2 July 1978

The door to Minerva's quarters banged open, and she swept through, dropping her bag on the table as she made a beeline for the liquor cabinet to pour herself two fingers of Cardhu. But she couldn't enjoy it; she was still too angry.

She'd kept her temper in check all afternoon, but now it threatened to erupt full force and needed an outlet. She yanked her wand out of its pocket to point it at one of the cushions on her settee. It exploded in a riot of feathers, their indolent fluttering only stoking Minerva's ire. She Transfigured them into needles that hovered in the air, and imagined them pricking Sirius bloody Black until he screamed.

Her fury was stemmed by the image but not scotched.

I can go one better.

She Transfigured the crimson velvet of the other cushion into a reasonable approximation of Black's too-handsome face, then sent the needles hurtling through the air to embed themselves in the cushion-cum-portrait. Black's fuzzy smirk changed to a silent scream of horror.

The effort involved in the magic she'd just performed served its purpose, and she felt calm enough to have her drink.

Those idiots!

Hadn't Albus's instructions been clear? Of course they had. But as usual, Black and Potter ignored the agreed-upon parameters of the job and broke into the house instead of simply watching it. Bad enough that they'd thus managed to alert the Death Eaters that the Order knew about their latest meeting place, but the dunderheads had also made a typical spectacle of their stupidity and put a pair of Muggle policemen in danger for good measure!

It had taken Minerva all of yesterday and the better part of today to persuade the Ministry not to charge Black and Potter with breaching the International Statute. Albus probably could have sorted it in a few hours, but Minerva was not Albus Dumbledore. She'd been tempted to allow them to warm their cockles with the Dementors in Azkaban until Albus returned from wherever he'd gone, but she didn't know how long that would be, and now that the ranks of the enemy had grown so alarmingly, the Order needed more witches and wizards with quick wands. Even arrogant louts like Sirius Black and James Potter.

And those shirts!

She was supposed to have met Malcolm at her parents' home for an early lunch, then gone on to London with him for matinee of Much Ado About Nothing at the Aldwych. Instead, she'd sat for three hours in an MLE interrogation room, dodging Barty Crouch's questions about the significance of the golden phoenix emblem those two overgrown children had charmed onto their shirts. What part of "secret organisation" did they not understand?

For them, this war was another game, an excuse for them to put off growing up in favour of behaving like spoilt children they'd been at school. If Lupin had been with them, this latest stunt never would have happened, but as luck would have it, yesterday had been the full moon. Remus was a dose of just what Black and Potter needed, but why he put up with them was an enduring mystery. They clearly didn't give a hang about him, except as the brains of their trio. Had Black even thought once about what it would have meant for their friend had that little sixth-year prank succeeded and Remus had injured or even killed the Snape boy? Of course not. Thank Merlin James had stopped it at the last moment. Too bad he hadn't shown the same good sense yesterday.

Minerva was writing up a report for Albus on the incident when there was a knock at her door. It wasn't the Headmaster; she would have felt the shift in the castle's wards. The only other person in residence at Hogwarts over the summer was Hagrid, and he never came to her quarters.

Alastor's harangues about safety buzzed in her head, and she drew her wand.

"Who is it?"

"It's Malcolm, Mum."

She opened the door, and indeed, there was her son. She couldn't bring herself to challenge him, constant vigilance be damned, so she pulled him into the room and hugged him.

He kissed her cheek, and she said, "You're supposed to be at the theatre."

"I made Gran and Granddad go."

"Och, I can't believe you persuaded your grandfather to go to London."

"Gran and I wore him down."

"But why didn't you go? You've been aching to see some good theatre, you said."

"Yes, but it wasn't going to be the same without you, so I thought we might go another time. I'll be here a week."

He put his bag down on the floor next to the coat rack.

"I take it things didn't go well at the Ministry," he said, nodding at the bottle on the table.

"I was rather annoyed at having to be there instead of with my son, whom I haven't seen in four months," Minerva said as she went to pour Malcolm a bit of whiskey.

"It's all right," Malcolm said. "I took the opportunity to visit Alastor."

