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Chapter 35 : Breakdown
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“Refused to see me? But I sent her an owl. I told her there was an explanation for everything. You know there’s an explanation for—“
“I know,” Lilith said quickly, “but you’ve got to believe me. I’ve done everything I can to try to convince her, but—“
“No,” said Andromeda, shoving past Lilith and down the hallway. “No, she’s going to see me. She’s going to listen, and she’s going to understand.”
“Andie, that’s not a good idea!”
Lilith ran after her, but Andromeda ran faster. She wound down the familiar stone passageway until she reached the dormitory door. She flung it open.
Narcissa had been sitting at her vanity, back turned. She whirled around at Andromeda’s entrance. The sisters’ eyes met. Narcissa’s face went ashen.
“W-what are you doing here?” she stammered. Then, seeing Lilith at the threshold, “What is she doing here? I told you if she came back, she—“
“Lilith, leave us alone,” Andromeda ordered.
“Andie, I think—“
“Leave.” She turned on Lilith with red-faced vehemence.
Lilith wavered for a moment, then nodded and ducked out of the room. Andromeda slammed the door after her. She turned to face Narcissa, who looked less angry now and more afraid—more uncertain.
“You’re my sister,” Andromeda said lowly. “You’re my best friend. And you’re going to hear me out. You have to, Cissy.”
“I don’t have to do any such thing,” said Narcissa, gripping the silver hairbrush in her lap. “I know all about what you did. Mother wrote.”
“I wrote! I told you I could explain—“
“What’s there to explain?” Narcissa asked in a near-shriek. “You’ve been lying to me for months now. You never once told me about that Tonks boy, about any of it. How long have you been seeing him, Andromeda? How long have you been—been—“
Andromeda’s eyes narrowed. “Been what?”
“Well, everyone in this entire school seems to know that the two of you have been tumbling in the sheets. Everyone but me.”
Andromeda reddened, both from embarrassment and anger. “I can’t believe you would assume that. I can’t believe you’d even listen to those rumors.”
“So you’re not involved with the Mudblood?”
Andromeda shrunk back, as though slapped. “Don’t call him that.”
Narcissa’s lips parted, her eyes widening in horror. She shook her head. “Well. That’s all the answer I need, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t even matter,” Andromeda said, desperate. She could see that look in Narcissa’s eyes; she knew she was losing her. “He and I aren’t together anymore.”
“It still matters,” Narcissa spat. “It matters what you did at Hogsmeade. Everyone knows now that you reported those boys. You reported Lucius.”
Cold realization hit Andromeda.
How could she have been so stupid? How could she not have sorted this out before? Of course Narcissa would be livid at her. Andromeda had forgotten that Lucius was wrapped up entirely in the scheme at Hogsmeade.
“I didn’t mean—“ she began faintly.
“And all for what?” Narcissa barreled on. “Some low class Mudblood who bedded you and grew tired of you? Andromeda, what were you thinking? You weren’t thinking of the family. You weren’t thinking of your reputation. You certainly weren’t thinking of me. What you did was more than careless. It was hateful, and it was selfish, and it was—it was unforgivable.”
Andromeda had stopped trying to argue. She sank limply onto the edge of her bed, her heart aching, her eyes strained with tears.
“Please don’t say that,” she whispered. “I know I royally fucked things up, but that doesn’t mean—“
“Do you know the disciplinary action Dumbledore threatened him with?” said Narcissa. “Threatened all those fine boys with? There was even talk of stripping Lucius of his prefecture.”
“I didn’t know, Cissa. I didn’t think—“
“Your head was turned by a novelty. And because of that, Lucius was the one who suffer. I’ve been the one to suffer.”
Andromeda felt instinctively at her wrist, where the carved words Blood Traitor still burned against her skin. But she didn’t argue. Narcissa was right: she hadn’t thought this through. She hadn’t thought of all the consequences of her actions. She hadn’t thought of how they would affect her little sister.
“And then you disappear,” said Narcissa. “You ran off with him, didn’t you? And then he dropped you, and you have the audacity to come back here. I thought I would never see you again. Don’t you know what that did to me?”
“But I told you I was coming back,” Andromeda said. “I told you I’d explain.”
