A/N: My thanks to my best and wisest of betas, The Real Snape.
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Life, Love, and the Headmistress
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Chapter One - Will
From the road, the farmhouse looked no different from the others that dotted the Scottish countryside: made of local stone, with two small windows flanking a red door, two dormers pushing up from the roof, two stalwart chimneys standing sentinel at either end. Neville Longbottom found its moss-edged solidity comforting, and the sight went a ways towards calming him.
Not that he had any reason to feel anxious, not really. He was here on a legitimate errand for Professor Sprout - - Pomona, he reminded himself sternly - - and the house's occupants would not be surprised by a visitor from Hogwarts. He had no reason to stand here with his heart fluttering and his palms sweating despite the misty chill of the Highland air.
"Come on, Neville," he muttered, giving himself the little pep talk that had been habitual with him since childhood. When he'd been very young, he'd muffled his voice behind his hand and pretended that it was his father talking to him, bucking him up, saying that he knew Neville could do it, whatever "it" was. "I have faith in you, son," Neville would imagine his dad saying. And sometimes he'd feel almost brave.
Of course, he'd long since given up the pretense of being his father, but talking to himself still helped. "Steady on," he whispered. "You're a Hogwarts professor. Well. . .apprentice professor. You've faced the Carrows. And the snake. And Voldemort. And the most frightening thing of all. . ." he paused for effect, "Snape in Gran's hat!"
He grinned at that image and immediately felt better. Yes, by Merlin, he'd faced the mental image of Severus Snape carrying a red purse and wearing a hat trimmed with a stuffed vulture - - and had lived to tell the tale. He could certainly face meeting Headmistress McGonagall in her own house.
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Until about an hour ago, he hadn't even known that Headmistress McGonagall owned a house, much less that he would be visiting her there with a packet of top-secret papers under his arm. Okay, "top secret" was probably a bit of an exaggeration. But the papers were from the Wizengamot, and Professor Sprout, er, Pomona, had said that it was essential to get them to the headmistress at once.
"I was planning to Apparate them to her myself," Pomona explained, brushing at the hair falling into her eyes and leaving a smudge of fertilizer on her nose in the process, "but Clive Boot just fire-called to say he will be here any moment with the entire order of new dormitory linens, and I just won't feel right if I don't check all the supplies myself. Besides, I don't think that both the headmistress and the deputy ought to be off the premises when outside vendors are here, do you? And this week is the first time poor Minerva has had a chance to have any kind of summer holiday at all, poor dear, and I'd hate to interrupt it by calling her back. And I just don't want to risk sending official Wizengamot material by owl, not when they sent them here by special floo channel, because I - - "
"Professor, it's all right," Neville had broken in, stemming the tide. "I'll take them to her. I don't mind."
Pomona looked at him with a mixture of hope and concern. "Are you sure? I hate to turn you into an errand-boy in your first week on staff. . ."
Neville had grinned. "Isn't that what apprentices are supposed to be? At least in the beginning?"
"Well, I won't deny that it will be very nice to have your young legs about the place, Neville, dear. These old bones aren't as spry as they used to be," Pomona replied.
She'd cited her "old bones" and "failing eyesight" as her reasons for deciding to retire at the end of the next school year, and though Neville was both glad of the opportunity to be her replacement and sorry to see her go, he had to confess that he had yet to see any signs of this slowing-down that she kept talking about. Still, he'd been back at Hogwarts as "junior instructor in Herbology" for less than a week, so he supposed he should wait and see.
Finally Pomona nodded and levitated the Wizengamot despatch box over to him. "It's very good of you, Neville, thank you. Tell Minerva that we're all doing fine here, and she isn't to worry about a thing. Remind her she is not to leave her house until she's had a proper fortnight's holiday, and that's an order from her deputy."
Nodding at him, she turned and began to head out of the deputy's office; as far as Neville could tell, she still spent most of her time in the greenhouses.
"Professor, um, Pomona?" Neville had called.
"I, uh. . .where does Headmistress McGonagall live?"
Pomona had burst out laughing. "There, you see, it is time for me to retire; I'd forget my wand if it wasn't charmed to me. Minerva and Will live in the countryside near Baile Glenfal, it's a little Highland wizarding village, you've probably never heard of it, but the house has been in Will's family for years. Wait a moment, and I'll make you a Portkey. I'm authorised, you know; another perk of being the deputy headmistress! I'll key it to the road outside the house, shall I?"
She'd seized an empty flowerpot from a shelf near her desk and touched it with her wand till it glowed blue. "Here you are," she said, holding it out.
"But who - - " Neville began to ask at the same moment that he reached automatically for the flowerpot. Before he could finish his question, he'd touched the key and at once had been jerked forward sickeningly into darkness.
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And so that's how he'd found himself here on this remote Scottish road - - little more than a cart path, really - - outside the farmhouse that evidently was the personal home of Minerva McGonagall.
A home she shared, apparently, with someone called Will.
Her brother, maybe? Neville vaguely remembered his gran saying something about having run into Professor McGonagall's brother in Diagon Alley. . .
But now that he thought about it, he was fairly sure she'd called him "Malcolm." "Thinks he's Lord Muck now he's got a sister on the Wizengamot," Gran had sniffed.
