The Way Out
Minerva sat in Aberforth’s private room above the Hog’s Head bar, nervously awaiting Remus’s arrival. It had been ten days since Neville Longbottom’s disappearance into the Room of Requirement; she had thought it best to delay a trip out of the castle, and had been forced to reschedule her meeting with Remus to an even later date than she’d hoped. She was more anxious than ever, not least because the Carrows were at their very worst. More and more students were being disciplined. The standard Dark Arts lesson now was using the Cruciatus Curse against those who earned detentions, and those who refused were automatically and cruelly punished. Even more terrible, it seemed that the desire to refuse at all was waning among the youngest students.
And yet…there was something very odd going on. That morning, Minerva had found her classroom door standing ajar, though there was no evidence that anyone had been there or that anything was taken, save for a few spellbooks and potion manuals from the shelf of abandoned books she kept at the back of the classroom. Pomona had reported something similar; her dittany plants had been pruned, and her greenhouse door left open. It was not difficult to guess what might be happening. Longbottom was marshaling Dumbledore’s Army from within the Room of Requirement, and they were storing up medical supplies and information for when they were punished by the Carrows. It seemed that they were preparing, once again, for a wave of midnight attacks on the school—or possibly something even larger. Minerva’s open door meant that they were finding ways to get into the classrooms without detection.
The door to the bar downstairs opened, and Aberforth appeared, looking irritated. “I’ll get drinks,” he muttered, standing aside from the open door to admit Remus.
Minerva stood and gave a faint smile as Aberforth disappeared down the stairs again. “Oh, Remus—congratulations,” she said, and she was surprised to hear a heavy note of emotion in her own voice.
He beamed, looking quite divested of the weariness he had borne so heavily for so long. For the first time in quite a while, he looked his age. “Thank you,” he said excitedly, hurrying to hug her and catching her off guard. “We’re thrilled—but I’ll tell you all that later—I have a bit of news for you.”
Minerva lifted her eyebrows. She gestured to the table, indicating that they should sit down. “Do you?”
“I’ve seen Harry,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning across the table to her. “He, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger are all alive and well—Merlin’s beard!”
Minerva had just gasped so suddenly that she nearly choked. “You saw them?” she sputtered and coughed, massaging her throat. “All three?”
“And more,” Remus said earnestly. “Luna Lovegood and Dean Thomas are staying at Bill and Fleur Weasley’s house with them.”
“Lovegood—and Thomas?” Minerva felt her chest constrict and her eyes smart.
“I don’t have the full details, but I understand they were all captured and managed an escape,” Remus said. “Bill doesn’t know much about it, because Harry won’t say a word.”
With an achingly wonderful flare of annoyance, Minerva huffed through her nose. “Of course he won’t. He’s stubborn as they come.”
Remus grinned. “I thought you’d like that bit of good news. At least for now, they’re safe.”
“That’s quite a bit cheerier than what I’ve got to tell you,” Minerva said apologetically. She explained about Augusta Longbottom and the Carrows, and her desire to get Neville away from Hogwarts. “He needs to be taken away,” she finished. “It’s the only way to protect him and the other students.”
“I—I’m not sure how much can be done, Minerva,” Remus said, recovering himself remarkably well for the outpouring of the story he had just endured. He counted on his fingers. “You’ve said that Snape is already watching you, he’s locked your House in Gryffindor Tower, and Neville Longbottom is hiding in the Room of Requirement, but may be rallying their dueling club.”
Minerva nodded. “That’s the general idea. Longbottom—”
“D’you say Longbottom?” grunted a voice, and they both turned to look at the door to their private room, which Aberforth was opening again. He carried gillywater and a butterbeer on a tray, and set the drinks before their owners.
“Yes,” Minerva said warily. “Why?”
Aberforth’s eyes, as they so often did, flickered over to the painting of his smiling sister, which hung on the wall above the fireplace. “No reason. Knew a couple of Longbottoms, that’s all.”
“Alice and Frank, Aberforth,” Remus said patiently. “We all knew them. They were Neville’s parents.”