“Well, what is it, then?” Narcissa said wildly. “What sort of explanation can you possibly give?”
“I thought I loved him. I—I do love him,” Andromeda amended, her heart shrieking in pain as she did so. “And if you knew him, Cissa, really knew him, you’d understand.”
Narcissa shook her head, disgust marring her beautiful face. “That’s it? That’s your grand explanation? What sort of spell could he possibly have cast on you? I can’t believe you let him touch you.” She looked ready to retch. “You know boys like that are scum. And they’re only after one thing. They’re not like us, Andromeda. They’re driven by pure animal instinct. And still you chose—“
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Andromeda cut in, her voice gone dark, cold. “Whatever else he is, Ted Tonks is good. He’s good and compassionate and intelligent, and he—he loves me.”
“Then where is he?” Narcissa demanded. “If he’s so very grand, why aren’t you hanging off his arm?”
Andromeda stammered, but no coherent words came out.
“That’s what I thought,” said Narcissa. Tears sprung to her eyes. “You threw away your entire life for him, Andie. And all without even once talking to me. You were lying to me the entire time.”
“I never lied—“
“You never told me the truth.”
“If I had, you wouldn’t have—“
“I would’ve listened!” Narcissa shouted. “And then I would’ve given you the advice you needed. I could’ve helped you. I could’ve prevented what’s happened here. But you had to wait until now, after you’ve broken off the engagement to Lestrange, after you’ve been disowned. Now you want to explain? Now you want to set thing right? It’s too late for that.”
“It’s only too late if you say it is,” Andromeda whispered.
Narcissa rose to her feet. Her shoulders were shaking uncontrollably. Tears streamed down her face, mirroring Andromeda’s own.
“It’s too late,” she said. “You’re not even family anymore.”
She made for the door, but Andromeda grabbed her by the elbow.
“You’re my sister, Cissa. We love each other. That’s stronger than anything else.”
She saw it then—the momentary flicker of uncertainty back in Narcissa’s eyes, and with it, pain. But it passed just as quickly as it came, and Narcissa wrenched out of Andromeda’s grip.
“Not anymore,” she whispered.
She slammed the door behind her.
Narcissa didn’t return to the dormitory, but later that night a fifth year named Phoebe showed up, looking frightened and skittish.
“Um,” she said. “Narcissa sent me here to fetch some things?”
Lilith stared at the frazzled girl, then at Andromeda.
“Make it quick,” she muttered, returning her attention to a crumpled piece of parchment in her lap.
Both she and Andromeda had been making an attempt at studying for their N.E.W.T.s, though Andromeda found the entire situation laughable. Lilith’s study habits involved rummaging through random scraps of notes she had taken over the past year, looking them over with a bored expression, then crumpling them up and throwing them in the waste bin. And though Andromeda stared hard at her Arithmancy book, trying to drill herself on formulas and rusty equations, how on earth could she expect herself to retain a thing? Her mind and heart weren’t here. They were with her little sister, who was apparently so repulsed by Andromeda’s presence that she now sent fifth year minions to do her dirty work.
“Where are you taking those things?” asked Andromeda, watching Phoebe collect items from Narcissa’s vanity and dresser and plunk them into a carpetbag.
“Um,” said Phoebe, keeping her eyes averted. “Um. Well, Narcissa is going to be sharing a room with Jane and Frances now. They said she could, since they have a spare bed.”
Andromeda’s mouth went dry. She had been hoping that Narcissa would come back, that she would realize how cruel she’d been, that she’d eventually have to return to the dormitory, where she and Andromeda would talk things through properly. But she hadn’t imagined something like this.
Lilith caught Andromeda’s gaze. She smiled sadly but shook her head, as though to say, Don’t fight. It isn’t poor Phoebe’s fault.
So Andromeda watched in silence as Phoebe packed up clothes and perfumes, referring all the while to a list Narcissa must have hand-written for her. Then Phoebe left quietly, keeping her eyes on the floor. Andromeda closed her eyes. She lay back on her bed and clenched her fists, trying to breathe properly.
This couldn’t be happening. This was a sour nightmare that she’d fallen into, and any moment she would wake up, wake up.
“Andie? Andie, don’t cry. Please.”
