O+O+O+O

In one of the Miss Marple stories she has to travel to a niece's house to solve a murder. She says, "I put Clara [her maid] on board wages, I sent the silver to the bank, and I set off at once." I have always been fascinated by these glimpses of every day Muggle life, and the Miss Marple books are a goldmine of such details.

Of course I realise the information is dated; a present-day Miss Marple could no more afford a maid than I will be able to afford a House Elf on my retirement pension. But sending the silver to the bank – of course. That's what one does when one can't put up protective spells.

There is also a mention somewhere about a girl who "really is a very reliable maid, for she could be trusted to turn the mattresses every day, except on Fridays, of course ". [My italics] Do Muggles turn their mattresses every day? Or did they in Miss Marple's time? How utterly amazing. On the rare occasions I make my own bed, without daily mattress-turning even though I can use a wand, I always wonder about those Fridays. Why not on Fridays? The author doesn't explain, so clearly it's obvious to Muggles.

But I digress. As Miss Marple made her preparations for travel, so did I. To Poppy Pomfrey I mentioned feeling a bit drawn and tired. I told Pomona how I hated the idea of birthday celebrations, this year more than ever, with the losses of the battle such a short time behind us. (That is true; I wouldn't dream of using those who fell as a mere excuse.) And, last but not least, I told Filius how pleased I am with the way he does the Deputy work, and that I have complete confidence in him. True also.

Then I waited for the right moment. One evening before the staff went in to dinner I was talking to Pomona when Poppy passed by. I included her in the conversation, and mentioned how very tired I felt.

"You should have a little break," said Poppy. "You didn't get any holiday at all, what with the reconstruction work."

"Excellent idea," seconded Pomona. "Why don't you go away for your birthday? Solve two problems in a single wand-flick." She then explained to Poppy how I hated the birthday idea.

"Do you think Filius might …" I hesitated.

"Of course," said Pomona; she called him to our little group, and the matter was arranged within minutes. I told them I might go to a Muggle hotel, so as not to run into old students, or worse, parents who'd want to consult me on their off-spring.

They all thought it a marvellous idea, and Filius felt quite confident about taking over for a few days. That was the staff sorted out.

I packed a small travel bag, put in these notes and copies of my clues, and locked the originals in a highly-warded cupboard.

I then Apparated to a spot just outside the village of Minerve, waited until the queasiness of long-distance Apparition had passed, and looked for the hotel. It was fairly easy to find.

When I arrived at the hotel, the owner looked up the reservation and told me that 'everything was in order, and the bill for my room all paid, of course.'

I had not paid anything at all. Nor had I told anyone at Hogwarts about Relais Chantovent . However, it didn't take a Miss Marple to solve the mystery.

Severus!

Damn him.

I had planned words for our first meeting, and now the first of those words would have to be 'thanks'.

So I went to my room and, quite determinedly, I did what tourists do: I refreshed myself after the journey, I changed, and I took my guide book out of my suitcase. I felt certain that Severus would contact me at the hotel, and I felt equally certain it would do him all the good in the world not to find me there. Let him wait.

I selected clothes he would not associate with me, so that he wouldn't spot me easily in the street. A navy turtleneck, a quilted jacket, and especially a pair of blue jeans are completely inconspicuous and quite unlike anything he has ever seen me in. And I put my hair in a braid. I never let my hair down during the day, and I haven't worn braids since I was sixteen. That detail, more than anything, will make him look straight past the elderly jeans-clad Muggle woman clutching her Baedeker.

I set off to explore the village, a very pretty one, indeed. I strolled through the quaint old streets, I went to see the monument Als Cathars , which is touching and beautiful in its very simplicity, and I visited the museum dedicated to the life and death of the Cathars. It was a sobering experience to learn more of these people.

Before I started to investigate Severus's clues, I had never heard of them. But the tiny museum I visited really brought to life those Cathars, who called themselves Christians; yet Christians burned them at the stake.

When I left the museum, I almost regretted not having brought a camera. The village street was truly beautiful, and a small boy – why wasn't he in school on a weekday, I wondered - took pictures with a Muggle camera and a complete disregard for composition. Colin Creevey would have done better.

