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The hero is strangely akin to those who die young. – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Mr Potter, if you please,” Professor McGonagall says to the boy fidgeting in the chair before her desk.

“I can’t help it!” James cries, tie askew and glasses slanted on the tip of his nose. “Snape put – ” he almost slithers out of his seat as he tries to scratch his back, “ – itching….”

Minerva sighs in frustration, and with a flick of her wand, eases the burn and itch of the spell.

James exhales heavily, relieved, and pushes his glasses back to the bridge of his nose. “Thanks, Professor.”

“This is the third time this month you and Mr Black have gotten into some sort of altercation with Mr Snape. You’re Head Boy, James,” she continues softly, “you can’t continue to act like this. The younger students are impressionable, and they are looking up to you to show them how to behave.”

“I only acted in retaliation,” James protests. “He was going to hurt Peter if I didn’t step in.”

She shuffles the parchment on her desk in an attempt to still the shaking of her hands. Minerva wonders if this was the right decision, if she should be bringing him, bringing these children into this war. James, he’s too rash, too hot-headed sometimes. But she also knows he’s smart on his feet, with his wand. They don’t need stupidity, but they need bravery, need those who can have the courage to face their fears, do the right thing, and she doesn’t doubt James. She’s never doubted James.

“I’m sure Mr Pettigrew could have defended himself, don’t you?”

James ruffles his hair and looks at Professor McGonagall defiantly. “I’m his friend. If he doesn’t have to fight by himself, why should we let him?”

“There shouldn’t be any fighting to begin with,” she replies evenly.

But she remembers what Dumbledore had said - Sometimes, sometimes we can’t fight our battles alone - and she lets his comment slide.

“I’m not here to punish you, James.” She is rustling through her desk drawers now, pushing aside homework assignments and detention slips. “Though I should,” she adds, glancing up quickly to notice his pleased look.

“Then what am I doing here, Professor?”

“A-ha,” she says to herself as she pulls out a small wooden box from the back of her drawer and rests it on her desk. Placing the tip of her wand to the latch, she murmurs a few words, and the latch unhooks itself. James looks on curiously with a slight grin.

She plucks a pin from inside the velvet-lined box and encloses it in a fist. Closing and locking the box, she puts it back inside her drawer and pushes it shut.

“Mr Potter, can I trust you not to repeat what I am going to ask of you? You mustn’t even tell Mr Black.”

“But – ”

“James,” she says quietly, desperately. Maybe this was a wrong idea. “This is a serious matter.”

James pulls his bottom lip between his teeth and ruffles his hair. But when he looks back at her, he’s serious, straight-faced. “All right, Professor,” he says.

“Not even Mr Black,” she repeats, fingers clenching and unclenching.

“I won’t even tell Sirius,” he promises.

She knows where his loyalties lie, but she also knows that James isn’t stupid, that he knows this is something to only be spoken of in hushed voices, to be kept behind locked doors. She sets the pin down and pushes it across grooved wood until it’s lying in front of him, waiting for him to pick it up.

“Wha – ”

“You said it yourself, Mr Potter. Sometimes there are battles that we cannot fight alone.”

He picks up the golden phoenix and squints at it, turning it over in his fingers, watching it glint in the candlelight. He furrows his brow, opens and closes his mouth a few times before he actually says, “I’m still not sure I understand…”

“We’re in the midst of a war, James,” she replies. She sees the way his brain processes the words, makes connections, conclusions.

“Oh,” he breathes.

“We need you.”

“We? Professor Dumbledore?”

She nods. “As well as some other known members of the wizarding community.”

“What about…what about the others?” He almost looks embarrassed to ask, but he has to know, needs to know if he’ll have friends among allies.

For the first time that afternoon, Minerva smiles at him, motherly and warm. “In due time, James. I just needed to make sure that you were with us first.”

James grins back and pockets the pin, looking at her with unwavering eyes. “Always,” he promises.

She extends her hand and he grips it firmly as he stands up, pats his pocket to ensure the pin is still there, still safe.

“James,” she says, stopping him as he’s almost out the door. “You’ll be leaving Hogwarts soon. You won’t always have these walls to protect you. Be careful, won’t you? Stop provoking Severus and try to stay away from the fights. Now more than ever, you must be the leader Dumbledore saw in you when he made you Head Boy. We need you to be courageous and noble, not stupid and reckless.”

He ducks his head and ruffles his hair. “Will do, Professor. Thank you,” he says earnestly, sincerely. Minerva knows they made the right choice, knows he’s steadfast in his beliefs, his loyalty.

As he closes the door behind him, Minerva feels a sense of sadness. She’s watched this boy grow up from the awkward, lanky eleven-year old he used to be to the young man he is today. She can’t help feeling like these children are hers, and it’s her duty to protect them, keep them safe.

She knows she’s already failed them.

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