“I’ve said it before,” remarks the slighter of the two women, stirring her tea viciously, “But I really do miss the Cold War.”
Professor McGonagall pauses in genteelly stirring her own cup to raise well-marked eyebrows. “Really?”
The other woman nods. “I suppose I shouldn’t. But at least then we knew who our enemies were, even in the loosest of terms.”
“I suppose there is something to be said for that, yes,” McGonagall allows. “Not that I can say I’ve ever experienced much of it. I’ve never yet run across a Dark wizard in a uniform. Masks, yes, and identical sneers – but those are rather too easy to remove for my liking, and you cannot hex someone just because you don’t like their face.”
The Second Muggle World War, she thinks, with something almost like longing. An enemy who wasn’t smoke on the wind and Imperius curses. She feels almost envious of the black-and-white certainties of that world, its lines drawn with a quill-point scoring through parchment. Though of course it was still a war, with all the blood and murder that that entails – even more then than usual, or so she’s always been told. (It disturbs her that there should be anything ‘usual’ about a war, but there it is: she’s been through three of them, and she ought to know. One may grow accustomed to virtually anything, she supposes.)
“Oh, specific enemies have always been rather tricky, unfortunately,” her companion admits. “That’s always been in the nature of the Game.” Her voice is brisk and matter-of-fact, but nevertheless conveys very clearly that ‘Game’ carries itself with a capital G. “But at least in the Cold War one could admit that it was a war. Nowadays it’s all...” She pauses distastefully. “All Hollywood war games and backroom politics, as a rule.”
McGonagall cocks an enquiring eyebrow. “Do you normally say all this to the people you take tea with in bars at the end of the universe, might I ask?”
The other woman chuckles with a great, knowing wryness. “I haven’t said anything much at all, you might notice. Certainly nothing anyone could use.”
“You’re quite certain of that, are you?” McGonagall sips her tea, serenely amused. “After all, I played the Game once myself.”
“I did rather wonder about that, yes. Takes one to spot one, as they say.” She favours her with the prim cool smile of one who has, as the old expression went, Taken Steps. “When and where, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh, various places in the 1940s.” The look in McGonagall’s sharp black eyes permits her to draw her own conclusions. “Mostly.”
“Perhaps we crossed paths,” the shorter woman suggests, though she does not suggest when, where or why.
“Perhaps,” McGonagall agrees, although her tone of voice says she doubts it. (She had thought, not so long ago, that she was too old for this kind of game-within-the-Game, but now... No, it is what it always was, but she has changed. She knows the value of her own life, now.) “We could, of course, also be from different worlds entirely.”
“Perhaps.” The echo manages to convey very definitely that the speaker knows the answer for certain and is quite confident that McGonagall does too. Which she does, of course, because what kind of former spy would she be if she didn’t?
‘A dead one’ is the answer, just like most of her colleagues in the very earliest Order – at least, the ones she knew about, for even Dumbledore’s lieutenant knew only so much about all the risks she took for him.
(Even now, decades after Grindelwald’s downfall and years after the Dark Lord’s second and final destruction, she wonders if she should have known about Severus. Wonders why Albus didn’t tell her. She is, at least, fairly certain that it was no personal failing on her part that led him to keep her in the dark. Fairly certain. She is old enough and inured enough after all this time that it almost doesn’t sting.)
“In any case,” the other woman remarks more abruptly, “I strongly suspect that it would be better to say the little I would here, than outside.”
McGonagall chuckles. “Oh, really?”
“I’m told venting is considered... healthy.” The expression on her face strongly suggests that she, personally, has every reason to doubt that, reminding McGonagall forcibly of Irma Pince on being confronted with a plausible but nevertheless highly suspicious excuse for the late return of a book. “Allegedly.”
“Mmm, well.” Her tea is cooling; McGonagall taps her cup delicately with her wand to heat it up again. “The young will tend to say all manner of things, in my experience.”
She was brought up differently: she may not have been English (thank Merlin) but she was still born with a stiff upper lip. She does not break easily: if there were ever an inner fragility she would never permit it to show. She does not blame the young if they wear their hearts on their sleeves; they must learn for themselves that a heart on show is far too easily crushed. Theirs is a different world to the one she grew up in, and even though she is their teacher she cannot defend them from it. Some things cannot be taught, as she knows all too well.
