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Memento Vitae

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For the unlearned, old age is winter;
for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.
-- The Talmud

Minerva stood at the window of the Headmistress' office, hands clasped behind her. Below her, steeply slanted roofs and pointed turrets, cupolas and towers and gargoyles tumbled down to the green waves of grass that lapped at the castle's walls, the late afternoon sun painting the stern grey with a warm golden glow.

She had looked out at this view so many times over the years. The first had been seventy years ago as a second-year student, when Albus had called her in to discuss (and then, astoundingly, congratulate her on) a questionable maneuver she had made on the Quidditch pitch against Slytherin; the last today, after twenty years as Headmistress. How many times in between? Countless. And perhaps never again.

The new Headmaster was highly competent and had an excellent staff (many of whom had either been selected and trained by Minerva herself, or had been there so long they could do their jobs in their sleep). He would be unlikely to call on her for assistance, though no doubt he would be glad enough to see her if she asked to visit...

Enough of this idle musing. She squared her shoulders and turned away from the window. She needed to finish clearing out her things so that she could be down in the Great Hall in time for the ceremonial Transfer of the Key to her successor, her last official act as Headmistress. Since the Deputy Head and certain members of the senior staff also had access to the office, the ritual was largely symbolic, but symbols mattered and Minerva had no intention of ending her tenure as Headmistress with anything other than perfection in every detail. The Key itself, of heavy bronze with intricately carved wards, lay on a small table by the door, on top of a long box wrapped in silvery paper. (The box -- as yet unopened -- was a retirement gift from Professor Trelawney. "The Inner Eye tells me you will be leaving us soon," she had intoned that morning, at which Minerva had been hard put not to snort, "and the Spirits tell me this will be of great use to you...")

After the ceremony would come the surprise party, which was not the least bit a surprise. Well, how could it be? They'd had to extract from her a promise to stay, otherwise she'd have been off as soon as she handed over the Key to her successor. Still, she was glad of their coercion -- she'd said enough painful and premature goodbyes over the years, perhaps it was time to see what a joyful and intended one was like.

Hands on hips, she surveyed the room. Under Albus, the space had been positively chockablock with odd flasks and bits of glassware, orreries and theodolites, mysterious objects of indeterminate purpose and uncertain safety (a small burn scar on the desk marked where she had incautiously opened an inlaid box in one of the early days). Everything from priceless rare gems to dusty bits of birds' nests.

Minerva, being a much tidier soul, had retained all of the books but sent many of the other items to more suitable homes. The first to go had been the stuffed manticore with yellow glass eyes, which she had suspected of moving about when her back was turned. It now graced -- though that was perhaps not the right word -- Hagrid's fireplace. Professor Sinistra had been delighted with the orrery, as had dear Pomona with the packets of nasturtium seeds she'd found crammed into the bottom left-hand desk drawers. (Really, what had Albus been thinking?)

Although she had acquired many personal gifts over the years from colleagues and students, the office showed little sign of them. As Headmistress she had been reluctant to imply favoritism in any way, and it would have been impractical to keep absolutely everything on display. The sixty-three "World's Best Witch" plaques alone would have taken up a startling amount of space (and she was not about to publicly use Poppy's gift, a diagnostic teacup which displayed the words "YOU ARE OK" or "YOU ARE NOT OK," depending on the situation!). So she had chosen to simply keep all her personal belongings -- gifts or otherwise -- in her private quarters to avoid any awkwardness.

But there were a very few mementos she had kept here, in her office, simply because she liked having them with her. To anyone else they would have been unremarkable, perhaps even overlooked entirely: a chipped mug with a crack in the handle, an old shawl, a lump of stone, a bit of flannel cloth, a tattered quill. She had left these until last and they sat now in the center of her desk, awaiting her attention.

She picked up the mug, half-full of tea, and eyed it with amusement. Round and round its curved surfaces, inside and out, flew tiny figures on broomsticks in Gryffindor red and gold, chasing a glittering speck: a minuscule Snitch. Their movements were jerky after so many years, but they still made her smile. Even as she watched, the Snitch dove for cover in her tea and the players followed after it, only to surface coughing and spluttering and wringing out their soggy robes a few seconds later. Her Quidditch team-mates had given this to her after she had stepped in as acting Captain and led Gryffindor to a resounding victory over Slytherin during her seventh year (Stilwhin Churlnoc, the actual captain, was located three days later in the Prefects' bathroom, splashing about and singing a song about a goblin; no satisfactory explanation had ever been discovered). Though her playing days were long over, she had never lost her love of the game nor her pride in her House team. And Gryffindor had had so many talented players! Lindsey Wolsey, still Hogwarts record-holder for most shots blocked, later Keeper for the Kenmare Kestrels; Jonathan Corncockle, Chaser extraordinaire; and of course James Potter, a Seeker with eyes like gimlets and the speed of a demon.

