There is a Muggle legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve, for one hour, animals can speak. Many a Muggle child has strained to keep his or her tired eyes open until that fateful hour, hoping to hear the voice of a beloved dog or cat, rabbit or hamster, only to drift off to sleep disappointed as the clock strikes half-past twelve. The tale does have a kernel of truth, however, because (like many Muggle stories involving magic) its origins lie in our world, the Wizarding world, though most of us have forgotten it, if indeed we ever heard it. For the fact is that certain animals do indeed acquire special powers, during one magical hour in the depth of the Winter Solstice, otherwise known as Longest Night.
If anyone at Hogwarts might know of this, it would be Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds and lecturer in Care of Magical Creatures, but his interests lie in the wild world, not the familiar one. And this is, above all, a familiar tale.
Fortunately for the few who are still awake within the walls of Hogwarts at half-past eleven on this Longest Night, one need not know a tale in order to be part of it.
“Hello, Snickett," she murmurs, caressing the furry little head with a gentle finger. Very few of the other professors know that Minerva has a familiar, and even fewer would guess – given her Animagus form – that that familiar is a mouse. But she finds it rather apt, since mice are known for hiding, and she spends much of her time hiding her worries and fears behind the unruffled persona of “Professor McBadass," as she once overheard Fred Weasley call her. Snickett is wise enough never to leave her rooms, but occasionally he does accompany her to class hidden in the bun of her hair or curled up in the pocket of her robes.
Tonight his undemanding companionship is especially welcome because Minerva is tired, more tired than she ever imagined she could be. Longest Night, she thinks ruefully, seems to get longer every year, and the darkness this year feels darker than any she can remember. She knows that it isn't so, that Voldemort's return has not altered the cycle of the seasons or the length of a day...and yet somehow it seems ominous that this year the Winter Solstice falls on a moonless night. So many deaths already, and more to come, she can feel it in her bones.
Much of her energy goes toward protecting her students in all the ways that an adult and a teacher can: projecting calmness and competence, being a pillar of stability, encouraging them to recognize their fear but not give in to it, firmly countering the inter-House prejudices that threaten their ability to join together, to be greater than the sum of their parts. Beneath it all, there is the lurking fear for her students' very lives; those whose parents are known to oppose Voldemort are in one kind of danger, while those whose parents are suspected of supporting him face another kind, just as deadly, though perhaps more to the soul than to the body.
A good deal of her time and effort, too, goes towards keeping up the spirits and collegiality of the Hogwarts staff. All of them are still teaching, striving to preserve whatever sense of normality is possible for as long as possible. Those who are Heads of House, like herself, suppress their own worries to show a confident, capable face to their students. Those who can be trusted fully, whether members of the Order of the Phoenix or not, bear the additional burden of knowledge that cannot be shared, fears that cannot be spoken...and Severus, of course, with his suspect background and his taciturn manner complicates matters immensely. All of them, in their various ways, are preparing for the worst, and although she cannot think of any group of people she would rather have standing beside her if that day comes, she can hear in their voices and see in their faces the strain under which they are all living, and feels compelled to ease it whenever and however she can.
And then there is Albus, whose Deputy Head she is and whose cares she shares. He relies on her to be there when he cannot, to deal swiftly and competently with the minutiae of running the school so that he can focus on Harry, preparing him for whatever his role will ultimately be. When she asks Albus what he sees in the boy's future, he simply smiles and says that she has more than enough to think about, why add one more? She senses that the best gift she can give him is to trust him. But the worse the news is from Severus, their eyes and ears in Voldemort's camp, the harder this becomes, because she is not sure that she does.
After all of this – after her students, her colleagues, Albus – what is left for herself?
Earlier this evening, Aurora Sinistra had caught Minerva's arm in the passageway as they left the Great Hall, her brown eyes dark with concern. She had reminded Minerva gently that even Professor McGonagall is not unbreakable, not immortal, not made of stone like the statues that guard the walls of Hogwarts. And she had offered something else: an invitation, as clear as the stars she studies and as open to multiple interpretations, leaving it to Minerva to hear it or not as she chose. Minerva had chosen not, simply smiled and wished Aurora a good evening.
Now, alone in her rooms, Minerva remembers what she and Aurora had once been to one another, so many years ago, and how sweet it had been. But she fears to bend, lest she will break.
The gold watch pinned to the front of her tartan robes emits a tiny “ting!" the first stroke of midnight, and suddenly with the most piercing “Squeak!" she has ever heard from him, Snickett is off her shoulder and streaking towards the door, slipping under it and vanishing out into the hallway.
With an oath that would have impressed even Alastor Moody, Minerva leaps after him, envisioning her familiar ending up as a snack for a patrolling Mrs. Norris.
He has just returned from another meeting of the Death Eaters, this one held in an abandoned Muggle factory. He has no idea what the factory used to produce, but the decaying smokestacks and rotting steel framework suggest it had been some sort of industrial plant. The wind had been vicious, whipping snowflakes like grains of sand against his face and numbing his hands and feet, but the chill that eats at him now is more than a simple physical reaction. Voldemort's madness is growing, and Severus wonders what fresh horrors he will be forced to witness to keep his role as double agent secure. Or what horrors he will be forced to commit.
