Chapter 1 : The Minister's Mistake
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A single drop rolled down Minerva’s cheek and splashed onto the smooth surface of the dressing-table. Her eyes were screwed up, her glasses askew, her knuckles white and clenched on the table-top. Her chest heaved as she fought down the howl of misery threatening to burst free.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. She and Albus had gone through so much together, why did it have to end this way? Albus was gone, half the wizarding world was gone, Voldemort was gone but only just.
Minerva could pinpoint exactly when it had all began. The Triwizard Tournament. It had ended with Voldemort returning to power. They’d known since Harry’s name had come out of the Goblet that something big was being planned, but it still took everyone by surprise. It shouldn’t have done.
The Minister, Rufus Scrimgeour, had acted immediately. Within an hour Voldemort’s location had been pinpointed from the information Harry gave and he had led the Aurors to attack swiftly, against Albus’ instructions. It was a mistake. Voldemort and his minions lost the battle and fled into hiding, but later returned, recovered, and retaliated. Within months the Ministry was brought down from the inside and nearly half the wizarding population had been killed. Half! And that wasn’t the country’s magic population, that was the world’s.
All of the students had lost someone. Quite a few had lost their parents. But Cedric was one of only a few who Voldemort had got to this time round. Albus gave his life to protect the school and students. Minerva couldn’t have been prouder … but it still wasn’t fair.
And then there was Severus. Severus, who had been forced to personally take Albus’ life because of a stupid vow. Severus, who had been like a brother to Minerva and their closest friend. Who’d been disgraced despite Minerva’s statement that he’d been on their side all along.
And now this. Now the school was being closed down, for good, and Minerva was the one to break the news to the students, some of whom had nowhere else to go.
Minerva fumbled for the bottle of Firewhisky and poured a glass, downing it in one. As she did so she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her eyes were unusually red and her hair was coming out of its bun. She tucked the strands behind her ears, not bothering to redo the bun as she would have done a year ago. It was too trivial now to care about. As she stared, another face materialised in her eyes: a shorter figure, also dark-haired, with haunted green eyes hidden behind round glasses.
Harry. Minerva was being selfish. He was the one who had suffered the most in this war. The last time she checked, he was still sore at Albus for sending him on a wild goose chase to keep him out of danger until all the Horcruxes were destroyed. He had lost Albus as well and, like her, had tried to push the loss aside for the sake of getting through the war in one piece. He’d stood before Voldemort before anyone, including himself, thought he was ready, and somehow managed to kill him. Even he wasn’t entirely sure how he managed it. But Voldemort was gone now and they had all been left to clear up the mess.
Starting with the school. Minerva pulled off her glasses. She didn’t think she could stand seeing the looks on the students’ faces as she broke the news. She didn’t need to see to make her way down to the Great Hall, she knew it off by heart. A pang shot through her chest as she remembered all the times she’d got lost before finding her way for the first time. Hogwarts had always been her home. Her parents died when she was still at school and Albus had employed her the moment she left. Well, technically Dippet had, but she’d changed from teaching Potions to take up the position of Transfiguration teacher when Albus became headmaster.
So many memories. Minerva paused, running a sad hand over the wall. What would happen to everyone? Not just the now-homeless students, but the ghosts, the portraits, the elves? Where would they all go?
Priorities, Minerva told herself. Tell the students. Find them homes. Then deal with the rest.
The Great Hall, from what she could see, was full. She could paint in the gaps where the dead students should be in her mind. Cedric Diggory. Susan Bones. Draco Malfoy. The Creeveys. The Weasleys.
So few had been lost, but the blow was so hard. Their friends held the most miserable faces in the Hall.
It was quiet. Everyone, student and teacher alike, was waiting for her – the headmistress – to sit in Albus’ old place at the Head table. The hush was too much to bear. Minerva concentrated on the footsteps she made as she walked down the Hall towards the Head table. They sounded dead, like the dull thud of a coffin lid.
She couldn’t see, but could picture in her mind, the faces of the remaining staff members as they waited for her to address the Hall. Minerva couldn’t help it. She put her glasses back on, just for a second, to find a face.
There he was. Harry Potter. There was a gap either side of him where Ron and Ginny Weasley should have been sitting. His eyes were dull and hollow. Minerva knew hers must look the same. She couldn’t bear it any longer and slipped off her spectacles.
“I am afraid I have bad news.” Her voice rang out in the silent room and she winced. It was too loud. She couldn’t take the wait, she had to get it over with quickly. “It has been decided by the governors to close down Hogwarts.”