So. Not the brother. "Minerva and Will," Pomona had said. Will. He must be Professor McGonagall's husband. That was the only option left, really. If the professor shared her house with a man, they'd be married, of course; Neville didn't think the headmistress would countenance living together without matrimony any more than Gran did.
Professor McGonagall. . .married. As he turned the idea over in his mind, Neville realised with a start that he didn't want her to be.
Of course, he couldn't think of one good reason why she shouldn't be married. . .or why he shouldn't be happy for her, as long as she was happy, but it was just. . .well. . .
He just hoped Will would turn out to be another brother, that's all. He'd worry about the "why" of it later; just now, he had important papers to deliver.
Squaring his shoulders, Neville strode along the rutted lane to the house and rapped sharply on the door.
His knock was answered by an aged house-elf who looked at him with wary sternness. "You is selling something?" he asked. "Magazines to pay your way through school or magi-septic systems that will take all the headaches out of sewage?"
Neville couldn't help laughing. "No, no, nothing like that." He heard the pride creep into his voice as he said, "I'm from Hogwarts School. I work there. I've come to deliver a package to Headmistress McGonagall."
The elf eyed him for another few seconds, then nodded. "Beg pardon," he said, "but these days people is always selling things. If Mr Work-at-Hogwarts will please to come to the parlour, Mocksie will fetch Missy from the barn."
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The parlour was a small room rather crowded with dark wood furniture and bookshelves, but it seemed lived-in and comfortable. The grate blazed cheerfully, an owl slept on a perch in the corner, and next to the fire, a fluffy kneazle surveyed Neville from the seat of a red wing-backed chair before yawning widely and snuggling back into the cushions.
A large round table under the front window was piled with books, quills, and parchments, several of which bore the Hogwarts crest - - evidently a headmistress's work followed her even on holiday. But the presence of a familiar tartan biscuit tin suggested that at least she didn't work in total spartan deprivation.
A murmur of voices in the corridor brought some of Neville's anxiety back: was he about to meet the mysterious Will? Part of him was curious to see the man, but on the whole, he thought he'd rather not. And anyway, Mocksie had said he would "fetch Missy."
But before Neville's mind could complete that thought, the parlour door opened, and Neville found himself looking at. . .
"Professor Grubbly-Plank?" he squeaked. (And it was a squeak, he could hear the high pitch of it hanging in the room. How embarrassing.) What was she doing here?
Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank, erstwhile Care of Magical Creatures professor, took her pipe from her mouth with one hand and extended the other one to Neville.
"Ah, er, Longbottom, isn't it?" she said. "On staff now, Minerva says?"
She was just as Neville remembered: terse and no-nonsense, with short iron-grey hair topping a pleasantly-weathered face. But instead of the teaching robes of her Hogwarts days, she wore Muggle clothes: trousers and a thick woollen jumper under a well-worn waxed jacket. She smelt of clean horses and pipesmoke.
"That's right, Professor," Neville said, using her old title without thinking as he shook her hand. "I'm an apprentice teacher now. Just started this week."
"Not 'professor' any longer, thank Merlin," said Grubbly-Plank. Then her ruddy face turned a bit ruddier. "Er, no offence to your chosen profession, Longbottom. Or Min's, either. It's just. . .not the life for me, that's all. Not long-term. Anyway, say 'professor' around here, and you'll get Minerva. And 'Grubbly-Plank' is a mouthful, so just call me 'Will.'"
Will! Of course! Neville felt like an idiot for not have understood as soon as he'd seen her. Professor McGonagall wasn't married to some man called Will. She shared a house with Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank.
Which was just as unexpected in its own way, of course, but somehow it made Neville feel better. It was more like what he'd been used to Hogwarts, where the teachers all lived together in the castle and looked after the students.
"Here to talk to Minerva, Mocksie tells me?" Will was saying. Somehow, unlike with Professor Sprout and Headmistress McGonagall, Neville had no problem thinking of Grubby-Plank by her first name.
He nodded. "Some papers came to Hogwarts for her from the Wizengamot," he said. "Professor Sprout thought they ought to be delivered personally."
"Min's gone to the village," Will said. "Don't expect her back for a couple of hours. Taking the local Council to task over some regulation or other. Opinionated, Minerva is. Well, you know that."
"Two hours?" Neville said faintly, thinking of all the work he needed to be doing.
"Oh, no need to wait," Will assured him. "Min has a charmed lock-box for any sensitive papers. Just set your parcel there - - " she motioned towards an empty triangular table next to the door - - "and it will disappear into an Unplottable space that only MInerva and some Ministry hot shots can access. Your papers will be safe as houses."
Neville must have looked dubious, because Will grinned and jerked her head at the ball of fur in the red chair. "Don't fret; security's tight here. There's Festus the ferocious watch-kneazle, too."
On hearing its name, Festus raised its head and blinked at them sleepily before dozing off again.
Neville found himself grinning back at Will; he'd forgotten how at-ease she had made him feel, once he'd got used to her at Hogwarts.
He set the Wizengamot package on the small table and watched as it faded out of sight.
"Right, then," Will said, clamping her pipe between her teeth again. "I'll have Min owl you once she's got the papers. Good to see you, Longbottom. And if Pomona asks, tell her Min is resting as ordered."
"Is she?" asked Neville, rather boldly, he thought.
Will winked at him. "Aye. In her fashion."