The hours stretched on, and Minerva watched the sky continue to darken. Every now and then she could see clouds of swarming dementors prowling the grounds, silhouetted against the rain. Just the same, every moment that neither Alecto nor Amycus appeared in the common room again made Minerva more certain that they were not going to catch Longbottom. The Gryffindors were still anxiously giving her a wide berth; no one approached her in all the time she stood beside the window, even when she began to hear complaints of hunger. After a while, it became impossible to pretend that she was unaware that most of the common room was watching her with great interest. Drawing her wand, Minerva conjured her Patronus and sent it streaking off to find Pomona, requesting news and assistance. She faced her students. “I suggest you all get ready for bed. I cannot promise anything in the way of a meal, yet.”
Forlornly, the students trudged upstairs. The sight of Seamus Finnigan going up alone, now the last boy in his dormitory, was especially disheartening. There was a sudden noise at the portrait hole, and Minerva turned to see several Gryffindor fourth years clambering through. They skidded to a stop before her, eyes wide and shocked, and a moment later, Pomona appeared behind them.
“Upstairs, all of you,” Minerva said, waving them along. “Get ready for bed.”
Without a word, Euan Abercrombie and his friends bolted off up the staircases, and Minerva turned to Pomona. “Where did they come from?”
“Horace found them in the library,” Pomona whispered. “I hid them with my students in case the Carrows decided that perhaps they knew where Longbottom might be.”
“Oh, thank you,” Minerva replied gratefully. “What’s going on out there?”
“Have you really been held in here all this time?” Minerva nodded. “They’re tearing the castle and grounds apart,” Pomona said bluntly. “None of the students have eaten or been allowed to sleep, Severus has ordered more dementors and they’re swooping everywhere—and Alecto keeps talking about taking you.”
“Taking me?” Minerva repeated.
“Taking you to question you,” said Pomona, biting her lip anxiously.
Minerva swallowed and pushed this aside. “Never mind about that. Is there some way to get them to stop?”
Pomona frowned, frustrated. “Short of handing them Longbottom, you mean?”
“No one is doing that,” Minerva said firmly.
“You know where he is, then?” Pomona asked.
“He’s safe,” she promised. Then she lowered her voice. “Augusta got away, Pomona.”
Pomona looked stunned. “What? She got away? That’s what all this is about?”
“And they were going to take Neville to Azkaban instead, but Augusta wrote a letter to warn him,” Minerva told her.
“Is he still in the castle?” she asked.
Minerva hesitated for a moment, checking to be certain they were alone. “Yes,” she said, “but we need to get him out if we can, he can’t just stay here. When will they stop looking?”
Pomona sighed. “I think that eventually they’ll have to believe he’s left the grounds—but you’re going to have to be very careful from now on. They’re very, very unhappy with you and your House, Minerva.”
She stared at Pomona, confused. “What kind of tone was that?”
“I’m not saying I’m not upset for you,” she answered hastily. “I just…well, they don’t seem to have accepted the possibility that there might be a few Hufflepuffs giving them trouble, too. They’re making us help look for Neville, after all. But I’d say Macmillan and the others have been just as irritating.”
Minerva couldn’t stop an exasperated flicker of a smile. “You would find something like that, in a mess like this.”
“Pride in my students is something I will always find,” Pomona said gravely. “Anyway…I agree, we’ll try and get Longbottom out as soon as we can, but I think there are some more immediate problems to deal with.”
Minerva sighed. “I don’t suppose you know of any way I can find something to eat for all of them?” She gestured to the dormitory staircases.
“And you, you look dead on your feet,” Pomona answered. She looked out the window. “It’s getting dark. They’re bound to call off the search soon. If no one comes for you, I’ll send a house elf or two to help.”
“Thank you,” Minerva said earnestly. “And thank you for taking care of those last few,” she added, nodding to the staircases where the stray Gryffindors had disappeared. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but…”
“Don’t worry, Severus has to let you out to teach,” Pomona replied. “Otherwise he would have to actually spend time with the students.” She mimed holding a bottle of smelling salts beneath her nose and fanning herself. “Can you imagine?”
“Not really,” Minerva admitted.
“I’ve got to get back before they notice I’m gone,” Pomona said. “I’ll help you if I can.” She hugged Minerva suddenly. “Don’t be worried.”
“We are far past that,” she answered gently. She bid goodbye and watched as Pomona left the common room again. Before long, pajama-clad Gryffindors began to creep downstairs again, filling seats and taking up spots on the floor, looking expectantly at Minerva as though she had called them to an assembly. When she realized, to some surprise, that she faced her entire House, she felt as though she were seeing for the first time just how many students she had lost this year. She stepped forward into the firelight. “You’ve all been very patient,” she said. “Thank you. Professor Sprout and the rest of the faculty are trying to help us. When Professor Snape decides to call off the search for Mr. Longbottom, I will try to find a way to bring something in the way of dinner up here for you.”