There were a few tear-choked, heartbroken sighs, but no gasps, no cries of shock. It seemed everyone had been expecting the news: she had just tugged in two the tiny thread of hope the students had been hanging on to. Minerva couldn’t blame anyone for expecting it to happen. Hogwarts was only half the size she had been. Gryffindor Tower and several other wings were falling down, literally. Without families, a large percentage of the students couldn’t hope to pay school fees to go towards repairing the building. The Ministry didn’t have the funding – any wizards with money to spare had donated it towards rebuilding the wizarding world, but it was being used for St Mungo’s, Gringotts, housing, and other essentials. Education came far down on the list and there couldn’t hope to be enough. The fortunes of the Malfoys and other pureblood families had vanished along with a group of dodgy Aurors. The papers suspected they were enjoying a luxury life somewhere exotic. Godric Gryffindor’s sword could have been sold – it was worth a small fortune – but it too had vanished unnoticed over a year ago.
Minerva knew Albus had made a will, but it hadn’t been found and he had never told her the contents or where it was hidden. It had gone and his – their – account had been locked down until the will was found. Minerva barely had two Knuts to rub together, let alone the money to save the school.
Looking around at the students, Minerva sighed. She knew what was going through their heads – she felt exactly the same. “I know we have all been expecting this,” she said in a quiet voice that nonetheless was heard by all. “Hogwarts was more than a school: she was a home for many of us and we all have precious memories in this building. Many of you now have no homes to go to, no family left. The Child Protection section of the Ministry and all of the staff are working to help sort this out. In the meantime, I am afraid we all have to pack our bags and say goodbye.”
Minerva hated goodbyes. There had been too many. A tear escaped and she made no effort to hide it from the students.
A tentative hand rose into the air. Minerva, whose eyesight was blurred by both tears and lack of glasses, didn’t notice until Filius nudged her.
“Professor,” Daphne Greengrass said tentatively, “when do we have to leave?”
Minerva clenched her hands. This wasn’t fair on anyone. “The governors say we have till the end of next week.”
This statement broke the silence. Gasps and protests rang out, shattering the agonising quiet. Minerva let them storm for a full minute before raising a hand and the hall fell deadly quiet again.
“I know this is unfair, and I was only told this morning. But it’s non-negotiable.” She paused to take a deep breath. “Anyone who needs assistance to sort out accommodation arrangements should come and see me or another member of staff. The Salem Academy, Beauxbatons and Avalon Heights are staying open and are accepting new students at the moment. Anyone who wishes to finish their education and needs help with applications should also see a staff member. But I warn you, places will fill up fast.” She hesitated. “I give you all my word that we will do everything we can to help each and every one of you. You are not alone.”
A case the size of a sports bag held everything Minerva owned in the world. It was merely a few clothes and essentials, some food to live on until she could find a new job, and photo albums of precious memories that she couldn’t leave behind. Everything else had been sold, cash in hand. It hadn’t amounted to a lot. Minerva’s money bag held no more than twenty Galleons.
It was Friday. Today was the day she left home for good. Minerva sadly traced the wallpaper of her and Albus’ room. They had spent a whole month trying to agree on it and ended up with cream-coloured paper patterned with Gryffindor-red roses. Minerva had torn a corner off and slipped it inside one of the albums. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss it.
There was one hour till they were evicted. She could see some students already miserably making their way down to Hogsmeade station, accompanied by Poppy. There was one last thing she had to do before she left – well, two actually. But she knew she could get them both done at once. She wanted to leave the first till the last minute.
Albus had always loved Hogwarts’ private garden. Not many people knew it existed. It was like Eden – or had been – with flowers spilling everywhere and only one single, twisting path leading round the old oak in the middle. When they were younger, and Minerva was in her early years of employment, the two had sneaked away from time to time to spend together there under the oak. Thirty minutes ago she had paid the garden a last visit. Most of the flowers were dead or dying, but there were some left. Minerva had gathered a mixture of roses, poppies, orchids, foxgloves and lilies and tied them together with one of her old hair ribbons she used to have in a bow at the end of her plait when she was much younger.
With her belongings over one shoulder and the flowers in her other hand, she bade their rooms a last farewell before making her way down to Albus’ grave.
Minerva could see Harry there from several metres away and wasn’t surprised. A lump arose in her throat. He was resting against the white tomb, one hand protectively over the top and his eyes shut, tears on his face. On top of the tomb was a bundle of socks.
“He once told me,” Harry croaked when he heard her beside him, “that he never got socks at Christmas.” He hiccupped. “It’s not Christmas yet but it was the best I could do.”
Minerva lay the flowers reverently next to the socks. “I’m sure he would love them,” she assured him quietly.
Harry opened his eyes. “Professor?”
She sat down on the wet grass, cross-legged. With one hand she pulled her hair loose. Albus had always liked it best like that.
“Make the most of this,” she told Harry quietly. “We might not be allowed back in after the school’s sold.”
Harry blinked wetly. “Sold? It’s being sold? Who to?”
“Some rich American wizard who wants to own part of Britain’s wizarding history. It’s not right but I don’t have a say. The governors agreed because there’s no money to keep it running.”
