EPILOGUE

Damn Albus! Where is he?

The Order was holding its own, but just barely. William Weasley and Remus were both agile, but neither was a particularly strong duellist, and Minerva and Nymphadora were spending more time protecting the children than they were incapacitating Death Eaters.

Minerva felt the whoosh of a curse fly past her face and turned to see Melchior Yaxley advancing on her. She had time only to cast a hurried Protego, andhis powerful curse bounced off it, sending her staggering backward.

She and Yaxley duelled for what seemed like an eternity—he was by far the most skilled of the opponents she had faced this night—when he suddenly abandoned the fight, casting one last protective spell, and took off running toward the staircase.

Draco. Where's Draco?

He'd been with the small phalanx of Death Eaters near the stairs leading up to the Astronomy Tower—not fighting, just standing there looking pale and terrified, and she'd almost pitied him.

She shouted to Ronald to tell him to find out where Draco had gone, but he didn't seem to hear her. He was standing over a body, she realised, and he was wild-eyed and firing hexes without aiming, nearly hitting Remus.

Roaring in frustration, Minerva turned her wand on a Death Eater she didn't recognise, felling him with a stroke of her wand, when she was jerked back by the neck of her robes, her wand flying from her hand. She smelt blood and foetid breath and recognised the voice of Fenrir Greyback snarling in her ear.

"Such a pretty white throat, Professor," he said. "It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

She brought the heel of her boot down hard on his foot, and when his grip loosened, she tore herself away from him, ripping her robe down the back. There was no time to Summon her wand—she could hear him just behind her—so she dropped into the Third Defensive Position, giving silent thanks for the late Greg McKinnon's long-ago tutelage. At the last moment, she crouched low in a ball, protecting her head from the onslaught as Greyback launched himself at her. His legs slammed into her back, thrusting her forward, her palms and forehead connecting with the stone floor at the same moment, and she saw stars.

Her head was spinning, but she looked up to see Greyback getting to his feet. She Summoned her wand, and when it berthed itself firmly in her palm, she pointed it at him, hoping her shaking wouldn't affect her aim. But before she could fire a hex, he turned and ran, preternaturally fast, disappearing up the stairs to the Astronomy Tower.

She had little time to contemplate this mystery, though, because a pair of Death Eaters was advancing on her, and it took all her concentration to deflect their curses and put them down.

When she saw Severus arrive at last, she nearly shouted with relief. Finally, another competent duellist!

But he disappeared up the staircase without stopping, and she had only a moment to wonder about it before she had to rescue Ronald from Alexander Crabbe.

"Remus!" she shouted. "Take Ronald and try to get up to the tower—something's happening up there! Go help Severus! Nymphadora and I will cover things here!"

To her relief, Remus grabbed Weasley's arm and pulled him toward the stairs. Minerva, Nymphadora, and surprisingly, Ginevra, managed to Stun or Petrify five more Death Eaters.

Just as the fifth one fell, Minerva felt an odd pulling sensation from deep with her—like a burst of cold air rushing through her magic. It was gone almost as quickly as it had come, and in any event, she had no time to think about it because at that moment, Severus came tearing down the stairs with Draco Malfoy in tow, followed by Amycus and Alecto Carrow, the latter stopping to fire a Bombarda at a row of statues that lined the north wall of the corridor, her doughy face contorted with laughter.

Strangely, this last act of wanton destruction infuriated Minerva more than anything else she'd seen that night. She pointed her wand at Alecto and barely stopped herself from using the Cruciatus for the first time in her life. But the powerful Stinging Hex seemed to have the desired effect, and as Carrow and her brother ran screeching from the scene, she shouted after them in momentary triumph.

A moment later, Harry Potter streaked past her after Snape and the fleeing Death Eaters, shouting words she couldn't make out.

Where had he come from?

When Ginevra took off after him, Minerva nearly screamed with fury.

Her attention was drawn back to the fight at hand when she heard Nymphadora shout, "Minerva! Behind you!" She ducked and fired a Stunner as she spun. It hit its mark, and when Minerva looked up, there were no Death Eaters left standing.

The other Order members were crouching next to William. She went to them and was relieved to find that he was still alive. But there was nothing more she could do, so she went to see to Neville, whom she had seen fall to what she hoped was only a Rebounded Stunner. He was conscious but disoriented. After satisfying herself that he was in no immediate danger, she called for Nymphadora, who seemed to be the most intact of the group.

"You're bleeding," she said, looking at Minerva's face.

