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Resolving a Misunderstanding

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I: Minerva’s Grievance

If Minerva had been a different sort of woman, she might have regretted her choice of words as soon as they were out of her mouth. If she were yet another sort of woman, those words would never have reached her lips. And yet a different sort of woman altogether would never have even thought such words. As it was, Minerva McGonagall rarely resorted to uncouth language, but she was quite capable of it at that time, and when she used it, she made it a policy not to regret it. Although there were occasions on which she regretted using them in front of a particular audience, she had never yet regretted her choice of words. In this instance, however, she immediately regretted not having noticed the wizard who had just passed through the door behind her. Soon after, she came to regret even her choice of words. What became of that regret is the most interesting part of our tale, but that shall have to wait.

The conversation had started out as just a bit of a gripe session between friends. Minerva had flounced into Poppy’s office at a quarter to ten that morning, a look of exasperation on her face.

“I’ll tell you, Poppy,” declared the irate witch, “I’m getting sick of this. Is he never going to be punctual for our meetings? He doesn’t seem to have this problem with his other appointments. He always has time for old Sluggy, even without an appointment, and he’s never late for meetings with Gertrude! He doesn’t seem to respect me at all.”

“Well, Min, you know that he is trying to overcome the perception that he’s prejudiced against the Slytherins, after having been Head of Gryffindor House for so long, so of course he’s going to make time for Slughorn. And Gertie is his deputy. She’s been here for donkey’s years. They have an established relationship.”

“Don’t call me ‘Min’! You know how I hate that. I understand about Slughorn and Gertrude, honestly, I do. But this morning we had an appointment to go over the NEWT-level Transfiguration curriculum – his idea, not mine! – and I spent all yesterday afternoon and evening reviewing, writing up notes on any changes I was suggesting or areas where I was unclear about the most effective pedagogic method; not that there are many changes, since I don’t want to experiment too much until I see how the curriculum works for me as it stands. And I did have questions about the incoming seventh-years, since I didn’t teach them last term. This was not an insignificant meeting about the best source for buttons or beetles, or some such! And do you know what happened, Poppy, do you?”

Poppy shook her head and encouraged her friend. “Tell me, Min – Minerva! Something must have happened to get you so worked up!”

“I got there at eight fifty-seven, and gave the password to the gargoyle. I know I was a few minutes early, but I thought that by the time those stairs got me up to his office, it would be nine o’clock. Nothing happened. So I gave the password again. The only difference this time was that the gargoyle had the temerity to leer at me!”

“Well, Minerva, you have to admit that the gargoyle pretty much leers at everyone. That’s the way gargoyles are.”

“Whose side are you on, Poppy Pomfrey? The gargoyle gave me a . . . a deeper leer than usual. Then it sat back, crossed its scrawny little arms, and closed its eyes!”

Poppy was caught somewhere between amusement and sympathy. Afraid she would laugh, she just nodded with what she hoped was an understanding smile.

“Well, I then announced to the gargoyle that I had an appointment at nine o’clock with the Headmaster, and repeated the password. The gargoyle only opened one eye. I thought perhaps I had the wrong password, but Albus gave it to me himself yesterday after lunch. He told me he was changing it for the summer, and I was quite sure that he had clearly said ‘pixie sticks.’ It was at that point in my reflections that I realized he must not have changed the password as he had said he would, so I decided I should use the previous password, ‘candyfloss.’ Guess what happened then?”

Poppy had no idea and said so.

“The gargoyle opened both eyes, looked up at me, and it seemed the door was beginning to scrape open, but then it stopped. At that point, Gertrude showed up, greeted me, asked me if I knew the new password, then, without waiting for my answer, said ‘pixie sticks’! And the gargoyle opened the door for her!”

“No!” Poppy sat back in her chair, confused.

“As you can imagine, I was somewhat flummoxed by this turn of events. Gertrude mounted the moving stairs and called behind her that if I wanted to come up, I should hurry before the door closed. I leapt in and stepped up a few feet to stand behind her. I told her I had tried the new password myself just a moment before, and it hadn’t worked. I was beginning to wonder whether Albus had instructed the gargoyle not to grant me entrance – not that I told Gertrude that. Fortunately, Gertrude clarified that Albus always sets his passwords to change at a specific time. He can even be out of the castle, and the password will change if he Spells it in advance.”

