The Woodhouses from number fifteen had won the prize for the best-kept front garden this year. That wasn't fair, since Mrs Woodhouse didn't do any gardening herself but employed a professional gardener, and Mr Woodhouse didn't even really live there anymore - everyone knew that their marriage was as good as over and he was spending more time in the city with his secretary than at home with his wife and children, and he certainly hadn't done anything to deserve being awarded a prize by the community, but life wasn't fair and she was used to being dealt the bad hand anyway.
As the car turned the corner, Petunia continued to look straight ahead, refusing to cast a last parting look at the street she had lived in for so long. Instead, she leaned forward and clutched her husband's shoulder, tightly. But Vernon didn't react. He didn't mutter and yell abuses at other drivers, either. And that, more than anything else, made her stomach clench.
"… a great pleasure indeed, and an honour, that has been bestowed on us - to be allowed to escort Harry Potter's relatives to safety. We will bring you to a house that is protected by the most powerful spells you can imagine! We will be Apparating with the car in a few minutes, so you better brace yourselves - you have never been Apparated, have you? No, I didn't think so, you Muggles have your own - very ingenious, very ingenious - ways to move around the country. There's no need to be afraid - you are under the protection of the Order, which has been set up by Albus Dumbledore himself. You have met Albus Dumbledore, I understand? Then you must know that he was a great man, a truly great man, who knew the most powerful magic and in whom you can trust implicitly..." the little man with the top hat squeaked and bumbled, while the woman in the passenger seat was maintaining a stiff and rather cool silence. Petunia could see her face in the rear-view mirror, and she averted her eyes.
Her husband's hands on the steering wheel looked very large and pink and she could see the hairs on the back of his hands glint in the evening sun. She grabbed her handbag and began rummaging inside, pulling out item after item, but barely aware of what these things were and why she had packed them in the first place.
"Mum," came Dudders' hoarse whisper from the other side of the car. "Mum, what are you looking for?"
"Marigolds," she whispered back, aware how shrill her voice sounded, "my Marigolds... my yellow Marigolds… I don't know whether I packed them. We must go back… if I left them… left them by the microwave... I think... I need my Marigolds, my rubber Marigolds, what if I have to do the dishes... I need my Marigolds…"
"Mum," Dudders' voice reached her through the red mist in her head. Suddenly, her hand felt very warm, and when she looked down, she saw that her son had leaned over the bewildered little man, who had finally shut up, and wrapped his hand around hers. His fingers were very short and his nails broad and bitten, but his skin was warm and slightly moist. "Mum, it's all right. We'll find your Marigolds in your overnight bag. Or if not we'll buy you new ones. I'm sure there will be shops... where we're going..."
"Where we're going…" she repeated, her lips and her tongue wooden as she tried to move them. "Where we're going."
The safe location was a shabby council house in one of the poorer parts in Manchester. The smell of cat urine and old rubbish bags hung in the air as she walked past the tall wooden fences that separated the back gardens from the road. A group of scruffy looking teenagers loitered at the corner, but they made way for her as the approached and she saw from the corner of her eye that one of them straightened his grubby t-shirt, shooting her a sly look.
A tall, thin man, who reminded her rather of Sirius - the same long, unkempt hair, the same thin, unshaven face, the same air of intoxicated despair - staggered out of number two, muttering to himself. "…nobody respects fathers, but if I 'ad tits, they'd be shoving massive benefits up me arse…" she heard him mumble as she stepped lightly past him and into the garden next door. She saw the shock on his face when she disappeared in front of his very eyes, crossing the boundary to the safe house, but she didn't worry: Muggle drunkards like him were used to seeing things that were really there, but no-one would ever believe him.
Inside, the house was empty and cold. It was also much larger than it looked from the outside, the ceiling disappeared in shadows and the stairs leading to the second floor were very long and winded. The family that had lived there had left for Europe as soon as the first rumours of You-Know-Who's return had begun spreading through the wizarding world, and she couldn't blame them: they had lost all five children in the first war.
Dusty webs hung from the ceiling and walls and giant spiders lurked in the corners, their many eyes glinting in the faint light that trickled inside through the gaps between the boards that covered the windows. Mismatched crockery and dishes squatted haphazardly on the table. The soot-coated fireplace gaped black and empty like a gate to hell. It was absurd and also depressing to think that she had just set foot into one of the safest places in the country.
The heavy wooden door creaked slowly shut behind her, and her whispered "Lumos" broke the dead silence like a shrill discord. She peeled off her soft leather glove from her right hand and gripped her wand more tightly, relishing the feel of the cool smooth wood under her fingers and the way it seemed to swell at the surge of power shooting through her and pouring out of the wand tip.
The knock at the door startled her. With another flick of her wand, half a dozen candles appeared out of thin air and spread out to illuminate the entire kitchen. With a second flick, the door fell open.
Five figures stepped into the room in a mess of limbs and bags and stumbling over their feet, with gasps of horror and sharp intakes of breath, until they were all inside. A short man made up the rear, and after closing the door carefully behind him, he turned around to face her and a broad smile appeared on his face.
"How nice of you to welcome us here," he said in a high squeaky voice. "Good evening, Minerva."
It had been another cold and lonely night, and it was another cold and lonely morning. She had never liked getting up early, but during her girlhood days, it was understood that lying in wasn't an option, especially not at Hogwarts. Later, in her married life, she was so busy presiding over the household and bringing up her son that the days seemed too short even if she got up at the break of dawn. Then, there was another infant to take care of, and when he finally went to Hogwarts, she was so used to be the first person in the house to rise in the morning that habit became hard to shake off.
It was only after the family began breaking apart, leaving her in the empty house, that she began to indulge. She stayed in bed until the late morning, sometimes early afternoon - rarely and guiltily at first, and then more and more often, when it seemed pointless to get up as there was nothing for her to do.
There was one thing, however, that would always be a reason to her get up and face another day. And so, despite the cold that had permeated the room after the fire had gone out during the night, despite the greyness of the sky, she rolled onto her side, moving slowly and cautiously and trying to not put any weight onto her aching hip, and shifted her legs along and over the edge of the bed, until her feet touched the cool wooden floor.
She pushed herself into a sitting position, rubbing her eyes and temples to get rid of the dream visions lingering at the fringe of her consciousness, and rose shakily to her feet. Her joints were giving her more trouble than usual; she would have to ask a healer at St. Mungo's for a cream or potion.
She warmed the water in the washstand with a muttered spell. Then, she began to take fresh undergarments from the chest-of-drawers and pulling them on. She removed the pantalettes she was wearing under her nightgown and replaced them with fresh ones before unbuttoning the nightgown and pulling it off. She didn't look at herself in the mirror until she had put on her chemise. Lacing her corset had become tricky since old Dinky, who always used to do it for her, had passed away. She had never been very good at Charms and the charm she put on the laces would always wear of after a few days and she had to try again to get it right without accidentally suffocating herself.
It took her several attempts, and even then the corset was still a bit too loose around her breasts, which had become soft and saggy and did no longer fill out her bodice like they used to in her youth, but she decided to ignore it. She fastened a plain, narrow petticoat tightly around her waist; a white cotton blouse followed. She stepped into her dark-green shoes that reached just above her ankles and laced them up with another flick of her wand. It was easier to put on her shoes before she put on the heavy skirt. Eventually, she took her green merino-wool dress from the wardrobe, buttoned it tightly all the way up to her chin and smoothed down the creases in the skirt.
Meals had become a solitary event, and she had become accustomed to skipping them. She would get a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of toast at St. Mungo's.
She pulled on her gloves while walking down the stairs. At the door, she stopped before the mirror and, gazing sternly and somewhat defiantly into the eyes of her reflection, placed a tall, vulture-topped hat on top of her grey-streaked hair.
The house was a disgrace.
The journey to the place had also been a nightmare: they drove for several miles, and her husband didn't speak one word - not even when he noticed how the car didn't get caught in traffic by simply... jumping to the front of the queue whenever there was one.
And then, the woman in the passenger seat asked Vernon to stop the car, and he obeyed, his jaw moving furiously with all the words he so valiantly suppressed, and then the air was full with muttered words and darkness embraced them - a complete, suffocating darkness that pressed down on her lungs and blocked her ears and made her blink furiously in a desperate attempt to escape this nightmare, to stop feeling as though she would never breathe again.
And then it stopped. The car's tires hit the ground and light flooded in, blinding her with its red, angry glare. The setting sun tinted everything around them blood-red and Petunia knew - knew with a certainty that took her breath away - that she had been just transported to a hellish world from where there was no escape.
The red mist lifted suddenly at the sound of Dudders' retching. Her son was pressing both his hands to his mouth. The little man beside him kept shooting him wary looks.
"What are you doing?" she shrieked. "Don't you see he's unwell? Stop the car and open the door at once!"
Vernon obeyed her instantly, pulling over and stopping at the pavement and miraculously avoiding crashing into a police car parked there. Petunia barely waited for the car to roll to a halt, before she pushed open the door, jumped out and ran around the car, dragging Dudders out on his side. One arm wrapped around his broad chest, the other hand supporting his forehead, she watched her son being violently sick over the pavement slabs.
A filthy drunk with long greasy hair and wearing an old parka staggered around the corner and almost bumped right into them. He stopped dead at the sight of Dudders being sick. "I know 'ow you feel, son," he slurred, swaying on the spot. "Better out then in, eh? But don't puke on the nice lady's shoes, she spent ages polishing 'em, by the look of 'em… If she spent the same amount of time polishing 'er bloke's knob, she wouldn't look 'alf as sour-faced, I dare say."
Dudley groaned and the sound pierced right through her heart. She barely registered the drunkard wave his hand derisively and stagger past them, the stench of sweat, alcohol and unwashed hair trailing behind him like a disembodied entity.
Through all this, Vernon remained in the car, staring stubbornly ahead, his hands still resting at the steering wheel. The little man fidgeted nervously and took off his mauve top hat to wipe his forehead with a purple handkerchief, while the woman opened the passenger door and stepped out.
She was young and rather tall, her hair done up in an elaborate do making her seem even taller, and was wearing a dark violet cloak that billowed in the evening wind as she walked around the car and strode towards Petunia and Dudley.
"Do you need a hand with him?"
"Leave us be," Petunia snarled, supporting her son who had finished vomiting and was now wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Just… go away and leave us be!"
Dudley straightened up, greenish around the mouth, but his jaw was already firmly set so that he resembled his father more than ever. She had fallen in love with that manly, decided look on Vernon, when he was younger and fitter and used to be oh so masterful. Dudders had all the makings of a real man, too, and she was proud of her son now just as she used to be proud of her husband then.
"It's okay, Mum, I think she just wants to help," Dudley mumbled. He wasn't looking at her, Petunia, but at the other woman, who looked back at him with an odd expression on her rosy face. Petunia suddenly wondered how old she was.
"Get back in the car," she hissed at her son. Gripping Dudley's muscular upper arm tightly, she forced him back into the seat and climbed into the car after him. She could see that her son was still very shaken and she, too, remembered that night all too well when that boy had dragged Dudders into the house and Dudders had been sick all over the doormat. That one fateful night, which had changed her life all over again. Before that night, it had been her family against those freaks; after that night, Dudders had never been quite the same. He had always been a thoughtful and delicate boy - something that none of his teachers had ever appreciated, seeing just the brash and boyish façade and not the sensitive soul behind it. That night, after he had encountered those… demons, Dudders had become even more withdrawn than he had been before. He would lock himself in his room, listening to moody music, and he would refuse to let her, his mother, in. When she tried to discuss that with Vernon, he would merely shrug and say that a big lad like that didn't use his mummy to run after him all the time.
It was the brush with magic that had changed her son, just as it had changed her sister, all those years back. And while she herself had been so fortunate as to escape the madness of the magical world before, she was now being dragged right into it, and her husband and her son were being dragged with her.
When she slid into the seat, Dudley moved over to make space. The little man moved over obligingly, too, while Vernon grunted in annoyance. Petunia's stomach clenched at the sound.
It didn't unclenched for the remainder of the journey, which took them across a dilapidated estate in some Northern town, where common looking girls were pushing prams and criminal looking boys were loitering on street corners. She pressed her head against the cold window, soaking up the reassuring, warm bulk of her son on her other side.
"Mum," said Dudley quietly, "is this where we are going to live from now on?"
And then, the car came to a halt. Vernon turned off the engine and they all got out. They walked around the car. Vernon opened the boot, took out their bags and cases, one by one, and placed them on the pavement. Petunia picked up her smart little overnight bag and remained standing right there, in the middle of the pavement, shaking slightly and unwilling to move until someone pointed her into the right direction. Dudders grabbed his sport bag, grunting at the weight (he must have smuggled his dumbbells in again). Vernon took up the two large suitcases which were filled with what were now their entire belongings in the whole world.
"Here along, please, come here along," the little man squeaked. His mauve top hat and his vibrantly blue cloak looked grotesquely out of place against the background of run-down houses and dilapidated fences.
He led the way through a gate into a poky little backyard, followed by Vernon, who didn't bother holding the door open for her. Dudley was close behind her, breathing rather heavily; she couldn't tell whether it was because he was struggling under the weight of his bag or because he was scared. The tall woman stepped in after him and closed the gate.
It was a council house of the worst kind. The moss-covered roof was speckled with bird droppings and a broken satellite dish dangled from the wall. She could see the mauve top hat bob excitedly by the door as its owner waited for it to open. When it finally did, it was to reveal an interior that was, if possible, even worse than the exterior.
The little man waved them inside, and they half-stumbled past him into a dark room which was insufficiently illuminated by a handful of candles. A thin woman with a stern face and wearing a tall hat was standing in the middle of the room, pointing a thin wooden stick obscenely in their direction.
The little man stepped inside and closed the door. "How nice of you to welcome us here," he said in a high squeaky voice. "Good evening, Minerva."
Whatever Potter might or might not be for the wizarding world - his relatives were clearly insane.