The warmth that suffused her at hearing his name was a strong as it had ever been, but Minerva was careful not to betray any emotion other than idle curiosity as she handed Malcolm his glass.

"Oh? And how is he keeping?"

"Fine, I guess," Malcolm said. "But he almost hexed me when I got to the door—his wards are . . . well, they're unusual."

"How so?"

"They have some kind of Sticking Charm—you can't move after you hit the third step. So I was standing there like a prat, and he yelled all kinds of questions through the door. I thought I'd passed the test, but when he opened up, his wand was pointing in my face, and he did a bunch of spells I didn't recognise to make sure I wasn't Polyjuiced or Imperiused."

"My gods."

"But other than that, he seemed okay. Hates the desk job. He's wasted there. He should be training new Aurors, but . . ."

"Yes. But."

They shared a sad smile, then Malcolm brightened and said, "Oh, you'll laugh at this: he's using his medal as a coaster. It has these awful tea-stains all over Merlin's face."

Minerva did laugh, for the first time that day, and it was good.

They had dinner in her suite, talking about this and that. Malcolm picked at his food, despite the fact that Elgar had brought up some of his favourites. He also drank three glasses of wine, which surprised Minerva.

She watched him poke at his pudding, and the fifth time she saw him slosh his spoon around in it without taking a bite, she spoke.

"Everything all right, lamb?"

He looked up from contemplating his dish. "Sure. Why?"

"You didn't eat much dinner, and now you've barely touched your cream-crowdie. When you've lost your sweet tooth, I know something's wrong."

"No, I'm okay. Thinking about work. We're busy."

"Which is why you've suddenly taken a week off to come visit."

He gave a grim chuckle. "I can't ever put anything past you, can I?"

"Of course not. I'm your mother."

When he didn't volunteer any other information, she asked, "Is it Alastor?"

He reached across the table and took her hand, which was scratching nervously at the tablecloth.

"No, Mum. Alastor's fine. Don't worry."

"I'll stop worrying when I'm dead. In the meantime, you might reassure me by telling me what's troubling you."

"It's nothing important."

She kept silent, waiting for him to go on, and after a minute, he did.

"It's just that I heard that Eliane's seeing someone."

"Oh," she said.

He put down his napkin, stood, and began to pace around the room, his excess of energy providing Minerva with a hint at the depth of his distress.

"I have no right to be upset, I know," he said.

"And when did rights have aught to do with feelings?"

He ignored her comment, saying, "I was the one who ended it. But it still stings, you know?"

She did. She sometimes wondered how she'd feel if Alastor took up with someone else. His injury had delayed the inevitable, but she dreaded the moment when some "helpful" person told her he had been seen out with another witch.

"Yes," she said. "Do you think she's serious about this new fellow?"

"Who knows?" he said, throwing up his hands. "The last time I heard from her was the note she sent on my birthday."

Minerva had been stunned and saddened when Malcolm told her he'd split up with Eliane. Whatever her original misgivings about the young woman her son had evidently fallen in love with, Minerva had come to like her. And Eliane had been very good to Malcolm, providing both an extra wand and much-needed moral support when he'd struck out on his own as a Potioneer, a risky move in a saturated market. They'd never said, but Minerva nursed a suspicion that Eliane had put her own career on hold in order to help him.

When Alastor—and then Albus—had predicted Malcolm and Eliane would marry, she'd pooh-poohed the idea. Years went by, and eventually it made Minerva cross whenever one of them brought it up. Couldn't they leave well-enough alone? In any event, it never happened, and Minerva wondered if it was due to what Malcolm had witnessed of her marriage to Gerald. They never spoke of it, but it must have left scars. Malcolm hadn't told her much about the reason for the break, but Minerva suspected it was more than the vague "growing apart" he'd cited.

She said, "I'm glad you're still friends."

"Friends . . ." he said, as if it were a four-letter word.

"Friends is something, Malcolm."

"I have enough bloody friends!"

His outburst surprised her, but she kept her own temper in check, asking only, "Why are you so angry?"

He stopped his pacing and turned to her.

"Gods, I'm sorry, Mum. I have no cause to be yelling at you."