Minerva put her fingers to her cheek, and they came away bloody. She'd dodged the Flaying Curse Yaxley had hurled at her, but just barely. She hadn't felt it graze her cheek.

She said, "We'll need to get all the injured up to the infirmary and ensure the Death Eaters are secured. Will you organise it and alert the Ministry? I need to find the other Heads and make sure the students are safe."

"You need the infirmary too, Minerva," Nymphadora replied. "That cut's deep."

Minerva touched her wand to the laceration and murmured, "Collocutis," wincing at the sting as the edges of the wound came together. It was good enough for the time being.

She sent a Patronus to Filius—wondering for the first time why he had not joined the fight—and to Pomona, telling them to round up their Houses and meet her in her office in forty-five minutes. Severus was clearly busy trying to get Draco to safety, so she also sent a message to Horace, asking him to see to Slytherin House.

Heading down the corridor, she composed a carefully worded message in her head, then stopped long enough to send another Patronus to the Burrow.

She had almost reached the main staircase, intending to see that all the other Gryffindors were accounted for, when she heard the main doors rumble open. Hagrid came through them, and when he saw her, he went stock-still, a look she couldn't identify on his sooty face.

"Hagrid, are you injured?"

He said nothing, just shook his head, his eyes wide and staring at her. He'd never looked at her like this, and it unnerved her.

She asked, "Do you need the infir—"

"Perfesser," he said, taking a few steps toward her. Then, softly, "Minerva . . ."

It was the first time she could ever remember him using her given name, and for some reason, it made the blood rush to her head.

"Yes, what is it?"

The enormous man swallowed, and a tear spilled from his left eye and down his cheek, leaving a pale wake through the grime.

"He's gone."

"Who's gone?"

"The Headmaster. He's dead."

Her response was automatic. "That's impossible."

"He . . . fell off the Astronomy Tower."

"No."

Why would he be saying this to her? Albus wasn't even here, he was out on one of his secret missions. With Harry . . .

Harry is here.

Hagrid said, "Harry saw Sn—he saw it happen. An' I've seen 'im. He's gone."

"No," she said again, but even as the word passed her lips, she knew it was true. She closed her eyes and focused on her magic.

The thrum was gone.

The barely perceptible hum of his presence that had inhabited her magic since she'd received his blood thirty years ago was simply . . . absent.

The world swam for a moment, and she swayed on her feet. She felt large, gentle hands on her shoulders, supporting her, and her eyes gained focus again.

"Where . . ." She had to stop and clear her throat. "Where is he?"

"Out there. Where 'e fell. I would've moved 'im, but I thought I should get the kids inside firs'."

"Thank you, Hagrid. You did the right thing."

She wanted desperately to go to Albus, to see him for herself, to touch him, but there were other more pressing matters. Although she couldn't think for the moment just what they might be.

"Are yeh all righ', Perfesser?"

No.

"Yes."

She felt as if she were looking down on the scene from outside herself—just two people talking in a corridor, nothing extraordinary about it.

Stepping away from Hagrid to remove his hands from her shoulders, she said, "Will you please move him? You can bring him . . . bring him to the Great Hall. And cover him. Then seal the doors—ask one of the other teachers to do it if you can't. No one must go in. Will you do that for me?"

"Of course, Perfesser."

"Then go collect the Gryffindors. See that they're all accounted for—except for Ronald, Ginevra, and Neville, who will be in the infirmary."

"Let me take yeh up to Madam Pomfrey firs'. Yeh shouldn't be alone." His voice broke on the last word.

"No, that isn't necessary. Please just do as I ask." Her voice was sharper than she intended, and she forced herself to soften it. "Thank you, but I'll be fine. I have to go to the infirmary anyway, so I shan't be alone."

He looked at her appraisingly, and she thought that for the first time ever, he was going to ignore a request she'd made. But after a moment, he nodded, saying, "All righ', Perfesser. If that's what yeh want."

"Yes, thank you."

He lumbered out through the main doors, and Minerva forced herself to move despite the strange buzzing that seemed to fill her head.

As she walked, memory began to press in on her—Albus kissing her goodbye, quickly and rather absently, after telling her that he was taking Harry for "an outing" that evening, instructing her to have on-duty Order members patrol the castle during his absence.

His absence . . .

Absence . . .

Her heels echoed on the stones as she walked, and she focussed on the sound. . . one foot, the next, then the next, then the next . . .

