As Minerva walked, the change in atmosphere was even more closely impressed upon her
Hogwarts was in chaos.
Students were being attacked. Colin Creevey, Hermione Granger and Justin Finch-Fletchley were still in the hospital wing. Madame Pomfrey was keeping a close eye on them until the Mandrake Restorative Draught was administered.
Everyone else was keeping as low a profile as they possibly could. Between classes the halls were filled with students hurrying as fast as possible, heads down, hoods up, hands at their sides.
Hannah Abbott’s blonde pigtails, Parvati Patil’s bright smile, Ginny Weasley’s brilliant red hair—all were concealed in a sea of black.
It was as if the students were making a concerted effort to squeeze as small as possible, to blend together, to fit all their bodies in a little box. If they were indistinguishable, hidden within one general mass, then they were safe.
Safety was elusive at Hogwarts. Everyone wanted it, and no one was guaranteed it.
And all this was before Albus Dumbledore was removed as Headmaster.
"Dreadful thing, Dumbledore," said Malfoy lazily, taking out a long roll of parchment, "but the governors feel it’s time for you to step aside. This is an Order of Suspension—you’ll find all twelve signatures on it. I’m afraid we feel you’re losing your touch."
"Yeh can’ take Dumbledore!" yelled Hagrid. "Take him away, an’ the Muggle-borns won’ stand a chance! There’ll be killin’ next!"
"If the governors want my removal, Lucius, I shall of course step aside. However, you will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me."
"Admirable sentiments," said Malfoy. "We shall all miss your highly individual way of running things, Albus, and only hope that your successor will manage to prevent any—ah—killins."
Minerva hurried down the corridor, anxious to reach her office. Since she had assumed the role of Headmistress, the contents of her inbox had increased significantly. Gone were the afternoons spent leisurely reading each letter over a cup of raspberry honey tea.
Now she was lucky if she managed to cram in half a sandwich between boxes. Yes, she now had so much mail that it was delivered in boxes.
Reaching her office door, she carefully pushed it open. Only last week she had opened it too quickly, and an avalanche of envelopes had cascaded onto her head. It was an experience she did not want to repeat.
The door swung open, narrowly missing a basket full of pale lavender letters hanging from the coat rack. When it had opened wide enough, Minerva squeezed through the gap, stepping over what looked like a hatbox covered with talon scratchings.
Standing in the middle of the room, Minerva deliberated over where to begin. She glanced at the row of jockeying owls on the window ledge, the cardboard box overflowing with letters of all sizes, and the stack of parcels in the corner.
None of those looked interesting to her, so she picked up the envelope at the top of her inbox. In most respects it was very ordinary. The only odd thing about it was that it smelled strongly—overpoweringly, actually—of cinnamon and wool.
Curiosity piqued, Minerva slit the seal open and unfolded the letter.
I trust you are coping well with your new responsibilities, and am deeply sorry that they were thrust so quickly upon you at such a difficult time. Believe me when I say that if I had been granted any foreknowledge of my removal, I would have left my affairs in a more—ah, manageable—state. As it is, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to wear thick wool socks. They help to ward off the chill that has accompanied the recent rains. Very helpful, I’ve found.
In all gravity, Minerva, the time has come for me to trust you with a few of the secrets of our school. For years you have greatly aided me in its running, and now—at least for a little while—the whole responsibility has fallen to you. I have complete confidence in your abilities—you should know that. But even as informed as you are, there are several things of which you are unaware.
First, and of the most immediate importance, is the protection of the Mandrakes. Filius and I have set up several wards over the greenhouses in addition to the existing ones. Their purpose is to effectively keep the Mandrakes from harm. If something should happen to them before they reach maturity, it is highly possible that the Petrified students will not be able to be revived before they are to be sent home for the summer. This could prove especially problematic in the case of our students of Muggle parentage.
I have gotten into the habit of going myself each night to personally see that no harm has come to the Mandrakes. It would ease my mind if you would do the same.
In this difficult time it is hard to know whom to trust. One person, in particular, may have aroused your suspicions. It is important, of course, for you to concentrate your efforts on those people who may pose actual threats, so I have decided that you should know the history of Gilderoy Lockhart.
I am aware, Minerva, that several of my staff have questioned my appointing him, and I can understand their concern. The truth is that Gilderoy—bless him—is the least of your worries. I know that to some, his vanity and conceit seem like an overblown act to distract us from noticing his Dark activities. Please reassure the staff that their worried imaginations are creating a threat where there is none—and that Gilderoy does not participate in any Dark activities. In more peaceful times, I am sure those suspicions would never have entered their thoughts. However, I am not by any means suggesting you trust Gilderoy with anything of significance. Just because he is not dangerous does not mean he is competent. Dealing with Sybill—bless her—for all these years has taught you that, I believe.