"It's all right. But I thought it's what you wanted . . . for both of you to move on."

"What I wanted," he repeated, running a hand through his wavy hair in a way that reminded her of her father. "It wasn't what I wanted. But it's what I had to do."

"I don't understand."

"Never mind," he said, and she was about to press him but thought the better of it. Her experience, both as Malcolm's mother and the surrogate to scores of adolescents, told her that providing a firm and silent shoulder to cry on was more likely to result in his sharing his troubles.

Malcolm went over to the fireplace and picked up a photo of the three of them—himself, Minerva, and Alastor—on the last holiday they'd been on before he'd gone off to his apprenticeship in France.

"When did you put this up?" he asked. "I've always loved this picture. You look about twenty. And Alastor was so handsome."

Minerva went and looked over his shoulder. There was Alastor, whole and well, grinning, his solid arm around her. She smiled.

"A few months ago," she said. "I found I needed a reminder of pleasant things."

He put it down.

"It's been hard here, hasn't it?"

She nodded. "The Ministry isn't— Oh, I can't really talk about it."

"Even to me?"

"Albus insists on absolute secrecy. It's safer if nobody knows what they don't need to."

"Mum?" Malcolm said, "What if I come back to Scotland and join the Order officially?"

"No, I don't—"

"I've been thinking about it for a while. I'm well-enough established now that I could start up a new business here in no time."

"It wouldn't be good. For you or the Order."

"But—"

"Hear me out. You know I would love to have you here. But things are getting very bad, and I'm afraid they will get worse before they get better. If they get better. You have a thriving business and a life in Paris. And the work you're doing there on our behalf is so important if things go badly here. France will be his gateway to the Continent, Albus is certain of it. So we need good witches and wizards on the ground there."

"You'll have them. But we're ready to do more than gather intelligence. We're ready to fight."

"That's good. But let us hope it doesn't become necessary. We can't afford to lose people before they have to die. In the meantime . . ."

"Constant vigilance?"

"Yes."

He nodded, and she took a gamble: "And running away from Eliane won't solve your personal problems."

He let out an exasperated sigh.

"You're right, as usual," he said. "I'm being an idiot."

"Not at all. But Malcolm, if you've changed your mind about Eliane, if you want to be with her—"

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because she wants a husband. Children."

"Many people do. Is that not what you want, then?"

"You have no idea how much I want it."

The way his voice broke made Minerva's own throat tight.

Clearing it, she said, "Then why on earth don't you do it?"

He wiped at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Come on, Mum. It wouldn't be fair."

"How so?"

"Are you really going to pretend you don't know?" he asked.

When she didn't respond, he continued. "How many mad Macnairs do you think I'd father? One? Two? How many is too many?"

There was a roaring in her ears, and her belly attempted to turn over.

Not now.

Somehow, she'd convinced herself that Malcolm wouldn't see things the way she had done as a young woman faced with the same dilemma. That worry had been packed away with the last of her wedding silver and Gerald's clothes when she'd fled the horrors of her marriage for the promise of new freedom in her native land. She realised now that her unwillingness to admit the seriousness of Malcolm's feelings for Eliane Giroux had perhaps been another way of avoiding the issue.

He was staring at her, his heavy brows knit in resentment.

With great effort, she forced herself to say, "Not all the Macnairs are mad."

"No. Just about half, by my reckoning."

"Your Aunt Louisa is fine. And Walden."

"Uncle Walden may not be a murderer—yet—but can you look me in the eye and tell me you think he's completely sane?"

A memory of Malcolm and Walden playing together in the nursery at the Macnair manse shook her, and she blinked back tears

"No," she said.

"So now will you admit that it would be wicked for me to marry her?" Malcolm asked. His eyes were so much like Albus's—normally full of warmth and crinkled with what she hoped was habitual happiness, but changeable as the ocean and occasionally frightening in their intensity. They were cold now, two daggers of sea-blue ice piercing her, and she almost took a step backward.

"Why are you so angry with me?"

His fury deflated, and his eyes softened. "Oh, Mum. I'm not. I suppose I'm angry at the world at the moment. Not you."