“They’re not going to find him!” said Euan Abercrombie. “They don’t have a chance, they haven’t caught Neville all year!”
“Are we going to be stuck up here forever, then?” asked a freckled first year boy.
“No, Mr. Wallace, we are not,” Minerva said calmly, throwing Abercrombie a quelling look. “It is only Saturday evening. Professor Snape—”
“He thinks he can stop Dumbledore’s Army, but he’s wrong,” said Josephine O’Brien fiercely. “He can’t stop us!”
Several students sniggered at this, and Minerva had to repress an exasperated sigh. “Miss O’Brien, really.”
“Well, she’s got a point, Professor,” said Seamus Finnigan from the back corner of the room, a slightly smug grin on his wounded and bruised face. “They’re getting desperate, don’t you think?”
Minerva gave him a pointed look. “We are not discussing the group that calls themselves Dumbledore’s Army—”
“Why not? Professor, you know they’re real, and you know they’re good!” Evelyn Alistair said. “Maybe they’re against the rules, but if the rules are wrong, then who cares? We should all be supporting them.” She looked around at the first years seated around her. “We do support them. And we support Harry Potter, too. Who cares about dinner if we’re really doing something important?” There was an outbreak of applause, and Minerva stared at the girl who had barely spoken ten words in her Transfiguration lessons all year. “That’s the reason we’re locked up here, and everyone else is out there, isn’t it?” Evelyn asked. “We support Harry Potter, and Professor Snape is scared of us, because he knows we’re right, and he’s wrong!” There was more applause, punctuated with cries of agreement.
“Professor McGonagall, you support Harry Potter and Dumbledore’s Army too, don’t you?” Josephine continued, stepping up beside Evelyn. “You don’t need to pretend to back up the Carrows’ rules just because you’re a teacher, at least not around us. You can be honest with us. We’re being honest with you.” Dozens of pairs of eyes swiveled to gaze at Minerva, who was thoroughly taken aback. She looked first at the youngest students, who had no idea what it was they were saying or what they had gotten into, and then to her three eldest Gryffindors. Parvati Patil looked as though she had tears in her eyes.
“The truth is,” Minerva said, her voice cracking traitorously, “The truth is that…I am very proud of all of you, and your conduct in this very difficult year. And there will never be a time when I do not support one of my students.” A murmur of happiness fluttered around the room as grins were exchanged. Minerva was aware of Finnigan’s eyes still resting on her. She was saved from further speech, however, by a loud crack. She whirled around. Four house elves, bearing a huge platter of sandwiches, goblets, and jugs of pumpkin juice, had appeared in the center of the common room.
“We have house elves here?” asked a shocked voice near the back of the room, and the other Gryffindors laughed.
“We is bringing food and drink, Madam Professor,” one elf squeaked, as the four of them heaved the plate onto a nearby table. “We has special permission from Headmaster Snape, ma’am, we has. We is given orders to give food to the Houses separately, Madam Professor.”
“Th-thank you,” Minerva said, and the elves bowed deeply, beaming, before they disappeared with another crack.
Minerva looked around to see Seamus restraining Carmichael Wallace from leaping upon the platter of food. He looked at Minerva seriously. “Is it all right?” With a sickening lurch of her heart, Minerva saw in her students’ faces what they had come to expect after this long, horrible year, during which many of them had been tortured, and nearly all of them bore cuts from the Carrows’ newest punishments. Nonetheless, she put on a severe frown.
“No harm will come to you from any of this,” she promised. “Eat, please, and go to bed.” There was a collective, relieved sigh, and she stepped out of the way, allowing the Gryffindors to fall upon their dinner together. At that moment, the portrait hole opened, and Pomona reappeared.
“I see the elves found you,” she said. “I was coming to tell you that—well, that it was all right to eat. We were all given the same platters.” Minerva nodded sadly, reading her own feelings mirrored in Pomona’s face. “And there’s something else…”
Minerva stared at her. “I’m wanted in the headmaster’s office?” Pomona nodded, looking terribly frightened, and she drew a deep breath. “Very well.” She took another look at the Gryffindors, who were laughing and chattering together as they ate their fill.
She put a hand on Pomona’s arm. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You know how angry I am when you break our appointments,” Pomona said lightly, though every ounce of her fear was visible on her face.
“I don’t recall ever doing that to you,” Minerva answered conversationally, leading the way to the portrait hole and allowing Pomona to exit first. She gave a brief nod to Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown, who were seated nearest the portrait hole, and they smiled tentatively. Minerva walked briskly through the corridors to the gargoyle, Pomona directly beside her.
“I won’t go up,” she said nervously, as Minerva gave the password and the gargoyle leapt aside. “But I’ll—well, just come down to my office when you’re done.”
