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Chapter 21 : Thinking About Forever
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Please note that the sessions do take place at different times on different days.
Credit: Elegant chapter image by seraphine.!
“What are your plans after graduating from Hogwarts?”
It was the eternal question, recycled over the years yet still managed to inspire dread within those who were forced to answer it.
Professor McGonagall had asked that question countless times to every Gryffindor who walked through her office in her twenty years at Hogwarts and would continue to do for as long as her health allowed her to. Thus far, she was pleased to report that many who have sat across from her and listed their goals had gone on to achieve them. She regularly received Christmas cards from Quidditch players, entrepreneurs, artists, Ministry officials and so forth who had once been former students. Even those who had settled into a quiet family life in the country would send the occasional birth announcements and wedding invitations.
All in all, she considered her track record a success.
In the spring of 1976, three very different students stepped into her office for their respective career advice session. There was an excellent spell of spring sunshine when Dollie Kent floated, almost drifted into Professor McGonagall’s office. It was a Thursday, and she had miraculously made the appointment on time at three-thirty sharp.
“It is nice to see some punctuality from you, Miss Kent.”
Professor McGonagall had meant for it to be taken light-heartedly but from Dollie’s suddenly tensed shoulders and pursed lips, it was apparent she took it like a blow to the gut.
“Good afternoon, Professor.”
A cool greeting with no eye contact, her typical modus operandi.
Dollie wandered into each room like a lost ghost then blushed and stammered as though her very presence was an intrusion. Only after several timid taps did Professor McGonagall realise it was someone knocking to come into her room and when Dollie sat on the chair opposite, she did so with measured care.
In a glaring case of contrast, Sirius Black sauntered into her office without knocking and attempted to make himself comfortable on the same aging oak chair. Outside, a smattering of light rain pelted her window on that gloomy Wednesday evening.
“Don’t even think of putting your feet on my table, Mr Black.”
Sirius grinned and Professor McGonagall felt her desk pushed back as he rested his head on his folded hands while balancing his chair on two legs.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, ma’am.”
Briefly entertaining the idea of pushing back her desk and thus causing Sirius to fall on his back, Professor McGonagall merely allowed her face a twitch of amusement before settling back into her authoritative role.
“Professor will do just fine. I’m not that old.”
“I would never insinuate such a thing.”
Squeezing in some time before her Friday morning Transfiguration class, Professor McGonagall was still manually scraping ice off her window when Remus Lupin came in and offered to help her reach the higher parts of the glass.
“My, aren’t you fresh-eyed and bushy-tailed today?”
The double-entendre was not lost on Remus, who to his credit smiled wanly and laughed politely. It had been little more than a week since the last full moon. This time, he had made sure to surrender himself to Miss Pomfrey a day early to avoid another mishap. There was no room for error.
“I didn’t think I would make it here after…”
“Perhaps I’m not the only one with nine lives, Mr Lupin. My first piece of advice would be to not compromise them.”
“Again,” he added.
“Your intentions were pure.”
“But not my actions.”
“If Kent knew, I’m sure she would forgive you.”
Remus began whistling a familiar tune that she couldn’t quite place.
After the incident, the subject of whether or not to expel Remus had come up. Between the three of them who were privy to Remus’ condition, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Pomfrey, the issue of expulsion was hotly debated. But in the end, they agreed it was a horrible accident and more of an oversight on their part that would not happen again.
As Professor McGonagall had pointed out, Remus had too much potential and too many doors slammed in his face. It would be a terrible waste to allow him into Hogwarts only to kick him out.
More than a month later, the effects of that night had not yet left Dollie, even after being released from the infirmary.
“Do you need to see Miss Pomfrey, Miss Kent? You’re looking under the weather.”
“If you need more time to heal –”
“Thank you, Professor, but you needn’t have to worry about me. I – I haven’t been sleeping well these past few nights.”
Professor McGonagall frowned. “Your insomnia has returned?”
“It’s nothing, really. Just some… nightmares.”
“Is it something you wish to discuss?”
“No, not particularly. No.”
In fact, it was with a keen eye that Professor McGonagall noticed all was not well. With Remus, there was no mystery. His monthly transformations had taken years out of the teenager, if not physically then in spirit. But she had never seen him like this, this plastic veneer that seemed tightly wrapped around him. Dollie, who had always been a solemn child, retreated further into herself. Sirius was harder to pinpoint as an unsettling change had come over him.