Aberforth glanced at the painting. “And that’s the kid you want me to help sneak out of the castle, McGonagall?”
Minerva nodded testily, knowing his answer already. Upon her arrival, she had spent a quarter of an hour trying to convince him before he had abruptly left the room, closing the subject. “I only asked because I thought you might—”
“Can’t,” he said abruptly. “Don’t think it’s possible, and besides, what would I do with him? Be more trouble than it’s worth if what you say is true, and they’re looking all over for him. Dementors swooping in my pub every hour…” He grunted and wiped his hands on his dirty apron. “Sorry, McGonagall, can’t do it.”
Minerva let out an exasperated sigh. “So I gathered.” She looked at Remus pointedly as Aberforth disappeared back down to the pub. “But the fact remains, he can’t stay in the castle until the end of June. It’s not safe, and it’s not practical. I don’t even know how he’s lasted this long without eating.”
Remus ran a hand through his graying hair, frustrated. “It’s not much safer out here, Minerva. How much are you risking by meeting me here, today?”
“Still,” she said, shaking her head, “There must be something that we can do to get him out of the school…”
Remus gave an odd sort of smile. “There must always be a way with you, mustn’t there?” Minerva gave an irritated huff, but did not disagree. He looked down at his watch. “How long have you been away?”
“Nearly an hour,” she said, looking at the pocket watch she carried. It had belonged to Elphinstone. “My next lesson isn’t until after lunch.”
“I remember those days,” Remus said, rather wistfully. “There was one day every week when I had nothing but two lessons of fourth years.”
Minerva gave another faint smile. “If I make it through all of this, Remus, the job is yours the moment you want it.”
For the first time, his expression darkened. “You know why I left. That won’t change for anything.”
She felt a sudden urge to grab his arm, but restrained it. “You were the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher we had had in a very long time. I trust you, just as Dumbledore did. And you could be at Hogwarts to teach your own son. What could be better than that?”
At the mention of his son, Remus smiled slightly. “Well, I’d have to think about it.”
Minerva nodded and let the matter drop. “Tell me how your wife is. And I hope you have another picture of that baby.”
Remus smiled even more broadly and reached into his pocket. “I can’t stop taking photographs,” he said, blushing a bit. He held out a picture of a small baby in white pajamas lying on a blue blanket. His single tuft of hair, which stuck straight up in the center of his head, was the same shade of blue. He was staring at the camera with a look of intense concentration, wriggling his arms and legs.
“Dora thinks I’m going to have a complete collection of every second of Teddy’s life,” Remus chuckled, as Minerva stared at the baby. “You can keep that one, I’ve got about twelve more on hand.”
“No,” she said, holding it out to him. “You need it. You only get them like this for so long.”
Remus tucked the photo back into his pocket. “You ought to get back to the castle before Snape decides to lock you in the tower, too.”
Minerva nodded. “Ask anybody you can think of about getting Longbottom out, would you, Remus? Pomona and I can only do so much, and I’m very worried…”
“Of course,” he promised, rising. “Although I wouldn’t underestimate the boy. He can get himself out of a tight spot if he has to. I’d count on that. I’ll send word through Hagrid if I come up with anything to help.”
Minerva was at the door, one hand on the handle. She smiled slightly and nodded. “Disapparate in here,” she said. “It’s safer if you’re not out on the street.”
“Yes, Professor,” Remus said, with just a hint of a smirk.
It was a short walk up to the castle from this end of High Street, but Minerva hurried along as quickly as she could. It was very nearly May, and there was no cloud cover or rain to allow her to draw her hood over her face in the late afternoon sun. She did not know what might happen if she, of all people, were spotted outside of Hogwarts, but she had no doubt that it would be bad. She met no one, however, and safely reached the Shrieking Shack. The dementors, which had increased by the hundreds since Neville’s disappearance, abandoned their posts during the daylight hours, preferring to lurk in the shadows of the Forbidden Forest. This made it easy to pass through the Whomping Willow passage, unnoticed, as a cat. The castle was eerily quiet, Minerva thought as she arrived in her classroom. That was how it had been all year, of course, but it seemed especially strange, now. She was used to hearing laughter and chatter in the corridors, telling off students for sitting on the staircases, and, on clear days like these, listening to Quidditch practices echo across the grounds. She missed it.