Colin Creevey, who had called himself a wizard; yet wizards had killed him.

The Wizarding world still both celebrates its victory and commemorates its losses with the words " Never again ." I now hear the Never Again for the third time in my life. And the more I learn of history, the more I know it's always .

It was only when I saw a patisserie advertising 'hot chocolate' that I realised how cold I was. Cold to the bone, on a mellow October day in a sunny French street.

I went in, ordered a cup, and treated myself to a slice of tarte aux pommes as well. It was, after all, almost my birthday.

Had I stayed at Hogwarts, there would inevitably have been people – kind people, such as Aurora or Poppy, people one doesn't want to snub – who would say something along the lines of 'it's truly a free world now that You-Know-Who is dead – such a wonderful day.'

But I've heard the never again too often. Much better to sit in a French pâtisserie and munch a slice of apple pie that strikes just the right balance between sweet and tart.

A few days away from the Wizarding world, at this very moment, was exactly what I had craved.

Without knowing it.

Looking out over the beautiful landscape I began to understand that, once again, in the week of my birthday Severus has given me a very special treat.

Because he still values my friendship?

O+O+O+O

When I returned to the hotel, the owner handed me an envelope which, he told me, had been delivered in my absence. I took it to my room and studied it.

It was a plain white envelope, addressed to Madame McGonagall . It contained a letter on Muggle paper, written with what I think is called a ballpoint.

It was a long letter, and that pleased me. It meant that Severus had written it beforehand, and that he had not come to the hotel to meet me but merely to leave this message.

When I found out he had paid for my room, I felt that he was trying to dictate the terms of our meeting. But with this letter he surrendered himself to my decision. The choice between responding and ignoring him would be mine, and mine alone.

Here is what it said.

Dear Minerva,

Every time I dusted that bottle of Château Coupe-roses, I hoped that one day you would go to my rooms. That you would go there not to clear them out, but to see whether I had left a message for you.

I trusted that if you did, you would spot the bottle of our last bet, and you'd notice the incongruous dust-free bottle.

Yes, I'm still alive.

Obviously.

Years ago, when I realised Albus had been right that at some point we would have to fight the Dark Lord again, I bought a small house in the village of La Caunette.

I knew I'd have but a small chance to survive the second fight. I also knew that if we would win, my position in our world would be … ambiguous. I might be condemned as a war criminal and sent to Azkaban. While there would be a certain poetic justice in being sent down for what I didn't do, whereas in 1981 I stayed out despite of what I did, I was unwilling to risk it.

So I bought myself a little bolt-hole.

Recently, to be precise shortly before Albus died, I was made to realise there was a second possibility: that I might be considered some sort of hero. I also learned it would be necessary for me to stay alive until Potter had received some vital intelligence. If a man must do everything he can to stay alive long enough, there's a serious risk he'll stay alive, period.

That was when I started preparing for my disappearance in earnest. I removed all traces of my Muggle life – the deeds of my house, my Muggle bank statements, and all correspondence – to La Caunette. All I left behind was the Gault-Millau and the postcard.

I knew you'd never be able to resist a proper scan of my bookshelves.

Now you are here. It fills me with the hope that you may want to listen to what I have to say. Then again, you might just want to kick my arse up and down the street. It's a chance I must take. If the worst comes to the worst, I can defend myself better than I did in that duel. Even against such a Gryffindor extravaganza as fifty daggers.

But then, if you had truly duelled to kill, I would have ended up as Snape Tartare and you wouldn't be here reading my letter.

You probably think I was an idiot not to trust you. You may think I betrayed our friendship as well, but there you will be able to come up with a logical reason. When it comes to not taking you into my confidence, things are different.

What if the Dark Lord had used an Aveda Kedavra?

Disaster, that's what.

Would you have had the chance to go to my room? To find the dusted bottle? To go to Spinner's End?

Most likely not.