“So is this guy going to work on it or just let it rot?” Harry said indignantly.
“The latter, I assume. It doesn’t make a difference anyway.”
“It flipping does,” Harry said angrily. “It’s the principal!”
“Harry, this man is the sort of person who would buy a dog turd if Merlin had stepped in it, and pay a huge amount of money for it too. Actually, he’s not paying a large sum at all, but the governors are pouncing on it because it’s the best they’re going to get.”
“You mean the Ministry have pounced on it.”
“I know. But the money is going towards rebuilding St Mungo’s, and really, you can’t protest against that.”
Harry, who had jumped up angrily, slid back down, looking like a punctured balloon. “It’s not fair.”
“I know,” Minerva agreed. She looked at Albus’ name carved into the tomb and sighed heavily. “I know.”
Harry looked at her face, the name, and back again. She saw him put two and two together.
“You were in love with him.”
Minerva nodded. “We were married for forty-five years. He didn’t want people to know because he didn’t want to put me in danger.”
Harry smiled sadly. “That’s just like him.”
It was this sentence that broke the barrier Minerva had been trying to hold up for so long. Harry didn’t jump or flinch, but put a tentative arm around her and held her as she started to sob. Hot, angry tears felt like acid running down her face and she choked on a lump the size of a Bludger that would not move from her throat. All the while Harry just sat there, silently, and for the first time in weeks, Minerva was grateful for the quiet understanding.
“Looks like you needed that,” he said finally, when she could cry no more and just sat wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
She nodded. “Thank you,” she said thickly.
“You’re welcome, Professor. Here.” Harry held out a crumpled tissue.
Silence stretched between them for a while, but it was not uncomfortable like the atmosphere that day Minerva had made the announcement. Both she and Harry sat, each contemplating their thoughts and waiting for the right moment to speak.
“Where are you going to go?” Minerva asked finally. “You didn’t ask anyone for help.”
Harry squared his shoulders. “I don’t want to be stuck in an orphanage or with some family I’ve never met. When Hagrid died I promised I’d look after Fang. So I’m staying in his cabin.”
This wasn’t quite the answer Minerva was expecting. “For how long?”
Harry shrugged. “Till I get kicked out, I guess. Hopefully by that time I’ll have got enough interest on the money in my bank account to get my own place.”
Minerva shook her head. “Harry, you’re barely sixteen. That’s not even legal.”
“Doesn’t matter. Right now all the Ministry is doing is trying to raise enough cash to rebuild the community. Likelihood is no-one’ll even realise I’m here, and if they do it’ll be that guy who’s buying the school.” He paused. “Has he bought the grounds as well?”
“I think so, yes.”
Harry heaved a sigh.
“How much money do you have, right now?” Minerva asked.
“About ten Galleons, I think – at the most. I gave the rest to the Ministry fund before the war was even over. I thought I wouldn’t need it.” He gave a hollow laugh. “Just my luck to live when there’s nothing for me to live for.”
Minerva stood up sharply. “Don’t you dare say that!”
“What?” Harry started.
“My husband gave his life for you and the rest of the school. I will not allow you to waste that, Harry!” Minerva was close to hyperventilating, her hands clenched. “You are going to finish your education and pass your exams and earn a living, not sit around feeling sorry for yourself waiting to be evicted and hope you don’t get arrested for trespassing!”
“And how do you suggest I do that, Professor?” Harry shot back.
Minerva forced herself to unclench her fists and took deep breaths again. Now was not the time to get worked up. Her temper had always got the better of her and especially of late. Behind her words was a trace of guilt, because she had been feeling much the same as Harry did and she had shouted at him for it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “It’s been a hard year for all of us.” She took a deep breath and prayed Harry wouldn’t take her next words the wrong way. “Harry, you are fifteen years old, which makes you a minor. Meaning,” she continued, ignoring his attempt to interrupt, “that if you do not wish to be, as you so put it, ‘stuck in an orphanage or with a family I’ve never met’, you’re going to need a legal guardian.”
“Yeah, just look at all those contenders,” Harry said sarcastically.
Minerva opened her bag. On top was a sheaf of parchment she’d collected from the Ministry’s Child Protection office. “I don’t have a lot left, but my sister died some years back and left me a house. It’s small, it’s not in perfect condition and it’s far from civilisation, but it’s a roof over the head.” She took out the parchment. “That is for you to sign.”
Harry stared as if she’d sprouted another head. “Are you mad? You don’t want to be stuck with me.”
Minerva placed the parchment and her last quill on his lap before sitting back down. “Did Albus tell you about the night you were left with your Muggle relatives?” When he shook his head, she continued, “I was there. That night I made a promise. I swore that no matter what happened in the future, I would always stick by you even if you didn’t want me to.”
She paused. “On the dotted line.”