It didn't take Minerva long to become convinced that there was something decidedly wrong with them - even by Muggle standards. The woman was cleaning constantly. She had barely set foot into the house, before unpacking her bag which was cram-full with Muggle contraptions used for household chores - colourful potions which emitted a biting smell, brushes and cloths in various sizes and colours, as well as peculiar devices made from a material that the Muggles called 'plastic' and that, according to Arthur Weasley, was virtually indestructible; these devices seemed to consist of tubes and containers that were joined in an intricate way. Minerva saw Mrs Dursley use them a few times: she was cleaning the windows using a contraption that discharged a foamy fluid and, as Minerva had to admit, left the windows amazingly clean indeed.
The man was mostly sitting in an armchair in the living room, muttering to himself and reading furiously through the copies of Muggle newspapers that Dedalus Diggle was kind enough to get for him. Dedalus, bless him, was also tirelessly trying to become, as he put it, 'jolly good chums' with the Muggle, who ignored him pointedly, his bushy moustache trembling ominously as he was mouthing the words that he was too scared to utter.
The boy was the most peculiar of all. He spent most of the time in his room, where he was constantly lifting up heavy metal objects and putting them back down. While Minerva could understand the boy's mother's wish to clean the filthy house and his father's desperate need to receive news from his world, she was at a loss as to what the boy was doing. It didn't seem to serve any purpose.
But despite their peculiar habits, Minerva felt an unexpected and unexplained sympathy towards the Muggles. They resembled kelpies out of water. In a way, they were like Muggle-borns who came to Hogwarts for the very first time and encountered all its splendour and magic. There was no splendour here, of course, at this desolate place, but there was magic everywhere, and she knew that the Muggles would be helpless as newborn kneazles without a witch or wizard to guide them through. They couldn't so much as light the candles without resorting to the use of 'matches', which she had learned to obtain from the very angry blonde woman who ran the local shop. For all his goodwill, Dedalus wasn't the most competent of wizards to be left in charge of the Muggles, and Hestia, though far more capable, was a young and inexperienced member of the Order and not in the least acquainted with Muggle habits.
That was why Minerva has taken it upon herself to Apparate to the safe house three or four times a week to look after the Muggles. They were Harry Potter's relatives, after all, and Petunia Dursley was Lily Potter's sister. That, more than anything else, was drawing Minerva to her.
But as much as she looked for a resemblance - there was none to be found. Not in the face, nor the figure, the way of talking, the movements, the personality. It was as though Lily had got everything that was golden and warm and Gryffindor, while Petunia had got everything that was cold and clipped and sharp.
That evening, when Minerva had Apparated by the house (the man who resembled Sirius was urinating onto a pile of rubbish bags heaped by the fence), Mrs Dursley was in the backyard, sweeping furiously. She had managed to salvage one or two of the plants that had been left behind in the house and had planted them in large pots outdoors, where they looked sickly and lost. Minerva had tried to enter into a conversation with her, but Mrs Dursley looked so wrapped up in her chore that she barely acknowledged Minerva's presence. She had entered the house instead, but, suddenly, she felt so much of an intruder that she merely placed the items she had brought (more matches, some Muggle newspapers, and a pot of stew from the dinner table at Hogwarts) on the kitchen table and left instantly.
She Disapparated from behind the house and Apparated in a narrow side street in Hogsmeade; it was dark already, the autumn night falling quickly. Slowly, as though her feet were weighed down with lead, she dragged herself along the faintly-lit street towards the darkness of the lane leading to Hogwarts.
A door opened on her right-hand side and a flood of light poured into the street. In the doorframe stood a tall, thin man with a long, stringy beard.
He nodded at her, curtly. "Good evening, Professor Minerva."
"Good evening, Aberforth. How's business tonight?"
"I can't complain. It seems more and more people value a good strong drink these days."
"So I have heard. Rumour has it some of the drinks that have been leaving your premises are very strong indeed."
"Ah, but since when have you been one to listen to rumour, Professor?"
She fell silent, gazing up at him. It was uncanny how much he resembled his brother in some respects - and how little in others. The same tall, thin figure, the same piercing blue eyes. But Albus had been true to his name, Albus the White, his beard almost glowing in its whiteness and his clothes always vibrant and sparkling, while Aberforth was more Aberforth the Grey, from his untidy hair, through his dirty nails, to his grubby robes and worn-out shoes.
"Would you like to come in, Professor? Have a drink?"
She startled. "No… Thank you, Aberforth, but I really must go. It's late."
"Can't leave Hogwarts alone, eh?"
"I can't leave the children alone, no," she said with dignity.
"Don't worry about the little blighters. I'm sure my brother knew what he was doing when he left Headmaster Snape in charge."
"He didn't!" She heard her voice rise despite herself. "Snape was put in charge by the Ministry which is -" she broke off. It wasn't safe to even imply as much.
Aberforth was eyeing her with that piercing blue gaze of his. "And so he was. But who left Snape in charge for all these years? Trusting him with his - dare I say it - life?"
"He's made a mistake, Aberforth," she said, very quietly. "One mistake."
"Yes, just one, eh? Nevermind." He sighed. "Good night then, Professor Minerva. You can stop by for a drink any time you like."
The door fell closed with a soft thud, leaving her out in the darkness, and she heard the bolts slide back into place.
Today was a good day. Alice was sitting on her bed, with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, tilting her head and humming a song, like a little girl. Frank had got up from his bed and was walking through the ward with her. He didn't talk nor did she expect him to, but his eyes were bright and clear today, and he didn't seem tired even after they had crossed the room two or three times. She even considered taking him along upstairs to the visitor's tearoom, but that might upset Alice who was used to having her husband by her side all the time.
It was nice to see Frank so lively and almost cheerful. On days like these, she could almost see the old Frank shine through, with all his vigour and his courage, and through him, she saw her husband who was long dead and buried, but who had given her the best son she could have ever possibly wished for.
"There, there, Frank," she said softly as he gave a strangled groan and reached out towards a patient who was lying in a bed by the door and tossing and struggling against his constraints. "There's no need to do that. Healer!" she called out through the open door. "Healer! Do something about this man here! He's upsetting the other patients."
As a young and harassed-looking woman wearing healer robes rushed in and pulled the curtains around the bed, hiding the patient and herself from view, Augusta walked Frank slowly back to his bed and motioned him gently to lie back down. It took her some persuasion before he calmed down enough that she could pull his blanket over him and sit down on his bed beside him. Alice was no longer humming; instead, she was staring wide-eyed at her husband.
Augusta sighed and took her son's hand into hers, looking down at him and searching his face for traces of the old Frank, the real Frank, the Frank who was more than just a broken shell. "What would your father say," she whispered, barely a breath, "what would your father say if he saw you like this?" Frank snuggled up to her, turning his head and pressing his cheek to her thigh. Sometimes, he would put his head in her lap, like he used to do when he was a little boy, and she would stroke his hair. It felt so familiar and so comforting, and it reminded her of the days long gone, when Frank was a little boy and her husband was still alive. On special occasions, such as Christmas, Frank Junior would be allowed to climb into his parents' bed in the morning and snuggle between them, and Frank Senior would put his arm around her and there were a real family.
But that was then.
Vernon had never helped around the house. It was all right and proper, too - he had his work to go to everyday and he earned the money that had bought them the house and the car and the lovely family holidays, while she kept the house tidy and took care of Dudders. Just as it should be.
Except… except that it was no longer like that. Dudders was a big boy now and didn't need her all the time, and Vernon no longer had work to go to. She wasn't sure what would happen if - when! It had to be a when! Surely, this nightmare couldn't last forever? - when they went back to their life and Vernon had to go back to work and explain his absence which had already lasted far, far too long. Nobody knew what had happened to them. The Dursleys from number four, Privet Drive had disappeared without a trace.
She was the only one who carried on in this new house, in this new life, like she had done in the real world. She cleaned and she cooked (she had to use a coal stove which smoked and spit fire and made an incredible mess) and she took care of her son and her husband as well as she could, but they kept shutting her out.
Dudders spent a lot of time locked in the room he had annexed as his. She could hear him lifting weights when she snuck upstairs and pressed her ear to a glass and the glass to the door. Sometimes, she heard nothing, and sometimes, she heard him snuffle, as though he was crying, but she didn't dare knock.
But he, at least, had found an occupation. Vernon, on the other hand, Vernon hadn't. He was sitting in the comfortable armchair all day, reading one and the same newspaper over and over again or, alternately, staring into the fire. Sometimes, he would get up and pace the room - six paces to, six paces fro, six paces to, six paces fro, and she knew her husband well enough to know when to leave him alone.
She had lost track of days. There was no telling how long they had been imprisoned in that gloomy house, which, admittedly, was much larger from the inside than it had looked from the outside. They were allowed into the garden, but, as that Hestia Jones had repeatedly told them, they were on no accounts to leave the premises. As far as Petunia knew, that Hestia and that little man were assigned the task to look after them, which they apparently took to mean 'pop by every other day for a few hours and check whether the... Muggles were still alive'.
"This is a safe house," Hestia had explained when she paid them one of her occasional visits. "That means, it is protected by very powerful spells and charms that are intended to keep any potential intruders out. If any of you were to leave, the spells and charms could lose some of their potency. And in any case, the protections would no longer work and you'd be entirely helpless if any of the Death Eaters should come after you."
They had obeyed, naturally. It would have been foolish not to.
And so they had gone on for weeks. Her watch had stopped working - too much magic in the air - and there was no telly or radio. The little man, whose name, as she forced herself to remember, was Dedalus Diggle (a ridiculous, silly name, most suitable for a ridiculous, silly creature like him), had promised to bring them a 'wireless', but he warned them that it would only broadcast news from the wizarding world. "Which might not be of that much interest for you. It is not to be expected that there will be any official news on your nephew. We, the Order that is, might of course receive information regarding Harry Potter's whereabouts from other sources."
No information, regarding the boy or anything else of interest, had reached them so far. All that Diggle and Hestia could tell them was that You-Know-How - she cursed herself for not using his real name, but some irrational fear prevented her from doing so - was rising to power and that the Ministry of Magic and most of the wizarding world had been conquered.
"But we're still fighting and there's still hope," Diggle had said. "Don't you fear a thing, Mr and Mrs Dursley. As long as the Order is active, all is not lost."
At that, Vernon merely grunted. It seemed to Petunia that grunting had become his main means of communication. He grunted when he wished to tell her something and when he wished to be left alone. He grunted as a yes and as a no. He grunted to express annoyance and to express approval. He talked to Dudders sometimes, but as Dudders hardly ever left his room, these were very rare occasions indeed.
That night, she was scared. She had finished cleaning the house, had scrubbed the floors, the entire kitchen, including the oven, swept every corner (vacuuming was out of the question as there was no electricity; they lived like savages. No wonder freaks like that boy felt attracted to that life), and polished every piece of metal she could find. There was nothing left to do and, all of a sudden, she found herself panicking.
Would there be nothing else for her to do, ever? She could always start cleaning anew - and she knew she would; the fight against filth was a never ending one and must be fought every day, tirelessly. But then what? Would she really have to spend the rest of her life working like a slave in a house that she hated, for a family that rejected her?
Petunia tossed to the other side. Vernon had not come up to bed yet - seeing as he was spending his days doing nothing and often dozing for hours in his armchair, he had trouble falling asleep at night. She, on the other hand, had usually been exhausted.
Tonight, she wasn't. The feeling of dread was keeping her awake, and the unfamiliar corners of the room had never looked darker and more ominous. The solitary candle on the chest-of-drawers didn't disperse the darkness but gave it more depth, more texture. She felt the shadows crushing her down into the pillow and squeezed her eyes shut to escape them.
But that wouldn't do. She still knew the threatening shadows to be there. And in the magical world - could it be they were alive? Could it be the demons - Dementors - that had almost taken her son's soul - could they not take on the appearance of shadows? Dudders had never exactly told them what happened, but from the few words that they had got out of him she had understood that it was darkness that had come first, that had embraced him completely, until he couldn't breathe or think.
She opened her eyes abruptly. The shadows were still there, lurking above her, and she stared back in defiance.
She didn't know for how long she had been trying to stare down the shadows. She must have dozed off a couple of times, only to wake up with a start from an uneasy sleep. She heard footsteps on the landing, approaching her bedroom door. It was Vernon's heavy step, reassuringly familiar in this strange place. Her husband entered the room and came over to the bed. He began undressing by the light of the candle, and it was almost romantic. She could see the sharp outline of his silhouette as he stood there, by the chest-of-drawers, unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it off. Petunia's breath hitched at the intimate display and she felt a sudden surge of affection and - for the first time in months, years even - desire for her husband.
He took off his trousers and placed them neatly over the back of the chair, just as she had taught him. He looked so strong and manly, clad only in his vest and underpants. His upper arms were very thick and she had always liked how effortlessly he could pick her up and carry her in his arms. Not that he had done so, recently. These days were long gone. But with a sudden pang, she wished that they would come back.
He let himself drop onto the bed with a grunt and pulled the duvet over himself. More breathless than ever, Petunia scuttled closer and slid her hand under his duvet in search of his. She gripped it, tightly. It was cool to her touch.
"Dudders is surely asleep." Her heart beating madly, she whispered the words that had always been the signal that she was ready for him to come to her as her husband.
And then he said the five little words that she had been dreading to hear for all her married life.
"This is all your fault."
Vernon's cold, moist hand lay in hers like a dead fish. He pulled it back sharply and rolled over, his back to her.
Minerva had never truly appreciated how intelligent Severus' thin face was. Over the years, he had been a student and a colleague - sometimes tiresome, sometimes valued, always slightly suspicious - but now that he had become her superior, she was haunted by feelings of guilt for never having tried to understand what was going on behind that severe and ominous facade.
Sitting next to Snape at the dinner table, she couldn't but notice how little he was eating. And it was odd - despite the fact that he had betrayed them all in the worst possible way, that he had sold them out to You-Know-Who and that he had taken the life of the most noble of men - she couldn't shake off the urge to protect him from himself and stop him from self-destruction. He was a former student of hers and some remnants of loyalty to and protectiveness of him still lurked within her heart.
