Professor McGonagall sprinted along the seventh-floor corridor, not caring that her robes were flying behind her like a first-year's, late for class. At the tapestry of the dancing Trolls, an overpowering reek of brimstone slowed her for a moment, and, just beyond, a pile of rubble lay where a hole had been punched through the wall opposite, but she sprinted on, unwilling to waste a moment.
The hour was almost up; she had precious little time to find Potter and get the castle's defenses set once again for the inevitable assault. And there was one room where she could hope to advance both of those goals.
As she approached the gargoyle guarding the stair, she called out the password that Albus had told her to use in an emergency. "Dumbledore!"
The gargoyle sniffed and, blessedly, stepped to the side.
Reaching the headmaster's office—she still thought of it as Albus'—she looked around, but was disappointed to find neither Harry Potter nor the portraits of any of the former heads of the school were present. Dumbledore's Pensieve lay upon the headmaster's desk, but otherwise, the room was utterly empty.
Rushing to the huge desk, she tapped with her wand the blotter that Black and Lupin had enchanted that long year of Black's incarceration at headquarters. The lines spread; names appeared—mostly in the Great Hall. There she was herself.
No Potter. "Bugger and blast!"
Professor McGonagall spun around, less startled, if the truth be told, by the unexpected admonition than by the ludicrous—if technically correct—form of address.
One picture frame was not empty after all. A vaguely familiar dyspeptic face lurked in the back of its own portrait.
"Professor Black, good. You are here."
"Well," drawled the pinched painting, "not all of us are gore crows, drawn to disaster."
How infuriating that this was the only portrait available. "I suppose it is also true that not all of you have living descendents still within the castle walls."
Phineas Nigellus arched one knife-thin eyebrow. "At least my descendents are wise enough to be on the winning side in the present conflict."
"Ah, then perhaps you should go to your other portraits and avoid the unpleasantness in which the present conflict is certain to result."
The portrait's sunken cheeks hollowed even further.
"No other portraits, then?"
Finally abandoning the shadows, the portrait came forward, standing relatively straight, even as its complexion sallowed. "Calumny. I have another portrait."
Minerva had no wish to argue with this impossible man, but he was so… "Then why remain on what you seem to see as a sinking ship?"
The portrait muttered.
"My other portrait," Phineas Nigellus Black said, lips curved in what looked to be both disgust and mortification, "was filched by that awful Mudblooded girl to whom you and Albus have always been so attached. It remains incommunicado, in a handbag, if you please. I refuse to suffer the indignity."
"Yet how lucky for you that she has made the inexplicable choice to preserve it. Alas for you, she too is here."
The portrait's attempted hauteur broke down entirely. "Yes. I assumed. I…"
"Professor," Minerva said, desperate to return the conversation to a useful topic, "Professor Snape has fled Hogwarts."
"Fled, do you say?"
"I do. He has abandoned his post."
"Poppycock! He is a fine, upstanding—!"
Professor McGonagall damped down her rising ire. "Be that as it may, he has, as they say, flown the coop. Literally. As Assistant Headmistress, I am taking control of the school." Though her title had been irrelevant this past year, Severus had never seen fit to remove it. Perhaps he thought it would serve as a sop to her conscience or her pride, or perhaps it was meant as a goad.
"My dear woman, why in Merlin's name do you think I care?"
"Because," Professor McGonagall said through clenched teeth, "it is by acclamation of the former heads that a new head of Hogwarts—even an acting head—is installed. Since you are the only former head present, I ask you, Professor: do you recognize me as the headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?"
The portrait gave a supremely disinterested shrug. "Don't see why you are making such a fuss."
Again Professor McGonagall bit her tongue before speaking. "Because, Professor, as you know, the head of the school alone can fully engage this castle's defenses. And it is of the utmost importance that those defenses be activated at once."
"Waste of time," drawled the portrait, which made Minerva want to punch him, as she had once punched his grandson when they were both second-year students.
"If you are content to let this portrait be destroyed, and to be trapped inside of Hermione Granger's bag forever," she snapped instead, "you needn't assist me. But if you wish this school—and your legacy—to remain standing tomorrow morning, I suggest you answer my question in the affirmative."
"As do I," said a light, resonant voice from behind Minerva.