Teachers had been reporting that he no longer spoke up in class or played silly pranks on anyone. Instead, it was a moody and brooding shadow that lurked in the classrooms, with a dark cloud hanging over his head. A hollow smirk replaced his easy smile while his distinct laugh was long extinct.
Professor McGonagall always had an eye for puzzles so it was not hard for her to see a pattern and connect the dots. Gossip wasn’t exclusive to students. The details of students’ personal affairs held no interest for her, as long as the rules were followed, grades kept up and the honour of Gryffindor upheld. Sirius’ reaction to Dollie’s attack and his subsequent reluctance to leave her side in the infirmary was a dead giveaway, yes, but Professor McGonagall knew puppy love when she saw it and from what she knew of those tense weeks, the term didn’t quite sit right with what was going on.
Once inseparable, the group known as the Marauders had broken apart. Remus became a pariah, who sat alone and apart from everyone else in every social setting. The Great Hall, classrooms, etc. Whether it was by choice or not, Professor McGonagall couldn’t tell.
When she posed each of them that inevitable question about their future, what she got was a mixed bag.
“I suppose I’ll follow my father and Helen into the family business,” Dollie said with quiet resignation.
“Tell me what I need to be an Auror,” said Sirius with a touch of arrogant aggression.
“I’d like to make an honest living. Or anything really. Can’t say I’m in any position to be choosy,” said Remus, dry but with a smidgeon of hope.
“Is that what you want?” asked Professor McGonagall.
“I’m too young to know what I want,” said Dollie.
This response took Professor McGonagall by surprise, if only because it was almost verbatim to what Bertram Kent had told her at the last Governor’s meeting.
“Apothecary would be most suitable.” Professor McGonagall was stopped from looking for the leaflet when Dollie readily handed her one. “Top marks in Potions are required, of course. You are close though, averaging ‘Exceeds Expectations’, which is Professor Slughorn’s required grade to take Advanced Potions. Indeed, Potions seems to be your best subject.”
“I have a lot of practice at home,” said Dollie.
“Defence Against the Dark Arts is worth considering, given our current environment. I always like to prepare my students for the real world,” said Professor McGonagall, disliking the task of chipping at a child’s innocence. “As for electives, Alchemy would be your best option. It is similar to Potions in a way and an all-around fascinating subject, dealing with the study of the four basic elements, as well as the study of the transmutation of substances and to some degree, philosophy. If you care to learn more, you should make an appointment with Professor Jabir Al-Kindi, he will be pleased to elaborate more on the subject.”
Dollie merely nodded, as she had while Professor McGonagall was giving her advice. But the nodding had been polite, almost mechanical.
“I would also recommend Transfiguration and Charms, they will come in useful in the laboratory. Then again, I might just be bias.” Professor McGonagall’s attempt at humour did nothing to keep Dollie’s face from turning to a whiter shade of pale. “And Herbology, another one of your stronger subjects. I do realise taking six subjects at NEWTs-level sounds daunting but I have been tracking your progress and am happy to note some substantial improvement in your wandwork.”
“Remus has been tutoring me in spells-casting. I owe everything to him.” A new layer of warmth that coated these sentiments was not lost on Professor McGonagall.
“Miss Kent has spoken highly of your teaching. In fact, she credits you with significantly improving her grades,” said Professor McGonagall.
“I did what I could to help a friend,” said Remus, pride blooming in his chest at the praise.
“Which was, I understand, what you did for Mr Pettigrew as well. It seems, Mr Lupin, that you have a gift for teaching.”
“That means a great deal coming from you, Professor. It’s just – it seems too much to ask, doesn’t it? Full disclosure of my affliction means limited career options, particularly those where I’m not a danger to others.”
“But it is something you have considered?”
“The idea was planted by an outside source,” Remus admitted.
“Have you narrowed down what subject you’d like to teach?” asked Professor McGonagall.
“Would it be too ironic to say ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts’?” said Remus with his wry sense of humour.
“I’m sure you have heard the rumours surrounding that particular post?” Professor McGonagall played along.
“Well, I figured the two curses, mine and its, would cancel each other out.”
Professor McGonagall allowed herself a healthy chortle but the same couldn’t be said in her interactions with Sirius.
Don’t laugh, Minerva, not in front of a student. Instead, she began chewing the inside of her cheek while clawing at the wood under her desk. An unfortunate side-effect of being a feline Animagus meant that her furniture and fingernails were in less than pristine shape. The splinters that stabbed her fingertips were nevertheless an adequate distraction.
Then again, from his widening smirk, Professor McGonagall wouldn’t put it past one of the most troublesome students she’d ever encountered to merely be taking the mickey out of her.