But the tears wouldn’t stop. They fell fast and silent and hot, soaking Andromeda’s duvet with two salty puddles. She felt the bed shift under her, and she opened her eyes to find Lilith sitting by her side.
“You had to suspect this might happen,” Lilith said softly. “Didn’t you think Cissa would be upset?”
Andromeda rubbed at her wet cheeks. “I knew she’d be upset. I just didn’t think…. The thing is, I think she really means it, Lilith. She doesn’t want to see me again. She’s disowned me the same as Mother and Father and all the rest of them. And I know she’s upset about Lucius, but she’s my sister. That’s supposed to mean more. It’s supposed to mean that—that we hear each other out.”
“Maybe,” said Lilith, “she just needs time. She’s been so upset, Andie. You don’t even know. She’s done little more than pout and sob and try to dig into me for what information I could give her about St. Mungo’s and what happened there.”
Andromeda’s eyes widened. She hadn’t even been thinking of what Lilith had to go through all this time. She’d done such a spectacular job of thinking about only herself.
“I’m sorry you had to do that,” she whispered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.”
Lilith shrugged lightly. “You had bigger problems to deal with. You know, like throwing Rabastan Lestrange’s ring back in his face.”
“Is he…um, is he back here?”
Lilith shook her head. “His parents were very upset about the whole ordeal. They insisted he be taken to their country house to recover. They’ve made some exception for him concerning N.E.W.T.s. A make-up date of some sort in the summertime.”
“Oh,” Andromeda said lifelessly. Then, “Everyone here thinks I’m a traitorous whore, don’t they?”
“Why should you care what everyone says?”
Andromeda gave Lilith a look.
“Fine,” Lilith sighed. “So, yes, lots of people think that. Especially the ones here in Slytherin.” Lilith found Andromeda’s hand. She squeezed it hard. “But I don’t. And. Um. Um, George doesn’t. And plenty of others too, I’m sure. I know the truth, Andie. I think you were kind of a hero.”
Andromeda scowled. “Don’t call me that. I’m no one’s hero.” After a moment’s silence, though, her scowl ticked to the smallest of smiles. “So. George?”
Lilith grinned, even as her cheeks bloomed with color. “Mmm-hmm. George. You wanna know all the dirty details?”
“God, Lilith, no,” Andromeda laughed, pushing playfully at her friend.
“I’ve got to say, that Edward Tonks certainly does have good taste in the company he keeps.”
At the mention of Ted, all laughter was punched from Andromeda’s system. Lilith must have seen the change, because she quickly added, “I mean, well, not that it matters anymore.”
“Lil, it’s fine,” Andromeda mumbled, still rubbing away the tears.
Lilith’s brown knitted. Cautiously, she said, “Andie? Can I ask what happened exactly? I’ll be honest, I thought you were going to run away and elope with him, and never come back.”
“It didn’t work out,” Andromeda said simply.
“Buuut,” Lilith said, eyeing her, “but you two are wildly in love with each other. Don’t even try to deny it, because it’s stupid how obvious it is. I saw it. George did, too. I mean, you fucking saved his life.”
“Maybe. But it still didn’t work. It just—it didn’t.” Andromeda met Lilith’s gaze. She softened her expression a bit. “And I wouldn’t just elope, Lilith. I’d want one of my very best friends to be there, you know.”
Lilith nodded slowly. “Well, all right. Thanks. I think. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. Just, um—well, I’m here for you, if you need me?”
“It’s just nice to know that you still want to share the room with me.”
“Well,” said Lilith, “your feet do kind of stink, but I wasn’t going to say anything.”
And for the second time on an otherwise horrible night, Lilith managed to make Andromeda smile.
The days that followed were torturous.
Andromeda had expected there to be whispers in the hallways. She’d expected a rough transition as she finished out her last two weeks at Hogwarts. She’d expected to be behind in some readings, and she’d expected the stress of the N.E.W.T.s to be immense.
But her expectations hadn’t prepared her for this.
Walking through the Slytherin common room felt like staking her way through frozen tundra. She held her chin high and did not acknowledge the withering stares, the snickers, the vulgar things they said behind her back. But Andromeda saw and heard them all, and she wanted nothing more than to run back to her dormitory each morning, curl up in bed, and sob.
