Note: this story is based on the biography of McGonagall posted on Pottermore. That information can be also found on the Harry Potter Wiki, though in a less-detailed form.
“...it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken”
– Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116
The room had fallen into silence after the trio departed to rejoin the others in the Great Hall. The portraits on the wall slumbered in peace now that the castle was safe. There would, of course, be new worries, new problems, but they would remain in the capable hands of the new Headmistress. That is, should she choose to take up the post. Long had she been prepared to take it in the case that Albus Dumbledore should retire, as he often said he would before the war returned to snatch him away in its ruthless jaws. Those days of peace and dreams had come again, but he would not be there to revel in their glorious silence.
There was a little snort from his portrait high up on the wall as he leaned his head against the frame, dreaming of days long past.
Her eyes were upon him as, with soft footsteps, she made her way into the grand office of the Headmaster, a lofty room that made the intruder (for that is how she felt, just then, entering this familiarly unfamiliar place) feel impossibly diminutive. She was not a small witch, her height often both a blessing and a curse, but now... she could have been no larger than a speck of dust.
Her eyes drifted up and down the walls, the shelves of his books, the glass cases of his scientific contraptions, they were all his things, still. His stamp was too deeply pressed upon this room that she could not imagine moving a single item, not even to satisfy her own convenience, her own interests.
Even if she remained Headmistress for the next fifty years, this room would still be his.
Perhaps it was what all new Heads felt upon taking this office. Perhaps they all stood, shrunken, in the centre of the floor as she did, intimidated by the whole thing.
She had stood facing Voldemort’s army and had felt not the slightest twinge of fear, but to take on the reins of Hogwarts, whether it was a Hogwarts in ruins or a Hogwarts in its prime (if they were not the same), was to be overwhelmed. Dumbledore alone could not provide that air of authority.
There had always been something...
A tinkle of glass drew her ear in the silent, cavernous room. One of the lamps, its shade hanging with crystal shards, was disturbed by a draught of wind that had entered through a chink in one window, high above, broken in the battle, but she thought not of that; she saw only the lamp. It was his. How many years had it sat upon his desk, whether here or in his old office, a reminder of lost things?
Had he found them now? Her fingers caressed the dangling crystals.
She liked to think so.
They did not speak for some time. When he began to stroll down the empty Muggle street, she followed mechanically, not daring to glance back at the sleeping bundle on the front step of number four. If she did, she could not be held responsible for her actions.
Instead, she looked toward him. Under the dim streetlights, he appeared more mysterious than ever, the twinkle in his eyes softened by fatigue and, she knew, remorse. He never failed to feel guilt for the deaths of those who followed his banner into battle. She could have told him that they followed not him alone, but also his ideas, his desire for a better world. Not the world of the Death Eaters. Not the world of–
That name. It was still too soon.
“What will we do now?”
They stopped at the intersection of two identical streets. She saw the houses with their blank glassy eyes, the gardens with thick-bordering hedges, each the same as the next. To become lost in this labyrinth of Muggle banality would be fatal.
She caught his eyes upon her.
“Return to Hogwarts. Unless you had something else in mind, Minerva?”
Was that a twist of a smile at the corners of his mouth, half-hidden in his beard? Was there a glint of light in his eyes, or was it merely the reflection of a ghostly streetlight?
She did it; she turned to look back down the long, curving drive to where the child slept on.
“Albus, the price they paid! If we could go back and change it all–” She met his eyes. The words died on her lips.
“We would not succeed, even if we were to try again and again.”
It may not have been the rebuke she had half-expected, but it hurt all the same, perhaps more so. Futility was a terrible thing. All the magic in the world could not save Lily and James Potter from their terrible fate. She shook her head, hiding her face behind a quavering hand.
There was a firm pressure upon her shoulder. His flowing hair wafted against her cheek as he leaned close to whisper in her ear.
“If such things were possible, do you not think that they would have already been done?”