Finally, I want to advise you to keep an eye on young Miss Weasley. Her mother has expressed some concern that Ginny is not adjusting well to life at Hogwarts, away from home. It seems that Ginny has been writing more frequently, and often about nothing of significance. I know this may be difficult for you to manage with so much else going on, but please watch out for her. If you get the chance, speak with the other Gryffindor girls in her year. Perhaps all Ginny needs is a friend.
Write at any time if you require guidance. I will be only too happy to offer whatever help I may. It might interest you to know that I frequent Flourish and Blotts in my newly discovered spare hours.
Good luck, Minerva, and with all my confidence,
thought Minerva, that certainly explains why it smells of wool.
She put the letter down on the desk and took some parchment out of a drawer. Writing carefully, she drew up a schedule of who would check on the Mandrakes each night. She didn’t know how Albus had managed it, but she had no extra time at all to trek out to the greenhouses every night. Not with all her other responsibilities.
Retracing her steps back through the correspondence obstacle course and into the corridor, Minerva set off towards the staff room. She wanted to post the Mandrake Monitor Schedule, as she had named it.
As Minerva walked, the change in atmosphere was even more closely impressed upon her. She passed Fred and George Weasley, and was sad to see that they didn’t seem to be up to their usual pranks. She supposed that the recent events had finally dampened their spirits as well.
A group of Ravenclaws hurried by, huddled together in the familiar "pack" position. Minerva felt a stab of resentment. Those students were some of her best, most motivated. It angered her to see them reduced to frightened uniformity.
They all have so much potential, she thought. I don’t know who’s responsible for all this, but I hope they are held accountable for it.
Minerva tugged open the staff room door. No one was inside except for Filius, who was snoring away with his head on a table. She smiled gently.
Poor Filius. He must be exhausted. One too many rainy treks out to the green houses, I suppose.
Quietly, so as not to disturb him, she scratched out his name for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
He has enough to do already, goodness knows. A small grin passed across her face. And, really, Severus could do with two extra shifts. The fresh air might help his complexion.
The bulletin board was already crowded with announcements, flyers, and notices. Minerva had to take down a few to make room for hers. Right next to "IMPORTANT STAFF MEETING REGARDING COMMENCEMENT" she tacked up the Mandrake Monitor Schedule.
And right next to that she posted another notice, reading "REMINDER TO ALL STAFF: EXAMS BEGIN JUNE 1."
There were a lot of things Minerva didn’t know about Hogwarts: who the Heir of Slytherin was, if the Mandrake Restorative Draught would be entirely effective, if Muggle-borns would have to be withdrawn from school the following term.
However, she did know that she was not looking forward to tomorrow’s announcement regarding the exam schedule. She had a feeling that the students would be more vocal in their response to this than they had recently been about any other academic matters.
Not for the first time, Minerva fervently wished Hermione Granger had not been Petrified. If she hadn’t been, she would have been organizing study groups and writing up exam schedules for months now. Her efforts would have kept the students prepared for the exams and lessened the shock, both making Minerva’s job much easier.
Minerva mentally reminded herself to tell Hermione how much she appreciated her. After she had been revived, of course.
And she will be revived. I trust Albus. Governors or no governors, he would never have left so willingly if he believed the students’ safety was in jeopardy. For as long as I’ve known him, Albus has always honored his responsibilities without exception. He told me I was capable, and the way things are, I suppose I’ll just have to believe him.
Minerva stopped moving, surprised by a sudden burst of clarity. Until Albus returns, I am him.
She straightened, feeling confident. In fact, she looked forward to tomorrow’s announcement. It would be her first act as Headmistress where she was actually being Albus. She would lead the students courageously, come what may. It was what Albus would do, she knew, and what he expected of her, and what she owed him.
The next morning, Minerva arrived at the Transfiguration classroom a few minutes early. She wanted to make sure that she was there before any of the students.
However, she was just barely the first person there. This was not surprising. A lot of the students made it a point to spend as much time as possible in their classrooms, right next to their professors. They seemed to think they would be safer there than in the halls, or even in their common rooms.
Minerva glanced around the room, wanting to be sure that everyone was there before she made her announcement.
"Finnigan! Give Mr. Thomas back his wand, and pay attention."
Seamus turned around guiltily in his seat. "Yes, Professor." He handed Dean back his wand and looked at Professor McGonagall.