But there were more important things to do. She had come back here to finish her education, not to win a popularity contest, not to make friends. If she could just keep her chin up for two more weeks….
Narcissa refused to look at her, speak to her, even acknowledge her. Andromeda rarely saw her in the common room, and when she did catch a glimpse of Narcissa’s telltale golden locks in the corridors or the Great Hall, they soon vanished again. Narcissa was avoiding her. Andromeda’s blood boiled with sadness and anger, but she tried to remember what Lilith had said. Narcissa was angry now, and she was being unfair, but she might change her mind when she’d calmed down. Andromeda had to keep hoping she would.
In the meantime, she ate her meals with Lilith and George at the far end of the Slytherin table. Andromeda refused to join any of George’s friends at the Hufflepuff table, which Lilith seemed secretly grateful about; Lilith was rather open-minded about the boys she chose to date, but after all, she confided in Andromeda, everyone had their limits.
One night, however, she was joined by a very different dinner guest. Sirius had caught her in the corridor and insisted on sitting down with her.
“Your mother wouldn’t be happy with this,” Andromeda warned him, feeling instinctively at the words burned into her forearm. She tugged down her sleeve over the scar and took a long pull of pumpkin juice.
“Right, right,” said Sirius, flipping his hair carelessly. “You’re an evil, ungrateful snip, and we’re supposed to have disowned you or whatever. Old news.”
The words were flippant enough, but Sirius was watching Andromeda with sad, searching eyes. The expression made him look much older than usually did, which made Andromeda feel uncomfortable. Still, she said nothing.
“I don’t believe them, you know,” Sirius pressed. “I still think you’re brilliant. You’ve always been good to me. I don’t think you’re a traitor. And, well, even if you were, I’m sure it was for a good reason. I mean, I think what you did at Hogsmeade was bloody fantastic. We’d give you a medal of commendation or something if you’d been in Gryffindor.”
“Well I’m not, am I?” Andromeda asked a little tersely.
Sirius was undaunted. “I guess they’re giving you a pretty hard time, huh?”
Andromeda sank her face into her hand. The last person who needed to hear her worries over her academic, social, and love life was her little cousin, Sirius Black.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, it’s been a hard time.” She peeked out at him, bleary-eyed. “Disownment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Sirius. So don’t start romanticizing it.”
“What?” said Sirius. “What do you—”
“I know you,” Andromeda said, giving him a look. “It might seem bloody fantastic now, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience.”
“I never said it was. I suppose all I mean is, well, I think it was rather brave what you did. What people are saying you did, anyway. And I think you’re the best person in our whole entire family. And I just wanted you to know that, um, even if no one else plans on talking to you for the rest of eternity, I will. I mean, I’m already a Gryffindor, so how much more could I possibly disappoint Mum and the Old Man?”
Andromeda couldn’t stop the affectionate grin from crawling up her face.
“I’m here for you, too, Sirius. Anything you ever need. Even once I’m gone from Hogwarts. You know that, right?”
Sirius shrugged. “Yeah, I know. Well. Well, right, no offence, but this is getting a wee bit sappy. Think I’d better leave.”
Andromeda was still grinning long after Sirius had left the table and joined his three mates on the other side of the Great Hall. Sirius hadn’t said much, and it had been so very, well, Sirius of him, but all the same it put Andromeda in an unusually cheerful mood.
The mood was promptly crushed the next day.
They had finally arrived. It was the first day of N.E.W.T. examinations.
Andromeda didn’t eat breakfast. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hold anything down. Her nerves were bundled in tight coils, and all of her vital organs felt mismatched and out of place. This morning, she would be taking the written portion of her Transfiguration exam. Andromeda tried to remind herself that this was one of her best classes, that she felt completely at ease with the subject matter and was more than prepared. But that didn’t keep her hands from shaking as she settled into her desk in the large, open-aired classroom. She looked around at the dozens of students around her, all of whom she of course recognized from Professor McGonagall’s N.E.W.T.-level class.
“You can do this,” she whispered to herself, setting out her quill and ink with still-trembling hands. “Just nerves. Only nerves.”