He looked at the floor, and she knew he was trying to make up his mind to say something else.

"I just wonder . . ."

He stopped again, and shook his head.

"What?"

His face was pained. "Why you married him. You must have known about them. Great-Uncle Finn was sent to Azkaban not too many years before."

"I had no choice."

"What do you mean?"

"Things were quite different back then. I was a pure-blood girl from a good family. I did not get to choose my husband."

"You mean Granddad forced you to marry Father? If you didn't want to, why didn't you refuse?"

A familiar anger gripped her, and she crossed her arms tightly around her body. What did her son—or any of her students—know of difficult choices? They, who had been born into a post-Grindelwald world, with freedoms they enjoyed without understanding how much it had cost. And now there was another war because of it, because so many people failed to understand that, yes, constant vigilance was required to keep those hard-won freedoms for everyone, witch and wizard, pure-blood and Muggle-born.

She said, "You may have read a lot of history, Malcolm, but you don't understand much about how it affected individuals. If I had refused to marry Gerald Macnair, I would have been cut off from my family with no money and no prospects. Nobody would have hired a pure-blood girl who was in disgrace for a decent job. What sort of work do you suppose I would have found if I had not been able to complete my apprenticeship?"

"Granddad wouldn't have just cut you off. He's not like that."

"Not now. He changed when he saw what happened to me. Back then, he thought marriage to Gerald was the best thing for me."

"Didn't he know about the Macnairs?"

She spoke carefully. "I think he didn't delve too deeply into what would have been considered their personal affairs. The match, on the outside, had only advantages for me and for the McGonagall family. He later regretted it."

"Gods," Malcolm said, letting out a breath. After a few moments, he said, "So you never loved my father."

"I came to care for him, Malcolm. And I was sorry for him. He was not an evil person, but he did suffer from the afflictions of being a Macnair. I can't say whether he was mad—I think not—but his upbringing was horrific. And of course, he had problems with drink, which didn't help matters. You know that. But he wasn't like his father. He was simply a weak man."

And you are not like him.

Malcolm said firmly, "I cannot marry Eliane."

"Malcolm—"

"I'm decided. I can't risk it. Even if I never go mad, what of our children?"

"You don't know that your children would be like the Macnairs. They would be raised very differently."

"Yes, but that doesn't change things. There's been altogether enough misery on the Macnair account. It should stop with me."

"Oh, my darling—"

"No, Mum. That's all there is to it. But I'm glad we talked about it. It's helped me understand a few things." He went to get his bag. "I should go. It's late. I'm sorry I was cross with you. None of this is your fault. I'm just upset, and I needed to lash out at someone. I'm sorry it was you."

He kissed her cheek. "I love you."

"I love you too." She put a hand on his arm as he turned to go. "We'll talk more tomorrow, all right?"

"Of course. And I'll see about getting more tickets for the play. Good night."

Minerva was unsurprised that sleep eluded her that night. Around two, she rose from her bed and went to her study. She sat at her desk and withdrew parchment and quill. To the parchment, she committed every word she'd ever wanted to tell her son about the things she'd done, the choices she'd made, and why. She read it over several times, stopping in between to fetch a dram of whisky, then took her wand and immolated the letter.

She returned to bed, more settled. She knew what she had to do.

/***/

They had breakfast in her quarters the next morning. Malcolm seemed happier, perhaps at having the wisdom of his decision confirmed.

They played a game of chess, which Minerva lost in record time.

Afterwards, Malcolm said, "I could use some exercise. How about a walk around the lake?"

They had planned to go to London after lunch, then dinner and overnight at Minerva's parents', barring any emergencies. If she wanted to have the dreaded conversation with Malcolm, it was now or never.

Her hands shook as she smoothed her hair, then pulled at her high collar.

Malcolm was Transfiguring his boots into shoes more suitable for hill-walking.

"Wait, Malcolm. There's something I need to discuss with you."

He gave her a questioning look.

"Please, sit down," she said. He looked at her in surprise but did as she asked.

She seated herself across the tea table from him. "Before you make any irrevocable decisions about Eliane, I need to tell you something."

"Yes?"

"I love you very much. Please remember that when I tell you."