“I’ll do my best,” Minerva said gently. She gave a tight half-smile that probably more closely resembled a grimace, and ascended the spiral steps. She knocked only once before the door was ripped open. Alecto, disheveled and fuming, snarled up at her.
“Ah, Minerva,” said Severus. He stood behind his desk, where Amycus was also waiting, looking very sour. “Show her in, Alecto.”
With a grunt, Alecto moved aside. Though she’d stood in this office many times over the last few months, for the first time in quite a while, Minerva raised her eyes to Albus’s portrait. He was watching the scene serenely, and did not seem to notice her gaze.
Severus began, “Minerva, we have conducted our search—”
“That don’t mean we’re finished,” Amycus grumbled.
“We have conducted our search for Mr. Longbottom to the best of our ability this evening,” Severus said, without removing his eyes from hers. He looked positively furious, so that his polite tone was quite unnerving for Minerva. “I would like you to tell your students that they are expected to attend lessons as usual beginning Monday morning. However,” he added, when she betrayed just a hint of relief, “I must make two things very plain. First, that Gryffindor Tower is now officially locked, and its inhabitants are banned from leaving their dormitories and common room except for classes and meals.”
“Headmaster,” Minerva gasped, but Severus continued.
“Alecto and Amycus will see to it that these rules are held in effect,” he said, with a courteous nod to the Carrows. Minerva tried very hard not to gape at him. “Second, we have reason to believe that Longbottom may still be hiding in the school.” Minerva’s stomach twisted. Snape knew about the Room of Requirement—of course he did, his pet student had barely left it all last year… His black eyes glittered maliciously. “It should be clear to you, Minerva, that if you, another staff member, or any other student are found aiding Mr. Longbottom with knowledge of his whereabouts, you will be considered enemies of Hogwarts, and will be dealt with in a manner appropriate to the seriousness of your crime.”
“Dealt with,” Minerva spat, cutting across him as her anger boiled over. “Like your friends dealt with that poor Lovegood girl? Like you dealt with George Weasley?” She was quickly losing her temper. “How you can live with yourself, Severus, doing the things you have done to people whom you supposedly support is something I will never begin to understand!”
He had gone very white. “Longbottom is now your priority. Make no mistake, if you or anyone else is concealing him, punishment will be swift and severe,” he said, his voice shaking with suppressed rage.
“You are talking about a teenaged boy!” Minerva shouted.
“Yeah, who’s done everything he can ter make trouble in the castle since the beginning of the year,” Amycus said. “And when we catch him, he’s gonna get what’s coming to him, and more!”
“You are dismissed, Minerva,” said Severus, his voice dropping dangerously. His eyes were boring into hers, and she fought to close off her mind. She must have succeeded, for Snape blinked and narrowed his eyes. He drew an even breath. “Return to Gryffindor Tower at once and explain the new policy. It is effective immediately.”
In the wee hours of the morning, Minerva sat before her mirror, combing her hair as she stared off into space. She was waiting for a sound, any sound that might alert her to movement in the castle. She had lain awake for several hours after conferring Snape’s punishment on the Gryffindors, unable to see any way that she might help them, or, more immediately, Neville Longbottom. She couldn’t simply lie still any longer, so she had gotten up, lit a fire, and made a cup of tea. Now, that fire was dying, and she was seated before her mirror, gazing into her own exhausted, worn features. She looked down at her comb, caught helplessly in a particularly difficult knot. Her hair was getting too long; she would have to find time to cut it.
With a sigh, Minerva tied it up in a knot and looked at her reflection critically. It seemed like ages since she had taken more than a few moments to ensure her appearance in the mornings. Now that she had a moment, she realized that she was looking far from her best. There were bags under her eyes and she was awfully pale, so that her eyes looked darker than their normal brown. Worry lines—wrinkles, her brothers would call them, just to annoy her—creased her mouth, eyes, and forehead. The effect was especially unpleasant given that Minerva was sitting slouched over with a slight scowl on her face. She pulled her shoulders back and arched one eyebrow. That was better—much better. A rather nasty thought flitted through the back of her mind: If I can help it, this will be the last thing Alecto Carrow ever sees. She pushed it away quickly.
Tap tap tap.
Minerva frowned. It was one in the morning, so who was knocking? But of course, she thought, as she got up and went to the door. “Pomona.”
“I can’t sleep,” she answered, hurrying in. “I don’t think anyone saw me come in.”
“I should say not, it’s the middle of the night,” said Minerva, pointing her to one of the two winged armchairs that sat before the fireplace.
“You’re awake,” Pomona pointed out. She tutted and aimed her wand at the flames, which leapt higher, before she sat down.
“I am,” Minerva said calmly, seating herself as well. “I have been trying to think what should be done about Neville Longbottom. He cannot be left in the Room of Requirement, if only because I am not at all certain that it can manifest food and water.”