The door opened just as Minerva finished sorting her notes. Pomona was bringing Gryffindor and Hufflepuff first years from their Herbology lesson. They filed quietly inside and found their seats, facing front without even looking at one another. Minerva frowned.
“There’s something off with them today,” Pomona muttered, coming closer under the pretext of picking up a piece of parchment from Minerva’s desk. “They’re not talking at all.”
“I have something to tell you,” Minerva replied in an undertone.
Pomona raised her eyebrows. “Something regarding our conversation the other night? About someone?” Minerva nodded, and Pomona’s eyes widened eagerly as she nodded. She threw another concerned glance at the first years and said, “See if you can’t get them to stop behaving so oddly, and I’ll talk to you later.”
Minerva nodded, and waited for her to leave the room before turning on the students. She frowned. Fourteen expressionless faces stared back at her, wands in hand. “Who is missing?” she asked suddenly. She counted the Hufflepuffs—all eight were there. She looked to the Gryffindors.
Then the classroom door banged open, and Josephine O’Brien came scurrying in, looking terrified, but grinning. “Sorry, Professor,” she panted, dropping into her seat beside Evelyn Alistair. “Had to—use the bathroom.” Still, the other first years did not break their dead-ahead stares, although a few of them smirked and repressed giggles.
“Pass up your homework, please,” Minerva said warily, and there was a great shuffling noise as they all hastened to obey. “Mr. Ambrose, retrieve the box on my desk and give one key to each student.” The small Hufflepuff boy sprang to his feet and darted forward to seize the jangling box of antique keys. Minerva flicked her wand, and her handwriting appeared on the blackboard. “Your instructions are here. Your goal is—” But she was unable to finish her sentence, for with a series of loud bangs and screeches, a small explosion somewhere in the castle rattled the windows of the room. Minerva flew to the door. “What on earth—?” She stopped, frozen in the act of reaching for the handle, and turned slowly. The first years had done nothing to react to the sudden noise. They remained motionless. Josephine O’Brien appeared to have broken into a cold sweat as she stared directly forward. Minerva groaned. “What have you all done?”
For the second time, the classroom door banged open to admit Alecto Carrow, heaving and disheveled as she hunted out the one she wanted. There was smoke smeared across her face, and her robes were partially torn. With the door open, Minerva could hear the sounds of students running and shouting through the halls. “O’BRIEN!” Alecto roared, striding over and seizing the girl by the scruff of her robes.
“Professor Carrow, please!” Minerva cried. “What are you doing?”
“I saw her running from the entrance hall not two minutes ago!” Alecto snarled, giving Josephine a shake. “Dropped them nasty little things, eh?” she demanded, with another shake. “Thought you’d be clever, eh?” Josephine shook her head adamantly, but didn’t seem to be able to speak. She was lying, Minerva could see that much, and so could Alecto. “You’re comin’ with me,” she snapped, half-dragging Josephine from the classroom.
“No, Professor!” Josephine squeaked. She turned terrified eyes on Minerva. “Professor McGonagall, no! Please, Professor!”
“Release her,” Minerva commanded, blocking the doorway. “Let her go, now. She arrived in my classroom with everyone else.”
“Outta my way, McGonagall!” Alecto shrieked, drawing her wand and aiming it directly at Minerva’s throat. A gasp sounded throughout the room; none of the first years had ever seen one teacher draw a wand on another. “OUTTA MY WAY!” She looked insane, her face scarlet with fury. But Minerva did not move. Josephine was clinging to the collar of her own robes, clutched in Alecto’s hand, and watching them face each other with eyes full of tears.
A painful, percussive force knocked Minerva backwards, and she flew out the door, clear across the corridor. Her back and head hit the stone wall so hard that her vision went dark and she was unable to draw breath. She had the upsetting impression that she had felt more than one bone in her own body crack upon impact. Disoriented, her head spinning, she was aware only of Josephine’s shrieks of fright getting farther and farther away…
“I’m getting Madam Pomfrey!” said a voice, and Minerva forced her eyes to focus. Clutching her ribs, she tried to sit up, and became aware of many pairs of hands assisting her.