She still remembered the surge of excitement she had felt that September morning so long ago, when she had looked up to see James' son screeching to a halt outside her window as Neville's Remembrall thwacked into his outstretched palm. Her first thought had been that she was looking back in time; her second had been, "Ha! Now we can show Slytherin a thing or two!"

She rather missed the freedom to openly cheer for Gryffindor -- but then, once she was retired she could be as partisan as she liked. A happy thought indeed!

Minerva dropped her hand to the shabby, well-worn shawl in the red and green of the McGonagall tartan and stroked it gently as she would a favorite cat. For a moment she fancied that it snuggled against her hand in response. Every one of Molly's children who had attended Hogwarts had worn their mother's handmade sweaters (with varying degrees of pleasure, ranging from gleeful delight to grudging tolerance), and Minerva had felt genuinely honored when Molly had made this for her as a Christmas gift upon the departure of her last grandchild from Hogwarts. "Dear Minerva," the accompanying note had read, "No one but you could have coped with so many Weasleys! Thank you for not expelling any of my children. Or their children. All my love, Molly."

Minerva reflected that Molly's sweaters were undoubtedly a great part of why Hogwarts had survived so many Weasleys. Minerva preferred the classical name of magica matrem, but whether one called it magia de la madre, draíocht an mháthair, or Kúzlo matky it was still the same: mother magic. Anything handmade with a mother's love -- from sweaters to biscuits -- carried the peculiar ability to exert a positive influence, to reinforce a child's good qualities and blunt the bad. For a horrifying moment, Minerva imagined what Fred and George might have been without the sweaters. Truly, the mind boggled.

Even Muggle mothers had some vestige of this power. Mothers of sons, for some reason, seemed especially strong in it. Which was curious, really, now she came to think about it. If the ability was inborn, how could it change later when a woman actually had children? Perhaps it was... What was that Muggle word Hermione had mentioned, for something inborn but latent until something in the environment triggers it? Imaginetic, apathetic...epigenetic, that was it. She'd always meant to read up on that, it sounded quite interesting -- a bit like Transfiguration, in a way. Well, now she'd have plenty of time to look into it.

Minerva waved her wand over the mug to reheat her tea and took a thoughtful sip as she gazed at the chunk of stone lying in the center of her desk. Had anyone ever guessed its origin? They might have thought it a strange choice for a paperweight, with its ragged, sharp edges. It would certainly prevent any papers upon which it was placed from being wafted off by a stray breeze, but was equally likely to scuff, tear, or mutilate them. Irregular, roughly broken off from some larger object, it seemed a featureless lump -- but if one looked closely, one could see the trace of an eye, the edge of a helmet, the corner of a mouth set in battle rage. Minerva heard the echo of her own voice shouting, Piertotum Locomotor! and a chill ran down her spine at the remembered thrill of casting a spell never before uttered.

The day Albus had appointed her Deputy Headmistress he had shared with her the secrets of many of the castle's magical protections; of all of them, the spell to summon the suits of armor and statues to fight on behalf of the school had enchanted her the most. More than once she had dreamed of granite figures come to life, stone spears and shields raised, standing row upon row to deny entrance to any bent on villainy or evil. It was rather a remarkable sensation to know that so much power was yours to command if needed -- sometimes her fingertips had quite tingled with the potential of it. And when at last she had called upon them, they had answered. "Hogwarts is threatened! Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!" Oh, it had been glorious, truly, to see them leap into the fray!

And yet they had died, as glory always did when faced with the bloody reality of battle, crumbling into dust and boulders under the Death Eaters' assault. As she had made her way slowly across the castle courtyard after it was all over, shocked by the loss of students, friends, colleagues, too numb yet to take any joy in Voldemort's defeat, she had seen this shattered fragment balanced on a pile of rubble. Its eye had seemed to watch her as she approached, drawing her nearer with its blank, impersonal gaze.