“But you can’t sneak him out of the castle if Severus already suspects you,” Pomona supplied, and she raised a hand, palm upwards, in a gesture of agreement. “We could take turns getting him food from the kitchens.”
Minerva heaved a sigh. “I don’t think that will work. He’s intelligent, he will have found a way to seal the room against everyone except the rest of his gang, just in case someone came across him accidentally.”
“Give it to Finnigan, then?” Pomona suggested.
“Well, therein lies the second problem,” Minerva continued, wagging a finger, for she had already thought of this, “Taking food from the kitchens won’t go unnoticed.”
“Surely the house elves wouldn’t betray you, if you asked them not to,” Pomona said. “They like you quite a lot.”
Minerva shook her head. “They are bound to Severus’s orders, not mine. Besides, you know how I feel about ordering them about, anyway, and that’s just for small things. I couldn’t ask them to lie, it goes against their nature.” They fell silent for a long while. Though it was really no better than sitting in the dark by herself, Minerva felt a bit more reassured with Pomona’s presence.
“Aberforth.” Pomona looked shocked, and sat up slightly. Her tone was one of amazement. “Minerva—Aberforth!”
“In the Hog’s Head,” Minerva said slowly. “But how would—”
“All you would have to do would be to find a way to get Longbottom to Aberforth,” Pomona insisted. “He’s Albus’s brother, I’m sure he would help, especially if you asked.”
Minerva frowned slightly. “He and I don’t get along very well, I’m afraid. He’ll give me a private room to meet Remus Lupin when I need to, but that’s the extent of our arrangement.”
“Oh, he doesn’t get along with anybody, but he’s got enough sense to help us,” Pomona said, waving a hand impatiently. “When do you see Remus again?”
Minerva racked her brains, trying to think of the date in his letter. “In four days, if I can even manage to get out of the castle. Longbottom could starve by then.”
“He’s a resourceful boy,” Pomona said doubtfully. “I would trust him to last at least that long.”
Minerva gave a small sigh. “I just don’t know, Pomona.”
“I do,” she replied decisively. “We’re going to get Aberforth’s help to smuggle Longbottom out of the castle, or at least get the poor boy some food while we find another way.” She stared at Minerva oddly for a moment, as though she had just noticed something in her features. “What is it, Minerva?”
“I didn’t tell you…quite everything,” Minerva said slowly, staring into the flickering flames, “About what Severus said.” Pomona watched her. “It’s been on my mind. He—he said that anyone caught helping Longbottom would be punished as severely as he could come up with.”
“That sounds quite like what he’s said all year,” Pomona muttered.
“No,” Minerva said, still in the same, slow tone. “It was the way he said it. There’s something that’s gone wrong for them—the Death Eaters, I mean. They’ve gotten desperate. They were furious when Ginny Weasley didn’t come back to school. Now they’re terrified Longbottom has vanished under their noses, when he’s been causing so much mayhem. And…have you noticed anything odd about Draco Malfoy?” she asked.
Pomona looked startled. “Malfoy? I…I don’t believe so. He’s always been quiet in my lessons.”
Minerva shook her head. “There’s something that’s happened to his family.”
“How do you know that?” Pomona’s voice had grown very soft, and Minerva did not have to look at her to know she was suddenly afraid.
“I think that…no,” she said firmly. “I know that they’ve fallen into some kind of trouble—they’ve fallen out of favor. I—I saw He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Pomona. He was here, in the castle. He was here, and Snape brought him in.”
Pomona paled. “What?” she whispered.
“While the students were still on holiday,” said Minerva, “I woke in the middle of the night—I was coming to find you—and I saw him, marching down that corridor with Severus.” She pointed towards her office, beyond which lay the seventh-floor corridor. “He mentioned the Malfoys, and it sounded as though he was unhappy with the way the school’s been handled. He needed to talk to Severus about it. And—and today, I think—I think I heard Alecto Carrow say that they wanted to take Longbottom straight to him. They’ve gotten in real trouble, and now they’re trying to make up for it.” She sat forward, pressing her face into her hands. “None of it makes sense, I know, but…it’s all got to do with Harry Potter, I know it has. I don’t know what.”
Pomona was a delicate shade of green. “You don’t think—”
“They’ve found him? No, I don’t,” Minerva said resolutely. “But I think they nearly did, and I think they’re worried he’s come too close to them.”
“And if they thought Ron Weasley was with him…he never had spattergroit, we knew that from the out…” Pomona trailed off. “Do you suppose they believe Longbottom and the others are getting orders from Potter?”
Minerva nodded. “I doubt that it is true, but it could very well be what they think.”
“We need to see if Aberforth will help him,” Pomona said desperately. “He’s one of the few left out there who’s close enough to even try.”
Minerva frowned, but nodded once. “I’ll speak to him, then.”