“Oi, Black,” hissed a voice at her back. “I hear that Mudblood passed along all sorts of diseases. Was insanity one?”
Andromeda went very still. She gripped her hands into the table's edge to stop the shaking. She didn’t turn around. She knew who it was: Evan Rosier, her second cousin and one of the Knights of Walpurgis she’d turned in at Hogsmeade. No good would come from replying.
Relief swept through her when, at that moment, Professor McGonagall entered the room. She strode swiftly to the desk at the room’s front, then turned around and fixed a hard stare on them all.
“Well, this is it. The moment you’ve all been waiting for, I’m sure.” With an efficient flick of her wand, Professor McGonagall sent a stack of examinations flying to each individual desk.
“Remember, you’ve three hours in which to complete your examination. Be as thorough as possible. I will be here, at this desk, should any questions or concerns arise. Work quickly, do your best, and bear in mind that no wizard has succeeded in cheating on these exams since 1858, and you are not the exception. I expect honesty and quality from my students. Understood? Well then. Pick up your quills.”
The room went aflutter with the sound of dozens of students picking up dozens of quills.
Andromeda flipped open the first page of her examination. She read the first question.
Give a detailed account of the history of the Incarcifors spell and its significant popularity amongst the wizarding community during the Elizabethan Era. Then, discuss modern scholastic thought on why the Incarcifors spell should not be taught to students under the age of seventeen.
Perfect. Andromeda knew how to answer this. She knew the most convincing line of thought, the cleanest rhetoric possible to convey her point of view.
She inked her quill. She poised it over the paper.
Her hand began to shake again.
Andromeda swallowed hard, gripped the quill harder, pressed the nib to parchment. The ink splattered, and Andromeda cursed out loud. Behind her, Evan Rosier snickered. Andromeda gripped the quill even harder, tried again. The ink splattered again. Now it was not just Andromeda’s hand trembling, but her whole arm. She set the quill down. She dropped her head into her hands, trying to take measured breaths.
Something pressed against her back. Andromeda shot up, whirling toward the pressure, ready to tell off Rosier. It wasn’t Rosier. It was Professor McGonagall, and she had rested her hand on Andromeda’s back, concern shining in her dark eyes. Andromeda slowly became aware of how many eyes were on her, how many quills hanging in midair. She was causing a scene. She’d been louder and more anxiety-ridden than she’d thought.
“I—” She gulped, attempting to choke out words. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—“
“Why don’t you come with me, Miss Black?” said Professor McGonagall.
Her whisper was kind, but it also shot panic through Andromeda’s system.
“But the exam,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m just a bit nervous. If you just let me—“
“Now, Miss Black.”
The kindness was still there in McGonagall's words, but so was a firmness that left no room for disagreement.
Andromeda nodded weakly. She abandoned her quill and exam and stumbled to her feet, shrinking under the open stares of several distracted students. Professor McGonagall smiled encouragingly and motioned for Andromeda to follow. She had no choice. She crossed the room and followed McGonagall out into the corridor. There, a sixth year Ravenclaw prefect stood by. Clearly, he hadn’t anticipated this disturbance, because he was caught with a finger wedged soundly in his nose. Quickly, he retracted the finger and straightened up, eyes ablaze with alarm.
“Professor?” he said.
“I’m afraid Miss Black is feeling unwell, Mr. Braff. It’s your lucky day: you’ve been called upon to proctor this examination until I can find a professor willing and able to take my place. In you go, no dilly-dallying. I’ll send along my replacement as soon as I can.”
The straggly-haired boy nodded and hurried into the room. Then McGonagall turned her sights on Andromeda.
“I’m so sorry,” Andromeda whispered, feeling very near the edge of an attack or a breakdown—something. “Really, I don’t know what’s come over me, but I’m prepared. I know I can complete the exam. It was just a matter of nerves, and—“
“Enough of that, Miss Black,” said McGonagall. “Don’t worry about the examination. You and I are going to have a talk, hm?”
“B-but—“ sputtered Andromeda.
McGonagall wasn’t listening. She walked briskly down the corridor, and Andromeda once again had no choice but to follow. Only after they’d ascended a flight of stairs and walked into a particularly well-lit corridor did Andromeda realize where they were heading: Professor McGonagall’s office. With an elegant, fluid movement, McGonagall tossed open the door and motioned for Andromeda to enter.