“Well… I can’t deny you certainly have the brains and magical aptitude,” Professor McGonagall said carefully.
“But not the discipline, yes? I’d have to work on my apple-polishing prowess as well, I suppose,” said Sirius.
Given a disciplinary file that was thicker than Hogwarts, A History, this was an understatement.
“Don’t you think I’m capable of breaking into the Ministry, Professor?”
“I think you’re capable of doing anything you set your mind to.”
“But you think they wouldn’t touch someone like me.”
The accusation, so potent with rancour, boded ill with someone who on the surface had the world at their feet.
“I never insinuated such a thing. And may I remind you who you are addressing, Mr Black.”
Sirius shook his hair away from his eyes and the vacant smile once again took residence of his face. His dark eyes flashed but just as quickly dulled to a starless night.
Remus meanwhile was the very picture of maturity. With no sign of self-pity, he handled his unfortunate circumstances with self-deprecation and a realistic point-of-view. Even so, he couldn’t hide that touch of wistfulness that crept into his voice as they discussed his future.
“Maybe I could teach Muggle subjects at a Muggle school, somewhere far in the countryside. Morning classes so that I can leave early and… take care of other matters,” suggested Remus.
“It is an option. Perhaps not a very viable one, since you elected not to take Muggle Studies,” Professor McGonagall pointed out.
“A decision that will haunt me,” said Remus.
“You only need to continue on the path you are on. Whatever subject you decide on, you would of course need to take the N.E.W.T equivalent and if it is indeed DADA, I would recommend Transfiguration and Charms as accompanying subjects. An ‘Outstanding’ in all three goes without saying. Exemplary duelling is key so you perhaps you should consider joining the Duelling Club. Practice far outweighs theory,” Professor McGonagall explained.
Remus nodded, absorbing everything she had to say but still looked sceptical.
“If you ever do decide to teach at Hogwarts, you can expect a glowing recommendation from me and if that’s not enough, I will personally vouch for you. You have my word as a fellow educator,” said Professor McGonagall.
“I don’t know if it will ever come to that. Perhaps once I have exhausted all my options,” said Remus.
“I have faith in you, Mr Lupin,” said Professor McGonagall.
“That makes one of us,” said Remus.
“Do you have any questions?” asked Professor McGonagall.
Dollie hesitated, chewing the patches of her chapped lips.
“Did you know what you wanted at sixteen?”
Though personal in nature, it was a legitimate question. Professor McGonagall gave it serious and careful thought before answering.
“In a way, yes. I knew that I wanted to do something that I loved, that I was passionate about. More importantly, I wanted to do something I would be proud of. At sixteen, I had grand ambitions and I was willing to do whatever it took to achieve them. Taking a position in the Ministry seemed like the best way to go about it. I am not ashamed to say I was wrong. But no, I did not have all the answers at sixteen.”
“But certain things are expected of me that are beyond my control.”
Clarification was not necessary. The imposing shadow of Bertram Kent and Helen Bell née Kent loomed menacingly over Dollie as she struggled in her duty and obligation to meet expectations that had been laid out for her since she entered Hogwarts.
It was the same thought Professor McGonagall had when she watched Dollie as a bridesmaid at her older sister’s wedding. Swathed in a frothy pastel dress, Dollie looked as though she was headed for the guillotine rather than the altar. Professor McGonagall could see that the child desperately wanted to be happy for her sister but try as she might, she failed to hide her muffled envy at Helen’s happiness at a match that gained their father’s hard-to-win approval.
Bertram Kent always demanded the best, not only from himself but from those around him. Professor McGonagall remembered being in awe of him when they were in Hogwarts together, even a little fearful. It saddened her now to think that his high expectations weighed so heavily on his seemingly average second daughter.
Professor McGonagall understood this, having heard over the years the same sermon delivered time and again by Bertram Kent. While she bore no ill feelings towards him, she was a firm advocate of autonomy.
Even so, pity was something she neither felt nor dispensed liberally. For whatever discernible reason, the Sorting Hat had placed this seemingly back-boneless shrinking violet into her house, into Gryffindor. There must be something in this girl and it was up to Professor McGonagall to draw it out.
“Imagine your life as a blank slate. No influences, no expectations. You could pursue anything to your heart’s content. Now tell me, from your mind and no one else’s, what would you like to do after you leave Hogwarts?”
“Anything?” Dollie squeaked.
“It – it’s really silly and utterly unrealistic.” Dollie dithered. “But hypothetically speaking, If I could do anything at all, I’d really, really want to be an Unspeakable.” Her hand flew to her mouth but then it moved up to her cheek to reveal an awed smile. “Wow, I’ve never said that aloud before.”