If you had, you would have found one thing more than you did now. You would have found a key. To my house in La Caunette. There, you would have found two wills, one for my Muggle and one for my Wizarding goods. All of which I've left to you. And you would have found a letter with full information.

Too little, too late.

It wasn't because I didn't trust you. It wasn't because I underestimated you. Please – I'm not that much of an idiot.

It was because I knew you're a better person than I. There was no point in telling you just that I was still on our side. That would merely have been a needless risk. What I should have done is tell you all. Ensure back up. But I was afraid that if I did …

When Albus told me what I had to do for the greater good, I nearly refused. And I don't mean killing him. What would you have done? Would you have tried to stop me?

If we would ever truly duel to kill, I wouldn't want to bet as much as a Butterbeer on the outcome. Leave alone the future of the Wizarding world.

I hope you will allow me to explain and apologise in person. At the bottom of this letter you'll find my full address. I'll be at home all day tomorrow.

If you decide not to come, I hope you will still accept the little gift of the hotel room. It's not a birthday gift, of course. This year especially you wouldn't want to celebrate.

But I thought you'd like a few days away. Please allow me to offer you that - because I value your friendship.

Severus

O+O+O+O

I will go, of course. I will listen.

I'd made that decision quite some time ago. Was it when I saw that lonely tumbler? When I struggled with that cryptic message and knew Severus never doubted I would find the answer? Or when I was reminded of my not-for-your-birthday presents?

I don't know. But I do want to hear what he has to say for himself.

Mind, I'm not sure about that 'better person' argument. I'm not saying I'm not a better person – I have done things in my life that I now deeply regret, and they've enabled me to relate to Severus's regrets, but I've never screwed up so dramatically as he did when he joined the Death Eaters.

Severus writes that what he should have done is tell me all. Indeed, so he should. But I was afraid that if I did … , he says. I think he was afraid that if he had told me all about the way Harry Potter would be led as a lamb to the slaughter, I would have tried to stop him.

And I might have done just that. With the benefit of hindsight, it's very easy to say that everything ended well, that Potter had to go through his ordeal. Given the results, Potter would be the first to admit that the walk towards what he thought was death was a price he was willing to pay. Not a small price – never that. But, given the final result, it was worth it.

But at the time, I might well have said that no Greater Good is worth the ruthless killing of an innocent and very courageous young man. If we had stood by and had done nothing to prevent that murder, if we had used Potter as a blood sacrifice for our own sake – then how would we have differed from them ?

The eternal problem of every war, of course. What is, in fact, the difference between 'us' and 'them'? A cynic would say 'us' is the side that wins.

I don't think I could have used Potter as wand-fodder. Not even as final weapon.

If I am correct in my surmise, Severus's reasoning contains a hint of 'she's a woman, they are the gentle sex, she wouldn't be ruthless enough'. Unconsciously, perhaps, but still there.

Severus admits he's uncertain of the outcome of a real duel – he doesn't underestimate me there. Of course he doesn't. He's a survivor; he wouldn't be alive today if he couldn't assess a risk.

But what he very much doesn't admit, and probably doesn't even consider is the possibility that I might have been right.

He doesn't seem to doubt that stopping me would have been the correct action – that I would have to be stopped because I simply couldn't be right.

Men . As I used to say to Amelia, sometimes … but you know that already.

But this time, when we meet, I'll think before I speak. This time I'll listen. After all, one does not just love one's friends for their good points.

And I think he'll listen, too. It may be an interesting birthday, tomorrow. In terms of truly meaningful events, perhaps the most interesting since the day I actually was born.

Not that I'm sentimental enough to consider an eventual rekindling of our friendship as a birthday gift. Silly nonsense. But I did – and I do – value that friendship.

And that, dear imaginary reader, is the end of my investigation. Now that I have Severus's full address and will meet him tomorrow, my Miss Marple activities have come to an end. I think I acquitted myself with reasonable honour. It's really too bad I can't publish The Case of the Living Portrait. But who knows? Miss Marple solved at least twenty crimes. Perhaps one day Minerva McGonagall, Spinster Detective, will get another case, and then I will turn it into a book.