“Please take a seat, dear,” she said, flicking her wand at a teakettle sitting on her desk. “I’ll put some tea to brewing whilst I track down Flitwick. His examination isn’t until Wednesday, and I’m sure he’d be happy to stand in for me. Just a moment. Please excuse me.”
She closed the door, shutting Andromeda into the dark but cozy office. It was stacked on all sides with large, brightly bound books. On the desk, the enchanted teapot began brewing. Andromeda took a wary seat in an armchair across from the desk. The chair creaked under her weight. Andromeda was still trying to calm her breathing, but she couldn’t help a series of nervous hiccups from escaping.
What was the matter with her? Why couldn’t she just breathe properly? Why couldn’t she concentrate? And why on earth had this happened today of all days, during one of the most important examinations of her life? She had trained so long and hard for the N.E.W.T.s. Was fate really so cruel that it had allotted her a nervous breakdown today?
McGonagall returned just as the teakettle began to whistle. With grace, the woman picked up the kettle and poured its contents into two cups, which had already been outfitted with tea-filled strainers. She handed a cup to Andromeda and kept one for herself as she took a seat at the desk, opposite Andromeda.
“Sip up,” she instructed Andromeda. “It’s a calming infusion. I always keep some on hand for particularly trying days. Trust me, it will do you good.”
Andromeda took a sip. She didn’t like the taste: it was bitter, with undertones of black licorice. But she did find that after a moment’s passing she felt much calmer. She drank some more.
“That was a rather alarming display,” McGonagall said at last. “I was beginning to fear that it might end with your unconscious face falling straight into your ink well.”
“I don’t know what came over me,” Andromeda said lowly. “I wasn’t even aware I was causing a scene.”
McGonagall shifted in her chair. She was looking very intently at Andromeda, as though she didn’t quite believe what she was saying.
“I imagine,” McGonagall said carefully, “it’s been a difficult transition, coming back to Hogwarts for these final weeks. Especially after all that you’ve been through. I must admit, I was rather surprised to hear you’d decided to finish up the school year.”
“Well, why wouldn’t I?” Andromeda asked, bristling despite the calming effect of the tea. “It’s my seventh year, the most important. How could I possibly miss my N.E.W.T.s?”
“Yes, your N.E.W.T.s are quite important,” McGonagall agreed. “It’s only that, I thought certain incidents in your personal life might interfere.”
Professor McGonagall said “personal life” in a way that made Andromeda turn hot. She remembered suddenly, and vividly, her interview with Professor McGonagall and Professor Whitechapel at St. Mungo’s, just after the Hogsmeade attacks. She’d admitted that she loved Ted Tonks; she’d said that the two of them were blood bound; she’d asked to remain with Ted and care for him. McGonagall knew all of that. Andromeda’s face grew hotter.
“Things—changed,” she said, her eyes on the Persian rug at her feet. “Ted is much better now, and we—“ she picked at a loose thread in the upholstery of the armchair “—um, we’ve parted ways.”
McGonagall raised a brow. “Indeed?”
“Not that this is any of your business,” Andromeda snapped, glaring up at McGonagall. Immediately after, remorse washed through her. “I—I’m sorry. Forgive me, Professor. I really haven’t been myself lately.”
McGonagall nodded mildly. “Yes. Love will do that to you.”
Andromeda looked up, startled. “I’m not—I mean, now that—that is—“
“My dear girl,” said McGonagall. “Don’t you think I recognize a broken heart when I see one? It’s painfully easy to do once you’ve suffered from the affliction yourself.”
Andromeda blinked, too startled to speak at first. Then, slowly, she ventured, “You—you mean, you’ve had a broken heart?”
“I broke my own,” said McGonagall, simply. “It was my decision, and I’ve had to live by it ever since. And I know your own to-dos are none of my business, Miss Black, but to see my best and brightest student in such a state is rather distressing for me. I wonder if I might share a piece of advice, however unsought for it might be. You’re quite welcome to disregard it, should you choose.”
Andromeda nodded softly. “Yes? What is it?”