She had kept the piece of stone with her ever since, a blunt reminder that not everyone who had aided in their victory had had a choice in the matter. Had they felt anything, she wondered, as their stone bodies were shattered by the clubs of giants or the explosive incantations of the Death Eaters? Impossible to know.

For some reason her spectacles were misting over. She cleared her throat, took off her glasses and reached for the little scrap of fabric to polish them. This too was showing its age -- the dark blue background had faded to a dusty grey, the brown teddy bears to a pale yellow -- but she had declined every offer from the House Elves to replace it. She had acquired it entirely by accident one day when she had asked Winky for something with which to polish her glasses. "Something soft, Winky, and small enough to tuck in my pocket," she had said, and into her hands had come this ragged square of cotton flannel. Its colors had been brighter then, of course, and she had known instantly when and where she had seen it before: the night she had found Neville Longbottom Petrificused in the Gryffindor common room, lying there in his teddy bear pyjamas with a look of surprise on his frozen face. Neville the almost-orphan, Neville the almost-but-not-quite part of the Golden Trio, Neville the almost-Chosen One -- Neville who had shown his valor from the first, if one but knew where to look. "There are many kinds of courage," Albus had said. "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends."

Minerva turned the worn scrap between her fingers. Albus was wrong, she thought. It didn't take just as much courage; it took more. In opposing your enemies, you could still rely on your friends -- hadn't they all experienced that? But in opposing your friends, you stood alone, dangerously exposed. And there was no guarantee you would ever be allowed back.

For some, that solitude had proved fatal and re-acceptance had come too late.

She ran her fingers gently over the last item on the desk: a tattered black quill, its tip stained with ink and its ragged plume looking as though rats had pilfered a barb here and there for their nests. She had seen this quill in Severus' hand hundreds, probably thousands of times, so many that she still felt vaguely like an impostor when she used it herself. Had he had this quill as a student? She rather thought so. Severus had been a creature of habit, and pride had made him cling to his few possessions. She used it seldom, only on particular occasions, and in particular places; in her own quarters especially, on Sunday evenings when she wrote in her journal. She had found that writing with it made her more eloquent, more thoughtful, though it had a disturbing tendency to scrawl the word "dunderhead" if her concentration wandered.

Minerva laid the raven feather across her palm and quietly, deliberately, summoned in her mind a picture of its owner. Here he was as a student: scrawny, shy, awkward, balanced on a razor's edge between the persuasions of Lucius Malfoy's insouciant power and arrogance on one side and Lily Potter's warmth and affection on the other. She saw him as a young Potions professor, his long-fingered hands graceful and sure as he brewed healing draughts for Poppy, Veritaserum for the Ministry, experimental mixtures of his own devising. Finally, most difficult of all, she made herself see him as Headmaster of Hogwarts, embattled and alone, playing with grim competence a role she knew she herself could never have done. Her throat grew tight at this last vision. Given what she had known at the time, she could have done nothing differently -- but she wished once again that she had been able to guess his secret in time for one last glass of Old Ogden's, one last bet on Slytherin versus Gryffindor. One last word of respect and affection. Of all the friends she had lost, it was Severus she missed the most.

The clock behind her struck six and she realized with a start that she had been reminiscing for nearly an hour. With a sigh, she laid the quill down. She emptied and dried the mug with a flick of her wand, wrapped it in the piece of faded flannel and the stone in the copious folds of the shawl, and placed them and the quill in a small wooden box which she closed and latched. It was time for the final step.

Strange to think that when she left this room she knew so well the door would close behind her and she would be barred from entering. The spell she was about to perform would remove all traces of her personal magical signature from the Office wards. Tradition held that this was done to symbolize the outgoing Head's relinquishment of power. He or she would then give the Key to the incoming Head, usually with appropriate words of advice, inspiration, relief, and/or farewell. Minerva planned to simply say, "Good luck, Mr. Longbottom," and leave it at that.

She rose, went to the door and closed it. Once done, it was irreversible. The door would open only to the new Head, when he put the Key in the lock and turned it, signifying his acceptance of the position. The ceremony wasn't necessary, strictly speaking; she herself had taken office without it. But she rather envied Neville the experience. Facing the door, she placed her wand gently on its oak surface and recited, " Telam evolvere, praesidia dissolvere..." Slowly she began to turn, repeating the phrase, and as she did faint silvery tendrils unwound themselves from walls and windows, drawn toward and into her wand. When she had come full circle and was facing the door again she had no need to verify that the spell had worked. She could feel it in her bones.