Minerva sighed and pushed a dish of lamb chops towards Snape.
And as he startled, as though waken from a dream, and looked at her in amazement - his expression unguarded, for once - she added in a slightly more clipped tone: "Don't forget, you do have to keep your strength to be able to do your duty to us all… to Hogwarts."
A thin smile twisted his mouth as he replied: "I would have thought, Professor McGonagall, that you'd rather I didn't."
He was looking straight into her eyes, unblinkingly, and Minerva found herself speaking almost despite herself.
"Better the devil you know, Severus."
For a split second, his eyes flickered to the place where she knew the Carrows were sitting, and with a sudden certainty, she knew that he despised them as much as she did. Driven by a mad impulse, she leaned in slightly and said in a low voice: "You are Headmaster now, Severus. You can put a stop to-"
Severus' face closed down instantly and his voice was void of all emotion as he said: "Put a stop to what, Professor McGonagall? Discipline? I wouldn't like to think that this is what you're implying. I might be forced to report it."
Her face stung as though he had hit her. "No, of course not, Headmaster."
She sat back in her chair and, as he was turning his head away from her, she heard him utter one final threat: "It would be a disaster for this school if we lost you."
He didn't touch the lamb chops and she didn't care. She made sure that all students from her House reached the relative safety of their common room well before curfew, escorted two particularly battered and bruised fifth years and one traumatised second year to the hospital wing, and watched Poppy's mouth turn into a thin line as she tended to the children. She didn't say anything and neither did Poppy; there was no need.
There were Transfiguration essays to grade and lessons to prepare. Minerva entered her study and looked around: at the heaps of parchment and books on her desk, the comfortable armchair by the fire, the table strewn with notes and even more parchments, the fireplace with the glowing embers, the shelf with the many old books, and wondered when, exactly, she had stopped feeling at home there. There was a bottle of good Scottish firewhisky sitting on the table. She had never understood Sirius Black so well as she did now.
Fighting the urge to transform and curl up in front of the fire, Minerva pulled on her travelling cloak and left her study, closing the door quietly. Perhaps it wasn't fair to the children to leave them alone and unprotected, but she felt that tonight, should something happen, all she could do, would be sit down and cry.
The night air was crisp and the wind tugged on her cloak and her hat. She gripped the brim with her hands and ran down the slope, taking deep breaths that cleared her lungs and her thoughts. Without even quite knowing how, she found herself standing in the narrow side street in Hogsmeade, where she stared at the heavy, chipped wooden door for a few moments, before raising her hand to the door knocker.
Aberforth was his usual gruff self when he let her in. He walked over to the bar, took out two glasses, which he polished with a grimy cloth before filling them with a golden liquid from a bottle that he pulled out from somewhere under the bar, and placed one of the glasses before her. They drank in silence, Minerva perched on a tall stool, and Aberforth leaning against the bar, swirling his whisky in the glass.
"It's past curfew," she said at last, not quite looking at him. "There might be trouble."
He shrugged. "The bar is officially closed. I can bloody well have a drink with a friend if I want to."
"Are you alone?"
"Not anymore, I'm not."
"I mean," Minerva cleared her throat and shifted in her seat. The stool was rather wobbly. "I mean, aren't there any of... your more illicit customers here? In the back room?"
"Death Eaters, you mean!" Aberforth took another gulp of whisky and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Hah! They think they can come and go as they please, but I'm not having any of that! Curfew means curfew, for them just as much as for everybody else."
"Do many of them come here?"
Aberforth gave a short laugh. "What is this, Professor Minerva? Are you trying to sound me out?" He leaned in, bracing himself on his elbows on the bar, and spoke in a very low and even voice: "Yes, they use my bar as a place to trade illegal potions and poisons. But what am I to do? I leave 'em alone, they leave me alone - that's the deal. And what're you gonna do, Professor Minerva? Report me to the Ministry? To the headmaster of Hogwarts? Hah!"
"Don't be stupid," she said sharply, anger welling up inside her and filling her with the courage and energy she had so desperately missed. "Of course I'm not going to report you. I am merely amazed that you let them use you like that. Your brother -"
"My brother," said Aberforth, his voice rising threateningly, "my brother would have struck a deal with the devil himself if he thought it served his purpose."
"I will never understand how you can talk about Albus like that - desecrate his memory like that! He was the most noble, most self-sacrificing man I have ever known, and whatever he did, he did it-" she broke off, frowning at the sight of the sly smile curling Aberforth's mouth.
"-for a greater good, eh?" he finished the sentence for her. "Ay, that he did. And believe me, if he thought that selling poisons from Hogwarts would help him achieve his aim, he wouldn't hesitate one second." He put down his glass, took up the bottle and refilled Minerva's. "He kept that poisonous snake around for years, because he thought it might be useful."
"I think," said Minerva, "I know why." Aberforth looked up at her sharply and she continued: "I don't mean that I know Albus' reasons, but tonight - I got a glimpse of what he possibly saw. Snape is... Snape can seem like a trustworthy man, sometimes, when the mask drops for a moment." She sighed and took a sip of the whisky. "It happened tonight - Snape let me think that I could trust him, and I did. For that moment, I did. I wanted to believe that he was an ally." She laughed. "There's no fool like an old fool, is there, Aberforth?"
"Is this why you're here now?" he asked, softly, his brilliantly blue eyes piercing her from behind his dirty spectacles. "Looking for an ally?"
"Yes. Yes, I suppose it is," Minerva laughed again and shook her head, as though trying to dislodge dreary thoughts. Aberforth reached out a dirty hand and wrapped it around hers.
"You've found him."
Ever since You-Know-Who had begun rising to power again, the witches and wizards have become more and more afraid of leaving the safety of their homes. Hidden behind their protective charms and spells, most people were spending their days at home, dreading the unknown. Augusta Longbottom didn't approve of that attitude. That was exactly what made it so easy for the Death Eaters to take power: they were the only ones who moved around freely, controlling what was going on within the wizarding community and intimidating the fools who let themselves be intimidated.
That was why she had not given up any of her old habits. Her life had not exactly been a very busy one since Neville had left for Hogwarts, but just as she made sure to get up every day and visit Frank and Alice at St. Mungo's, she also made sure to set up the tea table every Friday afternoon as to be prepared for callers.
Algernon and Enid would most often make the effort. Augusta was quite confident that they would come today, and she had even prepared the custard-filled cup cakes she knew Algernon liked so much. Enid had for some time been having trouble with her teeth and did no longer eat anything with much sugar in it; she had even given up on her beloved apple tart and gave Augusta the recipe with the words that now that she no longer had a use for it, at least she wanted to pass it down to her younger sister to make sure the secret recipe stayed in the family.
There was a knock at the door. Augusta straightened her vulture-topped hat in front of the mirror and walked slowly to the door. A muttered spell revealed Algernon standing on the doorstep. His tall wizard's hat was sitting slightly askew and he was holding a bunch of flowers in one hand. Some of them were already wilting. Augusta pursed her lips in disapproval. That was Algernon for you. Nothing of his brother Frank's effortless grace and elegance. Algernon always managed to look slightly scruffy, like a mangy street tom.
She opened the door. "Good afternoon, Algernon," she greeted as he grinned at her, displaying his crooked teeth, and held out the flowers. "Wipe your feet before you come in."
She took the flowers and carried them through to the living room. She could hear Algernon shuffling across the carpet behind her.
"Thank you for the flowers. They're very nice," she said, waving her wand to fill a vase with water and move it to the mantelpiece.
"There's Singing Daffodils among them," Algernon said, seating himself in her armchair and stretching out his legs across half the length of her living room. "They're very rare these days - at least the ones with a good singing voice are. It takes a skilful Herbologist to teach them to hold a note and carry a tune."
"I see," said Augusta. "But you know I've never been one much for music."
His eyes flickered to a small, worn book that was lying on the mantelpiece beside the large portrait of Frank Senior and a photograph of Frank Junior and Alice. He knew as well as she did what "The Language of Flowers" had to say about daffodils.
"Ah, you know me, Gustie," Algernon said lightly, "always bringing something to give to your Neville."
"Neville is at school." Augusta poured Algernon a cup of tea and put two spoonfuls of sugar in. "He won't be back home for some time."
"Heard from him lately?"
"I have had a letter recently," said Augusta, carrying the cup to her lips and putting it back down. The tea was still too hot. "He seems to be doing fine. He's turned out well," she added proudly. "Just like his father before him. And his father before him."
They drank in silence, the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the corner and the chattering of the birds outside the window the only sounds. Algernon was humming under his breath. After a few minutes, the melody was picked up by a second, rather higher and more melodious voice. Algernon's face lit up.
"Listen to that!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "They're singing!"
And indeed, the bright yellow flowers had raised their heads and were swaying gently as dulcet tones were emitting from between their petals. Algernon was gazing at them lovingly and he stretched out a finger to caress one of the green leaves.
"You can trust me, Gustie, you know," he said abruptly.
"Of course I know, Algernon. Don't be silly." Augusta pursed her lips, looking at him over the rim of her cup. "You're Frank's brother."
"Everyone knows that the regime at Hogwarts-" he broke off, sighing deeply. "Just what news do you have from Neville, Gustie? You must know something."
"I do know that Neville does his family credit." Her heart swelled with pride at the thought of her grandson, right there in the thick of things, fighting against You-Know-Who and his Dark wizards. "We knew that time would come when he would have to, and I am very proud that he doesn't shrink back from his duty."
"It could cost him his life," Algernon said quietly.
"So be it. That didn't stop his father, nor his father-"
"Gustie!" Algernon strode over to her and dropped to his knees by her chair. "Augusta! Just listen to what you say! You're sending your grandson into a battle that is as good as lost! Neville could die there! You might never see him again! And all that in the name of his-"
"Family," she interrupted sharply. "Yes, Algernon, in the name of the family he is part of and the name he carries. Neville is fighting just as his ancestors have been fighting."
"And have died," said Algernon, his eyes flashing. "Your husband and my brother - dead. Your son - as good as-"
"Don't you dare speak of Frank like that!"
"But it's true! You know it's true! Frank and Alice have fought valiantly - nobody denies that. But what for? For a better world? A better life for their son? - The world is what it's always been, and their son has to fight the same futile fight as they did. You tell me, Gustie: where is the sense to it?"
"So what do you suggest, Algernon? Should we all just sit back and do nothing? Let You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters take over and rule over us like over a bunch of house-elves? Is that what you want?"
"No!" Algernon seized her hand with a violence that stunned her and pressed it to his chest. "No, Augusta, what I am saying is: go away with me! You, me and Neville - we could still go away, there's still time. Don't let him go back to Hogwarts after the break. We could head for Europe or maybe even further - I've got enough gold at Gringotts, it's yours, if you want it."
"Get up, Algernon, this instant!" Augusta drew back her hand sharply. "And stop being ridiculous. I'm not going anywhere. My place is here, and so is Neville's. And so is yours, if you only chose to see it. I'm not going to disgrace my husband's name by running away! And I'll have you know, Algernon, that your name will never be spoken in this house again should you abandon your family and your country in such disgraceful manner."
Algernon rose slowly to his feet. "You've never had a high opinion of me, I know that," he said. "I'm just the silly little man tinkering around with weeds in his greenhouse. Not the great big hero like my brother. But I love you, Augusta, I always have. And I will be there if you need me."
After the door had fallen shut behind him, Augusta shifted in her armchair and replaced Algernon's used cup with a fresh one for Enid. She would be here any moment, Augusta was sure of that.
She looked up at the painting of her husband. His gaze was full of tenderness. "My darling Augusta," he said, "oh, how I miss you. You're worth ten of him."
"I miss you, too, Frank," she said softly.
The Singing Dandelions had begun singing another, slower tune, telling in the language of the flowers of deep regard and unrequited love.
"Get back 'ere, you little cunts! I'll 'ave your balls for this!"
The shouts and curses, rancorous laughter and sound of running feet erupted on the other side of the fence. Petunia had long got used to it. She hardly ever flinched anymore when she heard the foul language and had stopped sending Dudders inside when the delinquent children from next door (she had not yet found out how many there were - they seemed to multiply over night) poured out into the garden chasing their drunkard of a father or, alternately, being chased by him.
"This is stupid," said Dudders suddenly. He was sitting in a deckchair and browsing through a magazine that Hestia had brought recently for Petunia. It had a picture of a beaming woman in a tall, pink hat on the cover and was titled Witch Weekly. Petunia had loudly refused to touch it, and she then read it secretly, in the hope to find some decent advice on how to manage a magical household, but she had given up in frustration as all the tips required the use of a wand.
Petunia straightened up from weeding and wiped her sweaty forehead with her forearm. "What is, popkin?"
"You can't tear balls off cunts."
"Dudley!" Petunia froze in shock.
"I know he was speaking metaphorically," said Dudley, still leafing through the magazine and not even bothering to look up. "But still, it sounds stupid."
"Dudley," Petunia unfroze and sagged down helplessly. "Dudders, I'll have no such language in my house."
"This isn't your house," Dudley said. "And it's not my fault that they're swearing all day. It's either listening to them or," he lowered his voice and nodded at the house, "to that little moron trying to cheer up Dad. No-one else talks around here. Well - Hestia does. Sometimes."
Petunia took a deep, shuddering breath and clambered to her feet. For a few moments, she stood in the middle of the garden, holding a weeder in one hand and garden shears in the other. Her thoughts were running in frantic circles, and then she thought of something that she had read in a women's magazine, and she tried it out on her son.
"Your mummy and daddy have some little problems, popkin," she said gently, "but that doesn't mean that we don't love you."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever," said Dudley, standing up and throwing the magazine on the deckchair. "I'm seventeen, Mum, not seven."
She watched her big, grown-up son lumber towards the house and disappear through the door, and the tears that she had been suppressing for months were streaming down her face.
Dudley was nowhere to be seen when she went back inside. He must have locked himself in his room again. She had wiped her face so that no-one would see she'd been crying and walked through the house aimlessly. Vernon was in the living room, staring into the fire again, while Dedalus Diggle tried to entertain him with tales of goblins and dragons. The wireless was playing in the background, and Hestia Jones was just bringing a pot of tea and several cups through from the kitchen, levitating them in the air with her wand.