"Thank you, Mr. Finnigan. I don’t suppose you could tell me where Potter and Weasley are?"
Dean shook his head, causing Minerva to look disgruntled.
"Of course. I can see how that would be expecting too much of you. Could you at least try to—"
She was interrupted when the door banged open. Harry and Ron hurried through it, sporting long red stripes on their faces that looked suspiciously like deep scratches.
"Weasley!" she barked. "I’m sure you were doing something tremendously important, but do me the courtesy of arriving on time!"
Minerva noticed that Harry looked extremely relieved, as if he had been let off the hook.
"And that goes double for you, Potter. As you well know, it is especially important that you do not aimlessly roam the corridors."
"Sorry Professor. We, er, overslept."
Minerva waited while the boys took their seats, each faintly red.
"Now that Potter and Weasley have been so kind as to join us, I have an announcement to make. I have decided that your final exams will begin in one week, on June first. I trust you will prepare accordingly—"
No one heard the rest of Minerva’s sentence, as a loud uproar drowned out her voice.
Seamus Finnigan seemed especially upset. "Exams?" he howled. "We’re still getting exams?" His jaw dropped in disbelief.
Neville Longbottom had turned a particularly frightening shade of green. "Wh-wh-what?" he whispered. "Exams? Not in all this. I was sure
—" Whatever Neville was sure about, no one ever knew. He drifted off into inaudible mumblings, and his hands began to twitch frenetically.
Bang! Neville had dropped his wand, causing one of his desk legs to vanish, and the desk to fall over onto the floor. Books, quills, and Chocolate Frog wrappers slid around his feet.
Looking annoyed, Minerva cleaned up the mess with a wave of her wand.
"The whole point of keeping the school open at this time is for you to receive your education," Minerva said sternly. "The exams will therefore take place as usual, and I trust you are all studying hard."
Many faces stared back at Minerva, looking panicked—as if they had not been studying hard. Then they turned toward each other, and a rumble spread over the room as the students complained about how unfair it all was.
"Professor Dumbledore’s instructions were to keep the school running as normally as possible," Minerva said. "And that, I need hardly point out, means finding out how much you have learned this year."
Ron Weasley’s broken wand began to whistle—loudly. "Harry," he said, "Can you imagine me taking exams with this?"
Minerva put her hands to her temples and sighed as the roar crescendoed around her. Good Merlin! It’s difficult to be Albus!
Four days later, Minerva was sitting at the head table, eating breakfast. She found herself thinking that it was a big week for announcements; first the exams, and now this. When she had swallowed her last bit of toast, she pushed her chair back and stood up.
"Attention! Your attention, please." She waited for the conversations to fall silent. When the last mumblings had died away, Minerva began to speak.
"I have good news," she said.
The Great Hall exploded with yells, squeals and roars.
"Dumbledore’s coming back!"
"You’ve caught the Heir of Slytherin!"
"Quidditch matches are back on!" This particular roar was Oliver Wood, unsurprisingly.
Smiling to herself, Minerva said, "No, Wood. As much as I would like them to be, Quidditch matches are not back on. You’ll have to wait for next year, I’m afraid. No, my announcement is this: Professor Sprout has informed me that the Mandrakes are ready for cutting at last. Tonight, we will be able to revive those people who have been Petrified."
A wave of cheers rocketed through the Great Hall. Harry, Ron and Neville jumped out of their seats like they had been shot from a cannon, massing together in a bundle of hoarse yells and high fives.
Fred and George Weasley set off some silver and purple Filibuster Fireworks, resulting in colorful explosions and purple streamers trailing down onto people’s hats.
Minerva struggled to make herself heard over the uproar. "I need—I need
—" It was no use. No one could possibly hear her.
She pulled out her wand and transfigured a pancake into an orange megaphone.
"Excuse me! Your attention, please. Please, everyone—look up here. Thank you. I need hardly remind you all that one of them may well be able to tell us who, or what, attacked them. I am hopeful that this dreadful year will end with our catching the culprit."
Minerva put the megaphone down, glad to stop talking. Her throat felt a little dry. All the shouting, most likely. While the students celebrated, she leaned over to Severus and asked him to watch the students while she visited the hospital wing.
At the door, she paused for one last look. Remembering Albus’ request, her gaze fell upon Ginny Weasley. She was sitting alone, not joining in the celebration. She did not look excited, pleased, or joyful like everyone else in the room.
Instead, she looked…frightened. Minerva paused.
Surely, that can’t be right, Minerva thought. What has she to be frightened of?
She shut the door, which had been partially opened. Just as Minerva was about to go over to her, Ginny got up from her seat and sat next to Ron and Harry, who were a few seats down the table.
