning of term. His attempts to woo her by assimilating her interests irritated her. It was another example of his insincerity, and it made her cross.
"I'm sorry, Tom. I'm really buried. I just don't think I can afford to shirk off just now," she said, keeping her voice pleasant and apologetic.
"Not even for one afternoon? After all, it's the last chance I'll have to see you before you push off home for the holidays." He fixed her with an earnest-looking smile.
Now she was really peeved. He was trying to play on her sympathies by reminding her that she had a loving home to return to for Christmas, while he, an orphan, would remain at school for the holiday.
"I really can't, Tom." She abruptly turned down another corridor, calling over her shoulder as she hurried away, "Excuse me, I think I hear Peeves in Pringle's office again."
Albus Dumbledore was sitting at his desk, marking essays, when he heard a gentle knock at his office door.
"Come in," he said, entering an "A" in his notebook for Edgar Bones's quite Acceptable essay.
"Miss McGonagall! This is an unexpected pleasure. Shouldn't you be in Hogsmeade, enjoying a Butterbeer with some fortunate young man?" he asked when Minerva entered.
"I didn't feel much like going this weekend, and I had some work to do." Minerva wondered for the first time how much Professor Dumbledore knew about Tom Riddle's interest in her. "I wanted to return the book you lent me, so I took a chance that you'd be here. I hope I'm not disturbing you, Professor."
"Not at all. I fear that reading all these second-year essays has made me rather anxious for an interruption," he said, indicating the pile of parchment in front of him. "Have you finished the book already?"
"Yes, sir. It was very stimulating. I thought Bonham's Theory of Reciprocal Osmosis was especially elegant in its simplicity. I really appreciate your lending the book to me."
"It's most considerate of you to return the book so promptly. I thought you might find Bonham appealing, given your fondness for the writings of William of Ockham," he said, teasing her.
She blushed, remembering the heated discussion she and Professor Dumbledore had had over the applicability of Ockham's razor to magical theory—a ten-minute discourse that had had her classmates open-mouthed with bewilderment and had ended only when the class period was over and they all had to move on to their next lessons.
Observing her embarrassment, he added, "Your father was wise to include such a broad base of Muggle philosophy in your early education. I wish more of my students were familiar with Muggle scholarship; the prevailing bias against it does our society a great disservice, I believe."
"Yes, sir, I quite agree," she said. "It's ridiculous to think that Muggles have nothing to add to our body of knowledge simply because they lack magical genes." She stopped, the blush returning to her cheeks when she realised she was preaching to the choir. She decided to charge ahead with her real reason for seeking him out on a Saturday afternoon.
"Professor, if I'm not being too forward, have you had a chance to speak with Professor Falco about my beginning Animagus training yet?"
"Yes, Miss McGonagall, as a matter of fact, I had an owl from him this morning. I was going to talk with you about it on Monday, but seeing as you're denying yourself the opportunity to obtain a new cache of Mr Zonko's latest wares, we can discuss it now."
"What did he say?" she asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of her voice. She had very much wanted to undertake the rigorous training to become an Animagus ever since she and Professor Dumbledore had first discussed the possibility during her career-advisory meeting with him at the end of her fifth year.
"Professor Falco is reluctant to take on such a young pupil for such advanced work." Seeing her crestfallen face, he quickly added, "Now, now, Miss McGonagall. As you know, Animagus training is extremely difficult and very dangerous, even for highly experienced witches and wizards. Professor Falco is simply being cautious. I doubt he has ever given serious consideration to an application from an eighteen-year-old witch before."
"I see, sir. Thank you for trying." She tried not to show how disappointed she was. She had rarely been thwarted in pursuing any of her ambitions, and this rejection came as a particular blow. "I'll let you get back to your essays, Professor."
She had turned to leave when he said, "Wait a moment, Miss McGonagall, I hadn't quite finished yet. I managed to persuade Professor Falco that you were an exceptionally gifted student and very mature for your age. I assured him that he would be running no undue risks in taking you on as a pupil. He has agreed to begin working with you in June, after your graduation."