Evelyn Alistair’s face swam into view, kneeling before her, surrounded by all of the other terror-stricken first years. “Professor McGonagall, are you all right?”
Minerva nodded, but leaned back against the wall, still holding her ribs as she caught her breath—this was difficult, as her broken rib or ribs seemed to be stabbing her like knives. “Yes,” she gasped. “Will all of you please collect your things, and return quietly to your common rooms?”
“What about Josephine?” asked Carmichael Wallace. “You can’t just let her get taken off like that!”
“All of you, to your common rooms, now,” Minerva said firmly. There were mutters and mutinous glances exchanged, but the first years returned to the classroom. Minerva closed her eyes and gave an involuntary moan; she had definitely broken ribs.
“Oh, my goodness!”
“I’m fine, Poppy,” Minerva insisted, though she did not move her arm from her ribcage. Poppy knelt beside her and immediately began trying to ascertain the injury. Minerva looked up at the girl who had gone running off to the hospital wing, furrowing her brow. “Collect your things, Miss Johnston, and return to the Hufflepuff common room.”
The pigtailed girl darted into the classroom.
“Can you stand?” Poppy asked. “Here—let me help—”
Minerva got to her feet, but winced at the needle-sharp pain in her sides. She felt like she could not properly draw breath.
“It’s nothing I can’t fix in a moment,” Poppy was saying, keeping a firm, supportive hand on Minerva’s arm. “What she can have been thinking—”
“Never mind that, what happened in the entrance hall?” Minerva demanded. She limped over to the landing, where she could see several floors down to the entrance hall below. Filius and Pomona were gathered with a large number of curious students around a small, smoking crater that had appeared in the center of the stone floor. “What on earth…?” Something snapped into place in her mind, and she turned to search among the first years scurrying out of her classroom. She shot out a hand and caught a shoulder. “Not so fast, Alistair.” Evelyn seemed to shrink slightly under Minerva’s stare, clutching her books to her chest. “Do you know something about what has just happened?” she asked sternly. “The truth, please.”
Evelyn looked around, terrified, as though she hoped someone might come to her aid. “I—I—”
“Minerva, please,” Poppy insisted. “Speak to her later and let me see you in the hospital wing—”
Minerva held up a hand. “I will be there shortly, Poppy. Miss Alistair, follow me.” With an imperious gesture, she took Evelyn back in the classroom and shut the door. Deciding that sitting would be more painful than remaining upright, she leaned against her desk. This conversation would have to be quick; she could feel her heartbeat racing because she could not breathe normally. Evelyn was staring at her feet.
“Well?” Minerva asked.
Evelyn said nothing for a moment. Her chin trembled. “I—we didn’t think—we didn’t think all that would happen…” she whispered.
“We?” Minerva repeated. Again, Evelyn said nothing. Minerva let out an exasperated sigh but regretted it when pain lanced through her side. “Miss Alistair, if you know of a reason why your classmate was just taken from the lesson, you must tell me immediately.”
Her chin trembled again, and she burst out, “I found a box under Ginny Weasley’s bed! I don’t think anyone else knew it was there, but it—it was from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes! Decoy Detonators, a whole box!” Minerva groaned inwardly. Tears were streaming down Evelyn’s face. “I know I shouldn’t have been in their dormitory, I know, but—well, I was! And Josephine said—she said we should be helping Dumbledore’s Army, and—and she wanted to make trouble too!”
“And so you arranged to set off the entire box in the entrance hall,” Minerva said, trying not to raise her voice. “Causing a minor explosion and damaging the castle.”
“Josephine wasn’t supposed to get caught,” Evelyn wailed miserably. “It was just an accident, an accident! I’m sorry, Professor, really! Please—tell Professor Carrow it was my idea, make her let Josephine go!”