Something inside Petunia snapped.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, her voice rising to a high pitch. "What are you doing?!"
They all startled. The tea pot dropped to the floor, and even Vernon looked up from his stupor.
"Which one of us?" asked Hestia uncertainly.
"All of you! Any of you! Why are you here, invading our privacy, while outside- the people outside- is there a war going on or not?!" she shrieked. "Why are you here, pretending to be civil to us… drinking tea in this hole, instead of fighting so that we can go back home? This place isn't good for us - look what it did to my husband! What it's doing to me!" she broke down, sobbing hysterically into her hands.
She felt a warm hand on her back and the presence of someone standing beside her. But it wasn't Vernon, and that realisation made her cry harder than ever.
"Please, Mrs Dursley," said Hestia Jones, "please don't cry. I know that it must be difficult for you, but I didn't… we didn't…" Hestia Jones was stroking up and down her back soothingly. "You never seemed to care much of what was going on outside, in our world, so we didn't really talk to you about it."
"What do you mean?" sobbed Petunia. "Of course we want to know. We want to know what's going on-"
The room fell silent at once. Petunia turned around and saw that Dudley had come down the stairs and was standing in the doorway, filling it out with his bulk.
'"I've been listening to the wireless," he said, his face going very red. But he ploughed on bravely. "There is no news about Harry fighting the war. They only say that he has killed that man, Dumbledore, and that he's on the run from the Ministry. I dunno what that means. And nobody explains."
"Well, it's bloody effing obvious, isn't it!" roared Vernon and everybody jumped. Vernon had risen from his seat and was pointing an accusatory finger in their direction, his moustache trembling. "That abnormal freak and his abnormal comrades have lured us out of our house and have trapped us in this effing hellhole and are now laughing behind our backs! Potter is not fighting that Lordy... Voldy... Thing! There probably is no effing Lord Whatshisname! And - how could we have ever doubted it - Potter is a criminal! He's already sold our house and is now on the run with the gains!"
Vernon fell silent, breathing heavily. The room was completely quiet, except the buzzing of a fat fly that was criss-crossing the air over their heads. Hestia Jones and Dedalus Diggle were staring at Vernon, who towered over everybody majestically, his chest puffed up in righteous anger and his jaw firmly set.
"I thank you for leaving me and my husband alone," Petunia said in a shaky voice. Nobody moved. "Now!"
Dedalus Diggle jumped to his feet and scuttled from the room, squeezing past Dudley. Hestia Jones followed suit, pulling Dudley away with her. The door slammed shut.
"I don't think that the boy is on the run with the money from our house." Her voice was still shaky, but was getting firmer with every word he spoke. "And neither do you, Vernon." She stepped closer to him and placed a hand on his quivering cheek. "But it was magnificent the way you told them, Vernon. They will never bother you again, my poor darling husband."
That night, Vernon blew out the candle before he came to bed. Under the cover of darkness, his hand wandered over to her side of the bed, along her flank and came to rest on her stomach. Petunia's breath hitched. Vernon's fingers moved slowly, pulling the fabric up until it was bunched around her waist, and then, he rolled over and onto her, grunting slightly at the effort. Petunia spread her legs for him and waited, waited until he had braced himself and then, huffing and panting, pushed himself into her and, moving in the forceful pace she loved so much, made love to her for the first time in months.
It had been a while since she had last visited the house. Hestia Jones and Dedalus Diggle were the principal contact witch and wizard for the Muggles, and Minerva's impression had always been that they were handling the Dursleys rather well. Mr and Mrs Dursley were mostly quiet and subdued whenever she saw them and seemed to have adapted to their surroundings. They no longer flinched when the portrait on the wall spoke to them or when the candles floated over their heads while they walked from one room to another.
However, there atmosphere in the house was very different now from what it used to be on her previous visits. As soon as she entered the kitchen, she heard stomping and shouting, and in the next moment, a very red-faced Vernon Dursley appeared in the door leading to the living room.
"A-ha!" he bellowed. "An intruder! Do you people think that you can come and go as you please in our house?!"
Minerva drew herself up to her full height and looked the enraged Muggle straight in the eye. "This is not your house, Mr Dursley!" she said. "This is not your house and I will not be spoken to like that!"
"When will we be going back to our house, then?" he demanded, his bushy moustache quivering with every word. "I don't see you make an effort to get us back. My wife, however, has been making an effort to make this place fit for human habitation, so it is only right and proper to consider it our house. I don't know what the places you people call home look like, but by the look of this pigsty-"
"That's enough!" Minerva's mouth had gone so thin that it was almost painful to speak. "It is for your own safety that you are here, Mr Dursley, and if you don't understand it-"
"My own safety, my arse!" roared that appalling man. "I would have been safer in my own home, with my sister's shotgun in my hands, than in this effing hole-"
"Mr Dursley!" she took a deep breath through her nose, her nostrils quivering. "You and your family are Harry Potter's relatives and as such are in a great deal of danger-"
"Potter, eh?" he shouted. "And where is he, that Potter? Fighting that Lord-thing, is he? Problem is, my dear woman-"
"I am not your dear woman," Minerva shouted, "don't you dare!"
They were standing almost nose to nose now, and Minerva could smell a mixture of sweat, firewhisky, Mrs Scower's All-Purpose Magical Laundry Cleaner and some stinging Muggle cologne. Everything about that man disgusted her, but she valiantly suppressed a shudder and forced herself to be reasonable.
"Mr Dursley," she said through clenched teeth. "I assure you that your nephew is, in fact, fighting You-Know-Who, and we are all doing what we can to support him."
She blinked. Vernon Dursley startled. They both looked around and saw Dudley Dursley leaning over the banister with a frown on his big face.
"Go back to your room, young man!" said Vernon Dursley. "This is none of your business."
"But I want to know." Dudley began climbing down the stairs, slowly, but determined nevertheless. "I want to know what you are doing. What Harry is doing."
Minerva raised her eyebrows. "You do? From what I hear you have never expressed any interest in what Harry was doing."
"Are you one of his teachers?" Dudley had reached the bottom of the stairs and was hovering on the lowest step uncertainly. "In that freak pl- that school?"
"What makes you think that?"
"Dunno." The boy mumbled in that annoying manner of all adolescents, wizard or Muggle. "You look like a teacher."
"Dudley, I told you once, I won't tell you twice," said Vernon Dursley, but without any real fire to it. "Just go upstairs and leave me to deal with that... that..." he caught Minerva's eye and finished weakly, "woman."
"If your son really wants to know what is going on, you can't just send him away," Minerva said haughtily.
"We'll see about that!" Vernon Dursley bristled up. "Dudley! Your room! Now!"
"You try and make me!" shouted Dudley. "I always have to obey your insane orders! I'll be eighteen soon, then I can do what I want! And then what will you do?"
"That's enough!" Vernon Dursley roared, his face almost purple with rage.
"Yes, that is enough!" shouted another voice. Petunia Dursley was standing in the living room door, with a scarf wrapped around her head to protect her hair from dust and wearing long yellow rubber gloves. "Vernon! Dudley! What is going on here? What's all the shouting?"
"That woman's just barged in!" bellowed Vernon, while Dudley yelled: "Mum, tell him to shut up! I want her to stay!"
Minerva and Petunia's gazes locked across the room. To Minerva's great surprise, Petunia inclined her head ever so slightly, and Minerva accepted the unspoken invitation and, stepping around father and son who were still shouting abuses at each other, followed the other woman into the living room.
There were fresh flowers on the table and the painting on the wall had been covered up with thick green cloth. Petunia pulled off her yellow gloves and made a fuss offering Minerva the comfortable armchair by the fireplace and arranging tea cups, saucers, spoons, plates, and doilies on the coffee table. Her thin cheeks were very flushed.
"Tea will be ready soon," she said in a high-pitched voice. "I'm afraid it all takes a little bit longer, boiling the water on the coal stove."
"I can help there-" said Minerva, pulling out her wand, but Petunia flinched at the sight.
"No. Please don't. We don't use mag-" she bit her lip and continued, "We rather do it our way in this house, if you don't mind. Vernon can give me a hand." A still-angry Vernon Dursley, who had just stepped over the threshold to the living room, found himself being grabbed by his wife and pulled back into the kitchen. Dudley, who had followed his father, looked at his parents in surprise, but merely shrugged as the door fell shut behind them and lumbered towards the tea table.
Minerva looked him up and down as he was standing before her, shuffling his feet uneasily and clearly at a loss as to what to do with his hands. She almost smiled at the sight.
"Your shirt is untucked," she said.
"Oh, right!" He began to frantically tuck it in, his face getting redder and redder. Finally, he smoothed down his shirt front and thrust his hands into his pockets.
"Take your hands out of your pockets. You may sit down now." And as he did, almost stumbling over his own feet in the process, she pushed the open biscuit tin towards him. "Have a biscuit."
"No, thank you, Mrs-" Dudley broke off, frowning.
"McGonagall. That's Professor McGonagall. And now have a biscuit and tell me what it is that you want to know about Harry Potter."
He reached out a thick-fingered hand, grabbed a scone and jammed it into his mouth.
"I 'ant 'o 'oo 'at's 'e 'oo-in'," he said, spitting crumbs down his shirtfront.
"What has your mother told you about speaking with your mouth full?"
He swallowed frantically, almost choking. "Not to do it."
"That's right. Well, what is it that you want to know?"
"Harry. Where is he? I have heard on the radio-"
Minerva frowned. "The what?"
"The radio." Dudley pointed to a sad heap of metal parts on the windowsill. "It's no longer working. Dad went mad one day when it was talking about how Harry killed that old man, and he smashed it to bits."
"He was right not to believe these rumours," Minerva said. "Harry Potter did most definitely not kill Albus Dumbledore!"
"No, dad does believe it," Dudley said. "That's what got him so mad. He thinks it's all been a ruse to lure us away and hold us prisoner. And that Harry really is a criminal. He isn't, is he?" he added.
"Of course he isn't!" Minerva snorted. "Harry Potter - a criminal! This is all part of the Ministry's - that means You-Know-Who's - plot to discredit him! As I'm sure Hestia and Dedalus have been telling you again and again, Harry Potter is on a mission to destroy You-Know-Who."
"They haven't really been telling us all that much," Dudley said. He shifted in his seat uneasily. "Well, Hestia has… a bit. But my dad thinks that it's all lies."
She regarded him intensely, until he squirmed under her gaze.
"And what do you think, Dudley?"
Augusta had always liked the sea. It was scary and majestic and she sometimes idly imagined selling her house in Theddlethorpe-All-Saints and moving to a cottage by the sea side, where she would always be waken by the roaring of the waves and the howling of the wind. That was out of the question, of course. No respectable witch like herself could abandon her family house. Especially not now - people might get ideas and suppose that she had fled from her responsibilities. That must not be.
But it felt good to stand in the middle of a sandy beach, and to watch the waves turn darker and darker as evening fell. There was an abundance of lights behind her and around her - that was how Muggles were trying to disperse darkness and despair. There were plenty of Muggles around, too, but none of them came too close. A little old lady wrapped in a long cloak and wearing a tall vulture-topped hat was an oddity even by the standards of this place. One particularly adventurous child had approached her, asking to be photographed with her, but she only gave him a look that sent him running back to his mother as quickly as his short legs would carry him. She saw him later having a photograph taken with a man dressed up as a North American warrior and then with another one who wore a tight white suit, a black wig and tinted glasses. She guessed that this attire must be peculiar, even for Muggles, but she couldn't be quite sure.
She turned away from the sea and started walking back, climbed the steps leading to the promenade, scowled at a group of clearly imbibed youths who staggered out of her way, walked past Muggle takeaways, seafood and beverage stands, and gathering points from whence waiting Muggles were picked up by their droll trains. She watched the Muggles stumble about, shouting and laughing, children carrying balloons that were larger than themselves, pulling their parents into gift shops and ice cream parlours across the road, and Muggle men and women scurrying in and out of buildings illuminated with flashing lights in many colours, with names like "Fun Palace" and "Lucky Star".
She reached the North Pier at last, where she lingered for a while, looking out at the sea and the tower in the distance. Algernon had once pushed Neville off the end of the pier to force him to do magic. It had not worked and they had to Summon the boy before he drowned, and to Obliviate the bewildered and angry Muggle mob forming around them.
Algernon, the poor stupid man, had assumed that their trip to Blackpool meant that he was permitted to make his advances. He wasn't, of course. She was quite insulted that he dared sully the memory of his brother Frank and told him so in unmistakable words. It seemed that Algernon took them to heart, because he had never since said any more of that nonsense. Not until now.
Augusta sighed. Algernon was family, and he was her Frank's brother, and she owed him her gratitude as it was he who had made Neville perform magic when everyone else had almost given up hope. She owed him the fact that Neville was turning into a man of whom she could be proud. She mustn't slight him.
Augusta turned on the spot and Disapparated, heading for the place where she hoped to learn something about her grandson's latest actions.
It was as though she had just accidentally turned a particularly powerful Time-Turner. Aberforth's bar was as dark and dingy as she remembered it. It had been a long time since she had last come here, and she had the impression that the sawdust covering the floor had never been replaced and that the few people sitting solitarily at the dirty and battered tables and gazing silently into their drinks were the same ones as on her last visit. The familiar smell of goats hung in the air.
Aberforth was standing in the same old pose behind his bar, polishing a glass with the same old rag. He barely looked up when she entered. But as she approached the bar, a glass that looked almost clean appeared on the scratched wooden surface and Aberforth was filling it with a golden liquid.
"The usual?" he asked in his gravely voice as he placed the glass before her. Augusta's mouth twitched with vague irritation at his assumption.
"Good evening, Aberforth," she said primly. "I see you haven't changed."
"Neither have you, Augusta. You haven't aged one bit since I last saw you."