She fell into silence, staring up the empty street with half-squinting eyes. After an expanse of time, she stirred at last from her morbid thoughts. It was as though a curtain had been drawn back, all of the grief, the confusion, the last eleven years of waiting for the news of another death, another torture, fading, if only for the briefest moment, a ray of light in the dark shadow of a long night.
“I thought it might have been that nobleness of yours.”
She could feel him smile, even if she could not see his face. She had a sense that the glass cage around that strange heart of his had cracked, that somehow, by chance, she had lighted on just the right words. So many bridges to be rebuilt. So many doubts to be expelled.
An owl hooted in the woods. The hand on her shoulder moved to take her arm in the old formal way, the gesture reminding her of abandoned adolescent dreams and Saturday afternoons walking by the lake. Those days would never come again, not for the dead. James and Lily’s footsteps by the water would fade forever, but one day, Harry’s would remake them. Never replace, only remake.
“Do you think, Professor McGonagall, that any of those celebrations would allow us to partake in their revels?”
Thoughts of Lily and James and all the others, the countless others she had known and loved and lost, clutched at her heart, squeezing it beneath glassy transparent fingers so that her answering smile was strained, pain in every quaver of her lips as she acquiesced and let him lead her off into the night.
“What were you thinking?”
She loomed over him, thumb over his fluttering pulse, wildly glancing at his twisted hand, unwilling to touch the blackened skin.
“Severus asked me the same.”
“And I suppose you gave him just as satisfying an answer?”
There was a haze in his eyes, an opaque barrier that excluded even her. She had once deluded herself that she was permitted past that cage of glass, but now, after all this time–
A set of cold, gnarled fingers encircled her wrist, gently shifting her hand onto the desk.
“It was a nec–”
“A necessary sacrifice?” She turned away from the desk, the Scottish blood boiling in her veins. “Everything you have done has been, Albus, ever since–”
Fawkes let out a high note that drowned out her words. Dumbledore, slumped in the chair without semblance of his old pride, the strength that could banish the darkness and send dark lords flying back into the hell that spawned them, could not find the strength to interrupt. Looking back at him over her shoulder, she found her sight blurred. She removed her spectacles, but found nothing upon them; it was her eyes that had failed.
Her feet took her back to stand beside him, resting her hands upon the chair’s high back.
“Is it worth the price?” she asked in a low voice. “Is it worth your life?”
When no reply came forth, she closed her eyes. In the room’s dark silence, she thought she heard the rustle of fabric, then finally the slightest tinkle of glass as he ran his finger along the veil of the lamp’s crystal tears. It was like the ringing of tiny bells, the bells of Peter Pan’s fairy, the bells her father had told her hearkened the birth of an angel.
The sound echoed once, twice, then ceased. His hand retracted and she heard something else, a gasp of breath that held only one meaning. Haltingly, at first, she extended her hand to touch his shoulder, a thin shadow of the pillar that had for so long supported her world. Was Death already in the room? How soon would he cross the threshold to collect his dues? He was owed them many, many times over. Albus Dumbledore had evaded Death too often. This was to be his reward.
His reply finally emerged as a grating whisper.
“No, Minerva. My life has had no worth for some time.”
And so he sat on, his face covered with a long, white hand while she kept vigil, offering all she could to the one who had nothing left; all had been given away.
She clothed herself in black for six long months.
The colour came naturally enough to the robes of a professional, but she yearned to wear the emeralds and tartans of her youth, the flashes of colour burning holes through her shadowy grief. It hung above her like a menacing demon or a that little black cloud from which rain would spurt in uneven beats, a mirror of the tears shed by guilt-stricken widows.
Green reminded her of the grass and hills, all the wild places she had known and that still surrounded her here at Hogwarts, far from the trudging grey world of London. How dreary it had been in that place where the living walked as though they were dead, mere shadows in the dull light of day. She remembered the times when Elphinstone had lured her to the parks at lunchtime, seeking out her happiness in place of his own. That had always been his way, just as the city had been his.
She had rejected it, just as she would reject him, time and time again.