“Well, that’s quite clever. I don’t think Headmaster Dippet used such a spell,” Poppy mused, smiling at her friend.

“Well, clever is as clever does, Poppy,” replied Minerva stiffly. “Apparently, he had set the spell to activate at nine o’clock, just the time of our meeting.”

“Well, I can see how all of that could be a bit annoying, Minerva, but surely you’re not so upset over such a small matter.”

“Oh, you haven’t heard what really bothers me, Poppy. That, that, that wizard! That wizard, when we got to his office, was not even present! Gertrude entered, called out for him, and instructed me to have a seat. She then went into his private rooms to find him.” Minerva rose from her chair and began to pace the matron’s small office, agitation in every step.

“Well, I don’t see anything particularly odd about that, Min – Minerva. I mean, Gertie’s his Deputy, asking you to have a seat while she went to find him–”

Minerva sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes – something Poppy didn’t think she’d seen her do since Minerva was in her sixth year and a certain Professor of Transfiguration had smiled gently, told her that such dramatics are amusing in a child and then nothing more.

Minerva returned to her chair, obviously restraining herself from throwing herself into it petulantly. “Poppy! I was up there last week for another meeting for which he was late – that one was on the first- and second-year curricula, and so entirely superfluous! – and I tried to look for him in his rooms, which, as you know, are up those spiral brass stairs. I took a half dozen steps and those stairs turned into a slide and dumped me on the floor, where I landed like some gormless first-year Gryffindor wizard. And there at the top of the stairs stood Albus, looking down at me, laughing. Of course, he did come down to see if I had bruised anything other than my pride, but he told me then that the stairs to his private quarters are charmed to do that when anyone steps on them without his invitation. So you can see why I wondered about the gargoyle after it let Gertrude in with the same password that I’d tried just a few moments before.”

“Ah, now I see.” Poppy looked at her friend thoughtfully. Minerva sat stiffly in one of the hard wooden guest chairs that were standard issue in all Hogwarts’ offices. How different, Poppy thought, from the man about whom she was complaining.

Whenever the Headmaster entered the office that had been Poppy’s for the past three years, she noted that he reflexively Transfigured the guest chair into something more comfortable. The shape and the amount of padding of the resulting armchair seemed dependent upon his mood, and the ease and spontaneity of the Transfiguration showed Poppy that not only was this a Transfiguration he performed often, but one that he performed without much forethought. Occasionally, he’d even seem unexpectedly pleased with a particular colour or configuration, and mutter something about needing to remember that one. Minerva, on the other hand, would never dream of Transfiguring a chair in someone else’s office without so much as a by-your-leave, and even then, only when attending to the need or comfort of another. She might not have been able to achieve the effortless, seemingly spontaneous, Transfiguration that Albus could, as he was much older and more experienced, but she could have done it and made it look easy. Whereas Albus would change things to suit himself, Minerva would simply deal with things as they were.

It was not that Minerva lacked flexibility, thought Poppy, nor that Albus was self-absorbed or self-serving. But Albus clearly did believe in taking the initiative to change the circumstances in which he found himself if those circumstances did not suit him. Such a thing would not occur to Minerva. She took things as she found them and adapted, or didn’t.

She was no pushover, despite that, not Minerva McGonagall, and she certainly was not hesitant to change things she believed were wrong. Principled, she would stand up for her friends, and for what she thought right, but she would consider it a peculiar waste of magic, not to mention at least slightly rude, to Transfigure a perfectly serviceable wooden chair into a pouffy chintz armchair in order to be more comfortable for the brief time she’d be using it. No doubt she’d seen Albus do just that and thought nothing of it, since she usually made allowances for what the wizarding world affectionately considered Albus’s “eccentricities.” In fact, on any other day, Poppy would have sworn that Minerva had a soft spot for her old Transfiguration professor. And she had certainly seen no sign that the Headmaster lacked respect for her, as Minerva had suggested.