“Oh, Miss Alistair,” Minerva muttered, rubbing her eyes tiredly. Evelyn gave a little sob. “I won’t do that. I—I will speak to Professor Snape, but I want you to return to Gryffindor Tower immediately.”
“Please,” Evelyn begged. “I’m sorry. We just wanted to help. We thought—we thought if—if Neville and the others were getting away with it, we could too, and we should try to—to be like them.”
Minerva tried to keep the frustration in her voice to a minimum and said, “I understand, Miss Alistair. But in this particular case, your assistance was not required. I shall speak to you about this later. Please go back to Gryffindor Tower.”
Evelyn looked defeated at last, her little shoulders sagging. “Yes, Professor.” Dragging her feet, she left the classroom.
Minerva shut her eyes, wrapping her arm around her ribs again. “Now will you let me examine you?” Poppy demanded angrily. She had to have been waiting outside the door for the right moment to pounce.
“Yes,” Minerva murmured, without opening her eyes. Her side was starting to hurt even more, and she felt as though she couldn’t catch her breath.
“I can’t breathe…”
Minerva sat up suddenly, wide-awake. She lay on top of the blankets of a bed in the hospital wing. Immediately, her freedom of movement told her that her ribs, whatever their injury, had been repaired. She touched a hand gently to her side and felt only the slightest bit of soreness. Outside the hospital wing windows, it appeared to be dusk; some two hours seemed to have transpired since the events in her classroom. Minerva picked up her glasses from the bedside table, and got up. Down the ward, Poppy’s office door stood open, so Minerva hurried over.
She jumped so violently that she upset a bottle of ink over her desk and gasped, “Good lord, Minerva, you scared me to death!” Then she leapt to her feet and steered her back out into the ward. “Sit down at once.”
“I need to go and speak with Severus,” Minerva said firmly, but Poppy directed her to sit on the bed.
“And I need to be sure I didn’t miss anything when I mended your punctured lung.” The look on Poppy’s face was as close to vicious as she ever came. “When I get my chance…when I…I’ll get her for…oh!” With a frustrated exclamation, she flicked her wand in front of Minerva’s face. Nothing happened, and this seemed to satisfy her.
“You’re well enough, but I want you to remain here—”
“Poppy, please don’t—”
“Minerva, listen to me,” Poppy snapped. Her expression was grave. “They are tearing the castle apart looking for Seamus Finnigan, Lavender Brown, and Parvati Patil. They’ve gone missing.”
“Missing,” Minerva repeated faintly.
Poppy looked over her shoulder, as if ensuring that they were alone. “Pomona was here, she told me. Not long after I brought you here and tended to you, Longbottom’s group decided to rescue your troublemaking little first year, O’Brien. I understand that they failed, but escaped, except for one. Michael Corner was brought to me—I only let him go because they made me, Minerva, but his injuries were terrible, even after I helped him. He—he could have easily died—I wanted them to leave him, I did—”
“Poppy,” Minerva said gently, but urgently, “I understand, I know. Please tell me what’s happened.”
“Corner must have said something that set them on Finnigan’s trail,” she answered simply. “But by the time Alecto got to Gryffindor Tower, Finnigan and the girls were gone, just like Longbottom.”
“Absolutely vanished,” Poppy insisted. “They’re ripping the castle to pieces, and as I understand it, they’re not letting any students help, this time. I don’t know what’s become of the Gryffindors,” she added, when Minerva opened her mouth to ask. Three heavy knocks sounded on the ward doors, and Poppy looked frightened. “Minerva, lie down and pretend you’re sleeping,” she whispered.
“Pretend you’re still unconscious or I’ll Stun you!” Poppy hissed, and Minerva lay down immediately. She felt Poppy remove her spectacles and place a blanket over her. The visitor outside the ward door knocked again, more impatiently. Minerva lay quite still, hardly daring to breathe too perceptibly. She heard the ward door creak open.
“Headmaster,” Poppy said, surprised. Soft footsteps sounded, and Minerva heard them approach her bed. She could see it in her mind’s eye: Snape standing at the foot of the bed, scrutinizing her with Poppy at his side, trying to stop him from looking too closely.