What did that matter now that he was dead? Surely three years could contain as much meaning as a lifetime? It had been all she could offer, in the end, and it made her regret, oh so much, all too much.
“Here again, Minerva?”
His light tones, sometimes grating, sometimes the greatest comfort, sounded by her ear, raising the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck.
“I always seem to be, don’t I?”
Their words, as usual, were multifaceted, glinting with new light as one turned them round and round.
She looked out over the hills and lakes of her homeland, feeling the crisp wind rifling through her hair, mussing the bun with which she took so much care. With closed eyes, she could return to those days before her world had been torn apart, the happy days of childhood when pain was the scraping of a knee against the rocks and worry was making it home in time for tea.
“I knew it couldn’t be for long, not with his age.” She blinked, pausing as she recalled that Dumbledore was, in fact, even older. “But I did not think it would be this soon. I can still scarcely believe it.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but she shattered into speech with a growing desperation.
“I know that it could have been anyone, even me, but it feels so cruel, Albus. Why now, after all that has happened?”
There could be no silence on the tallest tower of the castle, where the winds rushed about and through each solid thing and the very stones sang, but his silence dulled the noises, drawing attention to itself; it was more disquieting than terrible truth he could have spoken.
She rose to fill the silence, her voice quavering alongside her frigid nerves.
“Was it wrong to make him wait his whole life for this? I could have been the better one, the one to sacrifice, to please another instead of merely myself, but I cannot be that kind of person.” She took a breath. “I will not be that person.”
When he finally spoke, she had worked up her nerves into such a state that she teetered on the edge of oblivion, the shadow hanging thick above her.
“It is an admirable sentiment, Minerva. I would not expect less from you.”
The words were a blow, more surely than if he had struck her from the balcony of that very tower. The wind took another sweep, further setting her off-balance.
“And yet I must hasten to add that while many would call your ill-fated marriage a tragedy, I think it great fortune that you knew love, if only for the briefest moment. That surrender alone is worth more than any love said to last a lifetime.”
The wound was salved, but not healed, never healed. To have given herself away, to have wasted away beneath the rays of love, that would have been the lesser fate. She had made that choice and had shaped her life to no will but her own. Why should this guilt consume her? Why should this shadow lay its ugly hand across her face? That love of freedom drove her still, taking her to the tallest tower so that she could cast her grief to the winds and live free again.
But she found that her own body had betrayed her, keeping her fastened to the cold, hard ground, the glass cage of old once more confining her to an earthly fate. One hand had strayed to his, grasping the bony fingers with an iron strength that was matched by his own.
Looking up, away, anywhere but at him, she blinked away the tears that had at last come, tiny crystals dripping from her cheeks.
“Again?” The blue eyes expressed an annoyingly keen interest that was magnified by the half-moon spectacles.
She adjusted her own spectacles as a ruse to disguise the confusion of emotions she had not yet the power to conceal. For all her attempts to cement her expression in place, she continued to meet with failing in the tiniest quiver of lips, the twitching of an eyelid, or the bending of an eyebrow. Dumbledore may have benefited from the endless action of his features, but she wished to have the face of a stone.
In twenty-five years she had felt too much; she wished to never feel again.
“I have no interest in marriage.”
“Particularly to a man more than twice your age?”
Their eyes met in a way that made her shift uncomfortably in her chair, her knee knocking against the desk to rattle the glass lamp. Sunlight poured through the windows to pool at her feet, warming the leather of her new boots, but failing to warm the frigidity that would linger in her heart. Her nerves would not leave her in peace as long as he looked at her in that way, one eyebrow elegantly raised, his eyes caught between that roguish sparkle and the apprehension he seemed to reserve just for her.
She tilted her chin and hardened her gaze. “You already know my opinion on the subject, Albus.”
Still she wavered within, remembering a girl, not long ago, who had blushed to meet his eyes, their power overwhelming her adolescent senses. Now, they acted as mirror, a glass cage in which the heart was locked away, chained to its prison by cannots and must nots. He was controlled, years spent creating a flawless face to show the world. One day, that face would be her own. Repression would rule all. She could not allow herself to fall again. She must forget love. All of that feeling, how it still dogged her steps. The very thought of–
“It will not always be that way, Minerva.”