"Albus!" She turned, the hair that had worked loose from her bun whipping her in the face.
His frame was full again, the portrait present, but looking terribly worn. "Professor, how lovely to see you. Like Professor Black, I am fortunate that I had no relatives to mourn downstairs."
"Fortunate indeed." Minerva could not help but feel that every dead or injured child, every former student gathered in the Great Hall below, whole, wounded or dead, was her own. Dumbledore, she knew, had felt the same way. Or perhaps not.
"Headmaster Black," said Dumbledore's portrait with that same damnable, airy seriousness that he usually employed when winding up a member of the staff, "surely we can extend this courtesy to Professor McGonagall. You have done so before, I believe, when I was… absent."
Phineas Nigellus' sallow jowls wobbled as he looked from Minerva to Dumbledore. "But Professor Snape—"
Dumbledore cut him off. "—is incapable of fulfilling his duties at the moment. In all likelihood," he continued, his voice warm and soft, "he will not be fulfilling them again."
Before Minerva could ask what he meant by such a statement, Phineas Nigellus muttered, "Very well then. I am willing to acknowledge Miss McGonagall. As a temporary measure."
"Excellent," said Dumbledore. "I too, Professor McGonagall, acknowledge you as the rightful acting headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
Thus began Minerva McGonagall's second tenure as acting head of the school, with little fanfare but no less urgency than when Dumbledore had been forced to hide from Fudge just four years earlier. She felt a noumenal vibration pass through her as the castle too acknowledged her. She shivered.
"So, Acting Headmistress," Dumbledore asked, "what brings you up here when there are so many more interesting places for you to be on such a momentous night?"
"I wished to raise what defenses the castle has remaining to it." Feeling very much like the recalcitrant girl who had been his student sixty-odd years before, she turned unwillingly back to him.
"And you have done so." He smiled at her. "Yet I cannot help but think that there was something else that you were looking for. Or perhaps someone."
"Oh, really," said Phineas Nigellus, "I should hope that it wasn't for an assignation. Hardly fitting for a woman of her stature and years, I should think."
Minerva was fortunate that Dumbledore answered; she did not think herself capable. "I should not think overmuch on Professor McGonagall's amorous pursuits, natural as they may be to one as far more corporeal and far less aged than either you or I, my dear Headmaster; at the moment, I am sure that her intentions are solely focused on the well-being of the school and the defeat of Voldemort."
She pursed her lips. "Yes. I had hoped to find Harry Potter here. I must find Harry before our respite is up."
"Yes," said Dumbledore, his long nose dipping as he frowned.
"You just missed him," said Phineas Nigellus, sounding for once very pleased. "Ridiculous boy. He was lying on the carpet right there, moaning quite pathetically. Your pet really is the most ridiculous mooncalf, Dumbledore."
Minerva looked at the desk, in the direction indicated by the portrait. The Pensieve lay there, its contents a roiling, silvery soup through which floated flashes of memory. A head of red hair. A flower opening and closing in a small hand. Her own face, much younger. Not Potter's, then. On the carpet before the desk, however, someone had left some traces of cobweb, as if they had crawled through a dungeon before lying there. Some dark spots of moisture—not blood, surely, but—?
"Tell me, Minerva," said Dumbledore, his voice thin and wavering—sounding much more as he had during the last months of his life—"the memories in that Pensieve… Can you ascertain their origin?"
She blinked and looked down. The images swirled. Red hair again. An angry sneer. Albus, looking angrier than Minerva ever remembered seeing him. A silver hind. Lily Evans's face, shining beneath the Sorting Hat. "They are… Severus'." She felt quite as if she had just rifled through the man's rubbish, rather than what must be his most treasured memories.
"Ah." When Minerva looked back up to the portrait, Dumbledore's eyes were closed. "Minerva, please, I must know: before he disappeared, did Severus say anything about Tom Riddle's snake?"
"The boy muttered something about that, actually." Phineas Nigellus played with the lace on one sleeve. "Quite mad, I thought. Something like 'The snake survived.' And 'Dumbledore's betrayal.' Moaned on quite tediously for quite a long time, actually, and then stumbled out the door. Quite lunatic. About five minutes before Miss McGonagall here came in to the headmaster's office, spluttering unladylike invective." The portrait looked exceedingly pleased with himself.