She passed an alcove in the west corridor and was assaulted by the memory of refusing to kiss Albus there under the mistletoe he had no doubt charmed for the purpose—only, what? three Christmases ago? Four?—afraid they might be seen.

Up the stairs, her breath beginning to hitch slightly with the effort on the second flight . . .

Albus, laughing after she'd been marooned on a staircase that had decided to shift and simply hung there in mid-air. He'd refused to force it back into place until she smiled . . .

Up the third flight and across the landing . . .

The vague awareness of Albus' arms around her as he carried her across the infirmary, his voice sounding strangely far away as he said, "St Mungo's . . ."

Oh, gods, Albus . . .

Her knees buckled, and she stumbled, jarring her knee painfully against the step. She felt the electric zing of her magic escaping her. It ricocheted across the walls in flurry of red sparks, and the flat smell of ozone filled her nose. Several portraits burst into flame, sending their inhabitants screaming and fleeing for the safety of other pictures.

She tried and failed to corral her magic, and she was afraid she would destroy the castle as she had once almost destroyed the nursery as a toddler. In her desperation, she resorted to a trick her grandmother had taught her, almost before she could walk, reciting lines of poetry to calm the firestorm of magic within her.

"My love is now awake out of her dreames,
And her fayre eyes like stars that dimmed were
With darksome cloud, now shew theyr goodly beames
More bright then Hesperus his head doth rere."

She could almost feel his voice filling her mouth as she murmured Spenser's familiar lines, learnt long ago in some childhood lesson and spoken to her by her husband on their wedding night. It soothed her, and she concentrated on her magic. A sucking sensation, like a receding tide, filled her. It burned as it flowed back, making her draw in a hissing breath, but after a few moments, the feeling ebbed, and she was able to put out the small fires that still crackled in the portrait frames.

She forced herself to move down the corridor toward where everyone was gathered in the infirmary, expecting her to tell them what to do next. Poppy would be there, and Remus, and Molly and Arthur eventually—her friends, but there was no warmth in the idea. She stopped mid-step, suddenly unable to bear the thought of their eyes on her, pitying her, waiting for her to break so they could offer their cold comfort.

"Now lay those sorrowfull complaints aside,
And having all your heads with girland crownd,
Helpe me mine owne loves praises to resound,
Ne let the same of any be envied:
So Orpheus did for his owne bride,
So I unto my selfe alone will sing,
The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring
."

Enough.

Squaring her shoulders, she kept moving forward.

It was late, and she had things to do.

~FIN~

Author's Note: To those of you who have come with me this far, my thanks. If you got half the pleasure in reading this story that I did writing it, I'll consider it a job well done.

I must offer my heartfelt thanks once again to Fishy for her help and support—without her, I doubt I would have made it to the finish line. If there is a special place in heaven for beta-readers and cheerleaders, she deserves a prime seat.

Thanks also to MMADfan for answering my call and jumping in at the end with her advice and commentary. (And if you haven't read her work, go do it now.)

For anyone who is interested, I've put some of the backstory for characters and events in the "Epithalamium universe" on the Harry Potter Fan Wiki. There is also a genealogy for the series on the Family Echo website.

If you'd like to know more about Minerva and Albus's adventures, you might enjoy the following stories, set in the same universe, and all available here under my username:

Bonnie Wee Thing ~ A short story that takes place on the day of Minerva McGonagall's birth. (Minerva McGonagall, OCs; K/G)

Come Autumn, Sae Pensive (1967) ~ A novel following Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore through an unexpected pregnancy and its aftermath. (Albus/Minerva, Poppy, Molly; MA/NC-17)

Winterreise (1976) ~ A short story about marital tension between Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore. (Albus/Minerva, Sirius, Severus; MA/NC-17. Caution: dub-con)

Familiar Rituals (1977) ~ A short story about some end-of-term rituals and how Minerva McGonagall became Head of Gryffindor House. (Albus/Minerva; MA/NC-17)

Mammals of the Order Chiroptera (August 1995) ~ A short story in which Severus Snape observes members of the Order of the Phoenix at closer range than he would perhaps like. (Albus/Minerva, Severus; M/R)

Ca' the Yowes (1996) ~ A fluffy short story featuring Minerva McGonagall just after the Stunner attack in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (Minerva, OC; K+/PG)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart ~ A novella about the lengths Minerva McGonagall and Severus Snape must go to in the prosecution of the war after Dumbledore's death. (Minerva, Severus; MA/NC-17; Caution: Non-con, dub-con)