Her fists clenched and unclenched as she left the room without saying a word, letting the sharp snap of the shutting door speak in her stead.
“I said yes.”
The blue eyes blinked, but did not bother to display even a feigned surprise. He would have expected this, should was sure, because he would have reached the same conclusion as she had down by the lake. Only he had reached it long ago.
“He will arrange a cottage for us in Hogsmeade and I will live there.” She felt her voice rush through the words just as though she was once again twenty-five and clenching her sweat-stained palms against his wisdom. “There will be no reason why I cannot continue in the same way here.”
When the eyes blinked again, she questioned whether she had said too much.
“The same, Minerva? Is that truly possible?”
Had he ripped her heart from her chest, he could not have wounded her so deeply.
She thought of the things that had changed during the war, how accustomed she had become to the fight, the constant battle for survival, that put her at his side, day-in and day-out, and how he had come to rely as much upon her as she had always relied upon him. The balance had changed, and now....
The need to explain herself, to justify, to reason, roused her into speech.
“It will make him happy.” She paused, her lungs shaking. “It will make me happy. I love him, if only because of his perpetual presence, offering all that I’d dare not allow myself. He loves me, though I cannot understand how or why, but does that matter now, after all this time?”
As the words echoed into the hollow spaces of his office, her breath rustling the glass shards dangling from the old lamp, she replayed them in her mind and recognised the strangest abnormality, what could even be called a duality. A thousand memories passed before her eyes and, for a moment, she was lost in a long list of what must have been coincidences. How else–?
“It always matters.” His voice rasped strangely. “It is the great mystery of life.”
She swallowed with difficulty. “To know why?”
Their eyes met, and once more she gazed into the mirror of her soul.
Love, that force of betrayal and pain, of suffering and passion, of wonder and glory, shoving the world off its course and felling the bravest men on its endless course of destruction. But this was different. It was not the love of youth that blossomed in each flower and rose with an eternal sun. It was not the love of stolen kisses in the dark and other secrets of the night. This was the love that would not shatter at the slightest touch nor fade with the final dying of the light.
The blue eyes held hers and she felt her heat soar, the glass cage cracking open at last, the bird flying free into the endless sky.
The spell whizzed by her head half a second after a hand dragged her downward, her knees crashing into the cobblestones with a sickening thud. A shower of glass fell upon their heads before he was able to pull them both into a doorway.
“How did they find us?” she whispered to him, grasping at his robes.
He pulled her hands away, a gleam of light reflecting off his half-moon spectacles as he glanced over her for any sign of injury. When he faced the door without a word, she knew that she was sound, but still she touched her loosened hair, dusted with glass shards that glistened like ice. That same gleam from the streetlamp beyond lit upon a dark line emanating from his temple.
“Albus...” Digging for her handkerchief, she touched it to his wound.
He flinched, but did not look away from the open street.
“Either they have become more vigilant, or we have grown careless with our victories, however small they may be.”
The hard notes in his voice startled her far more than any curse shot out of the darkness.
“Could we have been betrayed?”
He shook his head minutely so as not to shake off her administering hand. “That will come soon enough, but not yet. Desperation is necessary for betrayal, and we can still give them something to hope for.”
Folding her handkerchief over the stain of blood, she sat back on her heels, wincing at the pain in her knees. It had grown quiet outside the door, but it was the quiet of listening, waiting, warning. Every nerve in her body was alert to the tension in the air. She removed her wand from her sleeve with a shaking hand, cursing her fear beneath her breath. The sound of shattering glass still rung in her ears just as her heartbeat continued to pound an erratic beat.
“Will it ever end?” Her words were little more than a breath released into the heavy, silent air.
He looked toward her, his eyes containing a sadness that penetrated far into the cavity of her heart so that she could not look away, though the pain of that shared gaze struck her deeply. There may have been hope to give the others, those who gave their youth, their strength, their very lives for a cause that was great and good, but too little hope remained for himself.