“It requires a bit of history,” McGonagall said, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. Though she must have been nearing her forties, McGonagall normally had a very pleasant, open sort of face. At the moment, it was unusually clouded over.
Andromeda nodded with more force this time. “All right.”
“My mother,” said McGonagall, “was a witch. My father was most decidedly Muggle. And the tricky bit of it was that for many years of matrimonial bliss, my mother never told my father about her secret.”
Andromeda’s eyes widened. “You mean, she gave up her magic? She gave it up to be with him?”
McGonagall nodded gravely. “You see, my parents loved each other very deeply. My mother thought their love was worth burying her magic entirely. And then she gave birth to me, a little girl who displayed signs of magical behavior from an early age. Eventually, she had to explain everything to my father, including, most importantly, the International Statute of Secrecy. It was, you can imagine, quite a shock for my father. Still, my parents’ love kept them together, and Mother gave birth to my younger brothers.”
“I went away to Hogwarts,” McGonagall continued. “I made top marks and was a prized favorite of teachers, much like you, Miss Black. Upon graduation, I was offered a position with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement at the Ministry of Magic. I was elated, of course. I was only eighteen. I returned to the country home that summer. My job was set to begin in the autumn. And during those three long months between, something rather unfortunate occurred. I fell deeply and irrevocably in love. Can you imagine with whom?”
“A Muggle?” Andromeda guessed in a whisper.
Slowly, McGonagall nodded. Her dark eyes were filled with sadness—a deep, all-consuming sadness that made Andromeda want to weep herself.
“Dougal McGregor was his name,” said McGonagall, her voice cracking on the syllables. “And to this day, I’ve never known a man his equal. He was the best, the kindest, the cleverest person I've known in all my life. Late in to the summer, he proposed. And I accepted.”
Andromeda’s eyes widened. “But—but you don’t—“
“The very next day,” said McGonagall, carrying on as though Andromeda had not interrupted, “I met with him again. And I rescinded my promise. I told him I had changed my mind. I could give him no reason why.”
Andromeda’s eyes widened further. “The Statute of Secrecy,” she whispered.
“I could not tell him that I was a witch. I could not tell him that I would have to give up my greatest ambitions in order to marry him—that I would have to sacrifice such a thing for our love, would have to hide my wand away and never speak of magic again, just as my mother had done before me. So I broke his heart, and to him it was for no reason.”
Tears hung in Professor McGonagall’s eyes. She closed them briefly. When she opened them again, they were hard and set with purpose. “I left for London three days later, and I did not look back. But I can tell you, Miss Black, that I have had to live with that decision every day since. And I can tell you that I regret it.”
Andromeda opened her mouth. She shut it. She shook her head. “But—but you’ve done so much good,” she said. “You’ve been so successful! You’re an excellent professor, and everyone knows how skilled you are at—“
McGonagall raised her hand. “Yes, yes. I am well aware of my success. I worked hard to attain it, and I do not regret any of the effort I put into achieving the positions I did. But I do regret denying my heart its purest desire. After Dougal, I never loved again. I never shall; I know that.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
McGonagall sighed softly. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose once more. Then she fixed Andromeda with an earnest, almost paralyzing stare.
“I know what it is to give up one’s love for one’s ambition,” said Professor McGonagall. “I know that what I achieved would not have been possible if I had not let go of him. But I also know the acute pain, the never-dulled ache that I’ve endured, knowing that I gave up my chance at true love.”
“Professor McGonagall,” said Andromeda, “if you think that I’m—“
“As I said, it is none of my business. I know. I may be misjudging the situation entirely. But I do know how you spoke of that boy at St. Mungo’s. I know, too, that your family has disowned you, and that you’ve been suffering at the hands of some rather—unenlightened classmates. And all of this pains me, for I see much of my younger self in you, Miss Black. And perhaps I do not wish you to suffer like I did.”
“But you just said you didn’t regret it,” Andromeda said. “Your position, how far you’ve come, the respect—“
“And I don’t,” said McGonagall. “But at the tender age of eighteen, had someone offered me the chance to stay true to my ambition and to be with the love of my life, I would have seized that opportunity.”