What was bothering Minerva that day was only peripherally related to her penchant for orderliness, Poppy decided. Of course it would be somewhat disturbing to the meticulous and punctual Minerva McGonagall to have to wait for someone who was habitually late, but Poppy suspected that if Albus were as frequently late with others as he was with her, Minerva would have dismissed it as easily as she dismissed his eccentric Transfiguration of wooden seats into chintz armchairs or of heavy beakers into delicate teacups. No, what bothered Minerva was his seeming punctuality with others and the apparent disregard with which he treated appointments with her. She was also none too pleased that Gertie could mount the steps to the Headmaster’s private quarters without invitation, while she was relegated to being dumped on his office floor.

“Well, Minerva, I’m just trying to be a friend here, so if what I’m saying seems unsympathetic, please bear that in mind.”

Minerva, who had not quite burned through the fire of her righteous anger, nodded at Poppy and relaxed somewhat into her chair.

“Minerva, it seems to me that it would be impractical for the Headmaster to have stairs to his quarters that would not admit his Deputy. I imagine that the first time Gertrude encountered his little slide, she let him know in no uncertain terms what she thought of it. On the other hand,” said Poppy, looking at her friend carefully, “it certainly would not do to eliminate all barriers to his privacy – do you remember what it was like for him after he defeated Grindelwald? It seemed that every witch in England and Scotland, and even a few wizards, wanted to snag him. You weren’t at Hogwarts, Minerva; do you know that they even managed to get into the castle? That’s why Dippet ended up renewing the wartime wards that restricted entry to the grounds. He’d wanted to revert to the original wards, the ones that allowed anyone who was a current or former resident to enter the grounds at the gate without any further ado – were they changed after you’d started school, Minerva, or before? The wartime ones had already been implemented by my first year, so I never really knew what the old ones were like. Dippet never even got around to lifting the Anti-Apparition wards before he and the Board of Governors decided that they’d still have to screen visitors as they entered the grounds because of all the problems these nutters were causing, and so they reinstituted the tighter perimeter wards.”

“But Poppy, this is completely different. It’s not as hard to get onto the grounds today as it was a few years ago, of course, but the wards on all of the exterior doors would alert Dumbledore and the House Heads as soon as anyone entered the castle who didn’t belong. And I’m obviously not one of those nutters.”

“Hmmpf. Obviously.” Poppy gazed at Minerva thoughtfully and continued. “They were even coming in through the windows back then. My seventh-year Charms class was interrupted when a witch flew in through the window.” Poppy chuckled at her reminiscence. “We had the opportunity to practice a few nice charms that day. I cast the one that froze her broom but held it in midair. Quite clever, I thought at the time.”

Minerva snorted. “Even so, Poppy, you have to have a password to get into the Headmaster’s office. Even if he wants privacy in his quarters – which I completely understand; I value my own privacy, after all – he could require a password at the door to his rooms, or set up an invisible barrier at the bottom of the stairs, and require a password there. No doubt Headmaster Dippet used such a system. Setting up a slide like the one in Gryffindor Tower is just, just puerile!”

Poppy finally gave in and laughed. “We didn’t have anything quite like that in Hufflepuff, but I understand that the stairs to the girls’ dormitory in Gryffindor have had that charm on them for at least a couple hundred years, possibly ever since they combined the Girls’ and Boys’ Common Rooms to encourage greater internal House unity back in, what was it, sixteen-something?”

“Fifteen ninety-four, as you would know if you ever bothered reading Hogwarts, a History,” grumbled Minerva. “What’s your point?”

“My point is that Dumbledore no doubt encountered those stairs himself back when he was a student. Knowing him, he probably thought it was quite funny, once he got over the embarrassment of landing flat on his arse, and now that he’s Headmaster, he decided to have a set of them for himself. I can even imagine him activating the charm on purpose just to slide down to his office in the morning.”

“Hmmpf. That’s as may be, but I am not a child. And what if one of the elderly staff members triggered the stairs and broke a bone? It’s irresponsible.”