In the embers of the hearth is curled Snape's familiar, a salamander – not the Muggle kind that lives in mud or water, cold as a fish, but the magical kind that is born of flame and lives on the juice of fresh rubies. When cool its skin is black as ink with flecks of ash-grey; now, in the depths of the fire, it glows a deep scarlet spangled with gold. Severus calls it Ignis. Unimaginative, and perhaps unnecessary given that the salamander never acknowledges his presence by more than a slow blink, but it seems to Severus that common courtesy demands that one address one's familiar by a name of some sort. Severus envies its ability to bury itself in heat; he himself cannot remember the last time he felt warm.
His mind goes back to the summer just past, to a night in Lucius Malfoy's mansion – the night he watched Charity Burbage die. He clenches his teeth against the shudders that shake him like a terrier shakes a rat and draws the blanket tighter around himself, seeing again the tears on Charity's face, the terror in her eyes. He passed on the news of her death to the members of the Order of the Phoenix, but to this day he has told no one that she died pleading with him to help her. Yes, that was the night, he thinks: the night that an arctic wilderness began to grow inside him.
Severus watches the salamander, his thoughts sluggish with a cold that is more than physical. It is not a companionable creature – salamanders are notoriously solitary, which is part of the reason he chose one as his familiar – but it has led him to surprising discoveries and sent his DADA research down new pathways. Placing it in the flames beneath a cauldron or beaker, for example, alters the properties of the potion thus produced; Severus has been unable to explain this and can find no discussion of it in the literature, but it is indisputably true. He has also learned that if he holds it in the palm of his hand and strokes its ribs very, very gently between his thumb and forefinger, it will obligingly produce from its mouth a few drops of a liquid as clear as rainwater, drops which instantly burst into flame when they touch stone or metal. Given sufficient time, he is certain that the salamandrine (as he has dubbed it) could be turned into a useful weapon against Voldemort and his followers. He is equally certain that sufficient time will not be given him – time is the one thing that is running short for all of them, himself most of all. The thought sends another wave of tremors through his body, and his thin face is gaunt with strain.
As the clock in the antechamber begins to strike twelve Severus closes his eyes, hoping against hope to forget the bitter winter of his soul in the darkness of sleep. And so he does not see the salamander raise its head, its eyes unusually intent and intelligent, as if hearing a call to action.
In his chambers he has a small but elegant laboratory – beakers and flasks, tubes and alembics, racks containing phials of ingredients, fresh and dried – set up beside an arched window and with a small fireplace of its own, allowing him to experiment with new and interesting potions in his preferred environment of airy warmth rather than the dankness and darkness of the Potions classroom in the dungeons. At the moment, a potion of Horace's own devising is simmering in a glass flask, but he knows already that something has gone amiss with it. The color is wrong (it should be a clear cerulean) as is the odor (it smells of vinegar and mold, and while he is not sure what the correct odor will be, he knows this is not it).
He runs a hand through his thinning hair with a sigh, and the bright-eyed capuchin monkey perched on a corner of the chair makes an inquisitive sound. “Well, Armando," he says, “this has failed again and I don't know why."
“This" is an unbelievably potent combination of blood-replenishing potion and anti-venom. Horace has been working on it since he returned to Hogwarts in September, since the night Poppy recounted to him in vivid detail the story of Nagini's attack on Arthur Weasley. The snake had torn at Arthur's throat with its fangs and, although Harry's visions had sent rescuers in time, its venom had prevented the wound from healing; slowing and eventually stopping the persistent blood loss had taken weeks of intensive care by the staff of St. Mungo's. Horace believes that the potion he is trying to create will be much faster and far more effective. He even has hopes that it could be taken prophylactically, by anyone likely to be a target of the snake's attack. Severus, for example, who must face the creature's master on a regular basis. If his urgent desire to perfect the potion is in part motivated by guilt at what he once told a young student named Tom Riddle, Horace has not admitted it to himself.
Horace extinguishes the flame under the beaker with a weary wave of his wand and sinks into a large, squashy chair, pondering. “Armando, pineapple please?" he says, then smiles as he watches his familiar scamper across the room, tail held high in a curve like a question mark, to fetch a small bowl of the sweet. Being an indolent man by nature, Horace vicariously enjoys the little creature's lively agility and constant curiosity; training it to recognize certain words so it could fetch pipe or wine or slippers has taken time and repetition, but Armando seems to enjoy the “game" as much as Horace enjoys teaching him. That the monkey's sharp-featured face, bushy eyebrows, and bright eyes remind Horace of Armando Dippet, Hogwarts' former Headmaster, is an additional amusement.
Dippet's simian namesake perches on Horace's thigh and chatters happily as Horace absently munches crystallized pineapple, brows furrowed in thought. Like a master sommelier, the color and bouquet of a potion tell him far more than they would the average person, and he can sense that he is close – so close! – but that some key ingredient is missing. What that ingredient might be, however, remains a mystery even after months of work.
