Chapter Three - - Augusta
The happiness, or lack thereof, of Minerva McGonagall and Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank was the last thing that concerned Neville's gran. He came to Sunday breakfast with her when he could, and she was unimpressed when he told her he'd been to the headmistress's house.
"Still sharing digs with Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank, is she?" Gran said, putting another buttered scone on his plate. "I'm not surprised. Cheaper that way, of course. She's got every knut she's ever earned, that Minerva McGonagall. Tighter than a grindylow's arse."
Neville was able to stop himself from choking on his tea, but only because he'd slowly got used to Gran's talking to him more like an equal. Their relationship had been been different since the war - - better, for the most part. She was proud of him now in the way that he'd always wanted her to be when he was little, and he liked to think that her increased regard wasn't based only on his willingness to wield a sword against the Dark Lord's snake.
That willingness had been as much recklessness and fatalism as bravery, though Neville had come to understand that "bravery" was a far more complicated and ambiguous trait that he'd realised at age eleven, when he'd stood in the Great Hall trembling with the fear that he would not be judged worthy of being Sorted into Gryffindor.
So he wanted Gran to value him for the person he was - - someone still often worried and anxious, someone who wanted quiet and security and who would never be an Auror - - and not for some fantasy she might have of him as a world-saving warrior.
And he thought she did value him. She wasn't thrilled with his decision to teach at Hogwarts, but she'd stopped badgering him about it. Well, mostly. She seemed to object as much to the fact that he'd be working with Minerva as to his refusal to join the Aurors.
"You've never told me why you dislike her so much," Neville said now, helping himself to jam.
"Who wouldn't?" Gran snorted. "I've known her since we were both eleven years old, and she's always been bold as brass. Has opinions about everything and doesn't mind who she tells them to. Thinks she knows better than everyone else and is always more than happy to tell you how to run your life and your grandson. Wants her own way in everything."
Neville grinned. "Actually, she sounds a bit like you, Gran." He would never have dared to say such a thing a few years ago, but so do war and years make grown-ups of us all, he thought.
Gran glared and fingered the wand by her plate. "You watch yourself, young man. I can still cast a spanking hex just as well as I ever could. All right, I may be outspoken, I'm the first to admit it, but Minerva is a know-it-all and a sarcastic one at that. Just because you can think of clever and witty things to say doesn't mean you should say them, and say them in front of other people's beaux, too."
Neville winced in sympathy. "Did she say something cruel about you in front of Granddad?" he asked. He'd been on the receiving end of sharp tongues often enough to know exactly how badly they could sting.
"Oh, I daresay she thought she was justified," Gran said, her too-airy tone of voice telling Neville that Minerva had most likely been just that. "But then, she always thinks herself justified. She's never wrong, our Minerva - - just ask her."
She leant forward to point a finger at Neville. "Now, don't you let her push you around up at that school. Because she will if you give her half a chance. I think Wilhelmina's the only person who ever completely stands up to her. Well, and Dumbledore did, of course."
"I was surprised to find out that she lived with Professor Grubbly-Plank. . .Will, I mean," said Neville, curious to learn what Gran might know about the situation.
"Oh, they've shared that house for years," Gran said. "They've got used to each other, and it's probably too much bother to change things now, but I think in the beginning they moved in together just to save money. In our day, it wasn't easy for single women to get by on their own, you know. They never made as much as men, of course, because they didn't have families to support. . .well, that was the theory. And then no one expected them to stay long in a job, anyway. A lot of people felt witches had a duty to marry and have families, and I can't say I disagree even now, not with the magical birth rate being what it is."
"Can't people have families without marrying? Or at least without quitting their jobs?" Neville asked. In the past, he would never have started a political argument with Gran - - she was just as opinionated as she claimed McGonagall was - - but lately, he'd started to find them fun, if often infuriating.
"Now, Neville Longbottom, I don't want to hear any nonsense about single parents or magical insemination or living together without benefit of marriage. There's a reason such social institutions exist: they give stability to the world, and a child deserves to come into that world the old-fashioned way, made by parents who love each other and who will love him. A child needs his mother and father, and anything else just cheats him!"
Though she would have denied it, Gran's eyes were filled with tears, and Neville understood that she wasn't talking about "a child." She was talking about him.
He reached out and took her hand, her fingers thin as bird bones in his own. "I wasn't cheated, Gran," he said. "Not at all. I was raised by someone who loved and wanted me, and that's what matters."
Gran sniffed and might have given his hand a little squeeze before she pulled away. "Well, at least there's one benefit of some people staying single," she said. "The wizarding world never had to cope with any child of Minerva McGonagall's. Can you imagine what an insufferable little know-it-all it would have been?"
"Gran, do you think she and Will are. . .well, together?" Neville asked. He'd been giving the question more thought since his evening out with Ron and Hermione, and however much he might agree with Hermione in theory that it was none of their business, he still wanted to know.
"Together? Well, of course they are. I told you. They've been together in that house since Will's great-grandmother died and left it to her in. . .oh, 1948 or '49, it must have been. They haven't been there the whole time, of course - - Minerva's been at Hogwarts, and Wilhelmina spent a few seasons at that Welsh dragon preserve. But otherwise, yes, they've shared that house together for years."
"No, that's not what I mean," said Neville. "I mean, are they romantically together? You know, like a couple or partners or something."
Gran frowned at him. "Are you asking me if they are lesbians?"
"Well. . .yeah, I suppose."
"You disappoint me," she said, stirring her tea with such vigour that it slopped over the side of the cup. "If that isn't just like you young people these days. Everything has to be advertised and named and explained and exposed to the entire world. And it all has to be about sex, of course. Two women share a house, and right away you assume they're in each other's beds. Such a thing would never occur to someone of my generation, I can assure you.
"Now, here's the truth of the matter: Minerva and Wilhelmina are two single ladies who live together as a way to share expenses and companionship. And that's that."
Neville didn't think "that was that" at all. Or at least, he hoped it wasn't - - he wanted that cosy Highland cottage to house more than just financial prudence. He thought Minerva deserved some happiness, and she and Will seemed like they would be good together: both no-nonsense and outspoken and loyal and humourful. . .and tough enough to cope with each other.
But he held his tongue; there was never much point in continuing a discussion once Gran reached the "pronouncement" stage. So he said only, "All right, Gran."
"Hmpf," she said. "Anyway, you're asking the wrong question. The bigger mystery is how Wilhelmina has managed to put up with Minerva for nearly sixty years. Here, have some more bacon, Neville, it'll stick to your ribs. You're looking far too peaked these days."