“That sounds like a perfectly fine goal. The difficulty in getting into the Ministry varies depending on the department and the Department of Mysteries is notoriously particular in their selection. There would be a thorough background check and you would need several testimonies from distinguished character witnesses. Then there are several stages of stringent character and aptitude exams. Some very powerful and very advanced magic is studied there. The entire process is gruelling and can take five to ten years, sometimes more.”
“It’s just a thought. My father would never agree to it anyway. He thinks being a government servant is demeaning,” Dollie admitted.
“Well, keeping this discussion strictly hypothetical, you would have to broaden your knowledge of magic considerably regardless of what branch you want to study in the Department. I would advise you to stick with Transfiguration, Charms, Potions and Defence against the Dark Arts while also adding on Study of Ancient Runes, Alchemy, Ancient Studies, Magical Theory and History of Magic, all of which you would need at the very least an ‘Exceeds Expectations’. However, I would strongly encourage you to aim for ‘Outstanding’ if you want the Department of Mysteries to even pay attention to you.” Professor McGonagall gazed at Dollie with unmasked intensity. “That is, if you are really serious about pursuing this particular career path.”
“I am!” Dollie nodded her head with surprising fervour. “It’s always been my dream, ever since I heard such a job existed. To study the deepest corners of magic, to unlock the secrets of life, death, time, love… It’s all I ever wanted, to answer every what, how and why I ever had, the questions that have plagued wizardkind since the dawn of magic. Maybe,” she said in a hushed tone, “maybe even discover the meaning of life.”
Her blue eyes glittered with excitement at the endless possibilities. It would suit her, to be an Unspeakable. It would take plenty of patience but mostly, an insatiable thirst for answers. If the right encouragement was applied, Dollie could be incited to discipline herself and in turn, apply herself to her studies.
As someone who did not need to resort to such a thing, Sirius was already blessed with brains and talent and thus never felt the need to apply himself to anything. Although Professor McGonagall loathed puns, which she considered one of the lower forms of comedy, she couldn’t take Sirius seriously. To be fair, he appeared to have a similar attitude.
“Right. To be accepted into the Auror department, one has to have a minimum of five N.E.W.T.s in challenging subjects such as Potions, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Transfiguration, Herbology, and Charms and no grade lower than ‘Exceeds Expectations’ in any of these subjects.”
“So far, so good.”
“A spotless behavioural record,” she said, then pursed her lips.
“That didn’t take long to take me out of the running.”
“I only suggested it for a laugh anyway. Really, they’d be lucky to have me. I – I would have been the best they ever had. I would have done anything for them. I would have given them everything… But I see now that will never be enough. Nothing will ever be enough because I will never be enough.”
The crack in his voice reminded her of another that seemed so far away, it came from another time. Because it had. Dear Dougal McGregor with his earnest eyes and endlessly charming witticisms, whose voice had the same crack in it as Sirius, when he begged to know of her change of heart to their cancelled engagement.
In Sirius, she saw the same pain with matching confusion, struggling to fathom what he had done wrong to drive the one he loved away. But there was a marked difference. The loss had embittered Sirius, his passionate temper quelled and replaced by deliberate numbness. He had smothered every scrap of emotion until there was nothing left to feel.
Professor McGonagall should know, she had done the same.
In the time it took her mind to wander back to that misty morning on a freshly ploughed farm in the Scottish Highlands, Sirius had recovered and composed himself back to his newly-adopted detached demeanour.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t fancy being a government puppet. Maybe I can try my hand at being a Hit Wizard. Risking my life day and night chasing down the most dangerous criminals in England. Now that sounds more like my style, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It would certainly entail much less than Auror training,” said Professor McGonagall.
“Brilliant, something else to hack off my parents. Not that they ever recovered from my Gryffindor betrayal,” said Sirius.
“What did they have in mind for your future?” asked Professor McGonagall.
“To champion the rights of pure-blooded wizard folk and their values. What a load of - !” Sirius erred, momentarily forgetting whom he was speaking with. “What a farce!”
Professor McGonagall was hard-pressed to disagree.
Sirius continued. “What does that even mean anyway? All these years of my mum screeching my ear off about it and I still don’t understand why it should matter. Even after everything, they still want to match-make me with someone from the ‘Sacred twenty-eight’.”
The Sacred Twenty-Eight from the Pure-Blood Directory, a deplorable piece of fiction widely believed to have been anonymously authored by Cantankerus Nott, listed the twenty-eight British families that were still "truly pure-blood" by the 1930s.