"Ah." Dumbledore's portrait had lost whatever color was left in its face. Now he truly looked as he had the last time that Minerva had seen him, on his funeral bier.
"Albus?" The portrait stared at her. "I heard Severus talking with the Carrows at supper. You-Know-Who had… contacted them, in quite a panic, asking if Harry had been seen here. And Severus asked if they'd noticed his snake."
Behind Minerva, Professor Black muttered something, but she could not bring herself to notice.
Peering up at Dumbledore, she said, "He made a general announcement just then, that if Undesirable #1—that is to say, Potter—were to appear at the school, that all students and staff were ordered to bring 'that boy' directly and immediately to him, and only to him."
"Ah." Dumbledore nodded again and closed his eyes. He remained deathly pale. "It would appear that they found one another."
"Albus." He did not respond, and yet Professor McGonagall could not stand idly any more. The hour was surely up, and Potter needed to be found, the castle defended. "Professor, what is going on? You must tell me."
The portrait opened its eyes, which were bright, not with their usual intelligence but with tears. "Ah, Minerva… I believe that Harry has gone knowingly to embrace his own death."
Dumbledore's betrayal… "Professor, what in Merlin's name—?"
"I believe that, for the past year, Harry—with Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley—has been completing the task that he began with me: seeking out and destroying objects enchanted by Tom Riddle, the secret tools of his quest to shed the bonds of mortality."
Flying out of Gringotts on a Dragon. The uproar last autumn at the Ministry. Ravenclaw… She gasped. "He came here tonight seeking Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem!"
"Here?" Surprise brought something almost like life to the headmaster's blue eyes. "Remarkable. Did he find it?"
"Yes. And destroyed it." Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley had shown them all the mangled silver shards of the circlet, and the shattered gold lump that had been Hufflepuff's Cup. "And the snake—?"
"—was the last of the protections that Voldemort had created." Dumbledore did not meet her gaze.
"Then Harry went off to kill the snake?" It made no sense; even to protect his friends…
"No." The blue eyes met hers now, and then closed as he shook his head. "The snake was the last of the… safeguards that Voldemort created knowingly. When Harry reflected the Killing Curse back on him all of those years ago, the resulting cataclysm left a piece of Voldemort's own soul lodged within Harry. It is the reason that Harry could speak Parseltongue—as Tom Riddle can. The reason that he received flashes of vision from Voldemort's own mind. I confirmed it through an experiment in this very room the night that that snake, Nagini, nearly killed Arthur Weasley. Though they were essentially divided, yet Harry and Tom are so closely linked that…."
Minerva stared down into the Pensieve. A windswept hillside. Dumbledore's spell-dead hand. "That Voldemort cannot die while Harry lives?"
The portrait looked away again, the lines of his face strained.
"And you never thought to do anything about this? Did you think even to tell the boy? Clearly not, since he seems to have felt your betrayal quite deeply tonight."
Again, Dumbledore remained silent. Behind her, Professor Black tisked—at whom, Minerva could not find it in herself to care. She turned from the desk and walked to the window. She could feel the castle's defenses, battered but still solid, humming in the walls. She could feel the knot of humanity gathered in the Great Hall.
"I hope that I have not betrayed Harry. I truly hope that." Professor Dumbledore's voice was low and thin. "Thus far, however, you accuse me justly: I promised to keep no secrets from him, and yet I did so, not merely for strategic purposes but because, in the end, I could not bear to tell the boy what he would have to do. It is one of the two most shameful acts that I committed while alive."
"How terrible for you."
"I deserve no sympathy. I do, nonetheless, ask for your understanding. I had guessed for some time at the nature of the bond between Harry and Tom. When Harry brought me information some months before my death that confirmed it, I could have—should have told him then. But Minerva: could you have told any one of your students that he might have to die in order to achieve even the most desirable of goals? Knowing that boy and the misfortune that he has struggled against so valiantly throughout his short span of years, could you have told him that he must suffer more? I wished to. I tried to find my way to lay the full truth of my own deductions and inferences at his feet, and yet I could not. And so—coward that I was and am—I contrived to make Severus tell him. Severus, who could never stint at telling anyone an unpleasant truth, least of all James Potter's son."
"Severus?" Minerva glanced involuntarily back at the Pensieve before turning to stare blindly out the window once more. "Severus, who—?"