Despite herself, Augusta's hand crept up to straighten her vulture-topped hat. She pulled her hand back with an annoyed snort. "Don't be silly, Aberforth," she said, but without any real conviction to it. Aberforth's blue eyes were twinkling.
Augusta looked around. "I'll never understand how you can make a living running this place. I've never seen more than half a dozen people in here. Or do any Hogwarts students come in here on Hogsmeade weekends?"
"Not any more," said Aberforth calmly. "Far as I know, the school rules are rather stricter these days."
"I don't assume you keep in touch with the school now that your brother is dead."
"It's not like he and I were close in the first place." Aberforth let go of the filthy rag and leaned in conspiratorially. "So if you came here to question me about what's going on in the school, I've got to tell you, you got the wrong man. I'm not all that well informed."
Augusta nodded slowly and emptied her glass. She took a few silver coins from her handbag. "Keep the change, Aberforth. My apologies for taking up your time."
"But I know someone who is very well informed indeed," he continued in the same low tone. "Professor Minerva is likely to turn up at any moment now, for a nightcap."
Augusta pursed her lips. "Minerva McGonagall? She didn't let Neville continue with NEWT-level Transfiguration, you know."
"Was he any good at it?" Aberforth asked. "I can't imagine Minerva stopping any student from attending her classes if he's talented enough."
"He would have been if he put his mind to it. He just lacks the confidence his father had. She made him take Charms instead."
"Ah, Charms!" said Aberforth, a slow smile spreading across his face. "Many people underestimate how many possibilities a well executed Charm opens up to you!"
"If I recall correctly," said Augusta coldly, "the skill didn't do you any good. Something of a calamity, wasn't there? A Charm gone wrong?"
"There was nothing inappropriate about charming my goat," said Aberforth, and Augusta winced. "Amazing creatures, goats. Humans underestimate them, too. They're very clever and make good companions. And give delicious milk - which is more that can be said of most human companions."
"That's enough," said Augusta, cringing. "Stop talking like an imbecile."
"You sound just like Minerva. You two will get on like a house on fire."
"Are you sure she's coming? I don't want to waste my time waiting here if she's not."
"Oh, she is coming," said Aberforth. "She most definitely is."
Petunia was running. She hadn't run in years. It wasn't proper and it wasn't dignified and it made her side stitch and her breath come in short, sharp gasps, and her hair had come undone and she was still wearing her slippers. A group of nasty, tattooed boys shouted something obscene at her, and for the first time in decades the long-forgotten - dead, buried - wish sizzled inside her again: to be able to do what her sister did, to hold a thin piece of wood in her hand and use it to turn these horrible people into slimy creatures that she could crush under her feet. But she wasn't like Lily, not a freak, just a normal woman, a loving, devoted wife and mother, and she was looking for her husband, because if he had run off, she would lose herself.
The pain in her side had got too much. Petunia staggered to a halt and leaned against a wall, clutching her side. "Vernon!" she screamed desperately, before a coughing fit seized her and she doubled up in pain, wheezing and gasping for air, reduced to a hoarse whispering, "Vernon…"
She smelled the stink even before she saw the man. "What can I do for you, good woman?" The words came out very slurred, and as she looked up, she saw the horrible drunk who was living next door to the... the 'safe house' stand before her with a beer can in his hand, swaying on the spot.
"What do you want?" Petunia shrieked. "Go away!"
He had the insolence to look offended. "What d'you mean, what do I want? Been running around the estate and calling me name, haven't you, you mad bitch? And 'ere I am, all yours." He made a mock-bow which nearly sent him sprawling. He staggered around on wobbly legs until he regained his balance and added: "Vernon Francis Gallagher, at your service. Ma'm."
"Oh, God," said Petunia weakly, pressing her handbag to her chest in a protective gesture. "Help. Please. Someone help me."
She watched in horror as the unshaven, smelly, greasy-haired, filthy-clothed and filthy-mouthed creature lurched closer, rummaging in his coat pockets and muttering to himself. There was dried blood around his nose. He finally found what he was looking for and pulled out a small plastic bag, emptied it on his palm and frowned. "Cheatin' cunt! I paid for ten, I did. But nobody respects the working man's money, the greedy bastards!"
He reached out a dirty hand and Petunia almost fainted. "Please, just go away," she pleaded, pressing her back into the reassuringly solid wall behind her. "Don't hurt me."
"Hurt you?" He looked genuinely surprised. "What on earth for? 'ere. 'ave one of these. Makes you feel better a treat."
A couple of small round pills were lying in his palm. Petunia eyed them nervously.
"I'd rather not, thank you."
"Oh just take one, woman! It'll do you good. Wipe that sour look off your face."
Petunia shot an anxious glance left and right. The street was deserted, it was only her and that maniac. She'd better do what he wanted; you never knew what he'd do if she refused.
She forced herself to give him a reassuring smile, feeling as though her face was twisted by a cramp, took up one of the small pills and held it cautiously between her thumb and forefinger. He was watching her, and so there was nothing else she could do but to place the pill in her mouth (it felt harmless enough) and pray to heaven that he had not given her rat poison.
She swallowed, squeezing her eyes shut, and waited for stomach cramps to start and a painful death to follow.
Amazingly, nothing happened. When she opened her eyes again a few moments later, feeling very foolish, the man had gone. Petunia blinked. The street was perfectly empty, except for a scabby black cat that was sitting in the middle of the pavement, washing itself. Had that horrible man turned into the cat? No, surely that wasn't possible. People couldn't turn into animals, she mustn't allow herself think like that. Or had she just dreamed the entire encounter? Was that all a result of magic wreaking havoc with her mind and senses? Were that man and the feeling of horror that she had felt part of some... enchantment, designed to keep her trapped in the house? She definitely felt better now. Petunia took a deep breath and fell into a trot. She didn't know where she was going; the area was entirely unfamiliar to her, but she knew that she had to find her Vernon.
The longer she walked, the more fear and anxiety subsided, replaced by warmth and tranquillity. Petunia didn't know and didn't care where she was heading. It felt good to just be walking, moving around in the fresh air, seeing new faces, and she found herself smiling at the people she met and at the world at large. Vernon would come back to her, she was sure of that now, she or Dudders would find him, and they would bring him back to the house and then they all would go back to their proper home, pick up their life again and forget about that nightmare of a life.
Eventually, Petunia stopped. She had arrived at a small square. There was a corner shop there - albeit a very suspicious looking one - and she decided on a whim to go in, despite the group of boys of a delinquent appearance loitering by the entrance and pretending to kick around a football.
They shouted something at her as she went pass them, but it didn't matter. For some reason, she couldn't see them very well, anyway; her vision was somewhat blurry - surely an after effect of having been cooped up in that house for so long. Her eyes were no longer accustomed to open spaces and sunlight.
Her hand was almost touching the door handle when the sound of running feet reached her ears, but before she could so much as turn around or even utter a sound, she got brutally slammed into the wall. Her vision blackened at the impact and the air was knocked out from her lungs. Petunia tried to scream, but it was as though her mouth was filled with cotton wool. Rough hands held her easily in place, despite her struggling, and someone pried her handbag from her grip. And then there was screaming, a woman's voice, and the hands let go of her.
Petunia whirled around, a sudden surge of anger propelling her, and saw a blonde woman in a Paki-style dress wield a solid wooden club at her attackers, shouting abuses at the top of her voice. "Not by my shop, you filthy cunts!"
Petunia stooped down and picked up her handbag that her attackers had dropped. She saw them scurry away, but didn't care much. She directed her attention at the woman instead, a common-looking working-class woman with a hard face.
"Thank you," Petunia said stiffly, patting her hair which she felt looked a mess. The woman shrugged.
"I didn't do it for you," she said. "Can't 'ave SCUM LIKE THAT," she shouted after the retreating boys, "hang around my shop, putting punters off."
But Petunia wasn't listening. She was looking at the baseball bat in the woman's hands.
"Where can I get one of these?"
The woman shot her an annoyed glance and disappeared back inside the shop.
Petunia suddenly shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. She remained standing there quite still a few moments longer, then, her mouth thinning into a determined line, followed the woman inside. She had the right to shop there just as any other free citizen.
She was browsing the shelves, enjoying herself so much as if she were in the middle of an M&S sale, and picking up individual items here and there. She mustn't forget getting a newspaper for Vernon; he wasn't happy at all with the papers the wizard had brought him this morning.
And as if by magic, the moment she thought her husband's name, the door opened and Vernon himself stepped in, looking magnificent in all his sturdy manliness, followed by her just as attractive, strong son. It was no wonder the blonde woman at the counter looked up from the magazine she was reading and gazed at them in amazement.
"Vernon!" Petunia squealed, overjoyed. "Over here!"
He stomped over, looking around in disdain, and she reached out a hand and straightened his collar. "Really, Vernon, just because we are forced to live like that, there is no need to look scruffy," she said affectionately. "And you too, popkin," she added with a look at Dudders. "Tuck in your shirt and do up your shoe laces."
Her son's face was rather pink, but he obeyed her like the good boy that he was. Vernon glowered at her. "What are you doing here, Petunia? This is no place for you."
"Shopping," she said brightly.
"Why didn't you stay in the house?"
"I've been looking for you, Vernon." Petunia pressed her palm to her husband's cheek, feeling his moustache tickle her thumb. "I've been worried you've… gone. For good."
"For good!" He laughed. "You silly girl! As if I'd ever leave you!"
"I know that now, Vernon. But you were gone, and I was all alone and didn't know… I was scared."
"That little idiot was getting on my nerves. I had to get out there, get a decent pint. Went to a pub, just around the corner. And then Dudders appears, tells me you're worried, looking for me. So we went looking for you." His gaze fell on her shopping basket. "We don't need this!" he said. "Nor this. Don't forget, Petunia, we don't have quite so much money as we are used to. And I'm not going to write another cheque for the wizards. I don't like the idea of these freaks cashing my cheques. What will the bank manager think?"
"They don't go to our bank," said Petunia. "And anyway - we can obviously leave the house without anything horrible happening. We could always go to a cashpoint."
Vernon merely grunted.
"Excuse me!" Petunia called to the blonde woman. "Do you know whether there is a cashpoint around here?"
The woman snorted. "Around here? It would get vandalised right away. No, you'll have to go to town for that. And if you don't have any money, then fuck off from my shop!"
"How dare you!" bellowed Vernon. "Do we look like we had no money? You serve this scum, you'll serve us!"
The woman opened her mouth to argue, but thought better of it. Compared with the other shoppers, of whom there was only a handful, Vernon looked wealthy like the Prince of Wales himself: tall and imposing, strong and well-fed, and dressed in a crisp shirt, a freshly ironed pair of trousers and shiny shoes.
"You have all you want, Petunia?" he asked in a loud voice. "Is there anything else you need? Have whatever you like. You too, Dudley."
Dudley immediately began filling the shopping basket with sweets, cans of Cola and beer, energiser drinks, and sport magazines. Vernon's moustache twitched. "That's right, my son," he said. "Everything you want."
"Do you need anything, Vernon?" asked Petunia, handing her husband the full basket and picking up a second one. Dudley carried one, too. "I got you some newspapers, but I wasn't sure whether I got them right."
"As long as it isn't that damn Guardian," said Vernon. "That ruddy… freak got me The Guardian and The Independent today. What does he think I am? Some effing pinko liberal?"
"Oh no, I know that!" said Petunia quickly. "I got you The Daily Mail, but I was wondering whether you might want The Telegraph, too?"
"Might as well," Vernon grumbled. "There's nothing else to do in that bloody house than read. Telegraph's got a decent sport section."
"We've got everything, then," said Petunia cheerfully, taking her husband's arm. "Let's go home, Vernon."
Ever since Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood had tried to steal Godric's sword from Dumbledore's office, the rules prohibiting any communication between students and teachers had been tightened. It had become almost impossible to talk to students without Snape or one of his spies and stooges breathing down her neck. Ironically enough, it was undoubtedly thanks to his many years of experience as a member of the Order and spy for Voldemort that Snape had become so very well-versed when it came to setting up and maintaining a network of disciplined and devoted henchmen.
Of course, Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood never came back to school after leaving for the break, and Minerva was glad for it. She knew that Ginny Weasley was safe with her parents, and she assumed - as she had never heard anything to disprove that assumption - that Luna was safe likewise. Neville Longbottom remained a bit of a worry. That boy had clearly developed a death wish and was giving Snape and his minions ample reason to punish him.
The problem was, as much as she wanted to protect these children, she couldn't suppress a feeling of triumph and wild joy whenever she encountered one of the many proofs of rebellion at Hogwarts, proofs of undying loyalty to the school and to Dumbledore. With an unerring instinct, she had known since the beginning of the school year that Neville Longbottom was one of the ringleaders of the rebellion, and she regretted that she had stopped the boy from joining her Transfiguration class in his sixth year. It would have been so much easier to communicate with him were he still her student.
The way things were she could only protect the children in the same way as the other teachers did: covering up misconduct, not giving detentions, keeping them out of the way of the Carrows and Snape.
She hated herself for it, but she avoided talking directly to Snape as much as possible. He knew she was in the Order, and she knew that he was a skilled Legillimens, and all she could do was keep her thoughts to herself and not give him any reason to interrogate her. Surprisingly, Snape didn't search the contact. He could easily try and corner her, but he seemed to acknowledge that she didn't want anything to do with him, and accepted it. Whenever there was a crisis - when she had to physically and at wand point stop Amycus or Alecto Carrow from torturing a student, Snape would appear on scene and they would circle each other like two cats; but there were never any repercussions.
Minerva sighed and took off her glasses, rubbing her tired eyes. It had become increasingly difficult to keep Augusta Longbottom informed about Neville; she didn't want to say too much, nor too little. Augusta seemed delighted to hear about Neville standing up to the Death Eaters who were running the school, and the fact that he had become a victim of torture in the process didn't signify much.
"My husband fought against Gellert Grindelwald and didn't complain about injuries, "Augusta had said. "My son fought against You-Know-Who, and he, also, did not complain."
Minerva didn't say anything, but her heart broke at the thought that Neville Longbottom, whom she would always remember as the little clumsy child carrying around an ugly toad, would meet the same fate as his grandfather and father.