She picked up the wooden box from her desk, Sybill's gift and the Key from little table, and opened the door, then turned for a last glance around the room. She had expected to feel a twinge of sorrow, but instead she felt light, as though after a long and challenging journey she had arrived at an unexpectedly restful and relaxing place. She had nothing to fret or distract her now, and so much time: time to read, to study anything that interested her, to garden and cook and walk and --

"BOO!"

Minerva uttered an undignified shriek and clutched at her hat. "Peeves!!!" she hissed furiously.

The poltergeist cackled and stuck out his tongue at her. "Time to put the cat out!" he chortled. "Kitty kitty kitty!"

Minerva leveled a glare that would have felled a basilisk at the madly grinning poltergeist. "If you weren't a Hogwarts tradition," she said coldly, bending to gather up her scattered belongings, "I would Banish you myself."

Peeves rotated slowly in the air above her head, eyes crossed and ears waggling. "It unscrews the other way!" he sang out, his voice a passable imitation of her own Scottish brogue. "TOADally!"

Minerva suppressed a smile. "All right, and for that as well." She fixed him with a penetrating stare. "But Headmaster Longbottom is not Dolores Umbridge, and I expect you to treat him with whatever respect you can muster."

"MINNIE SAID BOTTOM!!!" Peeves shouted gleefully, and with a loud raspberry he zoomed away down the corridor.

Minerva shook her head. There was one thing about Hogwarts she would assuredly not miss. She stepped out of the office, taking a quick inventory of the items she carried: hat, box, gift...Key?

She gasped, turned and caught a glimpse of something small and bronze lying on the carpet just before the door thunked solidly closed.

The Key.

The Key she was to hand over to her successor in -- she glanced at the watch pinned to her blouse -- less than ten minutes.

Now locked inside her office. Or rather, which was the nub of the problem, the office that was no longer hers.

Minerva's heart sank into her boots. Merlin, what to do? Of course she could simply admit what she'd done and ask Deputy Headmaster Vetch to go in and get the Key, but her very soul rebelled at ending her career as Headmaster in such an ignominious manner. No, she would come up with something. She set her box and Sybill's gift on the floor and took out her wand.

"Alohomora?" she said, without much hope, and tugged on the handle. As expected, the door remained firmly closed. She tapped her wand on her chin. What other ways were there into a room? Apparation was impossible within the castle, and even had it not been, the fact that the wards no longer recognized her would have prevented her. The same applied to the windows: although she could theoretically have Accio'ed a broomstick and flown up to the window, she would be unable to enter. Not to mention that someone surely would have noticed soon-to-be-retired Headmistress McGonagall flying over the quad when she was supposed to be at a formal ceremony in the Great Hall.

"Think, think,think..." she muttered. She could summon a House Elf, she supposed, but that would also mean revealing her foolishness and she was unwilling to do that except as a last resort. Besides, although the House Elves were bound to obey the Headmaster or Headmistress, as of the completion of the ward-removal spell she no longer held that position, and they might feel obligated to check any such request with the new Headmaster.

A gleam of red light shining from under the door caught her attention. She knelt, somewhat stiffly, and bent to look. Sunlight shining in the office window had found its way through the crack between the door and the floor. Annoyingly, she could actually see the Key, just eighteen inches away. "Accio Key," she whispered, but the spell was effortlessly absorbed by the wards. No, magic simply wasn't the answer.

Circe curse it, she was Minerva McGonagall, and she refused to admit defeat. She sat back on her heels and as she did her eye fell on the silver-wrapped package. "The Spirits tell me this will be of great use to you..."

Oh, surely not.

Minerva took up the package and with one quick movement tore off the shiny paper and opened the box. Into her lap dropped what looked like a giant buttonhook: a long, thin piece of metal bent into a curve at one end, and Minerva began to laugh. She was still laughing as she slid the hook under the door, caught the Key on the end, and pulled it through.

***

Three hours later...

Minerva sat on a wooden bench in the tiny, stone-flagged courtyard behind her cottage, a cup of fragrant tea on the table beside her. All things considered, she was content to leave Neville to cope with Peeves, Weasley great-grandchildren, and any other disasters that might come along. It was spring in the Highlands and the heather was in bloom, and for once that was all that mattered.