She reached out a hand toward him, the tips of her fingers brushing against his cheek, but what more could they be than the wafting breeze on a summer’s day, the passing memory of lost things that can never be regained?
A spell lit their faces in a sickly green light. Her hand dropped away as her other raised her wand.
Another lost thing fading into the night.
“I know that I am young, sir, but–”
“You needn’t make excuses, Miss McGonagall. I am familiar enough with your accomplishments, and may I say, they are many.” His eyes were bright with amusement. “I only ask why it is you have left your position at the Ministry. Hogwarts is hardly the place for someone of your talent.”
Hands grasping the arms of her chair, she eyed him with suspicion. For all that she had known him well during her days as a student, she could not be sure of him now that she vied for the position of colleague. If not equals, they would be nearly so, and the thought of that pulled at her still-delicate nerves. Would he remember all the things of the past, those silly childish excuses she had used to spend time in his presence? They seemed so long ago now.
Twenty-one was her age, but the days of her life were stretched beyond that paltry number. Since that day she had made her choice, since she had locked her heart in its tiny glass cage, still visible so that she would always know of her weakness, her near mistake that would have ruined her life and that of the man she had loved... since then she could not be like the other girls of her age. She could not moon over the young Ministry men in their crisp robes, could not spend as much time in the lavatory fixing her makeup as at her desk shoving parchments here and there. That empty life....
It was gone now. Hogwarts would have her. It must. There was no other place to go.
When she looked up, he watched her, all traces of amusement fled from his eyes. She had never seen this particular expression in them before. It was as though the mirror of his eyes had broken, revealing the truth that lay beyond. Was he not the same as her? Did he not spend his talent here rather than at the head of their government, as many still said he should? Was it possible that he too had a secret to hide?
“I hope that you will enjoy it here, Professor McGonagall.”
“Is there something you wish to tell me, Minerva?”
He bent over her, a hand tight upon her shoulder, startling her from the black depths of her sorrow, the stains of ink that had run across the page from the tears that poured down upon it, the words now forever blurred, their meaning lost though their impact remained.
She looked up at his face, seeing only the grey of his beard and the blue of his eyes through the window of tears that hung before her. She could not remember whether he had come so close to her before, whether he had ever touched her, even to shake her hand. Dazed, she stared at the face that reminded her of the sky in the mountains.
That face, how could it mean more to her than that of anyone else? All others seemed so faded in comparison, failing to capture the light of his eyes or the limitless life that bubbled beneath his features. So much power and strength and, yes, even beauty was there in that face, so like the face in the stained glass window which threw light upon her father as he had stood in his pulpit. It was the face of the only person in the world she could trust with her life, her secret.
As she stared his face transformed into a vision of the Muggle boy for whom she would have given everything if only she had possessed the strength to break the rules and tell him what she really was.
But rules were not glass; they did not shatter like her nerves, nor break like her heart.
She began to speak in halting gasps from her place upon the floor, his hand bracing her as the sobs once more wracked her body at the memory of that day, that terrible day. Someone had loved her and she had betrayed him in favour of things that should not have mattered. How had she allowed herself to be so selfish, so thoughtless, so cruel?
It was doubtful that he could have understood more than half of what she said. She spiralled first into incoherence, then silence, her eyes downcast with shame and horror. Would he despise her now for the heartless monster that she was? The news of Duncan’s marriage, a mere off-hand reference in her mother’s letter, was a dagger to her heart, the hangman’s noose tightening around her neck.
Looking up at his face where it bent near hers, she saw not hate, not even pity, only understanding, a sympathy she had thought would be impossible for one so holy, so perfect. The sight soothed her wounds and loosened the knot at her throat even as it struck fear into a weakened heart. If the idol of her schoolgirl days should prove as flawed as her own ideals....
“Would it help if I were to tell you a story?” His voice was infinitely gentle, and she did not know how he could speak so softly yet with such clarity. Each syllable stuck a chord against her heartstrings.