Ginny looked very nervous. She rocked back and forth on the very edge of her chair. It looked like she was about to fall off.
Is she ill? thought Minerva. Perhaps I should take her with me to see Madam Pomfrey.
Ginny mumbled something that Minerva couldn’t hear. Whatever she said, Harry and Ron leaned in close to her, as if they were in a huddle.
Out of the corner of her eye, Minerva saw Percy Weasley approaching them.
Thank goodness. Whatever it is, Percy should be able to sort it out. It’s probably best to leave it to her family, anyway. Making a mental note to owl Molly Weasley later, Minerva left the Great Hall, letting the door swing shut behind her.
Minerva left the hospital wing a short while later. She would have preferred to stay longer, but she had to get back to her room to teach sixth year Transfiguration.
Madam Pomfrey had given her a cough medicine that tasted like raspberries and vanilla, and instructed her to swallow a dose every two hours, the first of which she had taken before leaving the hospital wing. One side effect was dizziness, and Minerva felt it as she walked down the hall. Students blurred in and out of focus.
Wait, Minerva thought. There shouldn’t be any students in the corridors unchaperoned.
She shook her head to clear the fuzziness. Harry and Ron came into clearer focus.
Minerva’s eyes grew large as her mouth thinned proportionally. The effect was frightening. "Potter! Weasley! What are you doing?"
The boys jumped at least a foot in the air. It sounded as if a Howler had gone off right behind them. Ron spun around to face his Professor.
"We were—we were—" Ron stammered. "We were going to—to go and see—"
Harry quickly interrupted. "Hermione," he said. "We haven’t seen her for ages, Professor, and we thought we’d sneak into the hospital wing, you know, and tell her the Mandrakes are nearly ready and, er, not to worry—"
If Harry said anything else, Minerva didn’t hear it. Time had stopped for her as her memories took over her mind.
A little girl stood alone in the sterile hallway. Her hair ran in watery tangles down her back, ruined from the rain. The water pooled over her feet as she stood in confusion, unable to read the signs around her.
At the far end of the hall, a man walked by. The girl chased him. Halfway there, she slipped on the water and fell to the floor. Crying, she scrambled to her feet and ran after him.
"W-wait. Please! Please wait!"
The man either didn’t hear her or didn’t care. He kept walking. The girl’s short legs could only go so fast. She knew that if he kept walking, she would never catch him. She ran until she thought she couldn’t possibly run another step, and then he turned to the left and disappeared. The girl summoned the last of her energy and chased after him, hurtling through the doorway.
"Mister—mister," the girl panted. "Have you seen—"
"What are you doing here? Where are you parents, little girl?" the man interrupted her. "You’re not allowed back here by yourself." He moved as if to push her out the door, but the girl braced her legs on either side of the doorjamb.
"H-have you seen my Mum, mister? Have you seen her? I can’t find her. I d-don’t know wh-where she is. Have you s-seen her?" The girl was yelling through her tears, desperate to be heard.
The man looked annoyed, but he spoke into a band on his wrist. "O’Conner? You there? I’ve got a lost girl here. I need you to take her to Child Services. They’ll know what to do with her."
A voice came out of the band, and the next moment a woman appeared in the hallway. "I’ve got her. You’re wanted in Maternity. Room 417." Just as quickly, the man disappeared.
The woman grabbed the girl by the wrist and together they whisked away to a different part of the building. When they came to a stop, the girl slammed into the floor. Sighing, the woman dragged her to her feet and pushed her into a glass-walled room filled with colorful pillows and boxes of crackers.
"You’ll stay here until your parents can come for you. There’s a bathroom over there, and games are in that corner. Pick up when you’re done."
The woman left, shutting the door behind her.
The girl ran over to the window and pounded on it, hard. "Let me out! Please! Where’s my Mum? I have to see her. Open the door, I have to see her, please. Please."
The little girl called out until her voice was hoarse, and pounded until her fist bruised. No one came to let her out. She sank down to the floor and stared out the window. Many people went past, but none of them looked in at her.
A few hours later, a woman was pushed by on a gurney. She lay very still, and her eyes stared unseeingly at the ceiling. The girl stared, then jumped to her feet.
"MUM!" she screamed. "MUM! LET ME OUT!" She pounded on the glass with each word. "MUMMY!"
The gurney went past. The girl watched it as far as she could, and then it was gone.
Minerva stared unseeingly at the boys, tears in her eyes.
"Erm, Professor?" whispered Ron. This seemed to snap her out of her reverie.
Minerva tried to speak, but her voice came out with a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again.