Professor McGonagall shook her head sympathetically, having heard the same protests from other begrudging members of the so-called esteemed family blood-lines they were part of. The Weasleys especially were not discreet in their loathed position within the directory though they would go on to marry into the less fervent pure-blooded families like the Prewetts, Abbotts and Longbottoms.
“Do you really want to know what I want, Professor? To leave that house of hell and never return. I’m a simple lad, really, deep down. That’s all I want. And I’ll do whatever it takes to make it a reality.”
“You would still need the financial means to break away and survive on your own. That’s where a viable career comes in.”
“Quite honestly, Professor, I can’t picture myself being tied down to anything for long. In fact, Hogwarts is my longest, and possibly last commitment.”
“Surely having a family of your own comes into play somewhere.”
They were treading dangerously personal territory. It was almost inappropriate to approach such a subject with a student. But having grown up in such an unhealthy and hostile home-life shouldn’t deter Sirius from trying again.
“James is all the family I need. Never saw kids in the picture, I’m quite sure I’ll make a real hash of it somehow.” Sirius paused and for a moment, the veil slipped and the sadness shone through. “Having someone to grow old with would be nice. I’m not much of a solitary figure. I think I’d go mad by myself.” And just like that, the shield was up. “Is that all? Can we wrap this up? If you must, you can jot down ‘Hit Wizard’ in your status report to Dumbledore. Doesn’t really matter to me either way.”
Sirius left before Professor McGonagall had the chance to admonish him for his insolence.
“Can I tell you a secret, Professor?” Dollie asked meekly and hurriedly added, “It will sound silly.”
“Ever since the concussion, it’s as though something has been unlocked inside me. Everything seems brighter, clearer, like all this while I’ve been holding my breath swimming underwater and suddenly decided to pop my head out. Does that make sense? Is that even the least bit plausible?”
“Maybe it’s always been there but you have been too afraid to acknowledge it, confront it.”
“That must make me a terrible Gryffindor.”
“No, it just means the Sorting Hat saw something in you and we are all still trying to catch up.”
It was the first smile Dollie gave since the session started.
“I think we’ve gone into overtime. I’m sorry for taking up so much of it,” said Dollie.
“You have nothing to apologise for,” said Professor McGonagall.
“I’ll leave now,” Dollie said unnecessarily as she got up delicately without moving the chair.
“You’re welcome to come back anytime, if you have any further doubts,” said Professor McGonagall.
Dollie laughed. “I don’t think that’s practical. I always have doubts, plagued by them in fact.”
“It is hard to sleep with demons in your bed.”
The austere remark took the young girl aback as her eyebrows shot up. Dollie pressed her lips together, forcing back the waterfall of words that would have unloaded her burden. Professor McGonagall could have waited for eternity and a day but she knew she was not the one Dollie would confide in. Professor McGonagall wasn’t even sure if such a person existed. Dollie liked to keep her issues close to the chest. If she dared to say them aloud, she would realise for herself how they weren’t as earth-shattering as she feared.
That was one thing Professor McGonagall did not miss about her youth: the uncontrollable hormones.
Finally, Dollie’s face loosened, the tension crawling back into her pores. She smiled and tilted her chin politely, signalling her exit.
“Thank you, Professor. It’s been… enlightening,” said Dollie.
“How do you do it, Professor? Knowing what you know about my true nature. How can you still be so… magnanimous?” said Remus.
“It is because I do know your true nature. Your lycanthropy is only an unfortunate side-effect.”
“Maybe someday I’ll believe that myself.”
“Defeatism is very unbecoming, Mr Lupin, and never solves anything. Do remember that,” said Professor McGonagall.
“Wouldn’t ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn’ have been more appropriate?” said Remus with a tiny twinkle in his eye.
“Proverbs are passé. I like to be original when I can. Better still, I know you can handle brutal honesty.”
“You think too highly of me, Professor.”
“Perhaps you should start taking my lead.”
Remus stood up and bowed dramatically, complete with a hand flourish.
As Professor McGonagall watched each of them walk out of their office, she had the same thought about each of them. She hoped each of them would find the peace of mind they were desperately looking for, if not with someone or even each other but within themselves.
A/N: I hope that wasn't too confusing.
Because of my guilt for the delayed updates, I've been working ahead on the next couple of chapters and hope to publish them with very little time in between. Also, my muse has returned!
As always, please don't forget to drop me a review in that little box down there. It would mean the world to me.
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