“Indeed.” The English woman gives her a piercing look as if trying to read her thoughts, but she is no Legilimens and McGonagall is serene and secure. “And unfortunately, most of what they say, one cannot shoot them for.”
McGonagall, fresh from a day in which the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher finally lost patience with a class of rowdy fourth-year Gryffindors and creatively hexed the lot of them, snorts. “I do wish you’d tell that to my colleagues. Or, for that matter, my pupils.”
(Not that she can entirely blame the new professor, not when in her youth she herself frequently resorted to making intricate and well-researched lists of the hexes she wanted to use on trouble-makers in order to retain her tenuous grip on her temper. And the poor woman’s class did after all include the offspring not only of George Weasley and Angelina Johnson, but of Lee Jordan as well (twins, because the universe enjoys a joke as much as the next person). She is privately convinced that the two sets of parents connived between themselves to ensure maximum distress to the teachers of Hogwarts by co-ordinating the arrival of their children. It would be a fitting finale to their careers, she would admit.)
Her acquaintance permits herself a chuckle. “I admit, I imagine dealing with teenage magic-users must be rather like dealing with one of my subordinates. Believes rules are for other people, screws anything that stands still long enough, and never saw a problem – personal or professional – that he couldn’t solve by shooting at it.”
“Ha.” McGonagall sips her tea. “There are certain similarities, yes. He’s not a Weasley, is he?” She reflects a moment. “Or a Black.”
“Not that our research has indicated thus far, no.” The woman’s own cup pauses halfway to her lips. “007 as a wizard. Now that’s a disturbing thought.”
“No recruiting from amongst my students,” McGonagall warns, quietly amused. “They get themselves into quite sufficient danger unaided, thank you.”
“And it would also be breaking at least half-a-dozen of our more major laws, of course.”
The two women’s eyes meet, trading a look which quite clearly denotes ‘Pfft, laws.’ They have both learned by heart when to be rigid to the letter of the law, when to bend it and when to march through it as if it simply weren’t there.
“Of course, we may well be from completely different worlds altogether,” the woman says, as if that would render the issue moot.
“Of course,” McGonagall agrees politely, well aware that such a state of affairs would only make such matters easier, and genteelly drains the very last of her tea. “Well, this has all been extremely interesting, but I really must get back. Second-year Transfiguration classes do not teach themselves, unfortunately.”
She has never lost the taste for teaching, but these days she has found herself preferring more and more her advanced classes, feeling herself and her pupils push the boundaries of what they and magic can do. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has been pestering her yet again to present their Christmas Lecture; perhaps she will indulge Kingsley and teach adults, this once.
“I wouldn’t know,” her companion admits primly, standing as well as McGonagall reluctantly (her arthritis has been bothering her again; she really must make a Healer’s appointment about it) eases herself to her feet. “But then I suppose it would be naïve to expect magic to make things easy.”
“Naïve and sadly foolhardy,” says McGonagall with a sigh. “In my experience, if magic does anything in life, it only makes things infinitely more complicated.”
“Power will do that,” she observes.
“Indeed.” McGonagall nods, thinking of an old man with a fairytale beard and a young man with a power-mad face. “Incidentally, and whilst I realise how entirely topsy-turvy this is, I don’t believe you ever gave me a name.”
(She knows better than to ask the woman for her name; they have both played the Great Game too long – in her case, too long ago - for that.)
“I don’t believe I did,” she agrees, and considers McGonagall for a long moment before extending a small, immaculately-manicured hand. “You may call me M.”
McGonagall feels her own eyebrows shoot up. “Well, that is rather interesting.” She extends her own hand, faintly conscious but unrepentant of its veins and rheumatism. She will not be ashamed of having survived, of being a spy who grows old. Of having won. “They called me M, too. Some of them.”
The 1944 Muggle Liaison, specifically. She’d always wondered about the look on his face when he’d called her that, but it seems she will wonder no longer. Although she will now be keeping a very close eye on her pupils, when they come to the bar. It is not, however, a new thought – and nor is it the first time she’s wished the door to Milliways would be rather more choosy about who it opens for.
It is the turn of M’s eyebrows to rise, as she shakes McGonagall’s hand with a firm cool grip. “Really.”
Their eyes meet for one long moment, their hands still linked.
“Barbara Mawdsley,” says one old spy.
“Minerva McGonagall,” says the other.