"Of course," she said. "Of course, I realize this has been hardest on the friends of those who have been…I quite understand. Yes, Potter, of course you may visit Miss Granger. I will inform Professor Binns where you’ve gone. Tell Madam Pomfrey I have given my permission."
While the boys walked away towards the hospital wing and their friend, Minerva dug a tissue out of her pocket. When she thought they were far enough away not to hear, she blew her nose. If anyone said anything, she would blame her sniffles on the cough medicine.
She took a moment to compose herself, and then went to explain the boys’ whereabouts to Professor Binns. From there she hurried to her classroom. She had a lesson to teach, after all.
"Simply point your wand at your animal and say Animalam Averto Victualia." The students picked up their wands and focused on the animal in front of them. A few wands waved, and a few animals successfully transformed. Of course, some did not.
"I said Averto, Miss Higginbottom, not Aveho!"
A small mouse cowered on the front desk. The spell had gone awry, leaving him in a state of limbo as half dormouse and half turnip. He tried to raise a leg to run away, but was surprised to see that he had no legs, only a round, slightly moldy, purply-reddish bottom. The poor mouse squeaked in terror as Minerva hurried over to put him to rights.
"Pay attention now. If any of your animals should experience a similar result, they can be restored in two ways. If it is more animal than vegetable, point your wand and say Victualia Averto Animalam." There was a pop and a squeak, and then a little dormouse scampering frantically away across the table. "As you can see, this will revert your subject to its animal form. But if your animal is more than half vegetable, point your wand and say Animalam Averto Victualia. Use of that spell will complete the transfiguration to the vegetable state. You may also wish to take your animal to see Hagrid, as its eating habits may remain substantially changed for several days.
"Now," said Minerva from the front of the room, "we will try again. Miss Higginbottom, you’ll need to come select a new mouse. Hurry and rejoin your classmates, we’ll begin without you. Once again, everyone point your wands at your animal, and say Animalam Averto Victualia."
"Animalam Averto Victualia."
"Animalam Averto Victualia."
"Animalam Averto Victualia!" An enormous green, warty carrot appeared where, a moment ago, there had been a somnolent turtle.
"Ahh. Mr. O’Mallagan. Perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. Restore your turtle to his original state and then try again. With a little less excitement, I think."
Minerva continued patrolling the classroom, monitoring her students’ progress and fixing their mistakes. With ten minutes remaining in the class period, Professor Sinistra stepped through the door. Minerva’s greeting died away before it ever even left her mouth.
The Astronomy Professor’s face was pale. Paler than any face Minerva had ever seen. And her eyes were wide—great pools of fear spreading over the stark whiteness of her face.
From the looks of her, Minerva was afraid she would collapse any moment. Minerva hurried over and, with a quick direction for the class to continue working, propelled her out of the classroom, making sure to shut the door behind them.
"Good heavens, you’re white as a sheet. What’s happened?" Sharp fear grabbed her stomach, twisting it into painful knots. "Who is it?"
"I don’t know—I don’t know! I was heading up to my Tower and I saw it, there on the wall—the message. ‘Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever.’ It’s too horrible and I know this is it, Minerva, it’s finished. Albus is the only one who would know what to do, and he’s not here. We can’t do it without him, we can’t! The—"
Minerva tuned her out. I am Albus.
She reached out and grabbed the Professor by the arm. "Listen to me. Listen! Meet with the prefects. Have them send everyone to their common rooms, and make sure they take a head count. Let me know who the missing student is as soon as you can. I will make an announcement for anyone who may be alone. I’m going to meet with the staff immediately in the staff room. Get there as soon as you can."
And with that, Minerva turned and hurried away through the corridors. While she ran she pulled her wand out and pointed it at her throat—something every pupil was taught not to do. "Sonorus" she said. "All students to return to their House dormitories at once. All teachers return to the staff room. Immediately, please."
People poured out of classrooms, climbed out of trapdoors, and ran in from the grounds. First years were knocked aside as rows of bigger students cut paths through the throngs. Prefects tried in vain to maintain order. No one knew what was happening, but everyone assumed the worst.
The professors hurried through hidden passages in the walls, ducking in and out of tapestries and statues, traveling by the quickest paths to the staff room. One by one they banged in through the door, breathing shallowly and clutching their sides. Many of them had not run so fast since their school days, or even before.
Most of the professors huddled in small groups, whispering in frightened voices. The whispers stopped when Minerva walked through the door. Every face turned toward her expectantly. Some looked terrified. Some looked anxious. One or two looked resigned, nauseous and courageous.