Professor McGonagall folded her hands on her desk. She looked so serious, and so mature, but somehow so young at the same time. “I want you to have that opportunity, Miss Black.”
Andromeda felt in danger of choking on her own breaths. “Wh-what?”
“Tell me, Miss Black, what do you intend to do with all your excellent N.E.W.T.s?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Andromeda admitted. “I’ve lived so long thinking that I’d be married upon graduation that it wouldn’t matter. I just wanted—I wanted to prove to myself that I could excel, even if no one else thought it was important.”
McGonagall nodded slowly. “And what would you think of a career with the Ministry of Magic?"
Andromeda spoke cautiously. “I—I think I would like that. It would depend, of course, on the position, but I find myself in need of an independent income, and I intend to secure it somehow. That’s why the N.E.W.T.s are so very important.”
McGonagall nodded again. “As it so happens, I still have rather considerable sway with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. And as it so happens, an entry-level position has just recently opened up. To put things briefly, if I were to put up your name for the job, you’d have it, N.E.W.T. scores or no.”
Andromeda felt glued to her seat. “You’d do that?”
“If you wanted the position,” said Professor McGonagall, “yes, I would. You’ve proved yourself to be a superior student, Andromeda, with unflinching moral conviction. Your actions at Hogsmeade alone proved that.”
Andromeda got the awful, manic urge to laugh. Moral conviction. If McGonagall only knew the spells she’d cast that day. If she only knew the relish, the unrelenting fervor with which Andromeda had cast the cruciatus on Rabastan Lestrange, again and again and again.
And at that moment, Professor McGonagall’s purpose became entirely clear.
“You’d do that so that I can be with Ted,” Andromeda whispered. “That’s what this about, isn’t it? You think that’s what’s keeping me from him: my ambition.”
McGonagall said nothing. She only looked expectantly at Andromeda.
“That’s not it,” Andromeda whispered.
McGonagall looked genuinely surprised. “Isn’t it?” she asked. “I merely thought, since the boy must still be ill and since you returned, you felt forced to come back to Hogwarts in order to take your N.E.W.T.s. I thought perhaps you felt it was either him or your future. And what with that breakdown during the examination, I thought—“
“No,” said Andromeda, lowly, slowly. “No, you’re right about that. I—I don’t think I realized it until now. That’s exactly what the breakdown was about. It was him.”
Something was occurring to Andromeda—something wonderful and terrible.
Her whole life, she had been trying to prove something to herself. That she was different. That she was worthy. That she deserved affection, even though she wasn’t as cunning as her older sister or as beautiful as her younger sister. That’s what her marks had been about, and her N.E.W.T.s, and her engagement to Rabastan Lestrange.
She’d spent so long trying to prove herself that she didn’t even recognize the instinct anymore. Returning to Hogsmeade to finish the N.E.W.T.s wasn’t about herself, wasn’t about her own goals or ambitions. She was still trying to please a father and mother and extended family who now refused to even acknowledge her relation to them.
Andromeda closed her eyes. “But he wouldn’t care,” she whispered. “None of that matters to him.”
Ted, who had picked up her and wiped away sick from her mouth, even when she’d done nothing but abuse him.
Ted, who had called her brilliant and gorgeous—words no one in her family ever used in reference to her.
Ted, who had given her shelter and food even when it was sparse, and when her family had done nothing but force her into an unwanted engagement.
Ted, who had nearly died because of her, and even afterward told her he loved her.
Ted Tonks, Mudblood, had been the one person in her entire life who loved her unconditionally. He had loved her more than anyone else. More than her parents. More than her friends. More, even, than her beloved Narcissa.
The weight of the revelation struck Andromeda like a cold, iron blow.
“Beg your pardon, Miss Black?”
Her eyes snapped open. McGonagall was watching her in muted concern.
“Thank you,” Andromeda said, new resolve in her voice. “Thank you for telling me those things. I know it mustn’t have been easy for you. And thank you for offering me the position. I don’t even—I don’t know what to say. I just know that I need to see someone. I—I need to see him right away.”
McGonagall’s concern turned to a cautious smile. “Oh, yes?”
Andromeda nodded firmly. “Professor, what would you say is the very fastest way to get to London?”
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