"Who is not—or as I fear, was not—the villain that you and everyone else took him for. By his manner of imparting his knowledge to Harry, I suspect that poor Professor Snape has journeyed to that bourn from which no traveler returns."
"Poor Professor Snape!" In her mind's eye, Minerva saw images from the Pensieve, images that confirmed what she had always known of the man: the flower, opening; the shining face; the shining doe.
"Some respect, madam!" muttered Phineas Nigellus.
"Yes, poor Professor Snape." Dumbledore, without the slightest hint of irony. "Not a very nice man, perhaps, but a sad one to his core. And one who did the right thing in killing me."
Minerva could not help but look up in shock.
Nodding, Dumbledore continued. "I should have died from the curse to my hand and the potion that I had drunk—most likely that very night. Severus killed me, at my own emphatic request—the memory of which I hope that he shared with Harry and is therefore preserved in the Pensieve. He did so in order to spare me further pain at the hands of Greyback and the rest, in order to protect Mr. Malfoy from the consequences of having failed to murder me himself, and in order to mask from Voldemort the manner of my death, which would have revealed far earlier than was safe Harry's hunt and mine after the safeguards that Voldemort had placed upon his own mortality."
Bile rose in Minerva's gorge. She had never liked Severus Snape—not as a boy, nor as a colleague, and yet she had always, until these past two years, respected him. This revelation felt both right and at the same time quite awful. "And so you have used him as ill as you did Harry Potter."
"Perhaps," the portrait replied, quite calm. "Nevertheless, everything that he and I have done has been towards one end: to guarantee Harry the chance to destroy the self-propagating locus of evil that Tom Riddle has become."
"And yet you claimed to love Harry Potter?" She vomited the words through tight lips. "Oh, how could you do such a thing?"
When the portrait did not answer her, but gazed, pale and downcast, at the Pensieve, Minerva strode towards the window. "I cannot think, Headmaster, that you have ever truly loved," she spat.
"I have loved." Dumbledore's voice was soft, plaintive—almost young. "Love has been the source of my greatest joy and greatest pain. I loved Harry, Professor, oh, yes. Had I loved him less, I think that I should have dealt with him more fairly. He certainly deserved better, both from me and from fate. I have given him what support and surcease I could. I have struggled to find ways to lighten his burden, something his friends have done far better than I could ever have hoped to do. Yet in the end I knew that the only solution to the problem was for the sliver of Voldemort's soul within Harry to be destroyed, and so, yes, as Severus himself pointed out so justly, I have raised the boy like a calf to slaughter. Yet the boy's own character is such that he has nonetheless accomplished wonderful things, and of that I take, if not pride, at least pleasure. Even at this moment, his own noble spirit has put him in a position where Voldemort is rendering himself mortal once again."
The stars were fading in the southeast. She could feel the magic that protected the school's border with the forest pulsing. "The snake," she said—more a sob than a statement; more a slap at any sense of accomplishment that this man whom she had supported and respected since she was a wee girl might have taken in so monstrous a use of one of his own charges.
"Yes," sighed Dumbledore. "The snake. I believe… Well, at the very worst, I believe that you may find that, if the snake should survive, that Mr. Longbottom may perhaps find himself in a position to deal with Nagini."
"Another Gryffindor pawn played, Albus?"
Torches and wandlight at the edge of the woods.
Dumbledore sighed again. "Never a pawn, not one of them. Heroes in their own rights." The portrait was blessedly silent for a moment before continuing, in that same young, uncertain voice as before, "Would it help, my dear, if I were to say that I considered it possible—likely, even—that Mr. Potter's self-sacrifice might not in fact be quite so… irrevocable as he may himself have feared?"
"No, Headmaster," answered Minerva McGonagall. "I am afraid that your assurances would not greatly help at this moment."
Figures were emerging from the forest. The crowd in the Great Hall was beginning to make its way to the front entrance. When Professor Dumbledore's portrait did not answer, she began to walk to the door. One way or another, it would all be over soon enough.
"And so, girl," said Phineas Nigellus, "enjoying playing at being headmistress?"
"No, Headmaster," answered Minerva. "All things taken together, I do not believe that I shall continue in the position long." She turned at the office door. "I believe that I have too great a care for the students."