She finished writing the note to Augusta, folded the parchment and slipped it into an envelope, sealing it magically. The note would be impossible to read without a password, and Augusta was the only person who knew it. Augusta would pick up the letter at the Hog's Head, where Minerva was heading to now. She was fairly sure that her late-night visits to Aberforth's bar were a favour grudgingly granted and that, some time soon, Snape would put an end to it. Every single time she sneaked out from the castle and crossed the grounds, heading for the lane to Hogsmeade and Apparating from there to Aberforth's goat stable, her heart was beating madly and she knew that she was taking a great risk, but she couldn't help herself. It was thrilling and a bit insane, and it was something that Sirius Black would have delighted in, and which Albus would have supported and which Harry Potter would have been caught and given detention for. It was exhilarating.
The stench inside the stable was almost unbearable. There was the sound of goats ruminating, one or two of them raised their heads lazily as she sneaked past them on tiptoe, heading for the door. She took a deep breath, focused, and felt her body tingle and quiver as it shrunk down and into the shape of a tabby cat.
The world changed. The smell of goat became even more overwhelming, but it wasn't unpleasant anymore. The goats, the hay stacks, the troughs - they were more than indistinct dark shapes now, she could see everything clearly. She leaped onto a milking stool by the door, sat down, wrapped her tail around her paws neatly and pricked up her ears to listen to the sounds from the bar. When Aberforth was alone and it was safe for her to come out, he would whistle "How can you mend a broken wand". She had disapproved of it, considering the lyrics rather inappropriate, but Aberforth had pointed out that he wouldn't be actually singing it. "The lyrics are all in your head, Professor Minerva," he had said, and, to her immense annoyance, she felt herself blush.
As a cat, her heart always beat faster than as a human. It was perfectly normal, therefore, to feel it rap frantically against her ribcage, like a trapped bird. The thought of birds had barely passed her mind when Minerva's cat body reacted instinctively and automatically. She crouched down, scanning her surroundings carefully, the tip of her tail twitching. There were always swallow nests in stables, everyone knew that. And indeed, a swallow nest hung high above her head, attached to a roof beam. It was inhabited, she knew it. She could sense the life pulsating inside, and her body crouched ever lower, her tail slashing the air, her pupils huge. It was too high to jump, she knew, but the feline in her did its best to ignore the voice of reason.
A sudden flood of light gushed over her. Minerva swirled around, meowing angrily, momentarily blinded. But her cat's eyes adjusted within seconds, and she saw Aberforth loom in the doorway. He was smirking down at her.
"Good evening, Professor Minerva. Would you like to come in?" He moved aside to make room for her. "I'm quite tempted to pick you up and carry you through, but I don't think that would be proper behaviour."
Minerva hissed and changed. "It most definitely wouldn't be," she said as primly as possible, considering that she had just been caught off guard and displaying a most embarrassing lack of self-control. "I thought we'd agreed you would whistle."
"That we did. But then I thought to myself, it is improper to whistle for a lady. So I came over to fetch you."
Minerva snorted. "How did you know I was here?"
Aberforth nodded in the direction of the goats. "They told me. Got nervous when you Apparated. Could hear them moving, all restless and anxious."
"You know, Aberforth, I will never understand your affection for these animals," said Minerva when they went through to the bar. She took off her hat and loosened some of the pins that were holding her hair in the tight bun, while Aberforth was pouring them drinks. "Why goats?"
"If I had a Knut for every time someone asks me that," said Aberforth, his voice gruff, but his eyes smiling. Minerva smiled back, and, in the next moment, hid her mouth by taking a deep sip of her drink. It burned down her throat.
"Your health, Professor Minerva," Aberforth raised his glass to her and drained it in one huge gulp. "Tell me, then, what's going on at Hogwarts?"
Minerva sighed. "It's getting worse and worse," she said, shaking her head sadly. "Neville Longbottom has apparently decided to follow into the footsteps of Harry Potter when it comes to talking back and disruptive behaviour. He gets punished every day, and he doesn't even try to hide the fact that he's the one leading the rebellion. I've tried to caution him, to tell him not to be stupid, but he's enjoying his role as designated hero much too much. The other students are egging him on, unsurprisingly, as does his grandmother." She sighed again. "I've never had much patience for Neville Longbottom, Aberforth," she said in a low voice, as though admitting to a shameful secret, "and I'm not sure I like that transformation much. If anyone had asked me six years ago which student I thought most likely to end up like Sirius Black, Neville's name would have been nowhere near the top of the list. Now, he's the prime candidate."
"Don't you think it's brave of him to stand up to the Death Eaters who run the school?"
"Perhaps. But it's also rather stupid to do it so openly. That's the problem with my Gryffindors, Aberforth: the lamentable lack of cunning," she smiled grimly. "The older I get, the more I see it that way."
"My brother was pretty outspoken against Dark wizards," said Aberforth, "and yet, he was also very cunning. Extremely cunning."
"You know, Aberforth, I think this is the first time I hear you speak well of your brother."
"I'm not. My brother has carefully trained these kids to become what they are. 'Dumbledore's Army', they call themselves. Hah!"
"We will never agree on that account, Aberforth," Minerva said. "You think your brother-"
"I think my brother has turned all these unfortunate young creatures into puppets in his master plan, which he then conveniently forgot to share with anyone! Secrets and lies, Minerva, that's what Albus was all about. Even from behind the grave he is still manipulating their silly little minds, twisting 'em and probing 'em so that they think they've got to do his bidding instead of thinking for themselves."
"They are thinking for themselves, Aberforth! They just happen to agree with Albus - as do I!"
"Well, you used to be his student, too! He has formed you-"
"Are you seriously suggesting," Minerva had risen from her stool, leaning across the bar, her voice rising threateningly, "that I, too, have a 'silly little mind'? Am unable to think for myself?"
"Tell me then," Aberforth had likewise leaned in, his tall person towering over Minerva effortlessly, "has Albus ever let you in on his plans? Ever shared his insights and his conclusions with you? Ever trusted you?" He snorted. "Trust against trust, eh, Minerva?"
"I think you've got a very skewed view of what trust means, Aberforth. It doesn't mean that we have to share everything with another person. It doesn't mean that we trust them because of what they tell or not tell us. We trust them because of what they are."
"And what was he?"
"The noblest man I ever knew."
"Then, Professor Minerva," Aberforth said, straightening up so that she blinked at the sudden loss of closeness, "I fear you haven't met many noble men." He took both empty glasses and placed them carelessly into the sink, opening the tap to let cold water wash over them. "Why don't you just give me what you came here for and go back home? It's late."
Cursing herself inwardly, Minerva unbuttoned her cloak, pulled out the letter to Augusta from an inside pocket and placed it on the bar. Aberforth had taken the glasses from the sink and was polishing them again, using the same old rag as always. Underneath the gesture, behind his spectacles, behind the grizzly beard lay a sudden sadness. Driven by an impulse, Minerva stretched out a hand and touched his sleeve, very lightly.
"I think I have," she said.
Aberforth looked up. His eyes, a piercing blue like Albus', had an expression that his brother's eyes had never had. The silence in the room was so complete that she could hear the sound of the goats shuffling and chewing in their stable, even over the pounding of the blood in her ears.
"Allow me." His voice startled her. Aberforth had dropped the rag and the glass into the sink and walked around the bar, towards her. He held out his hand, and she took it automatically, allowing herself to be led to the door. He opened it and the goats looked up in unison. One gave a hesitant 'baa'.
"Good night, Professor Minerva," said Aberforth. "Have a safe journey home."
She wasn't quite sure how and when it happened, but just before the darkness of Apparating embraced her, she felt warmth and soft hair tickling her face and his mouth on hers, and in the next moment, he let her go and disappeared from view as she let herself being carried to the Hogwarts gate.
She let several candles burn in her bedroom, getting undressed, freeing her hair from the tight knot, brushing it in front of the mirror, one long stroke after the other. When she eventually fell asleep, it was only to be haunted by dreams that, even though they had nothing to do with Snape, nor the Carrows, nor the bruised faces of tortured children, made her wake up restless and flushed and covered in cold sweat.
The sleepy village of Theddlethorpe-All-Saints didn't often know excitement. There had been the one time when the vicar's pigs had got into Mrs Brackety-Smoke's garden, and once the school children had given a concert where a very young boy recited a very rude poem without quite understanding what it was about (luckily, the local upholders of moral standards knew and they made sure to inform everyone), and of course the fiasco with the bypass road which didn't get built on schedule so that the entire traffic was redirected through the village and people had to jump out of the way of lorries coming at them at high speed.
The villagers had tried and failed to pay more attention to the little old lady living all alone in the overgrown cottage at the very outskirts of the village, where the paved road became a dirt track leading up to the forest. Some people thought in a very vague way that there was something odd about the old lady. Perhaps it was the fact that she kept herself to herself so much, or perhaps it was her choice of clothes, which were very odd indeed, even though no-one could describe them in detail, even if they tried. From time to time, the current generation of children would entertain themselves with the idea that she was a witch. They would gather together, form a miniature mob and then set off to the old lady's house to throw stones at the owl nesting in the old gnarled tree in the garden and shout 'Witch! Witch!'. But even before they arrived at the end of the long road, which, for some reason, seemed longer than it should be, sweating in the merciless glare of the sun, drenched to the bone by the sudden downpour of rain or freezing in the truly Antarctic cold, they lost interest in the undertaking and forgot what they had come for. They went fishing instead.
From time to time, Augusta Longbottom went for a walk around the grounds she considered hers and strengthened the protective spells there. For many years, the fields near her house had remained fallow, but then a young farmer had dared challenge his family's views that the place was 'cursed' and had begun cultivating it. Augusta liked the young man who reminded her somewhat of Frank and she let him be. His crops never fell victim to any pest, and the cows he let graze by the forest were the only ones in the area which had not suffered from the foot-and-mouth disease that had befallen British cattle a few years ago. (That didn't change the fact that he had to put his cows down nevertheless, as they had grazed in the vicinity of infected cattle. But that was hardly Augusta's fault.)
Since Harry Potter's survival of the duel with You-Know-Who after the Triwizard Tournament, the intervals in which Augusta renewed the spells had become shorter, and the spells increased in quantity and quality. She had begun studying ancient books that had been in either her or her husband's family for centuries, often together with Enid. The dusty volumes would be scattered around her living room as she and her sister sat amidst them. Enid would be wearing her tall turban and a loose house robe, and they would both smoke one long thin cigarette after another.
She would always put the books away neatly after that. There was no need to display the lack of discipline to other people.
The spells that protected her cottage from intruders were not quite as loud and obnoxious as the Caterwauling Charm, but just as effective. It was new moon, and the night around her was pitch-black when Augusta was suddenly wakened by something that she could best describe as a change in the texture of the air. There was a lightness there that made it easy for her to literally rise from her bed without experiencing the usual aches and problems (they would catch up with her down tomorrow, she knew that). Grabbing her wand almost before she was awake, she floated gently to the opposite side of the room, from where she had a clear view through the window and over the garden.
There was no time to get dressed. Augusta threw her travelling cloak around her shoulders and jammed the vulture-topped hat on her head. She hung her handbag, containing some vital items, over her arm and was ready to leave when movement in the garden caught her eye. It was still very dark, but the Glowing Magnolia - a present from Algernon, bless him - began emitting a very clear, very pale light, whose most important property was the fact that it was much better visible from the distance than from close vicinity.
The man who had just set foot into her garden was naturally not aware of it. Assuming that he was standing in the shadow of a tree, he was as clearly illuminated as if he were standing under a street lamp. Augusta could see his face very distinctly and she shuddered in disgust and anger. It was Dawlish, the Auror who two years ago had tried to arrest Dumbledore and who, as rumour had it, was one of the first traitors to run over to You-Know-Who.
Augusta moved her wand in a delicate, flowing motion, sending out a signal that set off the sleeping shrubs and flowers. They began to move at once, swaying gently as though in a breeze, and there were sounds and smells rising up in the air that enchanted and hypnotised, and blurred a man's vision and his senses.
She could see Dawlish begin to sway likewise, like a man who had had too much wine, but he wasn't a trained Auror for nothing. With some difficultly, he shook off the trance and, looking around furtively, pulled out a broom from under his cloak. He could not Apparate into her house, and so he would try to fly in.
Augusta gripped her wand more tightly. She would have to face him - she couldn't outrun or outfly him, and she had to leave the protected area to be able to Disapparate. But the prospect didn't scare her. Her family - including her grandson - had faced much more serious opponents than Dawlish.
She lost view of him for a moment after he had mounted his broom and kicked off the ground. And then there he was, hovering right in front of her window. At a flick of her wand, the windowpane turned into a thin sheet of icy water, which burst open like a bubble the moment Dawlish released his first jinx. The water cascaded down him, freezing his lungs and stabbing him with thin ice shards as sharp as glass. He curled up like a worm on a hook, his mouth a perfect 'O' of shock, and his wand slipped in his fingers that were already glazing over with ice. He didn't drop his wand, however, and, in the next moment, a his clothes dried and his skin and muscles unfroze under a warming charm.
That moment was all that Augusta needed. She floated up in the air again, still light-footed and weightless, pushed herself up from the wall and charged at the man. He raised his wand, pointing it directly at her, but it was too late. Her spell was already underway, propelled by the force of her own momentum and her burning anger. The broomstick jerked and twisted under him, suddenly more supple and bendy than a piece of wood should rightfully be, and Dawlish found himself suspended in mid-air sitting astride the back of a very large, very angry snake. As they dropped to the ground and into the Gnawing Nettles growing by the house wall, Augusta's owl emerged from the shadows, carrying a broom in his beak.
"About time, too!" Augusta panted, grabbing the broomstick and mounting it from her still airborne position. "The spell would not have kept me afloat for much longer."
She flew one or two circles over the house and garden before leaving them behind. Had any villager been up at that time of night, he would have been treated to the sight of the little old lady from Wishing Well Cottage speeding through the air on a broomstick, her long cloak and her high, thin cackle trailing after her.