"It has happened," Minerva said heavily. "A student has been taken—" a few people gasped "—by the monster. Right into the Chamber itself."
Minerva stood tall, prepared for the questions she knew would come. She didn’t have all the answers—or even many—but she would answer them the best she could.
Severus Snape was the first to speak. "How can you be sure?" he asked. He was holding onto a chair so tightly that his knuckles were white.
Recalling what Professor Sinistra had told her, Minerva answered him. "The Heir of Slytherin," she said, "left another message. Right underneath the first one. ‘Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever.’"
"Who is it?" asked Madam Hooch. When it looked as if Minerva would not answer her, she spoke again. "Which student?" she asked, more forcefully.
Minerva glanced at Professor Sinistra before speaking, willing her to say that she had lied, or made an error. To say that she was mistaken, and it was some other student after all. The Professor met her gaze with swollen red eyes, giving Minerva all the answer she needed. Minerva shut her eyes and breathed deeply. She was almost surprised to see everyone still there when she reopened them.
"Ginny Weasley," she said shakily. Her resolve began to crumble. I am Albus. I am Albus.
As if from far away, she vaguely heard a thump. She supposed someone had collapsed. It didn’t surprise her.
The next words came out of her mouth unbidden. She hadn’t planned them, hadn’t thought about saying them. Yet as she heard them, she knew they were true, and most likely the only acceptable option. "We shall have to send the students home tomorrow." Her voice sounded old, and tired—defeated. I…am… the thought drifted away, unsustainable. "This is the end of Hogwarts. Dumbledore—" her voice broke "—Dumbledore always—always said—"
Once again, the staff room door banged open. Minerva could almost hear the triumphant string quartet playing—playing as Dumbledore strode into the room, ready to rally them together and bring the nightmare to an end. And then the music stumbled, splintering and faltering away into scratchings and wrong notes, as Gilderoy Lockhart danced smilingly in.
No, thought Minerva wildly, it can’t be. Not him. This is all wrong. It should be Albus—
Lockhart broke in on her thoughts. "So sorry—dozed off—what have I missed?"
Thankfully, the other professors stepped forward to address him. Minerva was sure she couldn’t deal with him or anyone else at the moment.
"Just the man," Snape said silkily. Dangerously, for anyone who knew him. "The very man. A girl has been snatched by the monster, Lockhart. Taken into the Chamber of Secrets itself. Your moment has come at last."
Professor Sprout chimed in. "That’s right, Gilderoy. Weren’t you saying just last night that you’ve known all along where the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is?"
Minerva stumbled over to a chair, suddenly needing to be off her feet. If she could just sit…somehow it could be all better. Everything would be all right. She just had to sit.
"Yes, didn’t you tell me you were sure you knew what was inside it?" asked Professor Flitwick.
"D-did I? I don’t recall—"
"I certainly remember you saying you were sorry you hadn’t had a crack at the monster before Hagrid was arrested," said Severus. "Didn’t you say that the whole affair had been bungled, and that you should have been given a free rein from the first?"
Minerva got back to her feet, feeling slightly more calm. Prepared. I…am…Albus. I am…Albus.
"I—I’m sure I really never
—you may have misunderstood—"
Minerva turned to face him. "We’ll leave it to you then, Gilderoy," she said forcefully. "Tonight will be an excellent time to do it. We’ll make sure everyone’s out of your way. You’ll be able to tackle the monster all by yourself. A free reign at last."
Lockhart looked as if he would be sick, right there in front of everyone. His brave façade crumbled away, leaving him looking like the weak man he was. His eyes darted nervously at the door, flickering over the faces in the crowd, searching for a friend. He found none.
"V-very well," he said. "I’ll—I’ll be in my office, getting—getting ready."
He walked calmly out the door. The staff could hear him break into a run on the other side.
"Right," said Minerva, "that’s got him out from under our feet. The Heads of Houses should go and inform their students what has happened. Tell them the Hogwarts Express will take them home first thing tomorrow. Will the rest of you please make sure no students have been left outside their dormitories."
The teachers filed out, one by one. Minerva stood alone in the room for a few moments before following her colleagues out into the school.
She had things to do.
She was Albus.
The rest of that day passed by in a blur for Minerva. She went up to the Gryffindor common room where she had a difficult time explaining what had happened. She could feel the Weasleys staring at her the whole while, as if waiting for the punch line to some horrendous joke. The twins sat in a huddle with the other Quidditch players, except for Harry, who sat next to Ron.