He chuckled nervously. "Sure, Mum. Just tell me."

She clutched absently at the folds of her robes. He noticed, and she forced herself to fold her hands calmly in her lap.

"Mum, you're scaring me. What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing is wrong. Not with you, at any rate. That's what I need to tell you about."

He waited, searching her face, while she gathered her courage.

No more lies.

"Gerald Macnair was not your father."

It was her turn to wait, breath suspended, while he absorbed the information.

"Not my father?" Malcolm frowned in the way he used to when confronting a difficult Transfiguration exercise. "How could he not be my father?"

"Malcolm, think."

He paled, and swallowed audibly. His eyes closed for a moment, then he said, "I see. I was a mistake."

"No! You were not a mistake! It was all for you."

"What in Merlin's name are you talking about?"

"When I found out about the Macnairs, I thought the same as you. I didn't want to curse my child to a life of madness and violence. But I couldn't back out of the marriage contract, do you see? So I turned to someone else."

"Turned to— you mean you deliberately got pregnant? Before you married Father?"

"Yes."

Malcolm got up and walked to the window, putting his large hands down to lean against the window-seat.

She said, "Say something, please."

He turned back to her, his face alarmingly blank.

"I don't know what to say. What to think about this," he said.

"I know it's hard to take in."

Then he asked the question she'd been dreading.

"Who was he?"

She shook her head and said, "It hardly matters now."

"Maybe not to you, but it bloody well matters to me! Who was he, Mum? Did you . . . did you love him?"

"No. Not that way. He was a friend. That's all."

"Who?"

"A good man. A kind man."

"Damn it, can't you just tell me who he was?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because he wouldn't want me to."

Malcolm stared at her, incredulous.

"Bugger what he wants! He made you pregnant. Did he just walk away once the deed was done?"

"He didn't know."

"What?"

"I tricked him into it."

Malcolm rubbed his head as if trying to clear it.

"I can't believe this," he said, turning and pacing away from her again.

She rose and followed him, speaking to his back. "I'm not proud of it. But I was desperate, and I wasn't sure he'd agree."

Malcolm said nothing, and it took all her willpower not to touch him. When next he spoke, he sounded like the little boy who'd asked if his father was ever coming home, and her heart broke for him.

"Does he know about me?"

"He found out. Some years ago. By accident."

"And?"

"He was angry. And he was sad that I'd kept it from him."

"Then why hasn't he contacted me? Tried to see me?"

"He . . . he followed you as you grew up. He cared deeply about your welfare once he found out about you. But he was not in a position to be a father to you, so he felt it would be unfair to approach you about it."

"He was married," Malcolm said dully.

"No. That wasn't it."

"Then what was it?"

"His job. His position . . . you have to understand that he had no idea this might happen."

"'This' being me."

"Oh, Malcolm—"

"How could he have no idea that you might end up pregnant if he slept with you? Was he a complete fool, or just a randy bastard?"

"Don't you dare!" she shouted, and Malcolm recoiled as if he'd been slapped.

"Mum—"

"No, you have no right to judge him! I lied to him, and I used him, used our friendship. And he forgave me, even though I believe it nearly killed him to find that he had a son he couldn't raise. He wasn't— Malcolm?"

He had taken two staggering steps backward and clapped a hand over his mouth.

He looked like he was going to be sick.

"Malcolm, love, what—"

"It's him, isn't it?" he whispered.

"I don't—"

"It's Albus."

And there it was. At last.

"Isn't it?" he asked again.

There was nothing she could say that wouldn't be either a betrayal or a lie, and she was done with both.

"I cannot give you an answer."

"My gods," Malcolm said. "My gods."

"I am so sorry, Malcolm. For not telling you a long time ago." Despite her best efforts, a tear escaped and made its way down her cheek, followed by another, then another, although she made no sound.

He watched her for a minute, then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to her.

"Thank you," she said. She felt the weight of his gaze as she dabbed at eyes that refused to stop running.

When she was able to control the tears, she handed the handkerchief back. He folded it and put it in his pocket, then surprised her by putting his arms around her and holding her close.