Suddenly Armando sits bolt upright and peers into his master's face with a look of strange intensity, his head cocked as if listening. To Horace's bemusement, the little monkey tugs the Slytherin scarf from around his own neck, wrapping it round and round its slender body until it resembles a ball of green-and-silver yarn. It gives a brief, sharp bark, and Horace watches in astonishment as Armando leaps to the window, turns the iron latch (it takes both his tiny paws to do it), and vanishes into the snowy night.
Somewhere in the castle, a clock finishes striking twelve.
The little Charms Professor has not slept in eighteen hours, but he is determined not to let himself stop until he achieves his goal. The desk and the floor around it are covered with sheets of parchment thickly covered with words and rough sketches indicating wand movements, tangible evidence of the intense mental effort in which Filius has been engaged. He is labouring to complete the last link in a chain of experimentation and research, the culmination of which will (if all goes well) be a Stunning Spell capable of penetrating even the most powerful Shield Charm.
Such a spell would give them an immeasurable advantage against the Death Eaters, allowing them to disable without injuring, to capture without killing. Filius firmly believes that they cannot defeat Voldemort by descending to his level – that enemy deaths may be Voldemort's goal but it cannot be theirs, not if they want to be able to look one another in the eye once it's all over. Who knows how many of those fighting for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named have been Imperiused, or are compelled to act by threats against their loved ones? Oh, Filius knows that there will be deaths; they are unavoidable in war. But if he can find a way to minimize them, he will have done something he can be proud of.
His eyelids start to drift closed and he jerks himself angrily awake, growling in annoyance at his own weakness. Dulcinea glances briefly at him, then extends a furry leg and begins cleaning her toes. Filius spares her a brief smile, wishing that his own life were as simple as his familiar's: eat, sleep, beg for a chin-rub, sleep some more. Sleep...even the word makes him want to lay his head down on the table for just a moment...but he grits his teeth and soldiers on. He is certain that both the words and the wand gestures are very nearly correct, but something still eludes him, some subtle refinement of movement or pronunciation. He riffles through a pile of parchment, each sheet covered in his neat round hand, but the words blur and swim before his tired eyes when he tries to focus, and he shoves them aside in irritation. Exhaustion wraps like a stifling cloak around his mind, rendering him slow and stupid.
Faintly, without really registering it, he hears a clock chiming midnight.
Dulcinea pauses in her careful grooming and raises her head, her eyes glowing with a more-than-feline intelligence. With a brisk flick of her tail, she jumps onto the desk where Filius is scribbling and muttering to himself and sits down squarely in the center of the parchment on which he is writing. Filius glances up distractedly and lifts a hand to move her aside, then pauses. Her eyes hold his, and he feels a sudden drowsiness creeping over him. The cat gently closes her teeth on the quill he is holding and tugs it out of his hand, then rears back on her hind legs and plops her front paws on his chest, shifting her considerable weight and pressing him backwards until the backs of his knees strike the edge of his chair and he falls into it. He makes an inarticulate sound of protest, but the cat's eyes are still holding his and his limbs seem suddenly to be filled with something heavy and warm. Dulcinea hops into his lap, curls up, and begins to purr; within seconds, her warm weight and the rhythmic susurration have lulled Filius to sleep.
He frowns and looks closer. Can it be that easy? He bends forward, seizes a quill, crosses out a line here and adds a word there, changes the curve and sweep of one finger. He sits back and re-reads what he has written, his right hand moving in a gesture slightly different from any he has yet tried, and he feels the spell settle into his mind like a key into a lock – he has not tested it, but years of experience tell him it will work.
In the corner by the fire, Dulcinea gives a short “Mrrrrt!" and begins to wash her face.
Sometimes what we need most is a reminder to take care of ourselves.
Holly. Whose leaves improve circulation, whose berries are used as a powerful astringent to check bleeding, whose branches protect against evil.
A glorious light bursts in Horace's mind. Holly! He knows with a certainty born of his decades as a Potions Master, that this is the missing ingredient for which he has been searching.
“Armando, my fine fellow!" he crows, hardly able to contain his glee. “You've done it!"
The monkey gives him a cheeky grin and scampers off to its basket for a well-deserved rest. Somewhere in the castle, a clock strikes one.
Sometimes what we need most is a helping hand, no matter how small.
Sometimes what we need most is a little warmth in a dark time.
And then the door opens, and it is Aurora, her skin like caramel and her dark eyes warm with welcome. "I hoped you'd come," she says, reaching out to take Minerva's hand and draw her into the room. A moment later and Aurora is on the couch, Minerva on the floor at her feet, leaning her head on Aurora's knee as her old lover's slender fingers stroke her hair. "Rest," Aurora murmurs as she kisses the top of Minerva's head. "You need not always be the one to give."
Sometimes what we need most is someone to lean on.
You see? I told you this was a familiar story.