The two of them sat there, silently, neither saying anything. At one point Parvati Patil came over to grab Ron’s hand and raise it to his eyes, wiping the tears away. Minerva saw Harry thank her quietly before she got up and went to her dormitory. Percy sat stiffly on the edge of a chair, looking uncomfortable and lost.
He followed Minerva out, presumably to help the other prefects patrol the halls, but Minerva knew he really meant to Owl his parents. She didn’t envy him, and made no move to stop him.
When she thought he had finished, she too went into the Owlery. She Owled the governors and Minister Cornelius Fudge. And Albus. She knew she should Owl Molly Weasley, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. What could I say? What is there to say? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
She spent the rest of the day with the prefects and other professors, monitoring the halls and passages into the castle. Until Molly and Arthur got there—and she knew they would, any parent would, and them most of all—the best they could do was to prevent any further harm. No one knew where the Chamber was, and no one could do anything. They all felt so frustrated, so helpless. Ginny Weasley was somewhere in the castle, and there was nothing they could do.
A little after ten, a house elf came running up to her.
"Miss, there is being visitors for you in your office, Miss. They is wanting to see you now. They are saying it is important. Miss is hurrying, please."
Minerva did hurry, although reluctantly. She knew it had to be Molly and Arthur, and she still had nothing she could say to them. All during the long day she had imagined meeting them, and imagined what she would say. Nothing had come to mind then, and certainly nothing did now.
Seeing that she was quite incapable of doing it herself, the house elf opened the door to the office and gave her a small push through it.
Minerva saw Molly as if she was the only thing in the room. She was sitting in front of the fire, crying as Arthur held her. He rocked her like a small child, stroking her hair and occasionally wiping her nose. Minerva simply didn’t know how he did it, how he stayed so strong. She supposed the shock hadn’t hit him yet.
She felt like she shouldn’t be watching—especially since she couldn’t offer any consolation. She took a step back but the door was shut behind her.
"Come here, Minerva," whispered a voice. "Stand by me."
Albus, her brain said, even before she turned and saw him. She stood there, waiting to feel an overwhelming calm, for time to slow down to a crawl. She couldn’t understand it when she felt nothing, except perhaps a little silly, staring openly at Albus, as if he wasn’t staring right back at her. Is he not here? Is he not real? She walked toward him, hand outstretched. The tip of one finger grazed his arm and she jumped back, electrocuted. Albus. Albus is here.
She felt her burdens leave her. She actually felt lighter, as if she was floating away from the earth. For the first time in weeks she was not the guardian of hundreds of lives. The students were safe in hands far more capable than hers. She felt positive that—somehow—things would turn out better than they appeared.
"Ginny, Albus," she said, "where is she? Have you found her?"
His eyes looked seriously back at her. "No, Minerva, I have not. If she is to be found, it will be the work of someone else. But I—I have not found her."
Minerva sat, stunned. She had been sure that Albus knew where the Chamber was, that his return to the castle would act as magnet, drawing Ginny from wherever she was hidden. She realized now that she had been mistaken, and sat staring. Molly and Arthur, she thought, their youngest child, their only daughter.
She stood, wanting to go over to them, to say something to help them, when the door opened.
Minerva was sure that one more shock would kill her.
She gaped as Ginny, Ron, and Harry appeared in the doorway. Now, time did slow down as she watched, as if from far away, as Molly and Arthur rushed across the room to grab their daughter in a hug. She heard herself take great gasps of air, as if she could never have enough.
As if through a haze, she heard Molly speak to Harry. What is she saying? I can’t hear her.
"You saved her! You saved her! How did you do it?"
Minerva cleared away the fog enough to say, weakly, "I think we’d all like to know that."
For fifteen minutes Minerva listened, spellbound, as Harry related a whole year’s worth of escapades. Voices, spiders, ghosts, bathrooms. It didn’t make any sense. She supposed she’d have to get the story from someone else, later, when she could understand it better. However, she did have one question that she desperately wanted answered.
"Very well, so you found out where the entrance was, but how on earth did you all get out of there alive, Potter?"
Gesturing to the Sorting Hat, a sword, and a mangled book, all of which he had placed on her desk, Harry explained what had happened in the Chamber. Minerva had a difficult time hearing his story as Ginny burst into loud tears. She had to strain to hear until Molly calmed her down.
Albus spoke again, and she thought again how good it was just to hear his voice. It had been missing from the castle for far too long. "What interests me most, is how Lord Voldemort managed to enchant Ginny, when my sources tell me he is currently hiding in the forests of Albania."
Minerva knew that, really, she ought to be paying closer attention. But after all the excitement, and all the stress, she simply couldn’t. She knew there would be plenty of time in the weeks and months to come to focus on Voldemort and what this all meant, but now she was only relieved and overjoyed to see Ginny back safely. Voldemort would have to wait.