“I’d set them to rights,” Poppy interjected.

Minerva sighed, and a fleeting look of sadness crossed her face, to be replaced by one of anger. She balled her fists and, through gritted teeth, hissed, “You haven’t heard the capper, yet, Poppy.”

“There’s more?”

‘There’s more?’ she says! Of course there’s more; none of that would still be irritating me if there weren’t more!” Minerva closed her eyes in frustration, or perhaps she was just reviewing the events of the morning. “Gertrude found Albus, obviously, and they came down stairs together. They were discussing something or other to do with the school, I gathered that much, when Albus caught sight of me.” Here, Minerva closed her eyes again and swallowed. Poppy recognised this Minerva McGonagall. This was the Wrathful Minerva whom everyone in Gryffindor had learned to avoid provoking – or learned simply to avoid once provoked. She’d become much better at controlling her temper over the years, and Poppy doubted she’d be hexed if she said the wrong thing, but she stayed quiet and allowed Minerva to gather herself, nonetheless.

Minerva let out a shaky breath and continued her story.

“‘Oh, Minerva, there you are!’ he says, as if I’d be anywhere else at five minutes after nine when we had an appointment at nine o’clock in his office. ‘I’m so sorry, Minerva, but Gertie has a few things she needs to discuss with me before she leaves for Cornwall this afternoon. We’ll have to postpone our meeting,’ he says. That’s fine with me, Poppy, I understand completely. Gertrude is his Deputy and will be leaving to be with her family for a few weeks. It makes perfect sense that they meet this morning. It does not make perfect sense that our esteemed Headmaster make an appointment with me when he is aware that she will need to meet with him.”

“Now, that’s not fair, Minerva,” Poppy protested. “It could very well be that he thought they had wrapped up all their school business and that her visit surprised him.”

“Yes, Madam Poppy Pomfrey, Voice of Reason!” Minerva fumed. “Would you PLEASE let me finish? I told him that was fine with me – after all, I have no grounds to protest such a reasonable proposal. But then I asked him if I should return in an hour or two, and do you know what his response was? Do you?” Wrathful Minerva had entered full-blown rhetorical-question-mode, so Poppy just shook her head. “‘Oh, my, no,’ he says, ‘no, I can’t meet this morning. I’m afraid Gertie’s arrival interrupted my weekly beard conditioning. The potion has to sit undisturbed from start to finish and I had to charm it off early, so I’ll have to start the process all over from the beginning, then I have a Floo-call scheduled with the minister for something-or-other at eleven o’clock’ – he didn’t say something-or-other, of course, but I don’t remember which insignificant minister he was talking about. ‘It’ll have to be this afternoon, my dear. Perhaps we’ll see one another at lunch; we can arrange something then. There’s a good girl, Minerva.’”

Poppy shuddered when she heard that last phrase. No wonder Wrathful Minerva made an appearance today!

‘There’s a good girl, Minerva.’ The nerve of him! ‘There’s a good girl’? I am a Professor of Transfiguration at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! I may not have been here long, and I may not have his experience, but I still deserve a LITTLE respect. ‘Good girl,’” Minerva fumed, her eyes tearing up. She rose from her chair again and leaned toward Poppy, one hand resting on the edge of the desk separating them. “How dare he! How could he? How? It’s just one insult or indignity after another, Poppy, and I am beginning to think that he doesn’t think me a capable, mature witch! Well, if that’s the way he feels, then fuck Albus Dumbledore! And fuck his stupid beard, too!” Minerva didn’t notice that as she was making this final speech, Poppy’s eyes were growing wider and rounder, and so impassioned was she that she ignored Poppy’s sudden wild gesticulations.

“Hmm, interesting idea, Professor McGonagall. Certainly an interesting idea.”

Author’s Note: This story has nineteen parts. The parts aren’t all the same length, but they are all thematically discrete parts of the story. Most of the story is from Minerva’s point-of-view, and it’s a Minerva-centric fic, part romance, part drama, part adventure/suspense, and part Bildungsroman.