Her excitement couldn't be contained. She squealed—a most un-Minerva-like sound—threw her arms around her mentor's neck—an extremely un-Minerva-like gesture—and kissed his whiskered cheek. Realising what she had done, she dropped her arms and stepped back. This time her blush began at the top of her blouse, blotching her skin all the way up to her high cheekbones.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said, "I'm just so grateful to you for your work on my behalf."
"No need to apologise, Miss McGonagall," he replied, amusement dancing in his eyes. "It's all too rare that I receive such an enthusiastic thank-you from a student. However, I do have something more to tell you."
"Professor Falco has agreed to teach you with the stipulation that you come to him having learnt the theory and the elementary practical exercises you will need to begin your training. He said he is already too busy to take on an absolute beginner, but I suspect the real reason is that he expects you to abandon your training once you get a taste of its rigours."
She looked miserable again. "Yes, sir. But how can I meet that requirement? There are so few people who can teach even the basics of Animagus Transfiguration. I don't think there's anyone in Britain, other than Professor Falco. Certainly nobody in this area, anyway."
"There is me," he said.
Her eyes grew wider than he had ever seen them. "You, Professor? But you're not an Animagus."
"True. But I am well versed in the theory, and I have undergone practical training in the basics. To tell you the truth, I didn't have the talent to continue with it. However, if I do say so myself, I am a reasonably competent teacher, and I suspect I can help you muddle through at least as much as I managed. You are, after all, far cleverer than I was at the time."
She beamed with joy, both at the news that her Transfiguration professor would tutor her and at the very large compliment he had just paid her.
"Professor Dumbledore, I don't know what to say or how to thank you."
"You can thank me by working as hard at your Animagus training as you do at everything else, Miss McGonagall."
"Oh, I will, sir."
"I know you will. Now, we need to set a timetable for your lessons. There's a great deal to accomplish before June, so I think we should plan to meet at least twice per week. I'm afraid I only have Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons available. Will that be agreeable to you?"
She was quiet for a moment. Saturday afternoons were when Quidditch matches were held. Meeting with her Transfiguration professor then would mean giving up not just her captaincy, but her spot on the team too.
He knew what was bothering her. "My dear, sometimes we have to make sacrifices to get what we really want in life," he said gently.
"I know, sir. I just feel bad about letting down the team. We've been doing so well, and having to find a new Chaser and a new captain would seriously jeopardise our chance at the Cup."
"That is a pity. But sometimes we have to ask others to make sacrifices as well."
She made her decision.
"I understand, sir. I'll speak to the team first thing tomorrow. They'll need to hold tryouts before the Christmas holidays." An idea struck her. "Sir, we could begin my lessons over the holidays! Without classes and Quidditch and everything else, we could meet every day and get a head start!"
"Won't your family miss having you at home for the holidays?" he asked, surprised at her willingness to give up her time with her beloved father.
"Yes, sir, but as you say, sometimes we have to ask others to make sacrifices," she replied with a wry smile. Then another thought occurred to her: "Oh, unless, of course, you have other plans for the holidays ..."
She was mortified. She knew Professor Dumbledore didn't usually leave Hogwarts over the holidays, but she didn't know much about his private life. Was he married? She didn't think so, but she couldn't be certain. He might have a friend whom he planned to visit, or who would want to visit him at Hogwarts when there were fewer students around to gossip. She knew that if she were his lover, she wouldn't want him spending his holiday at school tutoring an eighteen-year-old witch.
"Not at all, Miss McGonagall," he said. He was quiet for a moment, as if deep in thought. He appeared to come to a decision. "If you are certain you're willing to give up your holidays, I think we could begin our work next week."
"Thank you, Professor. What time Saturday shall I come?"
"Why don't you come after lunch, around two?"
"That will be fine, sir. Shall I meet you in the Transfiguration classroom, then?"
"No, no need for that. Just come to my office. We'll need to spend the first few meetings talking. I'll provide you with a list of the books you'll need and the reading assignments."
"Thank you, sir, I'll look forward to it." After a moment's silence, she realised he was waiting for her to go. "Good afternoon, Professor Dumbledore," she said, smiling at him, then turned to go.
"Good afternoon, Miss McGonagall."
He watched her leave. When the door had closed behind her, he ran his hands over his beard.
What have you got yourself into, old man? he asked himself.
He was very much afraid he knew the answer.