Just when it looked as if Ginny would finally break down completely—and Minerva was only surprised she hadn’t done so earlier—Albus sent her up to the hospital wing. Her parents went with her, promising the boys they would check on Hermione for them.
For the first time in a while, Albus spoke directly to Minerva. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I think all this merits a good feast. Might I ask you to go and alert the kitchens?"
Minerva didn’t bother to correct him that it would soon be two in the morning. If he wanted a feast, he could have it. In fact, he could have anything he wanted, as far as she was concerned. "Right," she said, "I’ll leave you to deal with Potter and Weasley, shall I?"
She left then, closing the door quietly. I bet that scared them, the rascals. I'm sure Albus will "deal" with them all right. He’ll probably give them a hundred points. And don’t I know they deserve it!
She started down towards the kitchens, suddenly hungry. She wanted to get a cake to bring up to Gryffindor Tower. The students would want to celebrate once they heard the good news, and what better way to celebrate than with cake?
Minerva sat at the head table, enjoying the best feast she could remember. It certainly was different. Everyone was in their pajamas—and not just the students, but the teachers, too!
The celebrating stopped only when the revived students filed in from the hospital wing. Everyone stood respectfully for a few moments before breaking into wild cheering. Hermione Granger ran across the room screaming "You solved it! You solved it!" Minerva supposed she was talking to Potter and Weasley, and she guessed Hermione was referring to something Potter had said in his long story. She added it to her mental list of Things to Find Out Later.
At about three o’clock in the morning a mass food fight broke out. Albus made no move to stop it and, although she wouldn’t have said so, Minerva was glad. The students could certainly use a bit of fun. She herself even threw a buttered roll at Severus when he wasn’t looking.
Hagrid strode into the room at three thirty, so excited to see Harry and Ron that he knocked them face first into their bowls of trifle that they had been just about to launch at the Slytherins. They did not seem upset.
She wasn’t surprised when Albus awarded Potter and Weasley not only one hundred points, but two hundred points—each.
If anyone deserves it, she thought, it’s certainly those two. Molly simply beamed at them when Albus announced it, and Arthur looked as if he had never been happier in his life.
Minerva had a sudden idea. She leaned over to Albus and whispered in his ear. He looked delighted and nodded approvingly. She stood up and tapped her glass to get the students’ attention. Unsurprisingly, that did not work, and she looked to Albus for help. He stood up, and the students quieted almost immediately.
It would have been helpful if they had done that for me while I was in charge, she thought. I was Albus, after all. She smiled secretly. It was good to be Albus.
Once silence had been restored, Albus sat down, looking expectantly at her. She cleared her throat and began to speak.
"Your attention, please. It is my pleasure to announce that your exams have been canceled as a school treat. Please use this time unwisely, and make sure to enjoy the beautiful weather outside. Thank you, and return to your feast."
The uproar following this announcement was matched only by the din raised when Albus revealed that Professor Lockhart would not be returning next term. She noticed that quite a few teachers joined in applauding that news.
The feast only broke up at around seven in the morning, when all the students finally stumbled up to their beds, exhausted. Minerva went too, glad that she could finally sleep
—until dinnertime, at least. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten a full night’s sleep.
She walked up the stairs to her room behind Potter, Granger and Weasley as they made their way to Gryffindor Tower. As the black, brown and red heads bobbed in front of her, she realized how far they all had come that year. How much they had grown, and how much they had endured. How much they had changed. They had come so close to death and lived through it. They had faced great loss and met it with courage. They had known deceit, selfishness, and evil, and had not been corrupted by them. She knew they had learned important lessons and truths in the last few months, and she knew with equal certainty—and sadness—that they would need to remember them in the years to come.
And she had grown as well. She had found new confidence, faith, and trust in herself. She had gained familiarity with her own role in life and discovered that she could be stretched to new limits without breaking. New facets of her personality had been revealed to her—some that she liked, and some that she didn’t. Most of all, she had gained a new appreciation and respect for Albus and his job as Headmaster.
But, even so, she looked forward to returning to Deputy Headmistress next term.
Or, better yet, simply Minerva.
: Due to the premise of this story—following Minerva McGonagall through the second half of Chamber of Secrets
—there are lines that have been quoted directly from the book. No copyright infringement is intended of Bloomsbury, Scholastic, WB, J.K. Rowling, or anyone else associated with the Harry Potter books. It is my privilege to "borrow" J.K. Rowling’s characters, and I hope you enjoy what I’ve done with them.