She nodded and gathered both limbs and dignity to settle in a chair close to the fire, the letter still dangling from her fingers, its fate held in the balance. Should she, or should she not? There seemed little point in saving it now that her moment of weakness had made the wounding words illegible, the knife points of their strokes dulled by a woman’s jealous tears.
“You have a secret, too, don’t you, Professor?” Her voice was small in the room even as it echoed in her ears. She sounded no more than a child, that silly, serious girl who had stared up at him in awe that first day, wondering whether he had stepped out of the stained glass window of her father’s church to guide her through this strange, new world.
He took the facing chair, carefully arranging his sea foam robes around his feet as she wiped away her tears with the back of one hand.
“As do all of us, Minerva. No one need ever be alone with their secret, should they choose the right person with whom to share it.” He paused to take a breath, his eyes never leaving hers. “You have trusted me, and I will do the same.”
The blue eyes watched her with apprehension in their depths, his body still but for the twitching of a long finger against the arm of his chair. Blinking again, she focused her gaze on the tension in his jaw, visible even beneath the greying beard, and the single, nervous finger.
Not alone. She need never be alone again.
Duncan had moved on, the blow of her abandonment faded into the shape of a pretty Muggle wife who would give him more happiness than a gangly witch who could not give up all to love.
She blinked and the image of lost perfection faded into the flickering of the firelight on his spectacles.
Sacrifice was not in her nature.
Awash in the fire's glow, he began to speak, his story emerging as though he had not lived it only once, but lived it every morning, every night, allowing it to seep into every cell of his body so that he would never forget the horror of that moment, that single, terrible moment, that flash of light followed by the dull thud of a falling body, empty, lifeless. The visions of his past surrounded her, every surface of the room taking the shape of the players and scene so that she was there beside him as he stared down at his sister’s body, his brother’s accusing screams resounding in his ears.
When he stopped, he could no longer meet her gaze, and for the first time, she saw him as he was to himself: the broken failure, the murderer, a man who could not feel pride because he did not deserve it, did not deserve anything. That was why he could not take their praise, refused all offices but this as professor, desiring obscurity as punishment for his Faustian ambition, the albatross that would forever hang from his neck.
She did not know what to think, what to feel; she only knew what to do.
With a rustle of fabric, she rose, a hand reaching out to touch his face. As she bent over him, a tear fell from her cheek onto his hand, sparkling like glass in the firelight.
She looked down upon him for the last time. It was all she could do, to be there at the end. She could measure her life on the endings of others, the number of times she had stood beside the bodies of the dead, people she had known and loved, always to be the one left behind.
He looked so peaceful; it was not the face of the man who had feared death. For one such as he, there could be no unfinished business, nothing to clench him to this world any longer. So many could say that they still needed him, his words of wisdom, his calm blue eyes, his face of kindly stone. They needed him merely as an idol of worship and distain, a saint they could look up to and a martyr to trample into the mud.
She could hear him now, asking in that elusive way of his, maddening to say the least, but she would miss it now, ever so much.
“And what of you, Minerva?”
There was not enough time in the world to answer that question to her satisfaction, but then there had never been enough time. Never enough to thank him for his trust and support; to tell him that he had more than atoned for his sins, whether it had been at his hands or not; to give him that pair of socks he so dreadfully wanted, if only to say that, at last, he had gotten his wish.
Never enough time to know herself and all the things she thought of him.
She thought of the words that could be said over his grave: the quotations from the greatest minds, the sweetly flowing poetic passages, the wise words of long-dead philosophers... none of them would do. Honesty was her only gift, in the end, the honesty of knowing what he had meant to her for all those long years, the delicate glass memories shaping him in every light, each flicker revealing a new form. The teacher who was more of a friend. The friend who was far more. The companion, the comrade, the colleague... it went on and on, but none were truly him.
None and all.
The sky above was as blue as his eyes, the clouds a match to his snowy beard. All the world was painted on his robes.
And what of her?
She must, as always, go on. Living. Fighting. Being.