There was a knock at the door.
Petunia, Vernon and Dudley looked at each other in surprise. Petunia, already in her nightdress and dressing gown, was wearing an apron and her Marigolds and was kneeling by the coffee table at which they had had dinner, polishing it and nagging at Vernon and Dudley who were playing a game of Exploding Snap and were very much in her way. It was too late for a social call, and in any case, Dedalus Diggle had been there just that morning and Hestia Jones two days previously. Apart from Minerva McGonagall, these two were the only visitors the Dursleys ever had, and, according to Hestia, it was unlikely that Minerva McGonagall would have the time and the opportunity to pay them a visit any time soon.
"The situation at Hogwarts is escalating. Several students have disappeared and we know that they are leading an underground rebellion against the headmaster of the school."
"Sounds like they need some discipline, eh?" Vernon had rumbled. "Give them a good thrashing, see if that doesn't stop them."
"A good thrashing is what's set them off in the first place," Hestia had said coolly. "The students have been tortured, by order of the so-called headmaster, who is, in fact, working for You-Know-Who."
"…as Hestia has explained before, Dad," Dudley had said. "Have you forgotten? Or weren't you listening?"
"Working for Lord Whatshisname, is he? Why don't you people get rid of him, then? Lure him into a dark corner, bang him over the head with something or other-"
"…a frying pan, most likely," Dudley had muttered.
"-and that's that!" He had punched the armrest with his fist. "You people make it far too complicated."
Hestia had clenched her teeth, visibly fighting for control. "You can't simply lure the most powerful Dark wizard into a dark corner, Mr Dursley. You-Know-Who is much too clever to leave his hiding place - he sends out his minions."
"I wasn't talking about Vold- thingummy. But that headmaster, he's just one of the drones. Get him to abdicate."
"By luring him into a dark corner?"
"Why not!" Vernon had roared. "Why not! Got to make sacrifices! We are making sacrifices, why not you? You yourself," he pointed a thick finger at Hestia, "why not put on some nice dress and go and run into that headmaster in his office and then lure him into some dungeon or other? Pretty girl like you-"
"That's enough, Vernon!" Petunia's sharp voice had rung loudly over Hestia's gasp and Dudley's stammered apologies. "Dudders, you bring Miss Jones to the door and then come straight back here, young man! Vernon, no more whiskey for you."
It was highly unlikely therefore, that Hestia Jones would come back anytime soon, especially that late at night. The Dursleys held their breath.
There was another knock at the door, this time with more force to it. Vernon's jaw was twitching, his moustache quivering. Dudley looked wide-eyed and pale. Petunia was clasping and unclasping her hands in her lap.
"Maybe it's the Muggles - I mean, our neighbours?" Dudley whispered. "Maybe some of the spells broke and they can come in now?"
"It's not that Voldy fellow, that's for sure," grumbled Vernon. "He's not one to knock, is he?"
The knock repeated a third time.
"I'll go and see who it is." Petunia stood up resolutely and walked to the door. Dudley jumped to his feet.
"Don't worry, popkin," said Petunia, gripping the baseball bat that was leaning against the wall, and unbolting the door. "Mummy will be all right."
Her bat raised, Petunia yanked the door open, screaming "What do you want?!" at the top of her voice and ready to beat any intruder to a pulp. It took her several seconds for her blood-red vision to lift, and then, she recognised the only wizard she was truly happy to see. He was standing before her, tall and imposing, and gaping at her in astonishment.
"Ah, Mr Shacklebolt," Petunia said, lowering her bat and smoothing down the front of her apron. "Good evening. Please come in."
Only then did she notice that Dudders was standing right by her side, his fists raised in the manly boxer pose she so much admired in her boy. Vernon was backing him up, holding an empty wine bottle over his head like a club.
"What are you doing, you silly boys?" Petunia said, leaning her baseball bat against the wall again and stepping back to let in their visitor. "It's just Mr Shacklebolt... And he's brought a friend."
Vernon lowered his makeshift weapon, but he didn't abandon his hostile posture. Petunia knew that he had never forgiven Kingsley Shacklebolt that he had not volunteered as their protector instead of that halfwit of a wizard and that slip of a witch.
Kingsley Shacklebolt reached out a large hand to shake hers, but stopped dead at the sight of her yellow rubber gloves and waited for her to pull them off, his hand hovering uncertainly in the air. Tugging nervously at the elastic material, which seemed reluctant to come off, Petunia caught a glimpse of the man who was standing behind Shacklebolt, half-hidden in his shadow. He was quite tall and very skinny, and his pale, drawn face was carefully composed as he very clearly tried to not laugh. Petunia flushed with mortification and anger.
It was Dudders, that clever, darling boy, who stepped forward and shook Shacklebolt's hand. The atmosphere unfroze. Shacklebolt entered the house, where he was welcomed by a rather reluctant but not openly hostile Vernon, and began introducing his friend, who had stepped in behind him but remained standing by the door, as though poised to flee at any moment.
"Please, Mr and Mrs Dursley," said Shacklebolt in that calming voice Petunia couldn't but trust. "Allow me to introduce my friend Remus Lupin. He and I need your help."
Petunia pursed her lips disapprovingly, but she didn't say anything. She didn't like the sight of that Lupin. He seemed quiet and polite enough, but there was something about him that rubbed her the wrong way. First of all, he had quite obviously found her appearance comical - which was quite rich, coming from a man who was wearing what was basically a dress, and a very shabby and patched one, at that. And then there was an air of danger around him which she couldn't quite pinpoint. As polite as he was, she was sure that that man could strike unexpectedly and, if necessary, deadly. The calm gaze of his dark eyes sent chills down her spine.
"What kind of help?" asked Vernon even before they were all seated by the table. Petunia put the kettle on and began taking out cups and saucers from the cupboard.
Shacklebolt and Lupin exchanged a look across the table. Shacklebolt spoke.
"I'm not sure whether you're aware that I… that we are on the run," he began.
"We are," blurted out Dudley. "Hestia told us. And it was on the ra- the wireless. We've been listening to it a lot." He pointed to the magically repaired radio on the windowsill, then frowned. "It was you, wasn't it?" He asked, looking from Shacklebolt to Lupin. "You were on the radio. Broadcasting. On Potterwatch."
Vernon snorted. "Potterwatch!" he muttered under his breath.
Lupin smiled. "That's right, Dudley" he said softly. "It is Dudley, right?"
Dudders nodded. "Are you a teacher?"
Lupin gave a short laugh. "Also right. Two out of two. What else can you guess, Dudley?"
"Dunno," Dudley shrugged. Petunia was watching him affectionately. Such a clever boy, able to guess the truth about people instantly, even if these people were wizards.
"You listen to Potterwatch?" asked Shacklebolt.
"We do. Hestia gave us the password for a broadcast and we have been listening ever since," said Dudley.
"That's… quite a surprise, really," said Lupin. "I'm impressed."
"Well, there's nothing else for us to do while we're locked up in this ruddy house, is there?" Vernon said.
Lupin's mouth twitched in that annoying not-quite-smile again. Petunia wanted to slap him. She got up and made tea instead. "If I'm not mistaken," she heard Lupin say, "you have not been locked up all the time. You've been leaving the house recently."
"How do you know?" asked Petunia and Dudley in unison.
"They've been spying on us, that's how!" Vernon shouted.
Lupin waved a hand dismissively. "You don't seriously think we're spying on you? We've got much more pressing things to do. No, it's quite simple, really: every time you leave a designated safe house, you leave traces on the spells and the enchantments surrounding it. Wizards leave more traces than Muggles." And the expressions on the faces of all three Dursleys told him that he hadn't make the matter any clearer, he continued: "Look, imagine the protective spells to be something physical, like a hedge surrounding the house. A hedge might be crossed many times before being completely destroyed, but every time someone forces his way through it, they will leave broken twigs and crushed leaves in their wake. If the person forcing their way through the hedge is a big and heavy man, they cause a greater deal of damage than someone who's small and slight. In magical terms, you are a lightweight. But you have nevertheless crushed the one or other leaf."
"We have fixed that now," said Shacklebolt. "The spells are back in place. But it is immensely important that you don't leave the house from now on."
"What, never?" asked Vernon, infusing his voice with as much sarcasm as he could.
"Until the war is over. It can't be long now - one way or another," said Lupin.
"One way or another," whispered Petunia, and as all four men turned around to look at her, she said: "Oh, what am I thinking, keeping you waiting for your tea!" She carried the pot to the table and began to pour it into the cups, her hand trembling.
"Let me give you a hand, Petunia," said Lupin, already half-raising from his chair.
"Stay away from me," she snarled with a forcefulness that shocked and astonished her. "And I don't remember being on first-name terms with you, Mr Lupin."
He sat back down, his face rather pale, but his voice was as calm as ever. "My apologies, Mrs Dursley. I didn't mean to be presumptuous. It's just," he shrugged, "I was friends with your sister at Hogwarts, and later. She always spoke of you as 'Petunia', of course. So I'm quite in the habit of thinking of you under your first name."
"Well, you bloody well better get into a new habit, then," Vernon snarled, and Petunia had never loved him more than in that moment, because all that she could do was sit there completely petrified, with thoughts running around in her head like a perverted kind of mantra: 'A friend of Lily, a friend of Lily, a friend of Lily…'
"And now, if you please, tell us what damn favour you need from us, and then bugger off. It's getting late."
"As we said, we're on the run," said Shacklebolt.
Petunia startled and rose to her feet. "Mr Shacklebolt, would you like a top-up?" she said, as though in trance. Everyone stared at her.
"Er… no, thank you, Mrs Dursley," Shacklebolt said slowly. "I'm fine."
"Petunia, dear, sit down." Vernon reached out and wrapped his fingers around her hand, squeezing gently. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
And indeed, while she let the rest of the conversation wash over her, barely listening to Shacklebolt and Lupin explain that a woman they knew was also on the run, and that she was a very old lady who had been attacked by Death Eaters in her own home and had contacted them asking for help, and they thought it would be a good idea to install her in the safe house for the time being, where she could help keeping the magical protections up-to-date, and that her grandson was at Hogwarts, fighting, all Petunia could think was that she had seen a ghost: the ghost of her dead sister that had emerged to haunt her after all those years.
She didn't remember when the two men had left. She remembered Vernon helping her upstairs and putting her to bed. There was concern in his gaze as he looked down at her, before disappearing in the bathroom. She could hear him brush his teeth and gurgle and spit and that gave her enough time to climb out of bed and rummage through her handbag in search of the small plastic bag with the round white pills which she had learned to buy at the local pub. If indeed that old witch was moving in with them soon, Petunia might not have another chance to sneak to the pub again. She must be careful and keep the pills for special occasions only.
Coming across the ghost of your dead baby sister qualified as special occasion. Petunia swallowed a pill and, in the secure knowledge that she'd feel better any minute now, climbed back into bed. Vernon wouldn't know a thing.
"You were very civil to that Shacklebolt bloke tonight, Petunia," said Vernon a few minutes later, as he was folding his trousers over the back of the chair. He sat down on the bed and began rolling off his socks. Petunia felt like giggling. She crawled over to her husband and, kneeling behind him, wrapped her arms around his massive chest.
"Are you jealous, Grumpy Bear?" she whispered against his neck. "You are, aren't you? You're a big fat jealous Grumpy-Bear."
Vernon grunted. "Of course I'm not jealous. You are my wife, Petunia. And if you just release your grip for one moment so that I can blow out that candle, I will show you just how much my wife you are."
"No, Vernon," she shook her head, feeling her cheeks burn.
"Don't blow out the candle."
And as Vernon turned in her embrace and rolled on top of her, she thought that perhaps - very perhaps - their life in that house had one good thing to it.
They had conducted thorough searches of the entire castle and the grounds, but to no avail. Minerva was well aware that there were hidden corners aplenty at Hogwarts that no-one could find unless they wanted to be found, but she held her tongue. Neville Longbottom and with him an increasing number of students from Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff had simply disappeared.
"Don't lie to us!" spat Alecto Carrow, while her pig-faced brother was baring his teeth and twirling his wand in a manner that he apparently considered threatening. Minerva raised her eyebrows at the display.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Professor and Professor Carrow," she said, looking down her nose at them. "I have not the least idea where Mr Longbottom is hiding, nor how to find his hiding place. I don't know how else to explain that to you. Would it help if I were speaking more slowly?"
"Longbottom is in your House! You must know where he's gone to!" Amycus shouted, pointing his wand at her. "Tell us!"
"But unfortunately, as he didn't attend my Transfiguration classes and as any communication between teachers and students has been prohibited, I have, in fact, not exchanged any more words with Mr Longbottom in the course of the last year than you have. On the contrary, you have spoken to him much more often. Without any success, as it seems."
The brother and sister exchanged an exasperated look, turned away and headed for the door. "We are not giving up," Alecto spat, her hand on the door handle. "We're just…"
"…regrouping?" supplied Minerva. "I am glad to hear that. I shall like to see Neville Longbottom again and to shake his hand when I do. Good night to you."
The moment the door slammed shut behind them, Minerva sunk down into her chair, hiding her face in her hands. It was all very well, standing up to the dim-witted Carrows, but she wasn't sure how much longer she'd be able to carry on and, most importantly, how she would hold her own in the face of real danger. The solution was drawing nearer, she could feel it in her blood, in the air around her, in the castle. Hogwarts more than ever seemed like a sentient being, dormant still, but getting ready to rise. Filius and Pomona and Horace - they all knew, and they knew that Snape could feel it, too.
It had been a long while since she had last sneaked out of the castle at night. The Hog's Head wasn't quite the same safe haven that is used to be, before... before that night of which she didn't allow herself to think more than necessary. It was foolish to indulge in such adolescent ideas.
But Aberforth had proved true to his word and had been an ally and a friend to her, helping her to smuggle messages in and out of the castle and remain in touch with people like Augusta Longbottom, who was now on the run from the Ministry and had found refuge with the most unlikely of allies, and like Remus Lupin, whom she had always wished to see happy but knew that it would never be, and like Kingsley Shacklebolt, into whose skills and confidence she had considerable faith.