He said, "I can't help being angry, Mum. Not about what you did, but for keeping it from me. But I can understand why you did it."

She pulled away and looked at his face. "Can you?"

"Yes. I still don't think it was right, but I know you. You did what you thought was best."

Malcolm shook his head sadly. "All this time, Mum. You kept this secret all this time . . . and Albus . . . all those private lessons. I don't know why I didn't twig to it earlier. It was right there, staring me in the mirror for years . . ."

He laughed abruptly, startling her, and said, "I guess I should thank you. I'm glad you didn't choose some dim-witted, spotty schoolboy for my father."

He went to the window again and stared out, as if searching the grey sky for answers.

"So you and Albus were lovers?"

"No. It was just the once."

"And since?"

"No. Albus has been nothing but kind to me—and to you—but he doesn't love me. Not like that."

"Does he love me, do you think?"

"I'm sure of it. In his own way. It may not be the way you want, but he does love you."

"I don't actually know what I want. I can't suddenly think of Albus as my father. It would be easier if you'd told me it was Alastor."

Her chest tightened. "I wish it had been."

"You could've married Alastor, Mum. Had more children."

She wanted to embrace him and hold him as she had when he was a little boy with some small hurt. Because what he meant was: we could have been a real family. Gods, how Malcolm had wanted that! He never said it, not directly, but it had been so plain to Minerva. But she couldn't sign another marriage contract, bind herself to another man—even Alastor.

She said, "No. After you were born, I made sure there would be no more children. I couldn't risk it with your fa—with Gerald."

She told him the whole story, of the way she'd manipulated Albus and of the potions, and when she'd finished, his mouth was open in shock. But it wasn't for the reason she'd thought.

"That potion—you might have bled to death!"

"But I didn't."

"I've only ever read about it—easy to brew, but I'd never dare dispense it to anyone but a Healer. You took an enormous risk." He grasped her hands. "The books say the pain is terrible."

"It was bad, yes."

"I'm so sorry."

"I'm sorry too, my darling boy. Sorry you didn't have proper father . . . brothers and sisters."

They stood, hands clasped for a few more moments, then he asked, "So what do we do? About Albus?"

"You have to decide that."

"I think . . . I think I have to speak to him."

"What will you say?"

"I don't know. But I'll come to see him when he gets back."

"I'm not sure when that will be."

"Before September, I assume?"

"Yes. I'll owl you when I know," she said. "Should I tell him we've spoken? Before you come?"

"Maybe we should do it together."

"Yes, let's, "she said, brightening. "Everything out in the open. That's exactly right."

Everything in the open.

The relief that had begun to come over her evaporated when she remembered the other half of the conversation she meant to have with Malcolm.

Let it go for another time. He's had enough of a shock.

No. I won't keep it from him for one more day.

Her thoughts travelled back to the afternoon she'd told Alastor about Gerald. And to everything that had happened after. It came to her all at once that she'd been so terribly, terribly wrong about almost every important thing in her life. All the things she'd thought she could manage, with her great talent and keen intelligence, had spiralled so far out of her control and hurt the people she'd wanted to protect.

Fool!

She'd forgotten the most fundamental lesson every witch or wizard learned in the first month at Hogwarts: magic could not be totally controlled. It could be channelled, it could be focused, but it would always have an element of unpredictability that had to be respected. What was the first thing Albus had taught her about Transfiguration? It changes things. Not only on the surface, but underneath, in hidden and unforeseeable ways. However skilled the practitioner, a hedgehog would never be a pincushion, just as she herself would never be a cat. Her essential Minervaness would always exist and would come out.

Like the truth. It was a sort of magic too, and she'd failed to recognise and respect it.

She looked at her beloved son and saw that his lovely smile had returned.

He hugged her again.

"Mum, you know what this means? I can marry Eliane. We can have a family!"

He went to gather his cloak.

"Malcolm—"

"Sorry to run, Mum, but I've got to see her. Please, Merlin, don't let it be too late . . ."

Too late.

Near-panic rose in her breast as he made for the door.

"Malcolm, wait, please."

Her tone stopped him.

"What?"

"Come sit down. I have something else to tell you."