“What is Professor McGonagall’s condition?” asked Snape’s low, drawling voice.
“She is still unconscious, headmaster, but you’ll be glad to know she’s going to make a full recovery,” Poppy replied, with just a hint of biting anger in her tone. “I am afraid I cannot allow her to be disturbed.”
“Calm yourself, Poppy,” Snape said, sounding irritated, and Minerva felt a flicker of anger at his disregard. “I wish only to relay the message that we are concluding our search. When she wakes, inform Minerva that beginning tomorrow morning, all students are to submit to questioning by Professor Carrow and myself. She will be expected to be present with the other Heads of House.” If it would not give her completely away, Minerva would have snorted. Poppy’s incredulity was palpable.
“You’re going to interrogate students?” she asked.
“Beginning tomorrow with the Gryffindors,” Snape repeated testily. “And I shall continue until I determine the whereabouts of any and all remaining accomplices of Longbottom and his gang of incompetents. Make sure Minerva is in my office tomorrow morning.”
With a swish of his cloak, he was gone, but Minerva lay still until she heard the ward door close to sit up and look at Poppy, who seemed to be holding back tears of anger; she gripped the foot of the bed so hard that her knuckles were turning white. “What,” she breathed, “Do they think they are doing? What do they think they are doing?”
Minerva shook her head slowly. “I haven’t any idea,” she murmured. She reached for her spectacles and put them on. “I don’t know, Poppy, I really don’t.”
Poppy pressed a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes, and began to cry. Minerva’s heart ached, and she stood to put a comforting hand on her arm. Stalwart and brisk though she may have been when it came to bedside manner, Poppy was more prone to tears than she would ever admit. “When is this going to be over?” she whispered, heaving a shuddering breath.
“I don’t know, dear,” Minerva said gently.
Poppy hiccupped, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I can’t do my job, I just have to watch the—the poor things—those horrible scars—and him!” She pointed to the doors through which Snape had just vanished. “He got driven out of the castle, and he’s—he’s just right at home, isn’t he?”
“Try not to think of it,” said Minerva quietly, feeling a stab of nausea. “One day soon—”
“Harry Potter is alive, isn’t he, Minerva?” Poppy asked desperately, her eyes full of tears. “He is? I don’t know that I could bear it if—”
“He’s alive,” Minerva replied, so firmly and so loudly that she startled herself. Her own voice echoed in the quiet hospital wing. “He is, Poppy. It’s got to end soon, and he’s going to be the one to do it. I know he is.”
She gave a choked laugh. “You could be talking about Quidditch.” Her eyes flickered down, to Minerva’s neck. “That’s a beautiful ring. I don’t think I’ve seen it since—I’m sorry.”
For Minerva had just tucked the chain quickly under her collar once more. She gave a tight smile. “It’s all right.”
Poppy nodded. “You keep him with you. It’s only right. He would have been a part of all this with you, no matter what.”
Minerva drew a deep breath. “Poppy, I…when it comes down to the end—if anything—well, after today, I was just thinking…if anything happens to me, I want—I want you to take this.” She touched the collar of her robes. “Take it to—my niece. Isobel. You’ll find her address with my things. Pomona should go, too.”
“You say that like you expect it,” Poppy whispered, her voice giving out beneath her tears. “Like you expect to—”
“Die,” Minerva finished, when she couldn’t. She took another deep breath. “Only a battle can end a war, Poppy, and we have not yet had one.”
Poppy nodded once, wiping away a tear. “Sleep here tonight,” she said, adopting her brisk, matronly manner again. “You shouldn’t be drawing any more attention to yourself.” She looked around. “Do what you like to make the room comfortable. It’s yours.”
Minerva thought with guilt of the unhealed slashes cut into Neville Longbottom’s face, and knew that Poppy felt a thousand times worse than she did. She patted her arm. “Soon, dear. I know it will be.”
Poppy heaved a sigh and wiped her cheeks one more time. “Get some rest, Minerva.” She turned away, hurrying up the ward. Her office door closed, and Minerva was alone in the dark hospital wing.