Under the cover of her best and most dangerous disguise, Minerva slinked along the walls, always in the shadows, down the seemingly endless staircases and to the underground lake, where the boats that carried first-year students to the castle were moored. She fought a short internal battle with herself and finally decided that the risks of stealing a boat far outweighed the benefits. She disliked water as much as the next cat, but she also knew she was a good swimmer and so, after washing herself, stretching and flexing her muscles and generally putting the inevitable off as long as possible, she crouched down low, gave a short, angry meow and leapt into the cold water.
It wasn't as bad as she had imagined. The cat didn't like being in water, but Minerva had always rather liked to swim, and she focused on the pleasant memories that she had of lazy afternoons by the lake, when she was young and quick and able to outswim almost everyone else.
She wasn't quite so quick now, but the cat was doing fine, and she soon had left the grounds of Hogwarts and was heading for the other shore. She climbed up a grassy bank, looking as pathetic and shivering as any wet cat does, and, as soon as she had pulled her whole body out of the water, shifted back into her human shape. She might look just as pathetic and shiver just as much as a woman, but at least she could use her wand to get herself dry again. Soon, Minerva McGonagall was marching resolutely along the narrow path and to the outskirts of Hogsmeade. There, she stopped, turned on the spot and Disapparated with barely a sound.
The familiar smell of goats seemed almost comforting. Minerva gave herself a few seconds to ponder the sheer ridiculousness of her behaviour, before she pushed open the door and stepped into the bar.
It was empty and dark. With a rising sense of dread, she lifted her wand, muttering a spell to scan her surroundings for traces of Dark magic. There were none. There was a voice, however, a very astonished and very familiar voice, addressing her from the shadows.
"Professor Minerva? What are you doing here?"
"Good evening, Aberforth," she said with as much dignity as she could master, considering that her hair was wet and messy, her robe damp and dirty and that there were mud and leaves sticking to her shoes. "Anytime, you've said. I am taking you at your word."
Aberforth laughed, a deep, rich laughter, such as she had not heard in a long time.
"Serves me right," he said, "trying to mess around with a cat. This way, Professor, tonight you'll have to keep me company upstairs. The bar's closed, the fire's died down - there's nothing left for us here."
His sitting room was surprisingly neat and comfortable. Minerva tried to ignore the painting of the girl over the fireplace, but as it was the most prominent item in the room, she couldn't pretend not to see it for longer than a few moments.
"Ariana didn't resemble either of you," Minerva said quietly, without looking at him. Aberforth smiled grimly.
"You don't know that. You don't know what she'd look like if she had a beard."
She laughed, quite suddenly and surprisingly to herself.
"Your hair is wet," Aberforth said. "What did you do? Swim here?"
"I did, as a matter of fact," Minerva admitted, almost cheerfully. It didn't matter how much she was giving away, how much he knew or guessed. Aberforth pulled a rug from the sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders, brushing away wet strands of hair that clung to her neck.
"Thank you, Aberforth. This is really warm."
"Goat wool," he said, grinning. "Best in the world."
Minerva smiled, and she pulled her legs up, wrapping her arms around them, and rested her cheek on her knees. Aberforth was prodding the fire with an iron poker, and then he stepped over to her and sat down on the floor beside her. The lenses of his spectacles reflected the firelight, obscuring his eyes and giving him a rather ominous appearance. Minerva reached out and pulled the spectacles off his nose.
"It will be over soon," she said calmly.
"Yes. It will. He's won."
"Don't say that," she whispered. "Please don't say that."
Aberforth opened his mouth, but Minerva shook her head. "Please. I didn't come here to argue."
"Wasn't going to argue," said Aberforth, and she kissed him.
She had known he would be kissing back, but the sensation surprised her in its heat and intensity. And as she was lying beside him, on the thick carpet in front of the fireplace, and he was unbuttoning her dress, one button after another, Minerva knew that the things they argued about were not important. The ones they agreed on were.
Harry Potter's relatives were very clean and very odd. When Augusta had first arrived, escorted by Kingsley Shacklebolt, whose calm, composure and aptitude as a leader brought her to mind her Frank, as she told him at once, the Muggles eyed her suspiciously and rather insolently. She saw revulsion in the woman's face, and she was just as appalled herself. It didn't take her long to realise that the woman was running the house, as was right and proper, and she was amazed that she did so without the use of magic.
Augusta considered herself a reasonable woman. While stuck in that house with the Muggles, she could just as well try to be kind to them. To her unspeakable amazement, the Muggles rebuffed her very considerate offers to help them out with magic and insisted on lighting the fire and the candles with 'matches', carrying dishes and other household items in their hands instead of levitating them, and reading newspapers that had pictures in them that didn't move.
After some huffing and exchange of words and a very undignified outburst of rage from the Muggle man, Augusta finally settled for the role which she was apparently meant to play in that pantomime of a family life: the elderly aunt on a visit. It was pleasant enough not to have to do any housework, she had to admit that. She spent a major portion of her days sitting in the garden and writing long letters to her sister Enid (telling her everything about the Muggles' odd little quirks and habits), to Algernon (assuring him that no matter what would happen, she would not abandon the country of her fathers), to Frank and Alice (full of promises that the Dark wizards who had tortured and broken them would soon be conquered), to Neville (telling him how proud she was of him), to Aberforth Dumbledore (short, cryptic notes that kept him and through him her grandson informed about what was going on in the world) and to Kingsley Shacklebolt (confirming the arrival of his messages). Only Aberforth and Shacklebolt actually received their letters. The other letters were never sent off, and Augusta kept a rapidly growing stack in her room, determined to give them to their addressees in person and, in case of Frank and Alice, to read them to them one day.
It was important to remain in touch with Kingsley Shacklebolt, who, even though on the run himself, managed to set up and maintain a tightly-knit network of associates and allies throughout the entire wizarding world. He would send Augusta messages by owl and by Patronus, and hardly a day went by when she didn't tremble for the life of her trusted owl Thialfi.
She had been waiting for Thialfi to return with a message from Aberforth for days and had almost given up hope. Thialfi was very old and very wise and had served her family for many decades and it was unlikely that he would let himself be intercepted. Still, she was very worried, and it was the Muggle boy, of all people, who came up with the solution.
"Who are you writing to?" he asked, watching her sit in the rocking chair she had Transfigured from a footstool and pore over a piece of parchment.
Augusta raised her head and regarded him in silence. "To my son and daughter-in-law," she said eventually. "And don't mumble when you talk to me, young man."
"Are they fighting in that war, too?"
As always when someone asked about Frank and Alice, Augusta's heart gave a short, sudden spasm, and she raised her head proudly to answer. "They are not. They fought in the first war against You-Know-Who and were badly injured. They have been in St. Mungo's ever since."
"Saint what?" said the boy, frowning.
"St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries," Augusta said. "The best healers in the world are looking after them."
"When will they be healed?"
"Never. Their injuries are permanent. There is nothing anybody can do for them."
A confused expression appeared on the boy's big face. "But I thought you can do everything with magic, why not healing?"
"It is not always possible to heal injuries that have been inflicted by powerful magic. By Dark magic," said Augusta. "Didn't you know that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know much about magic."
"But… you are Harry Potter's cousin. Surely he must have told you something? How old are you?"
"Almost eighteen," said Dudley. "It's my birthday in three months."
"Eighteen," said Augusta thoughtfully. "As old as my Neville."
"You don't know who Neville is?" Augusta was quite taken aback. "You really are quite ignorant."
He shrugged again. "S'ppose so. But it's not my fault. No-one ever explains things."
"Neville is my grandson," said Augusta. "He's fighting against You-Know-Who's supporters at Hogwarts. He's had to go underground, but he is still fighting."
"All these people are fighting, only we're sitting here, doing nothing," Dudley muttered. "I want to do something. I want to help."
"You are a Muggle," Augusta said, but in a kind voice, "there's nothing you can do."
"Yeah, you keep saying that. But what if there was? Like…" Dudley frowned, clearly casting around for ideas. She leaned back in her chair, waiting for him to come to the right conclusion himself.
"Like… your owl," he said eventually.
"What about my owl?"
"It's just an animal, right? Can't be very clever. And he carries important letters for you. I know that you and that Shacklebolt, that you were worried your owls can be intercepted. Why don't you use the post office to send letters?"
"The Muggle post?!" She was quite shocked. "We've got perfectly working methods of communication, thank you very much."
"Why not? It works. And that wizard Lord will hardly intercept that."
"What you are forgetting, young man, that even if we were to follow your eccentric idea, Mr Shacklebolt is on the run and does not have a Muggle address in any case."
"He doesn't need one. All he needs is a PO box," said Dudley. He sat down on an upturned crate by her chair and leaned in, his big face shining with enthusiasm. "I'll explain."
And it had worked. To Augusta's unspeakable amazement, the Muggle boy's - Dudley's - idea had worked. After his assignment as the protector of the Muggle Prime Minister, Kingsley Shacklebolt was well well-versed when it came to the use of Muggle techniques and technologies, and he was open to ideas. He would send messages by Muggle post, which Dudley Dursley picked up at the local post office, and Augusta would write messages in turn which were delivered to something Dudley called the 'post office box' and which was a safe and reliable method of keeping in touch. She never embraced the method entirely, but she could put up with it. No-one could call her unreasonable.
Keeping in touch with Shacklebolt was of vital importance, because he was organising not only the entire what Dudley Dursley called 'logistics of the resistance movement', but also the escape routes of witches and wizards who tried to leave the country. It had long become apparent that most of the people who had been forced underground were interested in flight rather than fight. It was a disgrace how quickly the witches and wizards had given up, and Augusta didn't mind telling them so when two of Arthur Weasley's sons, together with a rather eccentric young man sporting an unusual hairstyle, paid them a visit one afternoon and broadcast their subversive wireless programme from the safe house. They invited her most kindly to share a few words of wisdom with the wizarding community, and she did, and more than just a few, reminding everybody that they had a duty to their families and their country.
"If you run away now, your children and your children's children will never have a home," she told them. "Take care of your families. Keep together and keep them safe."
The Dursleys were very reluctant to let Fred and George Weasley and the young man called Lee Jordan into the house. Despite his interest in Potterwatch, Dudley Dursley didn't leave his room for the entire duration of their stay. Petunia Dursley stayed in the kitchen, scrubbing the oven furiously, and Vernon Dursley was pacing the hall. After the nice young men had left, Vernon Dursley exploded in fury, shouting that he would not have any of that scum in the house. Augusta was about to jinx him, but restrained herself just in time. It would not do, setting a bad example to the whole wizarding community by hexing a defenceless Muggle.
Instead, she squared her shoulders and said very haughtily: "These young men have dedicated their lives to helping people like you and your family. They are trying to keep Muggles safe and bring Muggle-borns to safety."
Petunia Dursley rushed in from the kitchen.
"Muggle-borns to safety?" she asked, breathlessly.
"Yes, my dear woman, to safety. As you might know, Muggle-borns are being prosecuted by the Ministry and hunted down by You-Know-Who, and most of them are on the run and in hiding. Unless they have been already caught."
But the woman wasn't listening.
"Vernon," said Petunia Dursley, her lips very white, "Vernon. Muggle-borns… that means people like my sister. Like Lily."
Augusta was never quite sure what had happened there. From one day to another, the atmosphere in the house had changed. Vernon Dursley had become much more subdued, and Petunia Dursley, thin-lipped and fervent, had opened the door to refugees who were desperately trying to leave the country.
Augusta couldn't approve of their attitude. Fleeing was cowardly, no matter how great the danger. She helped nevertheless, albeit reluctantly, to smuggle the one or other Muggle-born or half-breed into the house, where Petunia fed them up a bit and she and Dudley put them on Muggle transport.
"If they travel the Muggle way, they'll never get discovered," Petunia said, and she was right.
"How come you've never thought of it yourself?" Dudley asked a Muggle-born woman who was sitting in their kitchen, watching Augusta Transfigure passport for her from an old Muggle newspaper. Augusta was using Petunia Dursley's passport as a pattern.
The woman shrugged. "I don't really know. It's not that simple. Once you're part of the wizarding community, you sort of… belong there. I'm not sure I can explain."
Petunia Dursley pursed her lips, but didn't say anything. Augusta huffed in indignation. "If you consider yourself part of the wizarding community, my dear, you shouldn't be running away."
The woman's eyes welled up with tears. "I know I shouldn't. But I can't stay here, watch everyone around me get killed. I'm just not strong enough."
"Well, let's just hope you'll be strong enough to come back and help rebuild our world as soon as You-Know-Who is gone," Augusta said. "You'll always be welcome back, don't forget that. There are too few of us as it is. We've got to forgive each other's mistake."
And that was that. Augusta's life settled into a routine which differed from all that she'd known before, and it wasn't all bad. She could be useful, and every night, before she went to sleep, she wrote a short letter to her Frank, telling him about her day.
Then, she burned it. It wouldn't do for Neville to find these letters when she was gone, they were private and meant only for her and her husband's eyes.
On the morning of May 1, Harry Potter broke into Gringotts and stole a dragon.
On the evening of May 1, Augusta Longbottom was startled by the sudden appearance of a silver goat which rushed into the living room when they were having dinner and spoke in Aberforth Dumbledore's gruff voice: "Harry Potter is fighting You-Know-Who at Hogwarts. Come quick."
Even though they couldn't see the Patronus, the Dursleys could tell that magic was happening. Augusta had jumped to her feet and was already half out of the door when she turned around one last time, saw Petunia's wide-eyed expression, Vernon's trembling moustache and Dudley, who was hunched in his seat, but who was the first one to speak.
"This is it, isn't it?
Augusta thrust her vulture-topped hat on her head and left without another word. Clutching her husband's hand in hers, Petunia watched from the living room window as she turned on the spot and disappeared into thin air. And for the first time since she had been dragged into this world, she felt that her fate and that of her family was in safe hands and that Lily's son had a chance to survive the power that had killed his parents.